CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Hard Choices: Policy autonomy and priority-setting in public expenditure (Report No. 10)

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Hard Choices

Policy autonomy and priority-setting in public expenditure

Autonomy is strength

John Loughlin

Autonomy simply means 'self-rule'. In pre-modern times - before the emergence of the nation-state as the dominant form of political organisation - it referred to the seigneuries, bishoprics, monasteries and towns granted the right to self-rule by monarchs and emperors or by virtue of their position in the church.

In its modern sense, it has two primary meanings. As developed by political philosophers from Locke to J S Mill, it refers to the right of individuals to dispose of their lives, according to a set of rights, and to choose their form of government and those they wish to represent them. But it may also be understood as the right of communities - defined by territory, language, culture or religion - to govern themselves, so that their distinctive features are protected and promoted. This right is especially relevant when these communities are minorities whose cultural, economic, social or geographical characteristics differ from the majorities in which they find themselves.

Normally such communities are also defined by a territorial homeland and they seek primarily political autonomy- an arrangement aimed at granting to a group that differs from the majority of the population in the state, but that constitutes the majority in a specific region, a means by which it can express its distinct identity". But where distinct minorities do not live in a fixed territory- because they are nomads, such as the Sami (Lapp) peoples of northern Europe, or members of a diaspora who have left or lost their homeland, such as Jews, Armenians or Maghrebins - they may be recoguised as carrying rights (for example, to education according to linguistic or religious custom) exercised on a personal, rather than territorial, basis.[1]

Since it derives from membership of a community, personal is quite different from individual autonomy - where certain individual rights take precedence over those attaching to the community It has proved extremely difficult to realise in practice.

Both individual and communitarian/personal autonomy should be understood in relation to the nation-state-that modern form of political organisation, par excellence, which originated in the French revolution and developed throughout the 19th century On the one hand, individual autonomy is at the heart of our understanding of liberal democracy and citizenship. Communitarian autonomy, on the other, often sits uneasily with this individualist understanding and is closely related to political ideologies such as regionalism.

Regionalism developed as a political movement in some European countries towards the end of the 19th century, as a challenge to the liberal-democratic nation-state. The original regionalists were suspicious of human rights and did not like the manifestations of the modern state, such as political parties, elections and parliamentary assemblies. They felt these disrupted the 'natural' communities of the regions, often organised along traditional hierarchical and corporatist lines.

Although contemporary regionalist thought has moved beyond this formulation, there may be tension between rights claimed for the community-in terms of language, education, religious customs and so on-and appeals to individual rights or claims by members of a different community Regional autonomy may thus create new minorities within. Indeed, the major challenge for institution-builders today is to design institutions that can accommodate all these different concepts of autonomy, and different communities living on the same territory In some parts of the world-such as the former USSR, India and Africa - the minority situation is incredibly complex and sometimes seems to defy solution.

In western Europe, there tends to be no more than three groups sharing a given sub-state territory: a minority community, a minority within that minority, and another minority more attached to the individual mode of autonomy who experience communitarianism as oppression. In the west, nevertheless, it is common to try to combine the two forms of autonomy, in a system which accepts the declarations on human rights originally formulated as the rights of individuals but also recognises the rights of communities.[2]

Communitarian and individual autonomy do not sit together very easily however, especially where the community is characterised by strong moral conservatism on issues such as sexual behaviour and orientation. Such considerations are clearly important for societies like Northern Ireland and Scotland. The question has already arisen whether the Scottish Parliament should have responsibility for policy on abortion, while appeals have been made to extend current abortion law in Britain to Northern Ireland.

So 'autonomy' is a complex term, with different meanings not all compatible. And while autonomist movements usually demand modification of the political and administrative structures of nation-states, sometimes they contain nationalist currents which seek to use them to gain full independence. (The Scottish National Party seems to have adopted such a strategy, while in Wales Plaid Cymru has toned down its separatist ambitions.)

But the concept is more complex still. Autonomy must be understood relative to the kind of state in which it operates or in which autonomist demands are made. States may be federal, unitary or 'union'. There are also several kinds of unitary states: centralised unitary, decentralised unitary or regionalised unitary. Furthermore, while all states in western Europe have undergone radical transformations, these are conditioned by particular traditions and political and administrative cultures.[3]

Autonomy is also about diverse relationships to other political institutions. Thus it varies according to: the constitutional position of the autonomous institution and its political competencies; its capacity to control other institutions and to act autonomously outside the nation-state of which it is a part; and its financial and other resources (personnel, expertise, institutional capacity and so on).

Since the concept and practice of autonomy is closely related to the nation-state system, change in the latter will determine the significance of autonomy and the form it will take. Since the second world war, there have been successive paradigm shifts in the relationships between economy state, society and culture - linked to the changing nature of the European Union.

Nation-states are not disappearing, but their nature, roles and functions are changing. They have divested themselves of many tasks, accumulated particularly in the aftermath of the war. Some have been taken over by the EU, while others have been decentralised to lower levels of government. Furthermore, the neoliberal reform movement of the 80s has modified the institutions, administrative structures and cultures of the state, albeit variably across countries.

The state is, in some senses, stronger than before, but opportunities for new expressions of autonomy and new sets of relationships are emerging in this world of 'multi-level governance'.[4] 'Governance' differs from government in being a system of governmental 'steering' involving a range of actors and networks wider than those who are, strictly speaking, members of government institutions. And it is 'multi-level' because several tiers of governance are involved in the new European system: member states, European institutions and, increasingly, sub-national levels and networks of actors.

