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The challenges of governing in a freer and more complex world

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2005/13)
 
2-4 December 2005
The final conference weekend of the year was devoted to an in-house meeting of Ditchley Governors and Board Members, with a good Canadian and American Ditchley presence and a flavouring of diplomatic representation.  The subject chosen – in effect how governments should be adapting to the pressures of the modern world – rounded off a series of 2005 conferences focussing on governance in the face of change, starting with the role of the intelligence services in January, an analysis of world opinion and public diplomacy in Chicago in May, a debate on civil liberties and security in September and a look at the future of Britain’s constitutional arrangements in October.  This time we let ourselves loose, with a certain end-of-term freedom of spirit, on a discussion of changes in society and how they impact on the functions of government. 
It was certainly great fun.  But the participants also ended up asking themselves quite a serious question:  do we really understand where our societies are going?  With so much competition for power, business and individual space, and with information so widely available and the media all too keen to circulate it in full colour without excessive regard for accuracy, everybody seemed to be parodying everybody else.  Did anyone really understand the underlying truths?
   
There were a number of themes discernible through the swirl of debate.   One of them concerned the nature of change in national and global societies.  Most people were ready to be persuaded that there was perhaps less dramatic change in the underlying structures than appeared on the surface.  This was not to underestimate the pace of events, the widespread availability of information, the power of modern communications machinery, a widening circle of people in almost all societies with greater freedom of choice and higher levels of education and, consequently, a stronger spirit of egalitarianism in the world and a reduction in deference to authority.  We also agreed that the effects of globalisation were not being exaggerated:  they were clear and immense, especially in the fields of economic and business activity and in the growth in connections between groups and individuals across borders.  But we also suspected that globalisation was fragile:  the effects we were witnessing now would not necessarily continue for ever in an upward curve.  There might in time be counter-effects;  and the history of people and nations could proceed in quite recognisable ways.  If there was a quiet revolution to be acknowledged, it was in the area of human aspirations responding to greater connectivity and awareness.  If governments were unresponsive to the trends, they were likely to collide with these aspirations.
A second theme was the nature of government itself.  In a consumer society, consumer politics were likely to develop.  A vote could be seen as an instrument of purchase.  Political parties were inclined to sell their wares with unrealistic promises.  In this way the political process could too easily drive a system which led to disappointment, with the creation of expectations combining with difficulties in delivery (and a poor understanding of the best methods of delivery) to create perceptions of poor performance.  The nature of government structures and the length of the supply chain to the individual consumer was too complex, it was argued, for government to be wise in offering a Tesco-type service.  At the same time, government could no longer just give orders:  they had to persuade.  The nanny state had failed as a concept – we heard an interesting account of the Japanese version of this – and, with the growth of the internet as the medium for new, ad hoc communities of people with particular interests, governments and parliaments were no longer indispensable for the representation of public interests.  In all of this, getting government right in terms of both tone and content was a huge challenge.
A third theme was the role of the media, often regarded as the real political opposition but perhaps no better at defining the underlying truths than any other sector of society.  Much of the media was becoming polarised and subjective.  Nevertheless the fourth estate was a potent force in modern society, creating an environment in which public perceptions were close to instantaneous, though not necessarily accurate.  Everyone’s reactions to events were under-analysed and unprepared;  and governments were no longer capable of controlling the timelines.  Perceptions of government performance in these circumstances were too easily negative if effectiveness was equated with the right instantaneous reaction. 
  
