THE LONDON FIRE, LOCAL PEOPLE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

A year ago, on this day, was the catastrophe of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. 72 lives were lost.

In Britain, we have a political system that does not give local people representation. 72 lives were lost.

I repost my comment, first published in the Daily Telegraph.

On the inferno in London’s Grenfell Tower on 14 June we know

  • that residents, local people and safety experts had long warned about the state of fire security in this and similar blocks,
  • that known techniques are available that would likely have prevented a fire inside one flat from engulfing the building.

The residents were not heard? We need to understand: Why?

The explanation is no double complex, but in the final analysis the answer must be that residents did not have the power to get their concerns acted upon. It was not that their fears were not known or not valid, but that the step from knowledge to action was not taken.

The reason they did not have power behind their concerns is also no doubt complex, but already on the day after the calamity it was observed that at least part of the reason must be systemic. Better precautions could and should have been taken to secure the block. The fact that such precautions were not taken shows that there is a fault in the system of governance. Decisions that should have been made were not made.

Grenfell Tower is in a borough (Kensington and Chelsea) of about 160 000 people. In a political unit that large, the distance from the little people in the little neighbourhoods up to those who are in charge is a very long. It is hard for any small group to be heard. These residents had people speaking for them in the local council, but that voice was only one of many in a large district and did not carry much weight.

Furthermore, this council, as British local councils generally, is itself bereft of power. Councils have some limited responsibilities which they exercise pretty much as administrative agencies under direction from Whitehall. They are not actually local governments. They manage some local affairs, but they do not represent local populations. In his book The British Constitution, published in 2007, the late Anthony King, concluded: “Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.”

Your local concerns compete with those of others and if yours are to prevail there must be power behind them. This is the iron law of democratic governance. Those who govern deal with the matters they must deal with. Other matters are squeezed out. The people in Grenfell Tower and its neighbourhood did not have political representation because they are a small and peripheral group in a very large district and because the council at the head of that district is not a local government in the business of representing local people.

This absence of local political representation is visible in many areas of British life. In recent years, for example, we have had terrible flood catastrophes. These have also been the result, at least partially, of failures to take precautions. That has resulted, again, from systemic failures in governance. There has been no clearly defined localised responsibility. Local councils have had little and ambiguous authority in the matter. Flood protection throughout the land is the responsibility of Whitehall in London and the national Environment Agency. That’s a long way to go to get someone who is responsible for innumerable rivers to take an interest in yours.

Local populations are at the mercy of such attention as distant authorities may elect to give them. Local councils may by and large do the jobs assigned to them well, but such management is also all they do and can do. They are not attuned to acting as the local population’s representative, and local populations are not attuned to turning to their council for representation. There is not the relationship between council and population that is the fabric of local government. This is reflected in the dismal participation in local elections.

In Britain’s architecture of governance, there is a whole layer missing. There is, as Professor King found, NO LOCAL GOVERNMENT. In the case of Kensington and Chelsea, once a catastrophe outside of the council’s remit hit, such local authority as there was simply disintegrated, first into paralysis and then falling apart in resignations.

The absence of local government is one of several defects in the constitution, in need of urgent repair. This void should be filled with local units of government that are different in two ways from today’s councils. They should be both smaller and have more responsibility. There should be nearness between local people and their authorities and those authorities should have the power and responsibility to give their populations representation.

Our national politicians want us to think that Britain is a well governed country. But it is not. A well governed country has the apparatus to deal with the population’s concerns. In Britain, part of that apparatus is missing. A vital link in the chain of command from people in the localities to governors up high is missing. Britain has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe (devolution notwithstanding, which for local government proper means yet more emasculation). We are on our own in believing it is possible to deliver good governance without local governments. As we have now seen in even the wealthiest borough in the centre of the capital, that is a failing enterprise.

REFORM – THE IMPERATIVE NOW

All democracies are imperfect. They need constantly to be improved. Continuous and never-ending reform is part and parcel of the democratic enterprise.  If leaders and citizens think that their democracy has made it and found the Holy Grail, it is doomed.

There are two reasons behind the imperative to reform:

  1. Democracy is a process of trial and error. We must be sensitive to failures and mistakes and seek better ways. Circumstances change, for example in domestic economies or world affairs, and democratic governance must adjust.
  2. For confidence in democracy, citizens need to see that leaders are attuned to shortcomings and willing and able to work for improvements. They need to see that leaders deal with problems. Otherwise they will, with justification, see democratic governance to be incapable and gridlocked.

