The art of knowing when to go slow

Governments also need to know when to be avowedly unfashionable.

Photograph: Getty Images

Time will become more important than space to the politics of 2013. Politics is usually about space – specifically, who controls territory. Wars were fought as empires expanded and contracted, nations formed and splintered. The 19th century was dominated by the rise of nation states; the 20th century by the battles between them, the creation of systems to contain them and, in the past few decades, by globalisation, knitting them together through flows of trade, finance and information.

Everyone has been preoccupied by where things happen, whether that is the outsourcing of production to global supply chains or economic policy decisions. The nation state is far from dead, but it has found its power challenged from below by separatist and secessionist movements, as well as by the rising power of cities. It has been threatened from above by unions of states and global institutions.

So politicians and citizens have become adept at debating whether decisions should be devolved, decentralised, nationalised, regionalised or globalised. We know how to examine the politics of “where”. But that is not much use when the big issues are when, and over what time frames, decisions should be taken.

Our biggest challenges now turn on “when?”, not “where?”, and, in particular, how much we can leave future generations to pick up the tab for our current lifestyles. That is the central question in deficit and debt reduction; in debates on how to respond to climate change; or on the needs of an ageing population beset by costly, chronic, long-term health conditions.

Time is also central to our remaining sources of hope. Religion, education and innovation all offer us the possibility that if we behave in the right way today, by being appropriately devout, studious and creative, tomorrow should turn out better for us. The most effective public services get their timing right, intervening early to prevent problems – for example, by supporting families in the early years, rather than trying to respond and correct problems later. Politics is in the “jam tomorrow” business, but it has been largely discounted as a reliable source of hope.

The rise of political issues that have time and timing at their heart helps to explain why governments are so stuck. They are used to thinking about the territorial level at which they operate and how things should be co-ordinated, from the micro to the macro, parish to multinational alliance. They are far less adept at working across different timescales, from the rapid, improvisational responses required in a crisis to the long-term thinking needed to tackle intractable problems over several decades and various governments. Speed and agility, Silicon Valley’s rapid cycles of iterative innovation, are sexy and cool. Our governments certainly need more of that to keep pace with the society they serve. Yet the answer is not just to speed things up.

Governments also need to know when to be avowedly unfashionable; when to be stolid and stable, unruffled when everyone else is collapsing about them. That is why Angela Merkel’s dogged determination goes down so well in Germany, and why Europe’s relative stability, despite the crisis, is a cause for celebration. It could be a lot worse.

A government that was capable of operating at one geographic level only – say, the nation as a whole –would be severely disabled in today’s world of federalism, devolution, alliances and regional powers. Likewise, a government capable of thinking and working at one, relatively comfortable speed only – a mix of the measured pace at which civil servants like to move and the short attention spans of politicians – is too slow to respond to crises and too short-sighted to plan for the longer term.

Successful governments will be able to respond with agility when needed but they will also have to think far ahead of their societies, to invest in the infrastructures and systems of the future. The trouble with the politics of time is that the future has no constituency, whereas the present has plenty to defend its interests.

Seen in this light, weak governments in Europe, ushered into power by the financial crisis, might be the worst of both worlds: incapable of rapid action and unable to plan for the long term, they will elevate muddling through into a kind of ideology. As one thoughtful Dutch politician put it, reflecting on the challenge of the financial crisis and the need to tackle deficits: “It is not that we do not know what to do. The trouble is we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

Charles Leadbeater’s next book, “The Frugal Innovator”, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan