Opinion: The future of the State

The Liberal Democrat pre-manifesto sets out our ambitions to take power from ‘the stifling hand of Whitehall’ and return it to citizens and communities: but does the state have the power it once did? Can we rely on having a strong state to implement our plans?

After the Second World War, the new architecture of the international order was based on bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union. These have all developed upon states agreeing to share sovereignty, to trade individual power for the achievement of shared objectives. In more recent decades, states have devolved, out-sourced or sold off functions to other agencies or spheres of governance. Some 80% of business transactions now take place in the unregulated space of the transnational domain. How much state is there and how much power does it have?

Political analysts have been identifying other pressures which are making the state change and evolve. Since 1960, there have been more than 160 sub-state conflicts, with consequent pressure to re-draw boundaries or create new states. One theory is that this is due to states struggling to find a new balance of power in the international arena. Others suggest that modern communications have stripped away the long dominance of Western values and are enabling people to re-discover their long-suppressed history and culture. The authority of the state is being undermined as people seek to locate their identity and loyalty somewhere else.

Recent decades have seen the rise of failing or fragile states, such as Syria today. These states may be unable or unwilling to prevent atrocities within their own boundaries: they may become a base for terrorism or people trafficking: and, as they disintegrate, they are likely to host health epidemics which may turn into pandemics.  Failure can be contagious.

I think we should incorporate this perspective into our political thinking, to prepare effectively for the future. Liberalism is a pragmatic, practical, grassroots politics which I think is particularly suited to regenerating and re-creating democracy. We need to be aware of how the evolution of the state is changing the options for governance and for political action. We need to be ready to protect, enhance and re-establish democracy in radically changed circumstances in a difficult and dangerous world.

* Ruth Coleman-Taylor has been a Party member since the mid-60s, held a variety of positions in the Liberals/Lib Dems and is currently Group Leader on Todmorden Town Council.

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23 Comments

  • We have to be inordinately careful with this. We have not yet abandoned as a party our model of an “elected representative democracy”, but some modern Liberal Democrats have come very close. Of course, our representatives have to be “kept in line” by an active citizenry, “community politics”, if you like. But ultimately, our political process hinges on decisions made by our elected reps, and we mustn’t forget that. Ruth is right that the actual powers, rather than the formal de jure powers, of elected reps have declined considerably. What we should be doing as a party is not criticising Whitehall, but doing our best to keep private business media etc in line with democracy. There is a threat to free speech, and as often as not, it is from the raw financial power held by corporates, as mediated by friends in the media. This is where we need to direct our political rhetoric.

    It seems to me that much of the anti-Europe, anti politician stuff around at present comes from a failure of individual “silo-ised” professional groups – planning officers, public health people, psychologists, educationalists etc – to communicate clearly, and develop conversations with people outside their professions, who think their pronouncements are “political correctness” etc. A movement such as Lib Dems which has, or should have a foot in both camps should be able to help us find proper conversations without the stupid, simplistic lines which too often emerge.

  • Steve Coltman 1st Oct '14 - 11:07am

    Fair comment I think, but there is one area where nothing can replace the state, and that is in the military sphere. Even here of course sovereignty has been diminished, but the nation state still remains the only body that has the moral authority to send soldiers into battle. No way could any supranational body overrule a national parliament and send that nation’s soldiers into action without that parliament’s consent. Even in WW1, the British government did not dare introduce conscription in Ireland. Where defence is concerned, no supranational body can be anything more than a confederation or alliance of states.

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 11:13am

    I think the article overlooks the fact that the larger multinationals are now more powerful than middle sized nations and that this power is steadily growing – with no sign of relapse. Once the TTIP agreement is signed – as seems certain – this power will be greatly enhanced – as explained by George Monbiot in the Guardian recently:

    “The purpose of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is to remove the regulatory differences between the US and European nations. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago. But I left out the most important issue: the remarkable ability it would grant big business to sue the living daylights out of governments which try to defend their citizens. It would allow a secretive panel of corporate lawyers to overrule the will of parliament and destroy our legal protections. Yet the defenders of our sovereignty say nothing.”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/us-trade-deal-full-frontal-assault-on-democracy

    Democracy relates to nation states – not ever more powerful giant multinationals whose currency is only profit!