Professor Robert A. Dahl, in On Democracy (1998), recommend that democratic countries engage, every twenty years or so, in a thorough process of constitutional reform.

Democracy is now under threat. That goes to both values and capabilities. This misfortune (hopefully temporary) has many causes. One cause is a tendency to sclerosis in reform. If we look to the United States, to Britain, to other European democracies, to the European Union, we see dysfunctions not being dealt with. It is not dysfunction itself that is the rot, but that problems are not confronted and taken on. It is time for us in America, Britain and the EU to follow Professor Dahl’s advice and look very seriously into the ways we do governance.

The standard model today is representative democracy: citizens elect representatives to make and implement policies on their behalf. Reform can follow two paths. We can seek to repair what is deficient in the representative system, such as the organization of elections, the procedures of parliamentary decision-making, the methods for the nomination of candidates for election, the financing of candidacy and campaigns and the like. Or we can seek more far-reaching innovations towards alternative forms of democracy: participatory democracy, referendum democracy, deliberative democracy and the like.

These are not strictly alternative strategies, but there is a complicated dialectic between them. There is no known alternative to the representative system, but that system as we now see it operating on the ground needs pretty serious repair to regain credibility. If we concentrate on alternative innovations, there is a danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. The search for alternative models can even contribute to further undermining the credibility of the representative system without offering any practical alternative.

Representative democracy is a model that has very much going for it. That needs to be preserved and improved, not replaced.

There is a back-to-basics message here. It would seem, as things now stand, that the recommended strategy of reform would be, first and basically, to improve the representative system, and then, on that basis, to think of innovations as add-ons in support of the representative system.

THE NEW COLD WAR

In the early years of the 21st Century, the world looked stable. There was economic progress. Democracy was advancing. The global order was collaborative under American leadership and the custodianship of the Washington institutions.

Fast forward to 2018 and this outlook has changed dramatically. China has not become “like us.” Russia has reverted to authoritarianism. Instead of collaborative order, we have confrontational turmoil. Autocracy has made itself assertive and confident, and is increasingly rewarded with respect. Western Europe is in the grips of the politics of anger. Democracy has been pushed on to the defensive, and democratic countries are riven by internal divisions and self-doubt. America elects Trump. Britain goes for Brexit.

Russia and China under their present leaderships have in common that they are ideologically committed and determined authoritarian regimes. Both entertain strategies of foreign policy that go beyond the normal pursuit of national interest to reach deep into the influencing of the cultures and policies of adversaries. While Moscow in this respect is a spoiler, Beijing’s aim is to build and protect respect for its model of party-state governance.

The stability of the early years of the 21st century has been displaced by a new Cold War, now on two fronts. Russia is setting itself on a course of neo-imperialism. China is intent on regaining its position of “Middle Kingdom” dominance in the world. Both are pursuing their aims with the confident determination that is enabled by the backing of nationalistic ideologies.

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty of expression and information, the protection of rule of law, and mutual trust. This world needs to stand up to the authoritarian advance. The democracies need to come together and find their voice up against assertive autocracy.

But that coming together is not happening. The European Union is unable, unity being undermined by economic sluggishness, populism and Brexit. America is withdrawing from international solidarity and leadership. The confidence and determination that is conspicuous on the authoritarian side is equally conspicuous in its absence on the democratic side.

It is easy to say that we in the free world should stand firm in defense of our values, and it is easy to suggest ways in which this should be done. But if the European Union and America are unwilling or unable, where is inspiration and leadership to come from? Who in the world will now defend liberty? It would seem that before we can rise to the challenge from the authoritarian super-powers, we on our side need, first, the recognize the fact of that challenge and then, second, to look to ourselves and get our own democratic house in order.

 

WHAT’S PUTIN’S GAME?

(Those of us who wish to defend democracy must now look very carefully at the modern dictatorships and their ideologies.)

