In his fascinating and highly readable book ‘The Confidence Trap’ David Runciman explores the complex relationship between crisis and democracy, a subject which features heavily in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic studies of early 19th century American democracy.
Tocqueville’s paradox – with which Runciman concurs – is that democracies need crises to throw them out of the torpor, complacency and self-indulgence to which they are prone, yet democracies are not very good at managing crises. Indeed, it is often at moments of crisis that the support increases for a more authoritarian or charismatic form of authority. Tocqueville surmised that because it takes democracies time to get their act together they need crises that endure, even though the longer a crisis lasts, the more danger there is of very bad things happening.
This is neither a simple nor an easy message. It is a however a useful perspective from which to consider the plight of many English local authorities. Unless the Coalition changes course, councils are facing unprecedented levels of cuts. Not only are virtually all non-statutory services at risk but local authorities of all political complexions are claiming they may soon not even be able to obey the law. This is a Tocquevillian crisis: deep, real and extended.
In the breast beating and soul searching taking place as local authorities face the ‘jaws of doom’ of growing need and falling income, lots of concepts and schemes fight for attention: community budgets, service transformation and demand management are all seen as ways of responding. The RSA’s own research with local authorities suggests that a serious focus on demand management leads directly to wider questions about values, the purpose and form of public services and the expectations, capacities and aspirations of citizens.
In such dire circumstances the imperatives of leadership, ethics and organisational change align. The local authority needs to show the crisis is real (not easy given previous wolf-calling tendencies), to show that it can act accordingly (even harder), and inspire others – including local citizens – also to rise to the challenge (hardest of all). There may be different ways of doing this but perhaps the most obvious and powerful is for council rulers to be seen to put aside their own personal, political and organisational interests in the face of the dire needs of the locality.
Local government was to a significant degree created by concerned citizens needing a vehicle to pursue the shared goals of municipal renewal and modernisation, but has since became an often alienated and alienating bundle of political, professional and bureaucratic interests. Arguably, councils have no choice now but to throw themselves back on their citizenry, to offer to deconstruct themselves into whatever form will best meet the exigencies of the moment.
We are used to the idea that the problem of public administration is less of conception than of execution., less of policy making, more of delivery: not in this potentially revolutionary moment. What matters now is the courage and imagination to abandon all pretence of being able to manage or resist and instead to commit to two acts of profound leadership, first to hand the crisis back to civil society, second to promise to lead whatever strategy then emerges. The consequences are unpredictable but any council that embarks fully on such a journey is likely to end it reduced in size but enhanced in authority, with less power but with more influence.
For councils to take this route of risk and short term self-sacrifice may be seen as their duty but it may also be the only way to fight back. Some authorities – both Labour and Conservative - are responding to the crisis by demanding or begging for mercy from the centre. At the moment the local citizenry may be sympathetic but it is unlikely to be moved. But when councils have put their bodies on the line and when even the most concerted efforts of united communities are seen not to be enough to protect basic services then the public will need little prompting to express its rage.
Many have seen great significance in David Cameron’s speech to the Lord Mayor’s Banquet a few days ago. By describing his purpose not simply as cutting the deficit but creating a ‘leaner more efficient state’ that delivers ‘better results for taxpayers’ the Prime Minister was seen to change the purpose of austerity from unfortunate necessity to deliberate political project. With the economy growing and reasonable levels of support for austerity persisting among key swing voters this shift in rhetoric may delight the true believers without seeming too much of a risk. But if the tide turns in our cities and counties then the idea that what is being endured has any other motive than absolute necessity could prove highly inflammatory.
Over the next twelve months in both the health service and local government austerity will really bite. The depth of this crisis and the ways in which central and local leaders respond are imponderables but my hunch is that some crunch moments for national and local democracy lie ahead.