315 - Dissatisfied with Democracy

Democratic dissatisfaction is at an all-time high. This is especially true in the larger, more populous democracies (US, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria), but also peaking are the UK, the RSA and Australia. Similar dissatisfaction (near their peak) is found in Japan, Spain and Greece. This is not good; we're talking a dramatic shift in opinion of more than a sixth of the population of each of Europe, North America, NE Asia and Australasia. Yet some of the small high-income democracies show the reverse trend; this applies to Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, where democratic satisfaction is at a high, with under 25% of the electorate expressing dissatisfaction. [5]

I immediately wonder whether democratic satisfaction correlates with size in a causative ways, such that the smallness of countries like Denmark is a positive feature. If so, that suggests that, for the UK, devolution is to be recommended. Of those countries listed, the Netherlands is by far the largest in population – at 17M it is twice Switzerland at 8.6M, three times Norway and Denmark, while Luxembourg is eight times smaller still. That puts Scotland on a par with Norway and Denmark and would suggest that England ought to divide into at least four regions, but probably more like ten. Oddly enough, I suggested this five years ago in essay 151. ¹

This dissatisfaction—surely to be elusive—expresses a measure of the opinion of the democracy based on the perception of its performance.  Opinion of perception, note; this has little or nothing to do with any measures of precision, but it does hint at the level or its lack of faith in 'the system', whatever that is in one's home nation.

There is a fairly strong connection between the support for democratic values and democratic satisfaction, which is something quite different. Someone who does not like democracy is more likely [5,6] to vote for populist parties that do not support liberal norms of democracy. Similarly,  there is correlation between general dissatisfaction with democracy and weakening support for democratic principles. That tells us very little about what might work better, where by 'better' I mean more inclusive and more representative. The nations with the lowest faith in democracy are those same states who have elected strongmen who then succeed in undermining civil rights and liberties. That is almost a quote. Russia, Belarus, Turkey and Venezuela stand out in that regard. And both the US under Trump  and the UK under this administration are heading in that direction.

 Most believe elections bring little change, that politicians are corrupt and out of touch and that courts do not treat people fairly. On the other hand, people are more positive about how well their countries protect free expression, provide economic opportunity and ensure public safety. [...] Among the factors studied, dissatisfaction with democracy is related to economic frustration, the status of individual rights, as well as perceptions that political elites are corrupt and do not care about average citizens. Additionally, in Europe the results suggest that dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working is tied to views about the EU, opinions about whether immigrants are adopting national customs and attitudes toward populist parties.

In 26 of 27 nations, those who believe their country is one in which most people cannot improve their standard of living are more likely to be dissatisfied with the way democracy is working. However, personal income is not a major factor. And [..] gender, age and education are not strongly related to democratic dissatisfaction.  [6]

Oddly enough, concerns about immigrants, dislike of EU and favourable opinion of populist parties are tied to dissatisfaction in Europe. Conversely, those with a negative view of Europe (the EU) tend to extend that to their national institutions. Something I identify with is that frustration with politicians breeds dissatisfaction with democracy, and we might extend the lack of fairness in courts to low expectations of fairness from any and all national institutions. 

The message, then, is that if we want democracy to work then the institutions within a nation must be perceived as both fair and functioning well, while politicians must be seen as not corrupt long before they are perceived in any way as trustworthy.  I can report that being told just how corrupt our current government is perceived (with loads of supporting evidence) causes my faith in democracy to ebb. Yet that is not quite true, for my faith in democracy as a concept has not changed much; it is my reduction in faith in what my nation is doing that is causing distress, that our systems are so clearly failing and that our appointed representatives seem to be uninterested in making the systems function better; there lies the distress. Instead, it looks increasingly as if these elected representatives are only interested in making these very same systems work to their direct personal benefit. Discovering that our principal politicians are automatically rich (or are apparently working so as to be personally rich soon) is exactly what I do not want from my representative; patently they don't represent the people if they're dramatically different in circumstance. Starter; no second jobs while in office. Problem; why would any MP vote for this? Ergo, how is this ever going to change?


Devolution, in this case, means not only providing regional governance of the individual nations, but also regional control of the larger metropolitan areas such as Greater Manchester. ²  The devolution deals struck to date seem to form a menu from which there is selection, plus the occasional special, such that as yet no two deals are identical.  

The core powers devolved include the following [8] 

  • Restructuring the further education system
  • Business support
  • The Work and Health Programme
  • EU structural funds
  • Transforming Cities funding
  • Fiscal powers
  • Planning and land use

Wondering at the state of devolution as far as it has gone, I found that the Institute for Government has several relevant reports. [7] How could we assess whether it—devolution to date—has been a good thing? Has it improved the way people feel about their governance, their sense of the legitimacy of government, and are they in any sense more engaged than they were? Has there been any economic dividend? Have public services improved? Is there any sense in which devolution has brought benefits to the unity of the UK?