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Oct '14 - 11:21am

    John Roffey

    I think the article overlooks the fact that the larger multinationals are now more powerful than middle sized nations and that this power is steadily growing

    Indeed. That is why international co-operation in organisations such as the EU is so necessary, to stand up to the power of the big multinationals and the way they play one country off against another. The Scots saw this when they thought voting “Yes” to independence would solve all their problems, and the big multinationals said, in effect “No, WE’RE the ones in real power round here, if you do what we don’t like, we, with our jobs and our money, are off”.

    Extreme right-wingers, who are forever putting out slogans like “stifling hand of Whitehall” or “rule from Brussels” or other such things are just seeking to distract people’s attention, so that the global fat cats who pay them handsomely to say this sort of thing can get on with building their own dominance, but blame on the consequences of that is put on the politicians – and the idea that “politicians are all bad people” is then used to push even further the message that power should be taken away from them and given to big business.

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 11:26am

    I think it is important to point out Matthew that the EU is also dominated by these multinationals – and as a result – the EU is pushing for TTIP.

  • matt (Bristol) 1st Oct '14 - 11:30am

    A ‘strong’ state can be delivered through decentrallised bodies. A ‘weak’ state can still be centrallised and therefore inteffectual.

    Also there is not a simple divide between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’. Strengths in some areas are balanced by weaknesses in others. For eg the US is largely ‘strong’ in its control over military spending and matters, but ‘weak’ in terms of it powers and spending in the area of social provision. It has a ‘strong’ judiciary, but this is in some matters to challenge and constrain an executive that can look ‘weak’ by comparison.

    The issues is surely, where do we want the state to be weak and where do we want it to be strong, and how do we want it to exercise its strength?

  • Conor McGovern 1st Oct '14 - 11:54am

    @John – It’s ridiculous that the Liberal Democrats can support TTIP. Not surprising that the media have hardly reported it, though.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '14 - 12:15pm

    The clever right-wing trick is to take some old-style radical liberal language from past times, such as “the stifling hand of Whitehall”, and traduce it. Once it was about devolving power to communities. But in the hands of the Cleggies and the Camerons, it means weakening state power so that corporate power (and rich political donors) can have its own way.

    The clever right-wing trick is to resuscitate the ghost of Stalin and the ghost of Attlee, and fulminate about the evils of an over-mighty State. This disguises the fact that everything Attlee built, whether good or bad, has already been demolished by Thatcher, Cameron and Clegg.

    One day, somebody might tumble to the idea that a stronger state, with strengthened democratic accountability, might actually be a good thing! That would never do. So, come all ye corporate lobbyists, and join the Cleggies in a shout of “Down with the stifling hand of Whitehall”!

  • Stephen Campbell 1st Oct '14 - 12:58pm

    @John Roffey & @Matthew Huntbach are entirely correct in their assessment of corporate power. Many multinational corporations do indeed hold more power than many nation states. Sometimes I think that could even apply to our own state. How many companies through the many different subsidies given by government have faced any kind of austerity? After all, we still pay billions in state subsidies to the train and power companies. When was the last time this government (or the last for that matter) truly said no to the wishes of corporate power? We see companies doing everything they can to make sure they pay little tax as possible, often through tax havens and very dubious accounting the likes of you and I have no access to. And as anyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment knows, these corporations are hardly bastions of democracy. In fact, there’s usually no democracy at all in corporate structures and they often act and are structured like totalitarian regimes. Their only goal is profit at all costs. To hell with the environment, peoples’ wishes and regulations. Many people I know feel oppressed by the corporate culture, but there aren’t many other opportunities for large numbers of us. And don’t dare even think of starting a union in most private companies: they’ll find a way to get rid of you and do so fast.