This represents at the same time new constraints on policy decisions (and therefore on autonomy) and new opportunities for policy action on a wider scale and for alliances with a wider range of actors - including, for sub-national governments, not only national governments but also other sub-national governments in other states. It also provides opportunities for institution-building and policy design.

The paradigmatic shifts since the war have expressed, and in turn affected, the value systems of western societies. Although it is difficult to draw hard and fast lines, two major models may be distinguished, as well as a third apparently developing under our eyes (see Table 1): the 'expansive welfare state', from 1945 roughly to the mid-70s; the 'contracting neo-liberal state', from the late 70s to the mid-80s; and the 'enabling communitarian state', arguably from the mid-80s to today.

Table 1: changing paradigms of state-society relationships, 1945-1997

Fordist production methods; heavy industries: coal and steel:
geographical factors of production important;
Keynesian approaches to macro-economic management;
full employment goal;
rise in incomes and living standards;
top-down regional policy; founding of EEC.
equality of opportunity;
government intervention;
progressive income tax;
citizens' right to services and expanding definition of 'needs';
centralisation and bureaucratisation of public administration;
managerialism in public sector;
fiscal overload (1970s);
crisis of ungovernability.
freedom of the Individual;
'sexual revolution;
expansive definition of human rights:
growing importance of mass media;
mass travel and tourism; secularisation;
student revolutions and 'youth culture';
social engagement.
new values based on freedom and choice;
new lifestyles (clothing, living patterns):
cosmopolitan culture;
regional cultures devalued - reduced to 'folklore' for tourists;
regionalist reactions to revalidate their cultures;
regional culture seen (by elites) as obstacle to regional development.
deregulation and privatisation;
new technologies and systems of communication;
new (non-geographical) factors of production;
predominance of service industries;
globalisation and glocalisation';
bottom-up models of regional development;
importance of knowledge: the learning' and innovative region;
accelerated European integration (1985-)
'hollow'. elusive', 'anorexic' state;
no government intervention;
reduction of taxation;
privatisation, deregulation;
cutting back of services;
new public management';
'marketisation' of public services
citizens as consumers.
'no such thing as society' (Thatcher);
glorification of greed;
decline of notions of common good and community;
fragmentation of communities;
creation of an 'underclass' in cities;
increasing gap between poor and rich (individual and geographical);
nee-liberal project as propagation of values;
rich less willing to pay for welfare services through taxation;
reactions to this - eg election of Blair, Jospin, Schroeder;
remoralisation' in Britain;
culture as variable in economic development;
new appreciation of and opportunities for regional cultures;
Europe of the Cultures 2002 (Flanders).
a new model or neo-liberalism in new clothes?
acceptance of capitalism and the market;
low taxation;
end of class straggle; innovative entrepreneurship;
social dimension and institutional economics;
role for trade unions and local authorities;
economic regionalism.
claims to pursue equality of opportunity and social justice but through competition;
concept of enabling state;
no return to old welfare state;
slimming down of bureaucracy;
new public-private partnership;
decentralisation and devolution;
revalidation of local authorities and rebuilding local democracy and sense of citizenship; pro-European.
perhaps limits to individualisation and fragmentation;
remoralisation of society;
concept of communit y- communitarianism;
new approach to law and order issues - 'zero tolerance'.
acceptance of individualistic trends;
toleration of different life-styles; new concepts of human rights;
revalidation of regional and local cultures;

After the war, almost all western states enjoyed an economic boom, characterised by 'Fordist' (assemblyline) methods of production and reliance on heavy industries like coal and steel. Geographic factors - proximity to coal mines, railways, ports and so on-and infrastructures such as road and rail networks were important. It was thought that the state had to intervene through the nationalisation of key industries - capturing the 'commanding heights of the economy'. Full employment, or something very close, was the goal of economic policy, heavily influenced by Keynesian macro-economic theory.

For decades, it worked, with post-war economic growth boosted by reconstruction and US Marshall aid. Real incomes and living standards rose for most of the population of western European countries. Related to these developments were the first steps toward European integration among the Six.

The origins of the welfare-state model may be traced further back to Bismarck in 19th-century Germany and British 'new Liberalism' in the early part of the 20th. Elements can also be found in Catholic social teaching and early Christian democracy Sweden developed a welfare state in the 30s - the famous Swedish Model. In Britain, it achieved its most complete expression after the war, based on the principles outlined in the Beveridge report of 1942.

Almost all western states adopted welfare systems after the war, though they differed in how they organised and funded them. The British drew upon general taxation while other European countries pursued the social-insurance principle. The Dutch adopted a mixed system.

The success of the welfare state was closely related to the Keynesian-style economic boom. A minority on the left opposed it, criticising its oppressive bureaucracy or its perceived anaesthetising effect on the working class. It was also opposed by a small group of, mostly American, right-wing libertarians, although they had little influence before the 70s.

The welfare state was characterised by:

  • a positive and almost optimistic view of the state - governments ought to intervene in the economy and to provide a wide variety of services, in the belief they really could effect social and economic change;
  • funding of these services by progressive income tax, as in the UK, or compulsory insurance schemes, as in some other European countries;
  • the notion that citizens had a right to these services, within an expanding definition of needs and rights;
  • equality of opportunity achieved through centralisation of state services;
  • redistribution through centralisation- overall policy would be decided at the centre but regional and local governments had a role and some discretion in administration of these services; and
  • application of the principles of equality and state aid at the territorial level, through regional policy manipulating economic levers to 'bring jobs to the workers'.

There were enormous changes in society during this period-the most striking being the exaltation of the individual. This appears paradoxical, given the increasing role and bureaucratisation of the state. There is no real contradiction here, however: the 'emancipation' of the individual was made possible by the security provided by the welfare state.