Attempting to answer these questions, it would seem that in Scotland and Wales that sense of legitimacy is significant. Not least, the success of the SNP within Scotland says a lot about delivery of voice; Scotland's behaviour during the lockdown period of 2020 leaves England looking the poor relation. In Wales, it has taken longer, but there too there is a simple test: which do you trust more, the devolved government or the national one? The answer is overwhelming, which speaks volumes. Devolution works when it taps into a regional sense of identity as it brings decision-making much closer to home. The politics is not the same as London as the system for election is proportional representation; in Scotland politics remains adversarial as argument continues – but that seems to be the nature of the beast. In Northern Ireland power-sharing has become power-splitting (Cathy Gormley-Heenan in [7]) and in Northern Ireland paralysis is the norm, indicating a general failure of devolution. One aspect of general improvement is that when, for example, Scotland comes up with a new policy and demonstrates that it can be made to work well, that new established practice can then be copied elsewhere as if run as a prototype. When this occurs repeatedly, it forms a new version of the West Lothian Question; one wonders where the power is.

Economically, any dividend is not obvious. I think we need devolution aapplied much nearer to London to have any effect. One could argue that the 2008 crash, the coalition austerity of 2010-2019 and Brexit 2016 onwards have each increased regional inequality and so hide any devolution dividend. There are signs that perhaps there has been improvement in the large metropolitan areas, but this is only loosely attached to ideas of devolution.

In the 2019 Conservative election manifesto, this commitment [to publish a white paper setting out how they would ‘unleash regional potential’ in England] was reiterated, alongside a commitment to deliver “full devolution across England…so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny.” [10, 20200506]

The chart to the right, from [10], suggests to me that we are quite likely to see what I might call the 'London effect' perpetrated upon the regions. If one of the things that is wrong with England is that too much power lies in London, then this form of devolution is more of the divide-and-conquer approach; we could so easily have some local powers as explained, but this is nothing approaching the devolution of the separated nations. It is likely that the councils falling outside such 'devolution deals' will steadily find themselves falling behind and even more seen as the hinterlands they have already become. I suggest that the test for economic success of this pale imitation of devolution will be seen not in places like Greater Manchester but in the North of the Tyne and Cornwall, where there is relatively little economic output. The IoM report [7a p16 and 7b Chapters 5-7]  agrees with me (I think), fleshing out the argument. What bothers me most, I think, is that these devolutions are piecemeal, they do not follow referendums and the drive from central government has been for one thing but at the same time the opposite, such that the proposed NE Assembly was rejected wholesale in 2004, thus killing off the idea of regional assemblies across England. [11]

Suggestions that the House of Lords move to a city such as York strikes me as the sort of move I want to see, move a power base to elsewhere. The move of the DVLA to Swansea, or the bulk of the DWP to Tyneside or the Weather service to Newbury each strikes me as what the population wants to see as 'devolution'; not just a dilution of the power that lies in London, but physical movement of bodies out of the capital.  ³

This is an unfolding tale and so this page may well need updating or supplement in years to come. My reading suggests that I am not the only one who wants devolution to occur so as to change the way we trust in—or don't— the institutions of governance. Yet the 2004 proposals look good to me now even as they did not then. I wilfully assume (hope) that such plans will be wheeled out under a Tory government rather than a Labour one — not that this makes any difference at all to me, since I haven't voted for either of them. I still have issues with a unitary authority but if the same thing was sold as proportional representation and at the same time guaranteed this didn't result in jobs for life for the politicos, I'd be very much more inclined to support it. Indeed, that is an argument for the mayoral system, too. What has happened so far is that the 'new' systems are not transparent, they are not discussed in public in advance, they are 'centralisation on steroids'.  ⁴

We need to generate trust, not have it demanded it and then have that trust abused. Trust is earned and, once lost, is extremely hard to recover. I think that is the situation we are in, where trust in our institutions is being squandered, is very dangerous for the long term. If it is in some sense only trust in politicians that is being lost, that is their responsibility; it is when they cause the loss of trust in wider institutions such as the Civil Service, that is something else entirely.

DJS 20200824

The devolution report of 2018 said the Government should draw up plans for how decentralisation to more rural areas of England might effectively be pursued. But as the White Paper [12] says, The ‘devolution framework’ appears to have been overtaken by the Government’s commitment to publish a White Paper during 2020. 

The Menu for this very restricted sort of devolution makes much of handing over control of the Adult Education Budget, AEB, which is that which applies post-18. So what, you think; the immediate improvement is that some form of local expertise identifies local skills priorities and, one assumes, does a good deal to rectify the issues.

Another item on the menu is 'Business Support', which appears to mean the immediate decentralisation of central business support services; my jaundiced translation says that the London office gains some understaffed local offices and that dilution will have no positive effect. But I have no idea what business support might be and the white paper makes no effort to explain. The whole entry stinks of graft.

In the funds pot (sic, the term used in the Paper) we have the AEB as above, transport funds, the 'transforming cities' fund, 'local growth' funds. In effect this removes some of what was previously ring-fencing. There was a good deal referenced about EU structural funding, but I think we can discard all of that, which ran out in April 2020. In theory at least those EU funds are replaced by a 'shared prosperity' fund; wait and see, but I expect this will be one of the many casualties blamed on dealing with coronavirus and will be funded by increases in council tax. Some of the devolved authorities capture 100% of business rates as part of their agreement.

