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The nation state - where to?

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Interesting piece in today’s FT by David Runciman, who spoke here recently on his excellent book ‘Political Hypocrisy’. Exploring the unpopularity of political leaders in Britain, France and Japan and  contrasting this with the popularity of Alex Salmond in Scotland and Kevin Rudd and Australia, Runciman argues that the key variable lies in is Government responses to globalisation. Given the ambivalence, fringing in to hostility, of the public to globalisation’s impacts, Runciman suggests that Prime Ministers and Presidents need to look like they are fighting back. Whilst Brown, Sarkozy and Fukuda look as thought they are simply adapting to, or tinkering with, globalisation both Salmond and Rudd portray themselves as fighting against an external foe – in Salmond’s case England and in Rudd’s China.

David’s conclusion is that Brown needs to make the United States the rhetorical fall guy for the public’s discontent. I’m not sure, with a new President only five months away, this seems an odd time to turn away from the old ally. But I do agree that politicians need to find a way of describing the power they have, its potential and its limitations. I’m sure this isn’t the first time I’ve quoted Daniel Bell’s epigram that in the future the nation state will be ‘too small for the big things in life and too big for the small things’. We know that big issues like climate change, financial regulation, migration and security need global solutions. At the same time the nation state is too remote for a public that wants local accountability and personalised services. Yet rather than reduce its responsibilities the national Government seems to add every day to the list of its priorities; from obesity to climate change, from play to Britishness. Thus to misuse another famous American insight the nation state is in danger of ‘building an empire while losing a role’.

Nation states are, of course, vital not just in themselves but as the key actor in global decision making and as the body that sets the framework for local devolution. But without a compelling account of the new political economy of the central state, national leaders will be seen to be meddling in everything but solving nothing.

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