Key changes were:

  • rapid urbanisation;
  • changes in family structure;
  • secularisation and decline in church-going, related to individual choice in moral and spiritual issues;
  • the sexual revolution associated with 'the pill';
  • greater individual freedom and the redefining of morality in a more liberal direction, with regard to sexual mores, homosexuality and abortion;
  • other, pathological, behaviours such as widespread drug-taking and increased alcohol consumption;
  • the advent of mass media, especially television with its power to change attitudes and values;
  • mass travel and tourism, exposing people to other societies and so relativising aspects of their own previously deemed absolute and unchangeable;
  • the student revolutions of the 60s; and
  • a great generosity on the part of many young people involved in the 'causes' of the 60s and 70s (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war and so on).

These social changes were accompanied by changes in values and culture:

  • new values based on freedom and choice;
  • new lifestyles (clothing and living patterns);
  • paradoxically, homogenisation of an increasingly global cosmopolitan culture;
  • devaluation of regional cultures, their distinctive languages and values - deemed not to be 'modern', regarded as an obstacle to regional development and reduced to 'folklore' for tourist consumption; and
  • contrarily, regionalist reactions to protect and validate these cultures from extinction by homogenising forces.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the Keynes/Beveridge model of state, economy and society in Britain, and its Christian- and social-democratic counterparts on continental Europe, entered into crisis.

The post-war boom ended as oil prices spiralled out of control and 'stagflation' (stagnation-plus-inflation) became endemic. Trade unions were routinely blamed for poor productivity and 'excessive' wage demands, and unemployment soared. 'Fiscal overload' emerged as rising social costs became increasingly difficult to meet out of general taxation, which itself became deeply unpopular. Some authors, mostly on the right, claimed there was a crisis of 'ungovernability': government itself had become too big.

Despite these problems - or, perhaps, because of them - capitalism was successfully reinvented, as a new, 'post-Fordist' era dawned, supported by new information and communication technologies. Service industries - insurance, banking, education, tourism and so on - predominated over the older, 'smoke-stack' heavyweights. Mass, assembly-line production tended to be replaced by batch production for segmented markets, or 'flexible specialisation'.

This often meant nothing more than low-paid and insecure employment for vulnerable groups like working-class women and migrants. In countries such as the Netherlands, however, there has developed a genuine approach to flexible working practices by all sectors of the workforce, from senior managers to those in more humble positions. This seems to have led to real increases in productivity, closely connected to a more committed and contented workforce.

This shift away from heavy industry, plus new communications systems and technologies, has at one level rendered geography no longer so important (although centres of decision-making-political, economic or financial - still tend to cluster around traditional capitals and, in Europe, the 'golden triangle' core of the EU). Nevertheless, globalisation, while liberating economic activity from dependence on spatial factors, has reaffirmed the importance of territory in a new sense.

First, in a rather banal way, footloose capital roving the globe will sometimes take into account the attractiveness of a particular location. Now infrastructure includes not only transport networks but also the quality of communications and the skills of the workforce; the quality of the environment will also figure. Secondly, globalisation is increasingly related, through the ugly neologism 'glocalisation', to the emergence of regional and local foci of production, which may not coincide with those of the Fordist period.

This change has led to a new understanding of regional economic development, which is today based on 'bottom-up' and more 'endogenous' approaches geared to achieving the status of an 'intelligent' or 'learning' region.[5] These emphasise non-hierarchical organisation and the importance of innovation and flexibility in production. Progress is achieved through networks-partnership, team-work and subsidiarity - rather than top-down directives. It is claimed that this model underlies the success of regions such as EmiliaRomagna and Baden-Württemberg- though it may also be that this approach masks the withdrawal of the central state from providing aid to regions in need.

It is no accident that, in the neoliberal period, the then European Community became an important economic factor. First, its 'relaunch' in the 80s, via the European Council and the European Commission headed by Jacques Delors, was a direct response to the economic crisis of the 70s. The deep recession, massive unemployment, flagging productivity, lack of technological inventiveness, inflation and social unrest of this period were perceived by industrial and political elites as putting Europe at a disadvantage in the new global markets, increasingly dominated by Japan and the US. These élites recognised that individual countries-even large ones like Germany - could not meet the challenge alone; they had to do so together.

It was Mr Delors, as incoming president of the European Commission in 1985, who saw that the completion of the single market by 1992 could be the means of galvanising the different member states together, and thus renewing European integration after many years of 'sclerosis'. The single market led to the Maastricht treaty, economic and monetary union and the prospect of a single currency, the euro. Also signalled was a European Central Bank, taking over the monetary policy of those members participating in the euro (but not other economic instruments, which remain the responsibility of national governments). What all this means is a strengthening of the trend towards much greater autonomy of the financial and economic sectors, with much less intervention by political institutions.

As a response to the economic crisis of the 70s, the neo-liberal approach to the state was developed by such economists and philosophers as Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, James Buchanan and Michael Nozick. They promoted the 'minimalist' or 'nightwatchman' state, intervening in society and the economy only when absolutely necessary - though, strictly speaking, these authors were anarchists since they wished to see states disappear completely They also believed that the market, understood as the arena of free exchange between individuals, could provide the range of services hitherto provided by the state more efficiently and effectively - a direct contradiction of the welfare-state idea.

Once dismissed as crackpot, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deployed the model in a way that touched popular chords, leading to the UK becoming, for almost two decades, a laboratory of governmental reform and social engineering on an immense scale. Most other European countries followed suit, though not always to the same extent or in the same way.[6] The neo-liberal approach also enjoyed a period of great popularity in the former Soviet-bloc countries after the collapse of the USSR, as well as in Latin American countries which made a transition to democracy in the 80s.