    Personally, I’ve been feeling more oppressed, controlled and manipulated by corporations and their PR/advertising which permeates every corner of life than I have felt oppressed by the state for some time. And the TTIP will only make things worse. What kind of madness have we walked into where companies will be able to sue governments (in secret courts, no less) for the loss of imaginary future profits? I can’t sue a company for loss for future earnings if I’m sacked. Yet these companies want the right to sue whole democratic governments (and by extention, entire nations of people as these disputes will be paid for out of taxation). TTIP will only further the corporate totalitarianism we now face. And the only party whose leadership is committed to opposing it is, to my knowledge, the Green Party.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 1st Oct '14 - 1:20pm

    oThe states that currently exist were created through particular historic circumstances and for purposes which may long have passed. They are not necessarily the right size or structure to deal with present-day problems, most of which do not observe the boundaries of states.
    When I was in Montenegro in 2006 as an observer of the referendum which separated Montenegro and Serbia, people were talking about their desire for self-determination AND, almost in the same breath, of their fears that a small state could be economically vulnerable. Both states aspire to join the EU and secure the protection of a larger union.
    Multinationals and transnational trading largely exist in an unregulated space. Should these activities come under democratic control or accountability? If not, does that mean there is a limit to where democracy should operate? If yes, how should such a democracy work?

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 3:38pm

    @ Ruth Coleman-Taylor

    “Multinationals and transnational trading largely exist in an unregulated space. Should these activities come under democratic control or accountability? If not, does that mean there is a limit to where democracy should operate? If yes, how should such a democracy work?”

    As we have seen, most multinational have obtained their immense size through buy outs and mergers – and we have every reason that this process will continue until, like the banks, there will be sufficiently few for cartels to arise – and then rising prices from price fixing.

    Although they do ‘largely exist in an unregulated space’ – the end user of their goods and services are citizens of one nation or other. Since there is no need for multinationals to exist for the provision of most goods and services and their existence does threaten democracy in those states – laws could be introduced to discourage their trading in any particular nation state.

    The one sure way to be rid of a multinational is to stop buying its goods and services – gradually using smaller local suppliers whilst they still exist and as finances allow.

  • Ian MacFadyen 1st Oct '14 - 3:57pm

    An interesting article: thanks, Ruth.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '14 - 4:49pm

    So – What most of us aspire towards is a stronger counterbalance, of some kind, to excessive corporate power. We might call it “a stronger State” – if, that is, we weren’t so traumatised by what a strong Fascist or Communist State can do. Over-traumatised, I think.

    Logically, I suggest, what we should be exploring is how our existing State can be made both stronger and more subject to democratic control, so that it can take on the challenge of reining back corporate power. Instead, what politics these days seems to prefer to do is to think about how to reorganise the global political structure, either by break-up and devolution, or by creating supranational organisations such as the EU. Everybody seems to think that in order to deal with corporate power, we must first make our “State” either bigger or smaller. I think this is to miss the point.

    People are scared off strengthening an existing State by their memories of Fascism and Communism. So they look for what seems to be a more satisfying way forward, a simple ideal to grasp on to. For the SNP, it was independence. The SNP promised that by breaking free of Westminster, they could take control of Scotland’s destiny. Then they promised to cut corporation tax! A salutary lesson that smaller states are NOT better at breaking corporate power. Indeed, they may often be worse (think Lichtenstein, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland). Corporate power can often capture a small state government more easily than that of a larger State. Devolution is today’s false god.

    Matthew calls instead for a larger quasi-state, the EU. As in the US, large federated state structures can to some extent stand up against the corporate tide. However, the US and EU also both demonstrate the same kinds of fatal flaw – gridlock, the ossification of inadequate governance, the inability to make decisions, the absence of effective leadership. Corporate power does not capture the EU, because it does not need to. Corporate power simply moves faster, slips through the cracks, and evades control by the lumbering governmental dinosaur.

    Smaller doesn’t help. Bigger doesn’t help. Perish the thought, but Britain may be about the best size to deal with. Democratising the Westminster Bubble might actually be more feasible than doing likewise at a smaller or bigger scale.

