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.

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.

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.

WARNING – TAIWAN’S DEMOCRACY IN DANGER

With the People’s Republic of China more assertive, it must be prudent to fear that Taiwan is more exposed.

The PRC claims ownership of Taiwan and its stated policy is “reunification” with the motherland. This is part of what the regime sees as its “territorial integrity” and there can be little doubt that “reunification” is a serious intention. Until now, Beijing has let the issue rest, but for how long?

Under Xi Jinping, the regime has been transformed. He inherited a state guided by economic pragmatism. It is now a state dedicated to national greatness. That determination is visible in China’s foreign policy, such as in the Belt and Road Initiative (the building of a global structure of power with China in the center) and in Beijing’s “influence policy” in Europe, America and elsewhere.

It is visible above all in the region. Beijing has de facto turned 3 million of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers into its own territorial waters, in contravention of international law and a ruling of the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, and is building bases, some of them military, in other countries’ waters. It has unilaterally established an “air defense zone” over the territory between Taiwan and Japan. It is exploring the establishment of a military base on Vanuatu, off Australia’s east coast. Australia and New Zealand are on the forefront of China’s purchase of influence abroad, in persistent interference in politics, media and universities, described in a recent Australian book as a “silent invasion.”

Beijing’s attitude to democratic values is also visible in the region. It is undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong. It the matter of Taiwan’s “reunification,” the will of the people of a democratic country is to count for nothing.

Beijing claims that Taiwan is historically a part of China, but that is bogus history. The Qing Dynasty declared Taiwan to be annexed in the 17the Century, but this was a pure case of colonization, and mainland China was anyway never in control of the territory. Only in 1887 was Taiwan formalized as a province, before being ceded to Japan in 1895. The four years from 1945 to 1949, following the defeat of Japan in WWII, is the only period in which Taiwan has properly been governed as a part of China.

Taiwan has governed itself since 1949. During that period, it has metamorphosed from a land of mass poverty to a modern and affluent economy, with a standard of living now much ahead of mainland China’s. It has performed the miracle of transitioning peacefully from authoritarianism to a well functioning democracy.

The PRC has emerged from the Party Congress of October 2017 and the People’s Congress of March 2018 (the legislature) as a regime of consolidated totalitarianism. The leader, Xi Jinping, has had himself elevated to a pedestal of one-man rule, complete with undisguised person cult, previously occupied only by Mao. The apparatus of the party-state has been remolded into one of straight-line party command.

The regime is more confident and powerful than ever, and again under the command of a single supremo. It is guided by an ideology of nationalism, under the banner of Xi’s “China Dream.”

Democracies are exposed to two kinds of danger, they can erode from within or they can be crushed from outside. The first danger has recently done its work in for example Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. The second danger has not been at work since the imposition of Soviet regimes in Central Europe following WWII. Taiwan is today the one democracy in the world seriously exposed to the danger of being crushed by a totalitarian state. That danger is greater today than it was half a year ago.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – TOWARDS COLLAPSE?

The question is not frivolous: could democracy come to an end in America? Before our eyes, we are seeing functioning democracies disintegrating in, for example, Turkey and Venezuela, and democracy failing to take hold in, for example, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, South Sudan and possible Tunisia where it for a while looked to be succeeding. “On more than seventy occasions [in the 20th Century] democracy collapsed and gave way to an authoritarian regime” (Robert A. Dahl: On Democracy, p. 145). Could it happen in America?

The question is being taken seriously. The most recent outgoing President, Barack Obama, in his final State of the Union Address, warned of “democracy grinding to a halt.”

It is being taken seriously by scholars. In a new book, How Democracies Fail, two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, find that democratic failure usually happens by gradual slide, rather than any sudden crash, under more or less cynical leaders who have come to power through elections. If elected leaders govern in disrespect of democratic principles, democracy is in danger. Danger comes from the top.

Leaders, they argue, are a danger to democracy if they have weak commitment to democratic rules, if they deny opponents legitimacy, if they tolerate violence, and if they show willingness to curb civil liberties or press freedom. These are the warning signs.

In the American case, they argue, no President except Richard Nixon has governed so as to ring even one of these warning bells. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is exercising presidential power in a way that meets all four warnings.

