Our leaders need to rediscover the art of statecraft

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

Politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money.

No one has a plan. As Vince Cable lays into his own government for lacking "coherent vision", its clear David Cameron and Nick Clegg don't have a clue about how to fix Britain's real problems. It isn't just Ed Miliband who's accused of having "no strategy, no narrative and little energy".

This listless mood isn't a sign of laziness. We're in a deep-rooted crisis about our sense of what politics can do. Politicians now believe the only way to fix things is by making laws, or by spending or cutting money. When the cash or cuts don't work and regulation fails, politics seems to run out of answers.

Political debate has been reduced to a set of arguments about who to tax and how much to spend, where to regulate and where to let the market rule. What are politicians' response to the big questions of the day? Stimulus against retrenchment, regulate the City or free small business from red tape, tax mansions or tycoons. It's all about numbers or rules - about abstract things supposedly under central state control. It's as if our polity has been taken over by middle managers, monitoring statistics but showing no real sign Cof being in charge.

What's missing are people. Money and regulation don't do anything on their own. To get things done, politicians need to tap into energy that exists outside their control, in both society and the state. Good hospitals depend on good nurses and doctors. Economic growth is about energetic business people committed to more than making money. Everywhere, creating a better society relies on people with drive and commitment, who have strong relationships to those they work with and serve.

Take our schools. It's the quality of the relationships that exist between teachers, students and parents that makes the difference. Sometimes it takes a new building or tough rule to make schools realise that. But when it comes, improvement happens for local reasons. Schools improve when a good head gets rid of poor staff, creates strong connections to the local community and motivates good teachers with a story about the kind of place the school could be.

Take industry. When other sectors are stagnating, Britain's car industry is booming, with record exports in 2011. Why? Because it's an industry run by people who have strong relationships with each other. Unions, car companies and colleges work together. As a result they've sorted out the industry's supply chain and make sure workers have good enough skills. Active politics has been key. But it's been about getting people together, lobbying and cajoling not bossing people around. It's about leadership out there in society, not making laws or writing cheques beyond the locked doors of Whitehall.

The narrow, bureaucratic mindset that dominates national politics can't explain these kind of transformations. In fact, money and law, the only levers Westminster thinks it has, are weak, blunt instruments. Power, as Hannah Arendt argued, is about organizing people to "act in concert", not just telling people what to do. It's based on the skill of inspiring and persuading, not just making rules backed by the ultimately violent power of the law.

So what needs to be done?

First, politicians must learn to speak a more realistic language about the power of politics. Politicians are leaders. Leadership is not the administration of things. It's about the quality of interaction between real people who want to do their own thing. The state is not a machine. It's network of semi-independent institutions that each has its own way of doing things. Getting things done needs something other than force. Politicians need to start by telling stories about what Richard Sennett calls the "craft of cooperation" - how, against the odds, people with different interests and instincts can work together for the common good.

Secondly, politicians need to be institution-builders. Not just making rules and spending money, but creating permanent organisations that involve and energise people to work for a common purpose. This isn't the glib PR exercise of the "Big Society" - a good idea with no substance behind it. We're talking about the kind of serious work the founders of the Labour movement started, building trade unions, co-operatives, the National Health Service.

For the next election, Labour needs to tell how it will build institutions woven into the fabric of life - not just provide services that can come and go. That might mean a national or local childcare service, which parents, workers and politicians jointly run. Or regional banks, organizing local society to invest in local economic growth. Or getting serious about institutions that provide vocational education.

The energy to create the good society doesn't emanate from Whitehall. It comes when ordinary people are motivated to get together and work together for the common good - in the private and public sector, in business, in community groups as well as the front line of public service.

But our political leaders are from professions that cultivate exactly the opposite mindset. They are policy wonks and PR executives, used to working in a narrow world of total control. If they are going to lead rather than administer, inspire not command, cultivate the democratic forces in society rather than simply try to control, they are going to have to learn to do things differently - and learn fast.

Jon Wilson teaches history at King's College London, is a Labour activist and is involved with the Blue Labour movement.

Getty
Show Hide image

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.