    What we need is a stronger democracy. Then we can believe that a stronger State will be subject to the will of the people. Then we can confidently construct a stronger state. Then we can challenge the corporates.

    Sadly, Clegg and Cameron have moved in the opposite direction. They have weakened democracy and handed increased power to corporations.

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 5:37pm

    @ David Allen

    Yes – I agree. The thing which would do what you suggest is a limited form of direct democracy that fits with what already exists.

    This would have to be designed very carefully to avoid a system of ‘mob rule’ – but recall of MPs {who, amongst other wrongs, supported measures that did not meet with the constituents wishes] would, I think, be an important component along the lines of the private members bill* introduced by Zac Goldsmith coupled to constituency discussion forums which enabled constituents to discuss amongst themselves what the MP was up to and petitions – would go a long way to burst the Westminster bubble.

    * http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/56449

  • John Roffey 1st Oct '14 - 5:56pm

    Perhaps also a Ministry of Happiness as in Bhutan – as wealth does not correlate with happiness 🙂 :

    http://news.columbia.edu/record/2146

  • Knowledge is power. The board of top companies are highly meritocratic and often far more competent than most politicians or state employees. At the height of civic politics of the 19C and up to 1939 many politicians and councilors were industrialists, engineers and officers from the army of navy. Consequently they created competent civic structures which provided value for money for the ratepayers. In the 19/20C , a leading industrialist who sat as a councilor or MP has the technical skills to assess whether the local council plans for sewage, water gas, electricity works , local library, public baths , park, local college are well designed as they have built their own factories

    Nowadays few councilors and LA officials have the ability have the ability to match the skills of developers. Few LA or CC engineers have the ability to be employed by top construction companies.

    The consequence most councilors lack the knowledge to ask the important questions and hold officials and organisations to account.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Oct '14 - 7:14pm

    David Allen – I put this link up on another article, but it seems germane here – http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/revolt-of-the-rich/

    Stronger democracy is tempting as an answer, but I fear that all the evidence from the past three or so decades is the best democracy we can hope for is the best democracy that money can buy. What has happened is that, in effect, those that matter have abandoned the classic nation-state. When Alan Milward wrote of the European Rescue of the Nation State he almost certainly did not expect to see what we have today where European integration is a profoundly asymmetrical arrangement. Where once a welfare role was seen as legitimising the state now it is a constant source of discord, in no small part because of integration and its shortcomings.

    The elites of the corporate world have certainly given up on any idea of a national concern and national interest. Outsourcing, zero-hours, tax avoidance, wage arbitrage – all of them undermine state and most certainly undermine the type of legitimising effects that Milward talked about. Of course the corporates have still had a liking for government, just not the sort of a classic nation-state government. Hence we get all sorts of supranational deals – the WTO and Mode 4, UN trade courts, the World Bank, TTIP – purely in the business interest under the banner of economic cooperation, and all having only the most minimal brush with majoritarian electoral democracy despite the profound effects on our lives and our society. Big business interests don’t look to the nation-state any more – any one expecting that a nation state can rein in corporate interests is whistling in the wind. Note for example how Occupy didn’t as such target national governments, but tried to be global (and failed badly).

    But the it is hardly just the corporate elites that have absolutely abandoned the state. Political elites, often elected, have all pursued an, ‘open,’ agenda with vigour. Open borders, open to foreign flows of money and ownership (often at the expense of the domestic population), open to globalisation – anything goes, at least if you have the resources to reify open. All of this has served to undermine the classic state. UKIP and their like around Europe are just the latest to offer a critique of neofunctionalism and at the very least their ideas seem to have some currency in 2014. A good number of people simply believe that the political establishment’s abandonment of the state and embrace of, ‘open,’ is not in the interests of, ‘the many.’ If elites have had a tendency to abandon the nation-state, then populations by and large still look to the state.

    You say, ‘People are scared off strengthening an existing State by their memories of Fascism and Communism. So they look for what seems to be a more satisfying way forward.’ To my mind this is arrant nonsense. Younger people have moved on. The state barely has much on offer now it has been abandoned, indeed it even passed on responsibility for things like human rights to non-state actors, again often seen to work against the interests of domestic populations.