Russia’s behavior in the world is baffling. Neighboring countries invaded: Georgia and Ukraine. Crimea annexed. A covert war waged in eastern Ukraine. In Syria, support for a deadly regime, its use of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including chemical poison and indiscriminate barrel bombing, condoned. In Britain, one political assassination and one attempted assassination, both with illegal chemical weapons. Throughout Europe, financial and/or propagandistic support of right-radical parties and organizations. In Britain again, propagandistic engagement on the side of Scottish independence and Brexit in that country’s two eventful referendums. In America and Europe, systematic disruption by social media and other manipulations of democratic elections.

How to account for a super-power wrecking havoc on established international laws and norms, nevermind common morality?

Putin’s Kremlin is now a very assertive regime. Gone is the confusion of his first presidential period (2000 – 2008) when, for a while, there was hope that he might be cleaning up the corruption he had inherited and dragging Russia towards a semblance of rule of law at home and collaborative engagement abroad.

What instead happened was, firstly, a kleptocratic consolidation. Some unfriendly oligarchs had their takings confiscated, some were imprisoned, many escaped abroad. Corruption was not eliminated but narrowed down to a single oligarchical clan under Putin’s control. (Read more about this here.)

Secondly, any hope of democratization was dashed. Russia is now an autocratic system that operates behind a thin disguise of democratic form. In the recent presidential election, there were seven candidates in addition to Putin, none of them independent, all anointed by Putin. His court is exposed to no outside controls, no effective legislature, not effective judiciary, no effective press.

Thirdly, the regime has given itself a certificate of ideological justification. Since the Kremlin’s policies are unpalatable, it is tempting to think we are dealing with a primitive regime that has no imagination beyond brute force. But that is to underestimate Putin and his circle. They are in fact pursuing a sophisticated agenda of ideas. Read more about this here.)

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, what happened, as seen through Western eyes, was that Communist dictatorship collapsed. But not through Russian eyes. The Soviet Union had been monumentally successful in completing a Russian expansion that had been unfolding for centuries into an empire stretching from Central Asia to Central Europe. Overnight, that was all lost. What Putin called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” was not the loss of Communism but of empire.

In response, he has started the process of rebuilding the lost empire. That will obviously not be achieved in his lifetime, but he is restoring purpose to Russia and securing his position in history as the Czar who set the job in motion. His agenda of ideas is for the inspiration of that job and purpose.

The Putin ideology starts from a vision that goes by the name of “Eurasia.” In that vision, “Russia” is a spiritual empire of historical-religious origin, an empire of virtue. The physical empire may have collapsed, but its spiritual legitimacy survives irrespective of the momentary coincidence of national borders. This, for example, is why Ukraine cannot be independent and European, because that is not what it is, because it is inescapably a part of spiritual Russia. This empire is “Eurasian,” meaning of Eastern rather than Atlantic mooring.

The second component of the ideology is enmity: Russia has enemies who will her ill: Atlantic Europe, the European Union, America, liberalism, democracy. That world-view was confirmed, as seen from Moscow, by western policies in response to the fall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had accepted German reunification in return for a promise from America and Germany that NATO would not expand eastwards. This promise was broken when the ex-Warsaw Pact nations and the Baltic republics were brought into NATO, or so it was seen in Moscow. (Read more about this here.) The European embrace of Ukraine was a continuation of that betrayal. Putin’s Russia is convinced that the Americans and Europeans will never afford her respect and never recognize her as an equal partner in collaboration.

From these ideas come the convictions that Russia has something to fight for, that the empire of virtue has the right to fight and to choose the means, and that since it has enemies it has no choice but to fight.

Finally, why has Russia chosen to fight its war with consistently dirty means? The Russian state has behind it an unsophisticated economy and a population with a poor standard of education and public health. Putin’s dilemma: big in ambition but small in power. As a result, writes the historian Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom, “the essence of Russia’s foreign policy is strategic relativism: Russia cannot be stronger, so it must make others weaker.”

At the fall of the Soviet Union, the West expected Russia to become a compliant collaborator. What has emerged is an aggressive competitor.

First published in the Los Angeles Times, here.

THE WEST NEEDS TO ADMIT THAT CAPITALISM WON’T CURE CHINA’S AUTHORITARIANISM

The world looks to China and sees an economic giant. But the China we ought to see is a political giant. Xi inherited a regime of pragmatic authoritarianism under collective leadership. Now that pragmatism has been superseded by ideological fervor, Xi’s project is to make totalitarianism work. For that he needs a strong and growing economy, but in his project the economic is in the service of the political. What always comes first is the perpetuation of the regime itself.

