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Political Science

In Spain, the 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of a political transition to a democracy, following the horrors of civil war and dictatorship. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features. Yet thirty-six years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model – in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government. A movement for change In recent years, support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession. The following graph shows this recent trend.

Over the past two decades the countries in southern Africa have generally had ‘dominant party systems’. Such party systems consist of one large ruling party which is dominant, in terms of seats in the national assembly or incumbent advantages, and a number of small opposition parties. The literature on dominant parties (Bogaards, 2004 and Greene, 2007) and competitive authoritarianism (Schedler, 2009 and Levitski and Way, 2010) provide useful insights for understanding the party politics of the region. The dominant party is usually a former liberation movement which fought to end colonialism or white minority rule. Nicholas van de Walle observes that opposition parties in the region lack the financial and organisational ability to compete with the incumbent advantages of ruling parties. As such, they remain small and fragmented. The dominant parties in southern Africa maintain their hold on power through a mix of co-option and coercion and are not unlike their counterparts in other competitive authoritarian states such as Mexico, Argentina and Russia. For example, mass political rallies are held to demonstrate the ruling party’s extensive support base. People are allegedly enticed to rallies with gifts in cash or kind. In addition state media are manipulated to give the ruling party more coverage and draw attention to its achievements and the government attempts to control the media through regulation or intimidation.

Much has been made of backroom deals between the Chancellor George Osborne and Manchester City Council’s chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein to deliver the most significant devolutionary settlement of Whitehall budgets in England. The price of the deal is an elected mayor, who from 2017, will oversee significant sums of devolved spending, answerable to a cabinet made up of the ten council leaders of the Greater Manchester authorities. For some attending a cities@manchester debate earlier this week, the imposition of an elected mayor is seen as an unwelcome and undemocratic step. But this view underplays the way in which this deal represents the culmination of over ten years of hard work and commitment by all the region’s elected leaders (and their officers) to collaborate …

From June, Greater Manchester will get an interim mayor as part of a deal with the Government on regional devolution. But its imposition without a referendum is a fundamental error by the political elite that may well backfire, argues Professor Colin Talbot. ‘Mayors’ seem to have become the default answer of many in the political elite to the problems of local government and governance in the UK, or more specifically England. Linked to the idea of English devolution as an answer to Scottish ‘home rule’ this has become a heady brew. But maybe it’s time to ask some sober questions about this project of ‘Devo Manc’, at least in terms of the proposed system of government for Manchester. My argument is, …

The recent plebiscite on Scottish independence has triggered a much wider debate in the UK about the organisation of state power in institutional and territorial terms. In particular, the role and economic position of the main cities vis-à-vis the state have raised headlines about ‘cities going independent’, such as ‘Devo Met’ (The Economist, 25 Oct 14). This not only continues the strong focus on the economic dimension of statehood and its territorial and institutional manifestation, but also that of identity and the sense of community (commonality). No longer, so it seems, does nationality operate automatically through the ‘nation state’ as a territorial and governmental entity. Instead, metropolitanism is encouraging, perhaps requiring, a ‘reterritorialisation of politics’ (Sellers and Walks, 2008). This growing emergence of an urban (metropolitan) dimension to national (and international) discourses on shared values, imaginations and common purpose has come to challenge the nationalisation thesis formulated as part of ‘political modernisation’ (Hofferbert and Sharkansky, 1971), and its primary focus on territorial states as expressions of an existing and cohesive civil society, or as ‘nationalisers’ seeking to shape a national identity (Brubaker, 1995). This once prevailing thesis propagates national contexts as dominant, hegemonial conditioning factors which reach across states, including regional and local identities and discourses, whether urban or not. The understanding of nationality has thus been viewed from a top-down perspective of discursive nationality, and corresponds with the territorial view that cites, being down the scalar hierarchy from the state, are automatically an integral part of that – bigger – entity – geographically, institutionally and discursively. Such, in effect, triple hierarchisation – where territory, institutional power structures and discourse of identity and belonging (communality) sit in parallel hierarchical arrangements – is now being challenged by a growing urban/metropolitan voice stepping out of the seemingly homogenous sonority of a national discursive ‘backcloth’. This may appear as a reverse step to the integrative, even homogenising, effects of nationalising politics (Caramani, 2004), seeking to overcome spatial and societal differences in identities and sense of belonging. From such a (conventional) perspective, states are seen as the ‘natural’ rallying points of national discourses of self-determination and their geographic manifestation.