The principles underlying the neo-liberal model of the state amounted to a reversal of those underpinning the welfare state:

  • the key unit was not society, whose common good was pursued, but the individual (as in Mrs Thatcher's notorious disclaimer that there was any such thing as society);
  • the notion of the 'citizen', participating equally in government with other citizens through representative democracy regardless of economic and social standing, was replaced by the 'consumer', who got what they could pay for (hence, again, Mrs Thatcher's ideal of a 'car-owning democracy');
  • inequality whether between individuals or territories, was accepted-even promoted-as opposed to egalitarian social and regional policies;
  • government intervention was deemed a 'bad thing', since always inefficient and wasteful, whereas the private sector was assumed to provide better and cheaper services;
  • it was held that, where possible, services such as pensions should be funded via private (non-compulsory) insurance schemes, so that general taxation could be progressively reduced;
  • 'new public management' approaches - usually borrowed from the private sector-were implemented, radically reforming the structure and procedures of the civil service (public spending continued to rise despite these reforms, however, while quality of services, especially education and health, seriously declined);
  • there was ambivalence on Europe - on the one hand, an acceptance of the single market (after all, Mrs Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which seemed to be about liberating market forces), yet, on the other, a distrust of the 'federalist' tendencies of integration and the more social dimensions of Europe; and
  • with the exception of the UK, government was further regionalised and decentralised (paradoxically, Mrs Thatcher's attack on the state and bureaucracy led to one of the most centralised periods in British history, with the creation of a multitude of bureaucracies presiding over health and educational services and unaccountable quangos).

Once again, there were several significant social shifts:

  • the individual became absolute - understood as the bearer of a bundle of rights but with few obligations or duties;
  • morality was individualised as lifestyle choice - as against perceived interference by government, church or any other association;
  • financial success was glorified, whatever the consequences for others, in contrast to the previous discretion about private wealth;
  • a sense of society and community declined, with associated recruitment difficulties for traditional associations such as parties or churches;
  • established communities fragmented or even experienced moral collapse; and
  • in the UK in particular, class and geographical divisions widened: rich versus poor, the south-east versus the rest, the Celtic fringe versus England.

The neo-liberal project meant the propagation of new values, or what were sometimes claimed as reawakened older ones (the ambiguity around individualism and 'Victorian values' in Britain allowed, to some extent, of a 'remoralisation' of public debate, after some particularly gruesome serial killings and child murders):

  • the rich were less willing to pay for welfare services through general taxation and, in the us and some European countries, this led to tax revolts - though the elections of Tony Blair in Britain, Lionel Jospin in France and Gerard Schröder in Germany might be interpreted as signs that many in these countries feel the neo-liberal project has gone too far in devalorising the social dimension;
  • there was a growing appreciation of 'culture' as a variable in economic development - probably connected to the realisation of the importance of knowledge and learning in the new paradigm;
  • there was a new, related appreciation of the opportunities for regional cultures - the Catalans promoted this with great success; and
  • a new way of conceiving Europe as a mosaic of cultures was developed, particularly by the Flemish government with its concept of cultural diversity.

After nearly two decades of Thatcherite restructuring of the UK, the British people decided, on May 1st 1997, that they had had enough.

Thus began an era of reform with a government, led by Mr Blair, whose ideas and ideology mark a significant departure not only from Thatcherism but also from the welfare state, towards an enabling, communitarian model. During the election, many critics of new Labour- from both right and left-claimed there was little to choose between what Mr Blair proposed and what the Tories had already provided. Although there are continuities in some of the policies of new Labour, there are also significant differences-the most important being the recovery of a sense of community, lost under Mrs Thatcher and her successor, John Major.

In this regard, Mr Blair has had intellectual gurus on which to draw, notably the communitarianism developed by Amitai Etzioni, Charles Taylor and John McMurray, as well as Christian socialism. It remains to be seen whether the Blairite model will be propagated throughout Europe, in the manner of Thatcherism and as Mr Blair himself would like, under the banner of a 'third way' between old-style welfarism and neo-liberalism.

Certainly, there has been a great deal of interest in the Blair style, notably reflected in Mr Schröder's election campaign for the chancellorship. But 'Blairism' probably owes more to thinkers and experiments in the us associated with Bill Clinton and the 'reinvention of government' movement.

It is in the approach to economic issues that new Labour most resembles old Tories. There are, however, some differences of nuance. New Labour accepts the notion of 'institutionalist economics', as opposed to the neo-liberal idea of a pure market situation. But it is also true that new Labour accepts capitalism in theory as well as in practice, no longer seeking to capture the 'commanding heights' to institute a classless society.

Unlike the Tories, though, Labour accepts there is a social dimension to the economy-in terms not only of social protection but also of bringing the socially excluded into the labour market. Also accepted is a new role for trade unions and local authorities in economic development, now seen as partners rather than enemies - though they will remain under the direction of government, not vice versa. Economic regionalism also seems to be a key component of Labour's strategy.

The government agrees with the Tories that there should be no increase in personal taxation. But to some extent, while relying on thinkers from the us, new Labour thinking on the economy comes close to the social-market model of Germany and the Netherlands, particularly the latter.

As regards the state, again there are continuities and changes. New Labour claims it is pursuing equality of opportunity and social justice, but asserts these will be best served through competition and the pursuit of excellence rather than levelling down. With regard to state-economy relations, however, there is talk of a new public-private partnership: the private sector is not necessarily better (one of the dogmas of neo-liberalism) and the public sector can provide useful models for policy in certain areas.