Other books coming out at about the same time add to the concern. David Frum, a Republican who worked for President George W. Bush, warns, in Trupocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, that Trump has brought “thuggery, crookedness and dictatorship into the very core of the American state, .. in a regime of deceit and brutishness.” In Fire and Fury, the journalist Michael Wolff draws an intimate portrait of a White House in the grip of ignorance, hatred and downright stupidity.

These books argue that the Trump presidency puts American democracy in danger. It might seem far fetched that a single president might put democracy in peril. The American Constitution, after all, is one of robust institutions that check each other and that has weathered many a previous storm.

But their warning is perhaps not as outlandish as one might first think, for two reasons. First, for all the checks and balances, the Presidency holds enormous powers. When an incumbent puts these powers into a relentless campaign of verbal and symbolic violence against anyone he sees to cross him, there is danger. Any semblance of speaking truth to power is now so costly that freedom of speech, and of the press, is curtailed.

Secondly, American democracy was on a path of decline before Mr. Trump became president. For my part, I warned of that decline in an op ed in the Washington Post already in 2014. President Obama issued his warning of democracy “grinding to a halt” a year before Trump was President and when no one through he wold be. My warning, and I think also that of Mr. Obama, was of a gradual weakening of the fabric of democracy. Mr. Obama spoke of a weaker democratic culture, of polarisation, mutual disrespect and an absence of trust and tolerance. My attention was on a weakening of the authority of Congress and of Congress’s ability to see itself and work as an institution, rather than just an arena of partisan battle.

The reason the warnings against the Trump presidency are valid is not simply that Mr. Trump is an unpalatable human being. They are valid for a particular combination of reasons that are coming together at this time:

  1. Trump is a man with undemocratic instincts and inclinations.
  2. He holds the enormous powers of the presidency and is showing ruthlessness in their use.
  3. This is against the backdrop of a political culture of divisiveness and distrust in which confidence in democracy and democratic values has been in decline.
  4. And against the backdrop of a Congress without authority. In the system of checks and balances, it is Congress that must check the President. So far, however, Congress has mainly given a brutish president free reins.

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 again 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.

BRITAIN’S ABUSIVE ELECTION

Another election in Britain now is unnecessary and damaging. The Prime Minister says the country needs strong leadership in the Brexit negotiations. But what we need is not stronger leadership but better leadership.

The government has had all the mandate it needs and all the parliamentary majority it needs. But the Prime Minister does not want to work in collaboration with Parliament. She wants to govern without a Parliament she has to pay attention to. That, however, is the kind of strong leadership that invariable leads a government astray. We know that in this country. It is the way of political decision making that leads to, for example, invasion of Iraq.

A reasonably balanced hand between government and Parliament is to the country’s advantage. It makes for deliberate compromise governing, which is the spirit of democracy. In the case of Brexit, the population is divided down the middle. There will be Brexit but it should be on terms that heed both sides of popular opinion. With a setting in which the government had to pay attention to a, at least somewhat, assertive Parliament, we could have had a practical Brexit.

The government has invented a straw man called “the will of the people.” The people have spoken in a referendum and its “will” is a hard Brexit. But that is an abuse of public opinion. There is no such “will of the people,” the population is divided. The referendum was not about the terms of Brexit. The government has hijacked the referendum for a design of its own making. It is setting itself up to impose an ideological Brexit on the country.

It will be able to do that. But it will be the kind of mistake that is typical of its vision of strong leadership. The country will remain divided. We will get a costly Brexit. Britain will cause further damage to European friends.

Parliament had to decide the snap election with two thirds majority. It should have said “no” to an unnecessary election and told the government to get on with its business. Instead, the House of Commons voted to make itself irrelevant, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

It happens while this is going on that I am reading Machiavelli. A constant in his writing is about the risk to rulers that they make mistakes and cause detriment to both the people and themselves. That risk is particularly high when rulers have unrestrained power. But another constant is this: there is a price to be paid for the abuse of power. The strong leader may get his way today, but history will take revenge and deny him a good reputation. Mrs. May might look over her shoulder to the reputations of her predecessors who also wanted strong leadership: Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blair.