Writing in his Prison Notebooks, ninety years ago, the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci defined our times. “The crisis consists precisely of the fact that the inherited is dying – and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.
Gramsci’s analysis was developed between 1929 and 1935. The stability of the Edwardian Age – of secure crowns, borderless travel, imperial administrative elites and growing economic globalisation – was a memory. The inherited world of aristocratic liberalism had gone.
But a new world of liberal, democratic nation states with welfare systems, social insurance and cross-class solidarity was still a distant prospect. And for those who were charged with leadership there were any number of morbid symptoms affecting their bodies politic at that time.
Economic depression had undermined faith in Western democracy. Traditional political and party structures broke down while protectionist trade barriers went up. Ideological polarisation divided families and societies, competition for resources generated international conflicts, and new technologies offered expanded realms of opportunity but they also unsettled traditional patterns of working, and they threatened new and horrific means of destruction.
Now our age is not the 1930s. But it is an age of morbid symptoms. The model that the current generation of political leaders inherited has been crumbling.
For much of the period since 1945, Western nations have had relatively stable party and political structures. The leaders of those nations, political and business, have justified their positions on the grounds of meritocracy – we’ve proved through our exertions that we’re the best – and also on grounds of efficiency – we’ve shown through the spread of economic growth and greater opportunity that we deliver.
But since the financial crisis of 2008 those foundations and assumptions have been systematically eroded.
Across Western Europe we’ve seen the political system that we inherited fracture. Traditional Social Democratic parties have either been eclipsed or undermined to their left. Syriza in Greece overtook Pasok, Podemos in Spain took huge chunks out of the PSOE, the Dutch Labour Party lost three quarters of its vote in the last general election dropping from the 2nd to the 7th largest grouping in parliament. The French Socialists were left for dust by the radical leftists of La France Insoumise and the German Social Democrats struggle now to appeal to more than a sixth of their electorate, with a number of their former followers supporting the hard left Die Linke leading them to be consistently outpolled by the Greens.
Traditional Christian Democrat or Conservative Parties have tended to fare better. But parties of the radical or populist right have, in many cases, again either undermined their previous dominance or overtaken them entirely. Vox in Spain has chipped away at the PP. The AfD is the first party to the right of the CDU and CSU to sit in the Bundestag since the Federal Republic was established. In the Netherlands the parties of Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, difficult to pigeonhole, but both certainly to the right of the traditional Dutch consensus, together have the support of almost twice as many voters as the Dutch Christian Democrats. In France, Marine Le Pen, and in Italy, Matteo Salvini, are the principal opposition figures – again, neither traditional Gaullists or Christian Democrats.
And even in countries where the traditional party structures appear to be continuous with the world we inherited, the parties now take positions which would have been unfamiliar, to put it mildly, to their leaders much less than a generation ago. In America, the ruling Republican orthodoxy is to be sceptical of free trade; unattracted by notions of conventional global leadership; unconvinced by the efficacy of alliances such as NATO. All those positions are departures, I’m sure most would agree, from the position of George W. Bush never mind George H.W. Bush.
It would take more time than I have available today, indeed perhaps more time than any of us still have to spend in our working lives, to establish definitively why this has been so.
But, at its root, is – I think – a deep sense of disenchantment on the part of many of our citizens with a political system that they feel has failed them. The compact leaders offered – trust that we are the best, trust that we have your best interests at heart, and trust that we will deliver – was broken in their eyes.
Even before the financial crisis of 2008, economic growth was slowing across the West, as identified by economists from Robert J. Gordon to Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel.
And just as growth was slowing, so its diminishing benefits were becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the already fortunate – as Andy Haldane put it in 2016, the economic pie has not risen rapidly, and the pie has been unevenly sliced. Those with higher level cognitive skills saw an increasing return for their labour, while those working in traditional manufacturing saw more of their jobs undertaken abroad and indeed saw wages undercut at home.
Globalisation, as practised, seemed to be eroding social solidarity and deepening a gulf between elites and those whom they governed or employed. And that gulf was not simply one of wealth. It was also one of sympathy.