At the centre of the government's reforms is a programme of radical devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as London and (where desired) the English regions. It wishes to see relations between the centre, region and locality based on collaboration rather than conflict-as with the unions and the churches. The House of Lords will also be reformed, and this may be tied to the wider territorial reforms by allowing a measure of territorial representation in an elected upper chamber.

By these reforms Labour wishes to restore a sense of citizenship rather than consumerism, but its ideal might be seen as communitarian democracy - the decentralisation proposals are a reflection of this goal. New Labour is pro-European, and many of its themes fit easily into the European traditions of social and Christian democracy, federalism and regionalism, but it still opposes a fully-fledged European federation and still defends what it perceives to be Britain's interests.

In many respects, society itself has not changed significantly since the crisis of the neo-liberal model: individualism and fragmentation remain evident. But the wave of centre-left election victories does seem to indicate a new mood: the days of Essex man and woman, selfishly pursuing their own interests, appear to have peaked. The public in Britain, France and Germany seem to be yearning for a more moral approach and the restoration of some kind of community life.

The success of Mr Blair and new Labour has been at least in part a result of having read correctly, and capitalised upon, this new mood - just as Mrs Thatcher did in the early years of her regime. According to opinion polls, there is a greater willingness on the part of ordinary citizens to pay for social welfare measures through slightly higher taxation, and a great concern about issues such as the environment, famine and injustice.

What is really new in this period is the explosion of new technologies connected with the internet and other forms of communications. The costs of communication are tumbling and the younger generations are becoming more and more adept in using the new technologies.

As to culture and values, there is a continuing acceptance of individualist trends and of a variety of life-styles (for example, gays seem to have found a new acceptance), but this is tempered by the new emphasis on 'community'. At least, there is a sense that certain valuable forms of community have been lost and that there is a worrying disintegration of society. There is also a concern that decisions are taken at too great a distance from the ordinary citizen.

Nevertheless, these concerns do not seem to be translating into political or social action at local level. And the idea that the internet may prove a means of improving local democracy is something of a pipe-dream; rather, for the moment it seems a powerful means of reinforcing individualism and fragmentation.

Three paradigms of economy/state/ society/culture relationships have for analytical purposes been identified, associated with distinct approaches to public policy and administration and distinct value systems. This is not to suggest clear cut-off points: the different paradigms fade into each other, with some features of later models anticipated earlier and aspects of prior paradigms retained in subsequent periods.

It is also extremely difficult to isolate cause and effect. Much of the dynamic behind these shifts seems to have originated in economic developments and in the avalanche of new technologies over the last 40 years, now accelerating at an incredible rate. These economic changes are, however, conditioned by values and social attitudes and by forms of state activity and design. What we appear to have witnessed is the emergence of a new kind of state, with new roles and functions and new relationships with other levels of government, and with the private sector and society.

The macro-context of globalisation and Europeanisation is important. In fact, Europeanisation is both a response to the threat of globalisation and an expression of it. There is thus a need to rethink political concepts and practices- nation and state (and their combination into nation-state), democracy and representative government - and institutions. We are approaching the 21st century with political and administrative institutions inherited from the 19th-century nation-state, built on the principles of the 18th-century enlightenment.

All 15 members of the EU are liberal democracies which share a common history of value formation and institutional development. At the core of the concept of liberal democracy is the notion that sovereignty derives from 'the people' rather than God or monarchs. The people and 'the nation' have become synonymous since the French revolution established the principle that the people, or nation, freely choose their representatives, who meet in assemblies to decide on the nation's affairs. Political executives and administrative bureaucracies are accountable to these assemblies, and are meant to execute faithfully the assembly's decisions.

This system of democratic practice also operates at the sub-national level- regional, provincial, local or sub-local- with all states (even Luxembourg!) having elected governments at some or all of these levels. The actual exercise of power is not, however, always consonant with its constitutional definition: all western political systems are characterised by great complexity, inscribed in a multitude of relationships and networks. Nevertheless, politics still occurs within the basic parameters of liberal democracy as outlined.

Despite sharing these common principles, however, modern democracies are also characterised by great variety in their institutional expression. First, the meaning and history of the concept of democracy vary across countries, as does the concept of the state itself.[7] These variations have given rise to different ways of conceiving the relationship between state and civil society and, in particular, centre-region relations.[8]

The French tradition, for example, tends towards a concept of the state based on the abstract 'citizen' represented in the National Assembly, without the mediation of intermediary bodies such as churches, trade unions or other corporations. It was in France that the Jacobin notion of the one and indivisible republic triumphed in the form of the centralised, unitary state. It was here, too, that the coupling of nation and state into the nation-state was first developed and became the most advanced example of political and administrative organisation in the 19th century, much admired by nationalists in newly emerging nations such as Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

The Germanic tradition, on the other hand, posits a close interpenetration of state and society and encourages intermediary bodies to play a role in state activities. This might be traced to Hegelian concepts of the state-society relationship and has been associated with an indigenous federalist tradition in Germany going back to the last century (even if post-war federalism was imposed by the victorious allies). The centralised Weimar republic and the period of the Third Reich might be regarded as aberrations from this tradition. In the Scandinavian tradition, local government has an important role, leading to the development of the decentralised, unitary state.

Britain combines aspects of the pre-modern state (an overarching monarchy ruling over several nations-England, Scotland and Wales and, until 1920, Ireland) and a modern, centralised, bureaucratic state. The key component of the British model is the supremacy of Parliament, which claims absolute sovereignty over the constituent parts of the kingdom. Thus, it is a misnomer to describe the UK as a 'nation-state', even as a unitary state. Rather, it is more accurate to describe it as a union or 'multi-national' state. In this system - unlike the French, for example - there was (until the new Labour devolution programme) a high degree of political centralisation, combined with much administrative idiosyncrasy.