Then the conference began to feel sorry for politicians.  If communications technology, above all, was tending to dissipate the power and effectiveness of governments, with the private sector, individuals and even terrorists and insurgencies capable of benefiting from the power of images just as much as rulers, society needed to look for some correctives.  Most participants agreed that the government had to use the power of the media to channel their own arguments, since persuasion now had to be one of their main instruments.  People would accept their right to do this, so long as transparency and honesty were set at a high enough level to maintain their credibility.  One fundamental and unchanging factor was that electorates wanted central government to be effective in those areas of national business which they as individuals could not control themselves.  They were therefore happy for government to exercise powers, raise taxes and show leadership, so long as these activities were in areas regarded as proper government functions.
This led to a discussion of where the  lines should be drawn and whether government was trying to reach too far into society’s business.  There were strong advocates for keeping the division of functions simple, following Keynes’s mantra that there was an agenda for government and another for non-government activity.  Jefferson was quoted: “He governs best who governs least”;  but it was a quotation that also raised some hackles.  There were important areas where government action was essential.  Since there were divided views on where precisely the guidance should be drawn on this issue, the conference did not try to make a determination.  It was, nonetheless, pointed out with some force that legislation and regulation were becoming too voluminous and too complex for ordinary people to understand;  while long-term issues and the presentation of a clear strategic context were often neglected.  Most agreed that governments should expend more energy and thought on slow-pulse issues than on short-term pressures, should show less fear of the media and the immediate headline and should count on popular support in handling the strategic substance with greater steadiness. 
We moved on to policy implementation and delivery.  Most participants preferred to think of governments as responsible for setting the framework rather than controlling the delivery.  If governments were sensing a loss of control in the modern age, it might be partly connected with their making a mistake in this area.  The tendency of political leaders to strengthen their own offices, rather than relying on the wider government machinery or devolved structures, was a symptom of this mis-analysis.  The process of consultation, information and implementation should be thought of as a circular one.  Consultation should not be so comprehensive that the policy-making system was bogged down in it;  but neither should the delivery levers be so centralised that the important capillaries felt no responsibility.  A much better model would be to ensure that consultation on a policy before it was decided should extend at least as far as those parts of the structure which would be involved, through proper and accountable devolution, in its implementation.  Parliaments could usefully be involved in oversight and post-legislative scrutiny.  It was surprising how seldom governments in the modern age got this right.
One working group examined whether a nation’s constitution intersected with national identity.  In the rough waters of modern, globalised society, a good constitution could act as a keel to the ship.  Some states had “beautiful” constitutions, which expressed a noble view of collective interests and structures and which changed the way in which the people of that state regarded themselves.  The United States was a clear and successful example of this category, with Germany and India rating a similar mention.  Other states, not named, which attempted an uplifting constitution but which did not live up to it in practice, or whose evolution required greater flexibility, suggested that there was no single prescription.  The United Kingdom was a clear example of the other end of the spectrum, with custom and practice in the lead and with scope for a good deal of ongoing flexibility. Most participants supported having a constitution to set the national framework, so long as adaptations were possible under the pressure of events, perhaps coming best through interpretation rather than wholesale revision.
The conference did not attempt to draw specific conclusions or make recommendations.  Participants accepted that governments were having a difficult time in rising above the short-term and keeping control of the information flow.  It was nonetheless the job of government, buffeted in these winds, to make itself as aerodynamically effective as possible.  Credibility and legitimacy were good criteria for doing this.  So was restraint in proposing legislation that affected areas which citizens would prefer to control for themselves.  A strategic framework should be set and delivery devolved.  Explanation and persuasion were constantly necessary.  In all of this they should show confidence that, much more than the media indicated, people were content for government to govern in the proper area.  Trust earned in that respect should be reciprocated in trusting people to run their own affairs sensibly within their own local and individual areas of responsibility.  With that approach, there would be areas of dissent and distrust;  but there was an optimal degree – well above zero – to which dissent and distrust could be allowed to percolate without worrying that it would be destructive.  In all of this, more intelligent education of younger people in the underlying truths of social and political trends would be a valuable part of government’s business, if accurately and honestly performed.
It has to be said that, with government cats in short supply at this busy time of the official year, society mice found it highly entertaining to scamper through this undergrowth.  Indiscretions and anecdotes abounded, of a kind which Ditchley’s rules preclude repeating here.  But we felt we had touched on some serious points;  and most participants left, through a burst of Ditchley winter sunshine, feeling that they had been party to an interesting and original discussion.  For that we owed a great deal to the perceptiveness and humour of our chairman, as well as to the contributions of some wise old heads who were more willing to embrace new thinking than their years suggested.  The Ditchley home team remains grateful to them all for their support of our unique institution and for a memorable weekend.
This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.
 
PARTICIPANTS
 
Chairman    :    The Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind KCMG QC MP                       
Member of Parliament, Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea (2005-).  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Conservative, Edinburgh Pentlands (1974-97);  Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (1995-97), Defence (1992-95), Transport (1990-92);  Scotland (1986-90).  A Governor, Ditchley Foundation.
 