    The boomers voted themselves all the assets, the jobs, the pensions and demutualised the building societies. Look at the Conservative Party conference this week, it’s right there – stronger state = stronger for the generation on the good end of democracy. I have absolutely no idea why anyone under the age of 60 would ever vote Conservative ever again.

    You mention the Scottish referendum, which is a good example. Salmond talked about corporation tax cuts, EU membership and currency union – independence was the political equivalent of lipstick on a pig.

    Ultimately, of course, decisions are made by the people that show up. Someone’s been voting for all this, and indeed some parties have decided they are the Party of IN. For all the criticism to be directed at elites we as the public at large would be well-advised to dwell on our failure to articulate and coalesce around the, ‘change,’ we all seem to talk about in abstract terms. Shrieking at each other on the internet is not a substitute. As far as the state goes, frankly everyone seems to have given up trying to come up with something worth bothering about. Hardly the conditions for democracy.

  • @Charlie: You seem to have confused “knowledge” with wealth and elite status. These are, in fact, power: but assuring that already powerful people have a continuing monopoly on power simply encourages them to construct a society that is not “competent” or efficient, but simply designed to make sure that their own power and status are never challenged.

  • David Allen 1st Oct '14 - 11:25pm

    LJP – Would it be fair to summarise your comments as “The state is powerless to control corporations, so we might as well all just give up even trying”?

    Together with “All democracy is in aid of is to enable the old and rich to vote themselves all the goodies. Nobody else will get a look in, because the young don’t vote, having, in their infinite wisdom, ‘moved on’ “.

    I’m a pessimist, but I’m not that much of a pessimist!

    I believe that “shrieking at people on the internet”, as you put it, can eventually change minds. When I first began to criticise Clegg Coupism on this site, some six years ago, I was not far away from being a lone voice. Now I am one of many. When this Party eventually detaches itself from the warm grip of the right-wing corporatist lobby, and rediscovers its traditional principles, maybe we can beging to help revive democracy. We have to try.

    Over-powerful exploitative elites are always brought down in the end. If a revived democracy doesn’t do it, bloody revolution will. Perhaps it will happen in some 20 -50 years time, when Britain is invaded by millions of migrants forced out of uninhabitable countries by climate change. It would be nice if democratic politics could find a softer landing.

  • Ruth Coleman-Taylor 3rd Oct '14 - 6:54pm

    Is the nation-state still an appropriate location for decision-making? It is too big for local problems, far too small for global problems. Its reason for existence is not primarily for effective governance. Now that we are talking about democracy, decisions and devolution, shouldn’t we also be talking about functionality? if we are going to change the way our country has been doing things, surely we should try to change to a system that functions well and serves its purpose. That could be different to any of the decision-making structures we use at present.

  • Little Jackie Paper 3rd Oct '14 - 9:32pm

    ‘It is too big for local problems, far too small for global problems. Its reason for existence is not primarily for effective governance.’

    I’m sorry, but this is just cant. The point is that the state has basically been abandoned. Private industry can’t be relied on, the open agenda that the elites are fond of have weakened it. All democracy has done is service those on the sweet end, notably but not exclusively the boomer classes. If you are not thinking about how a the state, which many out there still look to has been abandoned and the implications then you are not thinking deeply enough.

    There is no reason at all why the sate can not be the locus for effective governance. We need think about why it is not and, more importantly, whose interests a weak state serves. It ain’t the little guy.

  • Simon Banks 7th Oct '14 - 9:17pm

    We’ve long been in favour of taking power where possible from the state and giving it to individuals and communities. But we need to remember that giving power to the community of a small town presumably means giving it to that town’s elected council and just trying to make sure the council is as responsive to people’s wishes as possible. We have no need to reproduce the Blairite doublethink of marginalising and sneering at councillors and councils while talking about empowering local communities and even creating parallel community organisations.

    We also need to remember that while the democratic state operates on the basis of one person, one vote, the market and commercial power operates on the basis of one pound, one vote.

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