Nevertheless, there is not an infinite variety of states in western Europe and it is possible to place most of them in a limited number of categories (Table 2) A basic distinction should be made between federal and unitary (or, in the case of the UK, union) states.

Table 2: centre-region relations In EU member states

Type of state
Political regions1
Admin/planning regions2
Right to participate
in national policy
Right to conclude
foreign treaties3
Control over sub-regional authorities


Länder (10)
Communities4 (3)
Regions (3)
Länder (16)
Yes (but limited)
Yes (but limited)
Yes (but limited)
Yes (but limited)
Yes (not absolute)
Yes (not absolute)
Yes (not absolute)
Regionalised unitary Italy5

United Kingdom6

Regioni7 (20)
Regions8 (21)
Autonomas (17)
Scottish Peiliament
Welsh National
Northern Ireland
English standard regions Consultative

No with regard to English regions Still unclear with regard to Scotland. Wales and NI


No at present, but may evolve


Yes in Scotland and NI
No in Wales (so far)

Decentralised unitary Denmark



Faroese Islands
Aaland islands
Groups of Amter
Counties have regional
planning function

administrative bodies




No (but has seat in Nordic Council)





Centralised unitary Greece

Republic of Ireland




Island regions9

Development regions (13) Regional authorities (8) No












1This refers to regions and nations (as in Scotland. Wales. Cetalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) with a directly elected assembly to which a regional executive is accountable.
2This refers to regions without a directly elected assembly which exist primarily for administrative/planning purposes.
3There is a sharp distinction between the federal and non-federal senses in this regard; however, the majority of non-federal states may allow regions to engage in international activities with the approval and under the control of the national government.
4The Flemish linguistic Community and the Flanders economic Region have decided to form one body: the Waloon Community and Region remain separate.
5Italy is undergoing a process at political reform which involves the transformation of the old state into a new kind of state with some federal features. Although the position of the regions will be strengthened, it will not become a federal state such as Germany or Belgium.
6The United Kingdom was, until the referenda in Scotland and Wales in September 1997, a highly centralised 'union' state. But the positive outcome of the referenda means there will be a Scottish parliament and a Welsh National Assembly by 1999. A referendum in 1998 on a Greater London Authority with en elected mayor was also successful and this is seen as a precursor to possible regional assemblies in England. The successful outcome of the Northern Ireland 'peace process' means there will be a Northern Ireland Assembly as well as other new institutions linking the different nations and peoples of the islands.
7In Italy there are 17 'ordinary' regions and 5 with s special statute because of their linguistic or geographical peculiarities: Sicily, Sardinia, Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol to its large German-speaking population), Val d'Aosta and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
8There are 21 regions on mainland France: to these one must add Corsica and the overseas departments and territories (the 'DOM-TOM'). Since 1991, Corsica has had a special statute and is officially a 'collective territoriale' rather than a region. The TOM, too, have special statutes and one of them, New Caledonia, has recently (May 1998) been permitted to accede to independence within 20 years.
9Portugal, while making provision in its constitution for regionalisation, has so far only granted autonomy to the island groups of the Azores and Madeira. The mainland remains highly centralised. A government-sponsored proposal that eight planning regions be established was defeated in a referendum in November 1998.

Federations themselves differ. Some such as the us and Switzerland, were created as the result of centripetal tendencies: distinct, already existing political units came together for mutual benefit. Others, such as Belgium, are the product of centrifugal forces - the failure of communities within a unitary state to live together satisfactorily. Such centrifugal tendencies can of course lead to the break-up of unitary states (like the secession of 26 counties of Ireland in 1920-21) as well as federal ones (such as Czechoslovakia's 'velvet divorce').

Unitary states, too, may be subdivided, as indicated earlier.

When applied to sub-national government, autonomy has a number of dimensions. These are: the legal position-whether this is defined constitutionally or through ordinary legislation; the political competencies accorded to the sub-national level; the degree of participation in national policymaking; the possibility of engaging in activities beyond the frontiers of the national territory; the degree of control over other sub-national levels; and, finally, the degree of financial autonomy from, or dependence on, the national government.

The constitutional position of sub-national government might be represented as a spectrum, with constitutionally entrenched guarantees at one end and simple legislative guarantees at the other. All federal states are examples of the former, with formal recognition of the level immediately below the federal (the Länder in Germany, the states in the US, the provinces in Canada and so on). There is not always a constitutional guarantee, however, of levels of government below this (for example, the Kreise in Germany or the counties and cities in the US). Spain and Italy, regionalised unitary states, do constitutionally guarantee the existence of the autonomous communities and regioni respectively The French constitution, meanwhile, recognises the departments and communes but not the regions, which exist only through legislation.

Generally speaking, constitutional rather than simple statutory recognition gives the sub-national body extra strength and legitimacy - in other words, increases its autonomy.

In the UK, with its tradition of 'parliamentary sovereignty' and lack of a written constitution, sub-national government has been extremely weak, as the 'proroguing' (in effect, abolition) of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972 and the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 illustrate - both disappeared overnight by a simple act of the Westminster Parliament. This problem is not solved in the current devolution programme, as Westminster still retains ultimate sovereignty and may override the decisions of any of the new bodies.[9] Clearly, there is scope for bringing the UK's constitution into line with the new political realities.