As the British author David Goodhart analysed in his book, The Road to Somewhere, the gap between those with connections and credentials who can live and work anywhere, and those with fewer resources who remain rooted to the heartland, has only widened in recent years. His work, preceded by Christopher Lasch, has been supplemented by the writings of Paul Collier and J.D. Vance among others, and they all underline that those in the elite with cognitive skills, qualifications and professional mobility tend to have, or develop, different social and political values from other citizens.
The views, tastes and concerns of those who write for the New York Times, who run higher education institutions, chair business representative organisations, who advise on ESG responsibilities for corporates and indeed those who run Government departments tend to have become more distant over time from those who build homes, manufacture automobiles, work in logistics, harvest food and dispose of waste. To colour it crudely: the former are more sensitive to the harm caused by alleged micro-aggressions; the latter are less likely to be squeamish about tougher sentences for those guilty of actual physical aggression.
This sense that those who had been in power had presided over a growing gulf in both wealth and attitudes, and were no longer working in solidarity with other citizens, was the backdrop for the crises in authority which started during the first decade of this century.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which I supported I should add, were widely seen to have been mismanaged – one suffering from endless revision and ending in retreat; the other perceived to be launched in haste and error; and both revealed faults in policy-making and execution.
Crises of authority in the church consequent upon abuse revelations, in Parliament following the expenses scandal and in the UK media after phone-tapping allegations all unsettled faith in existing leadership.
The migrant crisis on Europe’s southern shores raised profound issues about just how humane and civilised our elites were.
And all these discontents were rising as the world faced the terrible fallout from the financial crisis. Those in politics and business who had been trusted to generate increasing prosperity and provide for social security were found more than wanting. For many, they had failed to anticipate the crisis, failed to identify or take responsibility for what had gone wrong, failed to ensure the burden of repair was fairly shared, failed to reform the institutions, especially the finance and business institutions at the heart of the crisis, and overall failed to recognise the scale of change society demanded.
All these factors underlay the revolt against the elites which saw voters desert established parties, withdraw their support for the economic consensus which had underpinned globalisation for at least three decades and, in many cases, opt for polarised identity politics rather than stay with broad-based national political movements.
These morbid symptoms weakened our politics before the terrible global impact of the coronavirus and they have shaped how many have seen the response to that crisis. During the epidemic we have been made more powerfully aware of entrenched inequalities across the globe, seen how fragile the networks of our interconnected world have become and been reminded that confidence in projections about the future trajectory of a complex phenomenon is often undone.
And the Covid epidemic has also, tragically, underlined the racial and ethnic inequalities in many societies, not least our own in the United Kingdom. The disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME communities is both heartbreaking and a reproach. The reasons for this particular tragedy are various and they require further, rigorous, investigation. But there can be no doubt that they reflect structural inequality in our society which has to be addressed.
As we seek to restore our fractured economies and heal our divided societies following the advent of this pandemic, we must also be aware of other, complex and unpredictable, challenges still to be overcome.
Science and technology, invaluable tools in tackling this pandemic, will bring other, dramatic, benefits to our world in the near future. Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics and further automation, 3D printing, quantum computing and other advances will transform the manufacturing and service economy. Genetic sequencing and screening, gene editing and other life science and biotech advances could enable transformations in healthcare and environmental stewardship.
All these developments have the potential to improve lives and livelihoods across the globe. But they also require us to think carefully about the moral questions they can raise.
We have seen all too recently how progress, enabled by technology, has brought gains but also exposed flaws in how we organise our societies. The development of our global financial systems enabled capital to be more efficiently allocated, risk to be more effectively hedged and innovation to be more powerfully incentivised – but these financial systems also created the conditions for hugely profound economic dislocation.
So, as we contemplate new technological and scientific breakthroughs we must also consider the ethical and political challenges they bring. Unless they are thoughtfully addressed, we risk further worsening the morbid symptoms of our times.
