what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

a question of political and government autonomy


Old Viciu (he is 83) was very impressive with his dismantling of the old window frame in my study yesterday – sawing a small initial space to get a purchase for the long iron bar which I keep for levering nails and then dispatching each of the supports with a few well-aimed blows. And he was not at all put out when the new frame he had made in his workshop was a couple of centimetres too short (it was a perfect fit across) – a bit of levering and a couple of quickly-split bits of wood to lift the frame and fill the space at the top quickly did the job. What took longer was the (failed) attempt to fill the exterior of the new frame with foam! After erecting the retractible ladder against the rather high wall and making it safe, we discovered that the 4 cans of foam I had were out of date and useless. Then an abortive purchase of a can from a neighbour a few kilometres away (the foam wouldn’t stop pouring as we tried to drive back with it!) We had to dump it and drive to the village and get a couple of cans. By then visitors and the rain had arrived and we realised the foolhardiness of 60 and 80 year olds operating at such heights and postponed things until Monday when hopefully we can find a younger man!

In the evening I hit a major problem when I started to give some thought to one of the three questions posed in the last post – namely what examples can be given of successful government programmes and reform in the past few decades? My three (adjusted) questions are
• what advice would I give anyone looking to undertake real reform of such kleptocracies as Romania or Azerbaizan?
• How can such people be encouraged - what examples can we offer of government reform programmes actually making a difference?
• How can the effort to ensure good government be sustained – given the strength of financial and commercial systems and the iron law of oligarchy? Tolstoy’s three questions were easier to answer! The first question is easier for me to deal with since I have given it a lot of thought in the last few years and a future post will summarise what I was trying to say in the various papers on my website. Of course it is easy to give advice – Oscar Wilde put it very nicely - „I always pass on good advice. It’s the only thing to do with it!” Real advice, however, deals not only with the what - but with the how! That means being realistic about preconditions – and also being prepared to recognise and exploit opportunities. Its the difference between technicians and politicians. All very opaque – but you can see what I mean if you look at the last part of the first paper on my website – and I will return in later post to the question. For the moment let me just note in passing that one of Tony Bliar’s advisers has just published a book with the fascinating title – The new Machiavelli and how to wield power in the modern world. Which reminds me of Robert Greene’s excellent 48 Laws of Power which an unkind reviewer now tells me is mostly pinched from a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest Bathasar Gracian
But revenons aux moutons – which might be rephrased as the autonomy of governments and of the actors who are supposed to manage the machinery of government. And there are really two sets of questions I now find myself wrestling with.
The question I started with was where we might find examples changes in the machinery of government which might be judged to have made a positive difference to the life of a nation. Those wanting to know what precisely I mean by this phrase are invited to look at the diagram on the last page of key paper 5 on my website .
Politicians find it all too easy to set up, merge, transfer, close down ministries, agencies and local government units. It’s almost like a virility symbol – China did it recently when, after some years of study of best practice, they proceeded to set up mega-departments (at a time when the rest of the world thought they were a bad idea!). The UK coalition is set on merging/ closing down about 150 quangos. One of them is the Audit Commission which was set up in 1982 by a Conservative Government to keep English local authorities on their toes. The Scottish Education Minister thinks that 32 municipal Education Departments is too many for a country of 5 million people. This in a country which has had its local government system completely replaced twice in the last 30 years! From 650 units to 65 in 1974/5; then again to 32 in 1997. The New Labour Government proudly published a Modernising Government strategy in 1997 which they sustained for the 13 year of their duration. What did it achieve? Most academics who explore this question are very cynical – Colin Talbot’s book which I reviewed recently is the lateste example. My question is whether it is different in transition countries such as Romania and Azerbaijan? They are at a more primitive stage – and some changes in accountability, judicial, electoral and parliamentary systems can presumably make a difference. Why, for example, should Romania have 2 Chambers?

The second question which I found myself wrestling with last night is the extent to which political and administrative leaders (those with formal positions of power) can actually achieve changes which can reasonably be regarded as significant and lasting - and beneficial for the majority of a country’s population? I came to political activism almost 50 years ago through reading books with such titles as Conviction (1958), Out of Apathy (1960), Suicide of a Nation (1963), The Stagnant Society(1961) and The Future of Socialism (1956) which, I am delighted to see, has been reissued (with a foreward by Gordon Brown). Fifty years on – after 26 years of Tory rule and 24 years of Labour rule) – we seem to have the same level of dissatisfactionif of a different sort. I vividly remember how the optimistic mood of the early 1970s about social engineering was transformed in a few years. The academic literature about government overload perhaps captured the mood best (interestingly I can’t find a link for this concept!) – although the community development work to which I was strongly attached (and its connection to the powerful anarchical writings of people like Ivan Illich) also contained its own despair about what government actions could ever achieve. The influential public choice literature was, frankly, off most people’s radar at the time. But these are the main strands of ideology of UK governments over the past 20 years – with Gordon Brown’s tinkerings from the Finance bunker allowing a vestige of social engineering in the field of social policy. Of course Tony Bliar’s Northern Ireland settlement is a good example of what determined government action can achieve - but what else?
I will leave the question in the air for the moment. In the course of drafting this, I have discovered a marvellous political autobiography of this period
Sadly the window in the photo is not mine - it is of one of many wooden churches here (Surdesti actually). Daniela and I do our best to retain the old features of the house but, for once, I opted for something more simple than the ornate.

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