Political competencies are defined by the constitution or by enabling legislation. There are two basic approaches: the central state defines those powers it reserves for itself or it provides a detailed list of competencies that fall within the sub-national remit. Generally speaking, federal states follow the former course while unitary states adopt the latter. At the local government level, however, many unitary states - for example, in the Scandinavian tradition - grant a general competence. In the UK, by contrast, local government has traditionally been based on the principle of ultra vires: local authorities are unable to go beyond the powers detailed in parliamentary legislation. The recent devolution reforms have modified this approach with regard to the new assemblies. In these cases, it is the residual powers to be exercised by the Westminster Parliament that are listed (the traditional powers of a federal government: foreign affairs, defence, finance and macro-economic policy). Nevertheless, with regard to sub-national government in all parts of the UK, the ultra vires rule still applies, requiring complex schedules to be inserted in the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland bills to determine a 'devolution issue', ultimately referable to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for decision.

Federal systems usually have institutional mechanisms allowing the sub-federal units to exercise an influence on national policy-making. The most advanced example is the German Bundesrat, the upper chamber in which the Länder are represented and which has an important influence on the legislative activities of the Bundestag or federal parliament. In the US, the Senate plays a similar role and allows the states to be equally represented (two senators from each, regardless of population).

Some unitary states have similar mechanisms. In France, for example, the Senate explicitly gives representation to local authorities. In Italy, the regions are represented by the Conferenza Permanente Stato-regioni.

Involvement in national policymaking may, however, have different meanings. On the one hand, it may be purely consultative-in Italy, for example, national legislators are not obliged to modify their proposals as a result. On the other hand, as with the German Bundesrat, it may indeed mean the capacity to change proposed legislation. In many states, there is no formal mechanism for involvement in national policymaking but informal mechanisms may exist. In unitary states such as the Republic of Ireland and Greece, and in parts of Italy and France, local interests are mediated to the centre via a clientelisic system of notables, whether individuals or parties.

In the UK, the interests of the Celtic periphery are represented to some extent by the secretaries of state holding seats in the cabinet. There is also a territorial dimension to the party system, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to some extent representing the periphery in Scotland and Wales, as well as parts of England (even if this broke down during the long period of Tory rule).

The devolution programme partly addresses this problem by granting assemblies/parliaments to the Celtic regions/nations - and, perhaps eventually, to the English regions. It is still unclear, however, how these bodies will be represented at the UK level and what influence they will have over policy-making. The proposed reform of the Lords does offer an opportunity to institutionalise regional representation but there are no proposals to do so.

The general lesson to be drawn is that the greater the involvement in national policy-making, the greater the degree of autonomy International activities represent the area that touches most closely upon the traditional concept of 'national sovereignty'. International relations are deemed the exclusive prerogative of nation-state governments. The 'realist' school of international relations conceived states as discrete units, interacting like a set of billiard balls: there might be different ways in which the balls were configured but there could be little interpenetration between them.

Current thinking has largely dispensed with this approach, recognising that the line between the domestic and the international has become blurred. This is most striking in the EU where national sovereignty has been considerably modified, constitutionally and in practice. This is true even if there is still no single common foreign and security policy superseding the foreign policies of the member states.

There is great complexity in this area. First, in some states, mainly the federations, sub-federal units may engage officially in foreign activities - even signing treaties with other governments in fields that fall within the competence of that level of government. Secondly, some regions have established institutional arrangements with their neighbours across borders. In most cases, these associations exist as entities of private rather than public law, since the latter forbids such activity by any level of government other than the central state.

Thirdly, there is the specific Four Motors of Europe association (comprising Baden-Württemberg, Catalonia, Lombardy and Rhone-Alpes), which exists primarily for the exchange of business information and encouragement of investment in the four regions. Fourthly, there are many inter-regional associations which represent the interests of regions generally, as with the Assembly of European Regions, or specific geographical or economic sectors, such as the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions or the Association of Cross-Border Regions. Although composed of regional and local authorities, these are private associations and do not have constitutional recognition at the EU or national levels.

The EU's Committee of the Regions is in a different category. Set up in 1994 as a result of the Theaty on European Union, it is an officially constituted EU body (but not institution[10]) which exists to give regions and local authorities an official say in EU policy-making. Although the committee is purely consultative - and something of a disappointment to those who had hoped for a strong 'Europe of regions' - it does represent a breakthrough for sub-national authorities in the EU.

A final category of international activity of sub-national authorities has been termed 'para-diplomacy'. This involves sub-national governments setting up offices in Brussels or in other countries, within and outside the EU. A striking example of this has been the Catalan government under its president Jordi Pujol, very active on the international scene.

The attitude of central authorities to this varies greatly When the activities are officially sanctioned by the federal states there is, of course, no problem. Often, the central government will try to ensure cross-border links or relations with the EU are kept tightly under its control, with arrangements subject to its approval. At times, there has been tension between sub-national authorities and national governments which perceive the former to be impinging upon their prerogatives in international affairs - this has been especially evident in Spain over Mr Pujol's Catalan activism.

On the other hand, central governments sometimes encourage paradiplomacy as it may bring great economic benefits to the region, and therefore the country as a whole. This is true even in the Spanish case, where Madrid and Catalonia often collaborate on the European scene.

Clearly the greater the capacity to act on the international scene - whether officially approved by the central government or not - the greater, again, the degree of autonomy.

In federal systems, there is normally no direct relationship between federal and local government. Normally the sub-federal level exercises legal and financial control over the local - this is certainly the case in Germany, Austria and Belgium. There is a strong drive by the Flemish government to exercise complete control over the provinces and communes - even to 'recapture' the (formerly Flemish) city of Brussels, which though contained within the boundaries of Flanders is officially bilingual.

In some regionalised unitary states, such as Spain and Italy, the autonomous community or regione exercises control over the provinces and municipalities. In the Spanish case, however, there are differences among the ACS: in Catalonia, the Generalitat (the regional government) has tended to impose its hegemony over all other levels in the region, while in the Basque country there is a degree of decentralisation, with the provinces playing an important role. In France, the regions have no control over the départements and municipalities.