In 2014 the push for devolution became a major political issue. Scotland remains in the UK, but only after last minute bargaining devolved further powers to Holyrood. This has encouraged calls for more devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and for the formation of an English parliament. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement proves that Westminster is listening. Meanwhile, MPs and local governments want more powers entrusted to local authorities. Manchester is following Bristol’s lead in appointing a mayor. The UK is not alone in this trend. Emboldened by the experience in Scotland, Catalonia held an independence vote of its own, even if unrecognised by the government in Madrid. Legal or not, that vote may also boost efforts in the Basque Country, Bavaria and Flanders. While these votes may prove unsuccessful, the tension surrounding them will linger. The issues depend on the contextual consequences of the increasing trend towards devolution. There are two forces operating in two different directions: on the one hand, city/regional small nations are demanding Independence from their referential nation-states, while on the other hand, nation-states themselves are re-centralising or decentralising their structures and powers. Over the coming months, this Special Series will focus on the diverse angles to this debate by identifying and emphasising certain innovative and thought provoking case studies for the purpose of comparison. Posts will cover topics like the re-scaling of nation-states, constitutional change, the right to decide, independence movements, the federal EU hypothesis, the Europe of Regions approach, democratic participation and civic nationalism in relation to city-regions.

Democratic pressure is building, cracks and fault-lines are emerging and at some point the British political elite will have to let the people speak about where power should lie and how they should be governed. ‘Speak’ in this sense does not relate to the casting of votes — the General Election will not vent the pressure — but to a deeper form of democracy that facilitates both ‘democratic voice’ and ‘democratic listening’. In the wake of the Scottish referendum on independence the UK is undergoing a rapid period of constitutional reflection and reform. The Smith Commission has set out a raft of new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has signed a new devolution agreement with Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the Deputy Prime Minister has signed an agreement with Sheffield City Council, and the Cabinet Committee on Devolved Powers has reported on options for change in Westminster. One critical component of this frenetic period of reform has been the absence of any explicit or managed process for civic engagement even though the Prime Minister’s statement on the 19 September 2014 emphasized that ‘It is also important we have wider civic engagement about how to improve governance in our United Kingdom, including how to empower our great cities. And we will say more about this in the coming days’. The days and months have passed but no plan for civic engagement has been announced. In the meantime, calls for a citizen-led constitutional convention have been made with ever increasing regularity and volume.

Over the last decades, populism and technocracy have attracted a great deal of public attention and generated a lively scholarly debate. As it has recently been argued, they have emerged as the two dominant discourses on the European political scene. As the 2014 European elections clearly showed, even traditional, mainstream political parties increasingly rely on either or both these narratives. One insightful example is the discursive practices of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party during the Italian electoral campaign. After his rise as party leader and then Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister, Renzi has become a favourite of the international press. As early as 2010, when he was still mayor of Florence, the Tuscan politician proved himself an extremely skilled communicator. His idea of ‘rottamare’ (‘scrapping’) the entire political class had an extremely wide impact on public opinion and soon became a slogan for all those who wanted to contest the status quo in Italian politics. The growing support he received from the public convinced him to run for his party’s leadership primaries in 2012 and then, successfully, in 2013. Nowadays, Renzi’s PD embodies an arguably renewed organisation. The internal opposition has been gradually marginalised and the re-compacted majority has developed a political discourse based on pragmatism, hope for the future and the need for change. In particular, one can observe how the PD has gradually assimilated populist and technocratic discursive strategies by examining the ways in which it deals with a key issue such as the European Union. The populist mode. According to a growing body of literature, typical examples of populist discursive practices include the reliance upon Manichean oppositions, romanticised and essentialist visions of the people, appeals to the multitude whilst excluding others and extreme simplification and moralisation (Wodak 2003).