On July 19th, British Prime Minister, David Cameron gave a speech that should perk up the ears of Distributists, especially any that live in United Kingdom. Mr. Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative seeks to divest responsibilities and authorities absorbed by the British Parliament and transfer them to the local level. Of course, this is already being harshly criticized by groups with operational ties and other vested interests in the central government, but this initiative has the potential to unleash precisely the sort of philosophical shift that men like Chesterton and Belloc knew would be necessary if Distributism were to ever have a chance. Now, I don’t assume that Mr. Cameron is a Distributist—he may or may not be—but I can’t help picturing Messrs. Chesterton and Belloc smiling.
Why should this be? The early 20th century distributists lamented that the mindset of their contemporary Englishmen was too accustomed to the prevailing order of centralizing ownership and authority; so accustomed that they did not recognize that this order was slowly eliminating their freedoms. It now appears that no less a figure than the Prime Minister seeks to decentralize power. This presents tremendous opportunities for any distributist movements in England. If the British people start thinking about the possibilities and freedoms they can have by taking this initiative even further than it currently stands—as Mr. Cameron says will be necessary—they might not want to go back. It also means that real and practical strategies must be developed so that they can be implemented. Some of the realities of implementing these strategies will involve taking on greater local responsibility, but that is the cost of freedom.
Mr. Cameron spoke of a society where people “don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face … but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.” He describes it as “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.”
Now, this plan is not a recipe for a Distributist society. For example, it is going to be at least partly funded by the central government. There is good reason for concern here, but can one really expect any different at this stage? After all, the British are already highly taxed, which means the money needed to administer things at a local level is already held by the central government. Ideally, this will change as the local level assumes more authority over its own concerns. They will naturally want to control the funding of their own initiatives as they get used to the idea that the don’t need the central government to make the decisions for them. This will also give local people more of a voice about whether things should even be done by local government rather than by other non-government organizations. It is, in short, a launching pad for subsidiarity which can, if it takes hold, lead to its conclusion in a more Distributist society.
Mr. Cameron also warns that this is a process of adjustment and cannot be fully accomplished by simply flipping a switch. He is correct. This initiative will depend on the more local level of government and other community organizations being able to step up and take over. Their ability to do this will depend on the people realizing that they are better off, that they are more free, and that they can do more for themselves and others by supporting the local level. This will require a tremendous shift in the normal way of looking at things for they are conditioned to look to the highest level of government for the answers just as we are here in the US. This kind of shift takes time and it will be constantly challenged along the way.
I am very excited about this development from our friends “across the pond.” I hope that all those friendly to Distributism will open themselves up to help the movement present its case to the English people. I pray that God allows this to succeed and then move forward toward a more fully Distributist society. If there is even partial success over there, it brings hope for the Distributist movement here and elsewhere in the world.