The changes to the workplace the Fourth Industrial Revolution is likely to bring will see many current jobs and occupations either disappear or alter dramatically. The division between the fortunate and the forgotten could deepen perilously.
Life science and biotech breakthroughs raise old questions about equitable access to healthcare in new, potentially very uncomfortable, ways and they open new territory for ethical concerns about our relationship with the natural world of which we are indivisibly part.
And in speaking of the natural world, the growing loss of biodiversity and the threat of climate change also reinforce how existing inequalities and vulnerabilities risk becoming more pronounced and how we need to understand that complex, adaptive systems demand respectful attention, not glib assertions of mastery.
And what makes these concerns pressing is the knowledge that all these changes – to technology, industry, employment, healthcare, food production, biodiversity and the climate – are coming at us fast.
If we are to be equal to all these challenges, then – as the Prime Minister knows and feels passionately – we need to both acknowledge the scale of the change and be ready to change ourselves. Those in political leadership most of all.
And just as the challenges of the Thirties inspired change, both good and bad, in the nature of political leadership – in the shape and scope of Government, in our sense of duty to the poorer, the vulnerable and the excluded, in our use of technology, in our sense of national and social solidarity – so we must ensure we follow a similar, constructive, progressive, inclusive path to that the best men and women chose then.
And for me, no one walked that path better, in what W.H Auden called the low, dishonest, decade that was the Thirties, than Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When he assumed office in 1933, faith in free markets and the capitalist economy was ebbing dramatically. Indeed confidence in democracy itself was fragile – with, even in America, the idea of dictatorial executive authority winning surprising support.
FDR managed to save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, renovate the reputation of Government, he set his country on a course of increasing prosperity and equality of opportunity for decades – and enabled America to emerge from a decade of peril with the system, and society, that the free citizens of the rest of the world most envied.
He succeeded on such a scale, of course, because he was a remarkable leader.
But there were principles underlining his approach which I think we should learn from now, as we seek to overcome our own crises of authority; as we seek to reform capitalism, re-invigorate support for democracy, and get Government working better for all while building more inclusive societies.
First, Roosevelt took it as a given that no society could succeed unless every citizen within it had the chance to succeed. Throughout his political career he had been concerned by the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, and he knew they needed Government on their side if they were to achieve the dignity, status and independence they aspired to. Reform was needed, he argued, ‘that builds from the bottom up and not from the top down, that puts faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid’.
There are too many in our time and our society whose economic interests, and whose values, have been forgotten. In our unequal times we must attend increasingly to those who have suffered from neglect and condescension and also to those whose lives have been scarred by racism and prejudice. Our contemporary work of reform must put them first.
Second, Roosevelt recognised that faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in Government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required but a change in structure, ambition and organisation. The establishment of new bodies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Public Works Association, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration demonstrated a willingness to break the mould of the past. Of course, not every initiative upon which Roosevelt embarked was successful – but he recognised even before he became President that no one can predict at the start of a policy what its end will be. What is needed is both ambition in scope and honesty in assessment.
Faced with tumultuous and difficult times, Roosevelt knew government had to be flexible, adaptive and empirical. That meant taking risks, but it also meant the humility to know when to change course – as he argued in 1932, ‘The country needs, and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another’.
And third, Roosevelt empowered reformers. Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Louis Brandeis, Hugh Johnson and others were drawn from different traditions, backgrounds and disciplines – and they were set missions. Their role was not to administer the existing machine, or proclaim abstract virtues, but to act – to achieve real and concrete change in the lives of others.
And as we contemplate the scale of the challenges ahead, for this country, and the wider democratic world, the lessons of FDR’s success have much to teach us.
This Government in the UK was elected on the basis that it would be different from its predecessors, as the Prime Minister set out so brilliantly during the election campaign – and events have only made that mission of change more urgent.
We have set out plans for reform in technical education, schools, on the environment, in international development, on housing and planning, in science, digital infrastructure, taxation, public procurement, transport and across the field of Government.
But if this Government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself.
As FDR recognised, the structures, ambitions and priorities of the Government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and to endure.
