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Westminsterism may think it knows best – but dismantling it can help us move forward

Before the next government comes into office we need a root and branch audit of how governments make decisions, says John Bird

Affected families in Westminster after the damning report into the infected blood scandal was published

Families and supporters of victims gather in Westminster after the damning report into the infected blood scandal was published in early May. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Westminsterism might be a good way of describing many of the current complaints lodged at the door of government(s). An inability to see beyond ‘officialese’ thinking dogs the ruling body – and its ancillary bodies. Ministers, who are content to take office and pursue their career, fall back on blank thinking when it comes to facing up to their departmental mistakes.  

Contaminated blood is the latest example, with a call for the fall of the former government minister who oversaw what seems, at a distance, to be a cover up. Thousands died because of experiments carried out without reasonable guards against contamination. Brutal government indifference, hidden under the mask of a superior grasp of the truth, abounds.  

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Think also of the post office scandal, where many lives were destroyed by a failure to embrace the truth about a faulty computer system. Government ministers and political leaders appear indifferent to the resulting human tragedy.  

Westminsterism might be described as ‘government knows best’. The US equivalent, because all systems are seemingly compromised at the moment, might be ‘Capitol Hill knows best’. As if all the power and all the decisions, and monitoring of the outcome of these decisions, is buried and squirrelled away in the corridors of power.  

There are other problems that haunt the spring and coming summer of this election year.  

Last weekend I was in Liverpool and met among others the new leader of the city council, Liam Robinson, who informed me that 60% of all central finances have been removed from Liverpool since 2010. No wonder there are homeless people on the streets. No wonder there is a thirst for change among the many. Finances have been shredded because local government was given the unenviable role of paying for our generosity in saving the banking system. Someone had to pay for it. And it fell to the needy throughout the UK.  

The centralisation of government ran amok under Thatcher’s government. Finances were centralised because the Westminster of the time could not trust locals to run their money or much of their decision making. Control the money and you control spending, often on policies that would irritate Westminster.  

The blood contamination, which even destroyed the health of the late Anita Roddick (the mother of Big Issue), is proving a nightmare of death and suffering. A personal apology from the current government will not suffice when the whole affair simply proves the arrogance of power and the inadequate checks and balances that have yet to be addressed.  

Westminsterism Rules OK. Some Titanic deck chairs will, without doubt, be vigorously rearranged. Yet the government’s thirst for having the last – supposedly informed – word undermines belief in Westminster itself.  

Before Liverpool, I was in Spain. I was visiting youth offenders’ institutes and will write more extensively later about what I saw. What attracted me was the success rate in reforming young people. Some 80% returned to society using methods that would appall Westminster: here we are lucky if we get 30%.  

I could recognise some of the methods used in Spain – purposeful activity and involvement in schooling and work – from my own young offending days. Westminsterism may think it knows best, but it certainly picked apart and undid what had once, in my teens, been a relatively successful youth rehabilitation programme. Why now, having destroyed our own youth justice system, are we not adopting the successes of others to replace our own faulty framework? Systemic failure seems to haunt the economy and our political society. Expertise seems lacking. Government reshuffling results in short-lived ministers. How can wisdom be built up when only a year or two is spent in the job?  

My own passion revolves around addressing how unsystematic ministers seem to be in the running of their departments. As is so brutally witnessed with poverty. If we want a change that is not simply ‘deck-chairing’ then we need to look at Westminsterism as a whole. How it decides budgets. How it cuts some budgets and undermines other budgets. The enormous hits to local authorities’ funding have hit health hardest, with 50% of hospital beds taken up by people living in need.  

Before the next government comes into office we need a root and branch audit of how governments make decisions. How they allocate power and resources. My idea for a Ministry of Poverty Prevention is one such initiative aimed at making government better.  

By bringing poverty into a ministry rather than spreading it out over eight different ministries is only a step on the road of the intellectual revolution we need to undergo to make government work. The foreseeable future will have to be a period of permanent reinvention, to keep abreast of the permanent change that our lives are witnessing; the terrible damage that gadgetry hands out to our children, and also to every adult who happens to be on every train I go on. The environmental damage bring exacted on our planet – that’s not going to end through the protest of the committed few.  

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

The thinking animal, as we have cleverly named ourselves, may need to do more and deeper thinking than any we have done to date. Dismantling Westminsterism would be a good beginning.  

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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