Inter-city thoughts

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I'm on my way to Coventry to speak at a summit of local authority senior executives. Reflecting, depending on your point of view, either my lack of scholarly rigour or my commitment to intellectual experimentation, whenever I do substantial gigs like these I try to develop different dimensions to my argument.

My starting point is to give a version of my annual lecture focussing on the three major sources of power to achieve change in society: hierarchical authority, social solidarity and individual aspiration. In that lecture I argue that various trends in contemporary society have weakened the authority of leaders and frayed the power of shared ties and values, thus leaving a world dominated by a combination of individualism and fatalism (the latter being what we feel when change seems impossible or adverse).

The problem for me today is that this analysis seems to fit much less well in the context of local government, particular outside the South East. Generally, local leaders are more popular than national ones, and people have a much stronger sense of belonging at the neighbourhood and city or town level than at that of the nation (itself, as yesterday reminded us, a contested term). For example, I suspect people seem to find it easier to have 'hyphenated identities' combining their ethnic or motherland with their current home if the latter is expressed in city rather than national terms (Brummie-Sikh is more positive and less loaded than English-Sikh).

As it is looking in to place, so it is looking out to the world. The brilliant public intellectual Benjamin Barber is completing a new book with the compelling title 'if mayors ruled the world'. In it he argues that global networks of city leaders are making change in ways which seem unattainable for international institutions of nation states. Barber links this to the greater legitimacy of local leaders and their more practical problem solving orientation.

This is not a new idea. It is, after all, fifty years since Daniel Bell said something along the lines of 'in the modern world, the nation state will be too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things'. But whether it is Barber, Richard Florida or Edward Glaeser (to name but three) the contrast between the optimism of urban commentators and the pessimism of those who focus on nations and multinational institutions is striking.

Despite all this, it is hard to see how cities can thrive for long in nations that are failing. Perhaps the big challenge for city leaders is not simply to enjoy their status but to explore how they might help their nations find better ways of governing at home and internationally. Thus, just as city states laid the foundations for the modern nation so, perhaps, modern city states can provide the basis for a new model of networked internationalism.

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