In some cases, large cities have the resources and expertise to escape from the control of the constitutionally higher level of government. In Catalonia, there is conflict between Barcelona and the Generalitat, exacerbated by the city having been Socialist while the Generalitat has been Convergencia i Unio (centre-right Catalan nationalist). This issue is important for the new, decentralised UK, where internal relations within the different territories are still rather unclear.

The Scottish Parliament, it seems, will exercise legal and financial control over Scottish local authorities. It appears the Welsh Assembly will have a much looser arrangement: its relationship to the local authorities has not been clarified. It is also unclear what the position will be in Northern Ireland, where district councils have few powers. How they will develop in the future is largely in the hands of the new Assembly.

The Greater London Authority will not exercise control over the London boroughs but will, instead, have a planning and co-ordination role in defined areas - rather similar to the position of the French regions with regard to the départements and municipalities. Finally, although elected regional governments in England will not come into existence in the lifetime of this Parliament - if they ever do - there will be new regional chambers and regional development agencies in the English standard regions. Clearly, these bodies will be unable to exercise any hegemony over the existing local authorities and their members will be composed, at least partially, of elected members from these authorities. But the issue will arise if, and when, English regional governments are set up.

Again, a simple conclusion might be drawn: regional autonomy increases if the sub-national government has control over other levels of government, while it escapes from such controls itself.

Financial resources underlie political and administrative autonomy Whatever the constitutional or legal provisions, these are of little account if the regional or local authority does not have the resources to give them expression. Once again, it is the federal systems where the position is clearest: generally, sub-national authorities have substantial financial resources, with their own tax-raising powers. In recent years, however, there has been much criticism in Germany of the degree of control over finances exercised by the federal government and the Länder have struggled to retain their financial autonomy.

In non-federal states the situation varies. In small countries like the Republic of Ireland, Greece and Portugal, local financial control is very weak as funding is usually in the form of block grants from central government - which often defines the ways these can be spent. In other cases, while much local-authority funding may come in this form, there is some local taxation and there is more discretion on expenditure, with local authorities allowed to establish their own priorities within the band of their competencies. This is largely the case in France, where financial transfers are made on the basis of contracts signed between the state and local authorities. Finally, local finance may come largely from local revenues supplemented by central grants. In this case, the local authorities may decide not only on priorities but also on amounts to be raised.

Autonomy should be understood as a multi-faceted, complex and dynamic concept.

First, it may be understood as either individual or communitarian autonomy. The individualist concept has underlain the value system of the modern nation-state while the communitarian version has usually been seen as in opposition. Today however, it is necessary to combine the two understandings-a concern with the rights of the individual with a concern for the rights of communities, especially minority communities. This is extremely difficult to achieve.

The form and significance of the nation-state - in which autonomy is sought or expressed - has been changing in responses to pressures within and without. There has been a progression of three paradigms - the expanding welfare state, the contracting neo-liberal state and the enabling communitarian state - marked by shifting relationships between the economy, state, society and culture. These paradigm shifts affect the nature of political systems and public policies and, in particular, the position of sub-national authorities such as regions.

The state itself is being transformed and this has consequences for the 'nation-state'. These two concepts need to be uncoupled and each has to be redefined more exactly in terms of the changing dynamics of contemporary societies and economies - changes also affecting the notion of autonomy.

The brief survey above of experiences across western Europe shows great variety. Yet what these states have in common is similar processes of change, even if these express themselves differently. This means that the realities of autonomy, along its various dimensions are also in a state of flux.

New constraints are being imposed on all levels of government by economic globalisation and competition. But for sub-national levels this also represents a new 'window of opportunity' to increase their actual autonomy (whatever their constitutional status). As we move from government to governance, there is a great need to design new institutions which may more fully express these new realities and relationships.

Such institutions will no longer be simply the top-down, hierarchical bureaucracies of the past; they will be characterised more by horizontal, network-like features, in which policy initiatives emerge from below. Yet the old systems of representative democracy (government) will not disappear, the challenge is to integrate the new systems of governance into these older ones.

In other words, we need also to rethink our concept of democracy - and therefore of autonomy itself.


1 Ruth Lapidoth, Autonomy: Flexible Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts, United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington DC, 1997, pp 33, 37
2 ibid, pp 37-40
3J Loughlin and B G Peters, 'State traditions and regional administrative reform', in M Keating and Loughlin eds, The Political Economy of Regionalism, Frank Cass, London, 1997
4Continentally Challenged: Securing Northern Ireland's Place in the European Union, Democratic Dialogue report 5, Belfast, 1997, pp 15-17
5P Cooke and K Morgan, The Associational Economy: Firms, Regions, and Innovation, Oxford University Press, 1998
6 V Wright ed, Privatisation in Western Europe: Pressures, Problems, and Paradoxes, Pinter, London, 1994
7K Dyson, The State Tradition in Western Europe, Martin Robertson, Oxford, 1980
8Laughlin and Peters, op cit
9Thus the Northern Ireland Bill implementing the Belfast agreement makes clear at §18(1) that "The executive power in Northern Ireland shall continue to be vested in Her Majesty" and at §43(1) that "Her Majesty may by Order in Council prorogue or further prorogue the Assembly."
10 In EU legal terminology, only the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and the member states are recognised as 'institutions' of the community; the Committee of the Regions, the Court of Audit, and the Economic and Social Committee are 'bodies' with a lesser constitutional status. The Committee of the Regions attempted, unsuccessfully, to have its status upgraded by the 1996 intergovernmental conference which led to the Amsterdam treaty.

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