The 'specials' include housing, as in delivery of affordable homes, and health and social care.

I discover from the White Paper that 'the North', for the purposes of the 'Northern Powerhouse' means Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Durham and Northumberland, and the associated cities. In this model we would also have the Midlands, South-East and South- West.  I would expect London to be separate from these, and my header picture would prefer the Midlands divided east/west and the South-East to hive off East Anglia. I think it is important that the whole units be roughly equal in population.

 §5.3 of the Paper addresses the possibilities of extending devolution and deserves wider reading.


[1]   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/21/reek-corruption-british-politics-discontent-democracy 

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/19/mps-advising-big-business-democracy-second-jobs-sajid-javid

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/726312/2017_to_2018_-_ACOBA_Annual_Report.pdf

[4] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/revealed-key-cummings-ally-given-840000-covid-contract-without-competition/

[5] https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/dissatisfactiondemocracy 

[6]  https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/04/29/many-across-the-globe-are-dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/

[7]   https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/our-work/devolution/devolution-uk-nations?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIzbqrqcG76wIV0e3tCh1uWAS1EAAYASAAEgKgcPD_BwE  Read the collected essays.

[8]  https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn07029/

[9]  https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7322/   comment on the Cities and Local Gov't Devolution Act 2016

[10]  https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/english-devolution-combined-authorities-and-metro-mayors

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_North_East_England_devolution_referendum 

On 4 November 2004, voters in the North East rejected the proposal, in an all-postal ballot, by 77.9% to 22.1%, on a turnout of 48%. Every council area in the region had a majority for "no". 

The campaign against the proposed Assembly was successfully led by local businessman John Elliott, who argued that the institution would have no real powers and that it would be a "white elephant" and too centric to Newcastle upon Tyne. The London effect, centralised power.

[12] https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwis7-P71bvrAhUPTcAKHcugAhwQFjAAegQIBRAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.parliament.uk%2Fbriefing-papers%2FSN07029.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3omLlkNidYfHlSqUVyH20I  the White Paper, 20200326, which includes some of earlier entries here.

[13] found weeks after upload. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/democracy-crisis. Possibly pre-dates other references.

      and the report itself    https://www.cam.ac.uk/system/files/report2020_003.pdf

     ⁵  ⁶  ⁷  ⁸  ⁹  spare footnotes

1 Ned 17M, CH 8.8, DK 5.8, N 5.4, Lux 0.6.  Eng 57M, Sco 5.4M, Wa 3.4M, NI 2M  England would divide nicely into nine regions as pictured.

2  There is a good deal more English devolution than I had thought, listed to the right. The three collapsed deals were as follows:

(i) The North-East deal collapsed on 7 September 2016. Three of the seven authorities subsequently negotiated a mayoralty for the ‘North of Tyne’ area 

(ii) Lincolnshire County Council and North Kesteven District Council rejected the Greater Lincolnshire deal in November 2016. The deal was then withdrawn by the DCLG;13

(iii) Five district councils pulled out of the Norfolk / Suffolk deal (see Appendix 2). The deal was then withdrawn.14 This deal had in turn emerged from the East Anglia devolution deal, which was announced in March 2016 but abandoned in favour of separate deals for Norfolk / Suffolk and Cambridgeshire / Peterborough (the latter of which concluded successfully). 

Deals have been reported as under negotiation in a number of further areas:

In early 2020, rumours emerged of negotiations in Cumbria; Lancashire; East Midlands; and Norfolk and Suffolk. In the former Humberside area, North Lincolnshire and North-East Lincolnshire have indicated they want to revive the ‘Greater Lincolnshire’ deal, whilst the Government is reported as regarding a Humberside deal as the ‘only option’;

A report emerged in October 2018 that a devolution deal for the Solent (Southampton, Portsmouth and Isle of Wight) was ‘not on the table’. The bid had previously been with the Government for two years.20 This had followed a previous bid for the whole of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight in 2015;

In the mid-2010s, devolution bids, or expressions of interest / prospectuses, were published for Gloucestershire, Cheshire and Warrington Cumbria, Leicestershire; North and East Yorkshire; Surrey and Sussex; Greater Essex; Derby, Nottingham and their hinterlands; and Devon / Somerset. Further reports of interest have emerged from Dorset and Lancashire.

3  The DWP employs 85,000 people, which makes it the biggest. See. What is now called Tyneview Park in Long Benton houses much of the Pension Service. Benton Park View is the name of the larger (almost adjacent site, housing many HMRC staff.  I wanted numbers, but could only find a freedom of information request, not an answer. 20% of civil servants, about 90,000, work in London. The median salary is £27080, remarkably close to the national equivalent.

4 Professor Robin Hambleton of the University of the West of England has described the Government’s policy as ‘centralisation on steroids’:  [12. p92]

xc hjkl;[]/., ` xad fghjp[]Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 201,