It is part of my job in the Cabinet Office to help drive change. To help demonstrate the good that Government can do, to reaffirm the nobility of service to the public, and to strive every day to use the money, and the powers, that people have vested in us to improve their lives.
Public service is a privilege. Not because it brings wealth or ease. Many of those who work alongside me in the civil service could command higher salaries, and indeed face less stress, in other fields.
No, the privilege comes from knowing that those of us in Government have the chance every day to make a difference. The greatest gift that any of us can be given is the opportunity to lead lives of purpose in public service – to know that by our efforts others stand taller. But with that privilege comes a duty. To ask ourselves if what we are doing is genuinely transformative. Can we prove that we have made a difference? Can we demonstrate the effectiveness of what we have done with other people’s money? Can we prove that the regulations and agencies we have established have made clear, demonstrable, measurable, improvements to the lives of others? And can we prove that in a way that our fellow citizens can recognise and appreciate?
I ask, because I am conscious, in line with the starting imperative of FDR’s reform mission, just how distant, in so many senses, Government is from the people.
It is not just that all major Government departments are based in London, with the impact that concentration of senior jobs has on our economy. It is also the case that Westminster and Whitehall can become a looking-glass world. Government departments recruit in their own image, are influenced by the think tanks and lobbyists who breathe the same London air and are socially rooted in assumptions which are inescapably metropolitan.
There is a tendency, and I am certainly not immune to it, to see success in Government measured by the sound of applause in the village, not the weight we lift from others’ distant shoulders. Favourable media commentary, pressure group plaudits, peer group approval, they all drive activity. But what is less often felt is the pressure to show, over time, that programmes have been effective and enduring. Of the 108 major programmes for which Government is responsible, only 8% are actually assessed to judge if they have been delivered effectively and have brought about the desired effects.
Of course we politicians are principally to blame. We go for the sugar rush that comes from announcing radical initiatives, unveiling dramatic overhauls, launching new spending programmes, ramping up this and rolling out that. Done right, such moments can galvanise the system into action. But at times we risk the hunger for new policy announcements becoming insatiable.
And there is also a tendency in Government to applaud the gracefully performative and overlook the boringly transformative. Inclusive lanyards, progressive hashtags and high-sounding declarations from champions of this-and-that good cause are often signals of noble intent, but they are no substitute for improving exam performance for children from under-performing ethnic minorities, enhancing the ability of prisons to rehabilitate prisoners or shifting our economic model to see higher returns to labour and fewer opportunities for rent-seeking.
Tackling these challenges isn’t easy. Worthwhile things seldom are. But we can begin by changing important ways in which we work in Government.
We can, literally, reduce the distance between Government and people by relocating Government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom. And in doing so we should be striving to reflect the full diversity of our United Kingdom. Why shouldn’t some of the policymakers intimately involved in reshaping our approach to energy and the decarbonisation of our economy be in Teesside, Humberside and Aberdeen? Shouldn’t those thinking about this sector be part of the communities whose jobs depend on getting these decisions right?
And why are so many of those charged with developing our tax and welfare policies still based in London?
Wouldn’t it be better for those deciding how taxpayers’ money is spent to be living and working alongside those citizens across the country, from Mansfield to Middlesbrough to Merthyr Tydfil, for whom every pound in tax is a significant inroad into their income? Should we not also be better at recruiting our policymakers from those overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities?
There have been relocations of Government in the past but they have generally been to cities such as Bristol and Sheffield, with a particular socio-economic profile and a particularly large proportion of existing university graduates. We need to be more ambitious for Newcastle, for Teesside and Teesdale, for North Wales, for the North-East of Scotland, for East Lancashire, for West Bromwich.
I also think we need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and to allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them. One of the glories of the United States is that there are fifty Governors, all of whom can be public policy innovators. As so often, diversity is strength.
And an important part of bringing Government closer to people is making sure we have not just a wider spread of decision-making across the country but a broader and deeper pool of decision-makers.
Groupthink can affect any organisation – the tendency to coalesce around a cosy consensus, to resist change, look