Read the article from Zócalo Public Square here.

TOTALITARIANISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

Xi Jinping has proved himself the most formidable leader in China after Mao. The first bastion for Xi to topple was pragmatism. Under his watch, all the reins of dictatorship have been tightened. The second bastion to fall was collective leadership. At the Party Congress in October 2017, he had his “thought” inscribed in the Party’s Constitution, lifting himself on to the pedestal previously occupied only by Mao. The Chinese state is now under the control of an ideologically inspired regime with straight lines of command from the Party top and down.

Under Xi’s leadership, the People’s Republic is coming into its own. Xi Jinping is a believer. He believes in the revolution of 1949. He believes in the red aristocracy’s right and duty to rule. He believes in the Leninist state as the right instrument of governance. He believes in the mission of Chinese greatness in the world.  The world looks to China and sees an economic giant. But the China they ought to see is a political giant. Xi Jinping’s political project is audacious. His determination is to make totalitarianism work.

Read the article at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies here.

DICTATORSHIP AND IDEOLOGY

The three big powers in today’s world are America, China and Russia – two autocratic-dictatorial systems and one democracy.

The two dictatorial systems are in some ways different and in some ways similar. Russia maintains a pretence of democracy – Vladimir Putin has just been re-elected president. China has no such pretence – when Xi Jinping was recently re-anointed as party boss and state president there were not even make-believe elections.

They are similar in that both are engaged in aggressive campaigns for domination in their neighbourhoods and the wider world, campaigns that aim to undermine the position of the sole democratic super-power and its allies, such as democratic Europe.

They are different in the way they engage for added domination. China is a power with vast resources and is able to make itself stronger by the day. Russia is without similar resources. Its campaign is therefore one of strategic relativism. Says Timothy Snyder in his just published The Road to Unfreedom: “Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.” This difference also makes for campaigns different in character. China is an elegant player on the world stage. Russia is an ugly and thuggish player.

Both engage, in their different ways, with assertive determination. This assertiveness and determination comes from both states being ideological states. In both countries, the leaders have dressed up their systems in similar ideological cloaks. They are now both nationalistic powers.

Putin’s Russia, explains Timothy Snyder, is inspired by a vision of a greater Russian spiritual empire. This explains, for example, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine, a country that cannot be democratic and European because it is part of spiritual Russia. China is inspired by Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of China’s “great national rejuvenation.” This explains, for example, China’s building of a new global architecture of power in the “Belt and Road Initiative” with the aim of China reclaiming its global position as “the middle kingdom.”

Both nationalistic narratives are also narratives of state and society. In both cases, the unit of purpose is the nation. The core of this thinking is that the nation is one and indivisible and that individuals have their existence as components of the nation. In the Russian case, which Snyder characterizes as no-nonsense neo-fascism, individualism is seen to be the idea of European decadence. European democracy, and the European Union, are therefore the enemies of spiritual Russia, not because of what they do but because of what they are. In the Chinese case, the “Dream” contains not only a vision of national greatness but also the idea, in Xi’s words at the launch of the “Dream,” that “each person’s future and destiny is closely linked with the future and destiny of the country and nation.”

Nationalistic ideology gives both these powers backing for aggressive assertiveness, all the more being ideologies that submerge individuals into the nation. There is then no autonomous good for individuals that stands in the way of the good of the nation, nor of the state that is the custodian of the national good.

Democratic countries are by definition non-ideological. That is their strength in value terms. The idea that the state is the servant of the person is morally superior to the idea that it is the servant of the nation in the meaning that persons do not matter.

In power terms, are non-ideological democratic regimes at a disadvantage vis-à-vis ideological autocratic regimes? That is probably not the experience, but they may be at a disadvantage in some ways. It may be difficult from a democratic vantage point to grasp and understand the nature of ideologically motivated autocratic assertiveness. That seems to be the case today. The West appears unable to make sense of Putin’s Russia and Russian policies of aggression in the Ukraine and Syria, and of destabilization in Europe and America. The West also appears unable to make sense of Xi’s China and China’s audacious design towards no less than a new world order. The West is hopelessly lacking in hard-nosed realism up against very hard-nosed aggression from the autocratic powers.