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!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adversarial and consensual systems

It's Independence Day here in Romania - hence the picture - which is taken from a wonderful blog which celebrates cultural aspects of RomaniaTrue Romania organised by a school in Ludus in Translyvania!
Remember that one of the main questions behind these recent musings is – can we really offer advice to (say) the Bulgarians and Romanians about how to develop the capacity of their governance architecture and operations when the countries from which we come have made such a mess of things in our own backyards? As a Brit I tend to assume, for example, that it is normal for one party to take all government posts – even although it has polled only 40% of the votes cast and perhaps only a quarter of voters. More to the point, I am accustomed to the political arena being an adversarial process from which truth is assumed to emerge from imputation of motives, hostile questioning and a clash of personalities. The Scots, it is reasonable to claim on St Andrew’s Night, are not quite as bad at this as the English – the Scottish Parliament which reassembled (or as we say “reconvened”) in 1999 after a gap of almost 300 years gave us European-style coalitions, committee deliberations and conversations instead of altercations. Although on the hustings it is clear that the old bitterness between Labour and the Scottish nationalists has not gone away. One of the reasons I never joined Tony Bliar and Gordon Brown in Westminster in 1983 was that I could not take the adversarial nonsense which was and remains the protocol of british political life. In the early 1970s I annoyed people both in my own party and the Liberals (who then controlled Greenock Town Council) by persuading the local Liberal Provost to join with me on some initiative I have now (sadly) forgotten. I just knew that the bipartisan approach was the more effective. It was the same when I joined up with the leader of the UK Liberal party (Jo Grimond) a year or so later on a(nother) Rowntree Foundation initiative which linked an urban ghetto in my constituency with some work in the marvellous Shetlands Islands. And few things gave me so much pleasure during my work on Strathclyde Region in the 1980s as collaborative work with the Conservative opposition on issues and strategies of social injustice and exclusion. I was na├»ve enough to believe that what mattered was (what I judged to be) the integrity of the individuals I dealt with – but so many of the elected representatives of my own party (whether the John Reids, Jimmy Wrays, George Robertsons (the latter groomed at an early stage let me assure you for his NATO role!) were so obviously looking out for themselves and mouthing the rhetoric of tribal loyalties to get them there. At age 33, I had gained one of the most powerful positions in Scottish political life – the Secretary of the ruling Labour group which controlled the gigantic Strathclyde Region. Jo Grimond referred to me once wryly as its Gauleiter; and our colleagues used the equally ironic term “gang of four” to describe the four of us who held the top positions! Those were exciting days and I was able to use my position not only to encourage community enterprise but also to introduce a more consensual approach to policy-making – the “member-officer group” which had a group of backbench councillors and middle-level officials examine fields which (generally) ran across departmental lines; take evidence and make recommendations.
I considered myself left of centre and, in in the early 1980s, the main trade union offered me their support to replace the renegade Labour MP in my shipbuilding town. But the party had a quite mad set of policies – including withdrawal from Europe. The manifesto was famously called “the longest suicide note in history” (it was 700 pages long!). I was reluctant to give up the influential position I had on the Region for the uncertainty and isolation of London; unable to defend the indefensible of the party manifesto and therefore withdrew from the contest. Neither Gordon Brown nor Tony Bliar, it is worth noticing, had any qualms about accepting the terms of the labour party manifesto under which they both reached the UK Parliament in 1983. But then, Bliar was a lawyer – and Brown had set his sights since his early 20s at becoming Prime Minister. I was a contributor (with a critical piece on the operation of Labour groups!) to Gordon Brown’s famous 1975 Red Paper when he was still student Rector of Edinburgh University – a good paper here describes his career. I found a good quote on political ambition recently
Our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world—the world that cannot be—ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.
These personal vignettes may seem a distraction from the main theme – of the capacity of government – but too much political discussion fails to recognise that politics (like life) is a series of individual choices, decisions and behaviour in a particular context. It is too easy to retreat behind abstractions. Of course there was an element of cowardice in not wanting to give up the (relative) security of my Glasgow position for the loneliness and uncertainty of being one of 600 Westminster MPs – but I have never regretted the decision. Temperamentally I anguish over issues – and would never have been able to give the instant opinions the career required. I am an agnostic in more than religion! And, in continuing at the Region until 1990 or so, I was able to help set up and embed policies which the new Scottish Parliament has continued.
I always felt that the British system was too polarised - not only in class and political terms but in the way it forced both politicians and officials to choose between local or national government. Why not both – a la France? Local politicians there can also be national deputies – despite the backlash against the cumul des mandates. And officials in some countries can move between national and local positions – ensuring a better mutual understanding.
Consensuality, of course, has various dimensions – and perhaps one of the most crucial differences is that between policy on the one hand and the spoils of office on the other. Countries such as Austria, Belgium and Netherlands have long been famous for their spoils system – with Ministries and appointments of officials being shared out according to the share of the poll. The Dutch Pillar system has declined in importance but the spoils system in Austria and Belgium led to deep corruption. Scandinavian consensuality, on the other hand, seems to be based on moral respect. The ruling party is willing to listen to and negotiate with others. From my stay in Beijing, I know that some of the Chinese government elite are certainly interested in the Scandinavian perspective. And both in practice and in academia the Swedes and Norwegians have carved their own way – separate from the anglo-saxon social sciences.
The Norwegian academic Tom Christensen's various papers - with their concern about the effects of administrative reform on democracy, for example, are typical. And the Swedish Quality of Governance centre offers more useful reflections on government capacity than its British counterparts.

1 comment:

  1. 1 December is not Independence Day of Romania. It's the National Day and cellebrates the unification back in 1918 of the three main provinces of Romanian majority population:Transylvania, Valahia and Moldova ( those two forming Romania in 1859).
    No harm done, just a common error even here amongst the Romanian students. Natinal History is no longer a metter of importance unless instrumentalised by politicians.