CANADA
Mr James Baillie
Counsel, Torys LLP;  Non-Executive Chair, Independent Electricity Market Operator (Ontario).  A Director, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
HE Mel Cappe
High Commissioner for Canada (2002-).  Formerly:  Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1999-2002).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Hon Roy MacLaren PC
Formerly:  High Commissioner for Canada in the United Kingdom (1996-2000);  Minister for International Trade (1993-96);  Minister of National Revenue (1984);  Minister of State, Finance (1983).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Hon Robert K Rae PC OC QC
Partner, Goodmans LLP, Toronto;  Independent Adviser to the Canadian government, 1985 Air India bombing.  Formerly:  Premier of Ontario (1990-95);  Member, Security and Intelligence Review Committee for Canada.  A Director, Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Grant Reuber OC FRSC
Senior Adviser and Director, Sussex Circle (1999-);  President, Canadian Ditchley Foundation (1989-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (1993-99).
Mr Joseph Rotman OC
Chairman, Ontario Genomics Institute;  Member, Governing Council and Executive Committee, Canadian Institutes of Health Research.  A Director, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
GERMANY
Baron Dr Hermann von Richthofen GCVO
Formerly:  Chairman, German-British Association (1999-2004);  Co-Chairman, British-Germany Königswinter Conference (1999-2004);  Ambassador to the UK (1988-93).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
INDIA
HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma
India’s High Commissioner to the UK (2005-).  Formerly:  Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Timor (2003-04);  Permanent Representative and Ambassador toe the United Nations (1997-2003).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
JAPAN
HE Yoshiji Nogami
Ambassador of Japan to the Court of St James’s (2004-).  Formerly:  Senior Visiting Fellow, Middle East Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
SWITZERLAND/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Dr William B Bader
Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva (2005-);  Consultant to the Research Advisory Staff, The World Bank and to the International Finance Corporation’s Global Business School Network (2001-).  Member of the Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation.
UNITED KINGDOM
Dr John Ashworth
Chairman, Barts and The London NHS Trust.  Formerly:  Chairman, The British Library (1996-2001).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Tom Bentley
Director, Demos (1999-).  Formerly:  Policy Adviser to Secretary of State for Education (1998‑99).  A Member, Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.
Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone NP
Life Peeress (2005-);   Pro Chancellor, University of Surrey (2005-);  Director, Odgers Ray & Berndtson (2000-).  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Conservative, Surrey SW (1984-2005);  Secretary of State for National Heritage (1995-97), for Health (1992-95).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG
Chairman, Russia Programme, The Centre for European Reform (2001-);  Chairman, Moscow School of Political Studies (1997-).  Formerly:  Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser (1992-92);  Ambassador to Russia, Georgia and Armenia (1988-92).  Chairman, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Samuel Brittan
Columnist, Financial Times (1966-);  Honorary Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge.  Governor and Member, Programme Committee, The Ditchley Foundation.  Author.
Mr George Brock   
Saturday Editor, The Times (2004-).  Formerly:  Managing Editor, The Times (1997-2004).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG
Chairman, Leonard Cheshire (2005-).  Formerly:  Director, The Ditchley Foundation (1999-2004);  HM Diplomatic Service (1969-97);  Ambassador to Germany (1993-97) and the German Democratic Republic (1988-90).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell KCMG QC MP
Member of Parliament, Fife North East (1987-) (Liberal, 1987-88, Liberal Democrat, 1988-);  Frontbench spokesman on Foreign Affairs and Defence (1994-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Nik Gowing
Main Presenter, BBC World (1996-).  Formerly:  Presenter, The World Today (1996-2000);  Diplomatic Editor, Channel 4 News.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Peter Hennessy FBA
Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History, Queen Mary College, University of London (1992-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Kennedy Memorial Trust (1995-2000).  Member, Programme Committee and a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Andrew Knight
Director, Templeton Emerging Markets Trust (2003-);  Director, Rothschild Investment Trust (1997-);  Director, News Corporation (1991-).  Formerly:  Chairman, Jerwood Charitable Foundation (2003-04);  Chairman, News International (1990-95).  Governor and Member, Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Anthony Loehnis CMG
Chairman, Alpha Bank London Ltd (2005-);  Director, Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International plc (1996-);  Director, UK-Japan 21st Century Group (1990-).  Formerly:  Executive Director, Bank of England (1981-89).  A Governor and Member, Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Roderic Lyne KBE CMG
Special Adviser to BP plc (2004-).  Formerly:  HM Diplomatic Service (1970-2004);   British Ambassador to Russia (2000-04);  Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (1993-96).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Bryan Magee
Writer, radio and TV broadcaster.  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Labour (1974-82), SDP Leyton
(1982-83).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Sir Richard Mottram KCB
Chair, Joint Intelligence Committee and Security and Intelligence Coordinator (2005-).  Formerly:  Permanent Secretary, Department for Work and Pensions (2002-05), Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998-02).  A Governor and Member of Council, The Ditchley Foundation.
Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan
Life Peer, Labour (2005-).  Formerly:  Member of Parliament, Labour, Ochil (1997-2005), Clackmannan (1983-97),  Stirlingshire East and Clackmannan, (1979-83);  Chairman, Select Committee on Trade and Industry.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve CBE FBA
 Principal, Newnham College, Cambridge (1992-);  Member, Human Genetics Advisory Committee (1996-);  Chairman, Nuffield Foundation (1998-);  Life Peer (1999-);  President, The British Academy (2005-).  Author.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Elizabeth Padmore
Partner, Accenture;  Global Director, Policy and Corporate Affairs, Accenture (1995-).  Member, Council for the Royal Institute for International Affairs.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Baroness Prashar of Runnymede CBE
Chair Designate, Judicial Appointments Commission (2006-);  Non-Executive Director, ITV (2005-);  Life Peeress (1999-).  Formerly:  First Civil Service Commissioner (2000-05);  Chairman, National Literacy Trust (2000-05).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
The Rt Hon Baroness Williams of Crosby
Life Peer (Liberal Democrat) (1993-).  Formerly:  Leader, Liberal Democrats, House of Lords (2001004), Deputy Leader (1999-2001);  Member of Parliament, SDP, Crosby (1981-83);  Member of Parliament, Labour, Hitchin and Stevenage (1964-79);  Secretary of State, Education and Science (1976-79).  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Sir Robert Worcester          
Founder, Market & Opinion Research International (MORI);  visiting Professor of Government and Governor, London School of Economics & Political Science;  Chairman, Pilgrims Society of Great Britain (1993-).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Mr James Hoge Jr
Editor, Foreign Affairs (1992-).  Formerly:  Fellow, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (1991-92).  Member, Board of Directors, and Chairman of the Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Mr George Newcombe
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, New York (1975-), Partner (1983-);  Head, Palo Alto, California office (1999-).  A Director, The American Ditchley Foundation.