In amongst everything else I went last Monday to a conference hosted by the University of Kent, at their Medway campus.
The conference was on the subject of a document even more ancient than the Magna Carta, the Textus Roffensis, an intriguing collection documenting legal codes from the 6th to the 12th Century, bound as one manuscript This link leads to the conference web page and this to a Wikipedia entry.
The academic activity brought together a range of specialists in what might be called extreme history, but I went to the public lecture, given entertainingly, informatively and humbly by Michael Wood. That and the dinner that followed provided both fascinating insights and thought provoking parallels with today.
For the Textus Roffensis was basically the book of the community, as Michael Wood put it, charting the trajectory of law, the place and the development of the language. It recorded the beginnings of the legal framework and of the notion that the monarch ruled under the law. It set out monetary standards and national monetary union. This was a key part of the journey from notions of kinship to notions of state, the precursor of parliament and the regulatory framework of the new social settlement.
This has real relevance to the changes that are underway right now in the realignment of the state, market and civil society following the election. There is a rolling back of state structures and an intention to catalyse community engagement, together with a desire to control some of the uncertainties of the market following the banking crisis.
There is a question of the order of play here. Do we create the conditions for change by restructuring the public sector, potentially leaving a power and provision vacuum, or do we try and create capacity and capability for change in civil society and, use it to push back against the influence of the central and local state and public service provision? Clearly it will be a mixture of the two in an iterative process, a picture of evolving state, community and individual responsibility, and underpinning legal framework. In a recent speech on 27th July at the Policy Exchange, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation, spelt out a vision for a diversification of the state and civil society along just these lines, based on public sector reform, community empowerment emanating from communities of shared interest, and philanthropic action.
This focus of redistribution of power, based on localist self determination, is potentially a huge constitutional shift. The outcomes that could flow from it could usher in a completely new relationship between the spheres of government and civil society. It will be interesting to see how the private sector will adapt to it, but that must probably wait for an article on the proposed Local Economic Partnerships.
There is no doubt that Eric Pickles and the CLG ministerial team are loosening the frameworks of central control, guidance and performance management. Yet, to return to the Textus Roffensis, I believe that we will need to set out a non-bureaucratic codification of some of these principles at a local level, perhaps replacing some of the rather unwieldy partnership planning frameworks. Humans are sense-making, language-based beings and whilst as a localist I am exceedingly comfortable with self determination we will in our communities need to find a way of explaining simply how it works, how to take part and what the resources are.
That is what the codification of the power settlement in the Textus Roffensis, the Magna Carta and written constitutions have sought to do. Done well this can cut out bureaucracy and empower communities and individuals. The power of general competence, that will hopefully be in the forthcoming Decentralisation and Localism Bill will take us one step nearer to that empowerment, where we can then hand on some of that freedom to people in our localities. Let’s just not be asking Central Government for the guidance as to how to use it!