Ruth Coleman-Taylor: The future of the state

Yesterday  we reported  that much loved liberal activist Ruth Coleman-Taylor had died. She will be very much missed. Back in 2014, she wrote this piece for us on the future of the state which is as relevant now as it was then, probably more so. 

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.


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  • “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”

    Can’t help feeling that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. Perhaps we also need to start dismantling the state sized corporate entities…

  • Taking power from Westminster and returning it to citizens. Yes indeed. But is that actually what most Lib Dems want or has big state Labourism (new word !) dominated much of our recent thinking ?

  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '22 - 7:39am

    The power of the State is ultimately decided by its ability to set the laws of the land, its consequent powers of taxation and its currency issuing ability. The last one is often overlooked. However it is the ability to be able to use IOUs created by the State, which are essentially debts, as a medium of exchange which underpins our whole economy.

    We all saw how this worked during the Pandemic. We saw how the lack of tax revenue didn’t stop the Govt spending to keep the economy functioning.

    So any political movement wishing to have many smaller sub-states or be part of a larger state such as Pan European super state has to have an answer to the currency question. We’ve seen the problems with the former in the indecisiveness of the Scots regarding what they should do after their own independence. We’ve seen big problems with the latter in the workings of the euro.

    I can’t help thinking that if there were a solution, someone would have found it by now!

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