Is the coalition government an aberration or part of a wider global shift where people recognise the importance of relationships in making change happen? David Fraser considers the evidence.
Many commentators, including Ann Treneman – albeit perhaps tongue in cheek – writing in the RSA Journal, regard the UK's coalition government as an unstable aberration set to collapse in time under its own weight. In their model, we can expect normal adversarial service to be resumed shortly.
But maybe, just maybe, the coalition is instead a sign of things to come and early evidence of a new map of how things are going to need to work. We, the voters, were not mumbling at the election. On the contrary, we could not have been clearer: we want our politicians to work together, to relate effectively both to each other and the wider world, and to bring a balance to our affairs. Perhaps we may all agree with Tony Blair if only on this: "the voters are always right"; we may come to see that the scandal around MPs' expenses swept away more than just people who worked the system and that the whole adversarial set-up was revealed to be inadequate.
But does national government still matter? In the face of huge international challenges, what use is a little, local Westminster? We hear so much about 'inevitable globalisation' that we may be tempted to put our proverbial feet up. If change is inevitable and determined by complex relationships we cannot even see or comprehend, what role do individuals or even national governments have in making change happen? Alternatively, perhaps we comfort ourselves that international political and economic structures will change fast enough to meet challenges such as climate change, financial instability, terrorism, poverty and the spread of nuclear and biological weapons; that the combined global effort will head these problems off in time to secure a benign future for our children and our grandchildren.
The signs are not pointing in that direction. As Ian Fletcher has argued elsewhere on RSA Comment nation states are still the pre-eminent organising principle for economics and politics, and are likely to remain so for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, the climate change summit in Copenhagen could be regarded as useful only because it demonstrated that our current way of organising international affairs is not fit for purpose.
Should we feel compelled to find ways to compensate for the continuing pre-eminence of nation states?
Yet if so many of our global challenges care nothing for our national borders, should we feel compelled to find ways to compensate for the continuing pre-eminence of nation states? To take a systems view for a moment, our current focus is on optimising the sub-systems (countries) potentially at the expense of the total system (the world, of which we are all part and on which we are all dependent, whether we are thinking of finance, climate or security).
What part might networks on social media play? Facebook has recently passed 500 million users: around twice the population of the US and half that of China. A network of 500 million people would appear to be a powerful grouping in terms of scale, but how altruistic or civic-ly active are online social networks? Perhaps their growth is fuelled in part by our realisation that national governments are unable to organise in effective ways to tackle the big issues; perhaps our proverbial feet aren't on the sofa after all.
In the current issue of the RSA Journal, Aleks Krotoski highlights plusses and minuses with social media, concluding that – perhaps paradoxically – these networks have enabled the internet to become not so much a force for our global salvation as "our most important avenue for local change". The RSA for its part has a Connected Communities project and work in Peterborough, both of which draw on social media as resources to be used for what we would call 'decent' ends. Will separate, competing (and collaborating) local on-line communities be the new meaning of a multi-polar world?
Or as Joshua Cooper Ramo, writing in The Age of the Unthinkable argues does the diversity and scale of our global challenges require resilient, distributed solutions in which we recognise equal rights to a decent life, and our interdependence? As he says, "what we do to the world, we do to ourselves." Ramo's distributed solutions require citizens like us to act locally and globally.
In doing so we must not ignore the obvious: our fundamental ability to relate to each other as human beings. For some unfathomable reason we tend to regard our skills in this respect as something that cannot be improved; something beyond our ability or willingness to develop, despite the wide availability of practical approaches to learning new behaviour. In short, we have not read 'the manual' of ourselves and therefore are not making the use we could be of rather simple ideas from practical psychology to improve our ability to relate to each other. Most people need a bit of convincing that we could usefully and very beneficially work on our skills to relate to people.
Overturning our unconscious acceptance of these skills as they are, both in ourselves and in others, represents one of the biggest opportunities to make change happen, with relationships the key to securing our future in the face of the global challenges.
We have a choice to make, at whatever level we choose to operate: are we runners in a global rat race or are we good citizens of an interdependent world? And, as the recently-departed Jimmy Reid said: "The rate race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings." If we make the good citizen choice then surely we must also accept that our effectiveness at relating to others both locally and internationally is a vital theme.
Relationships are the key to securing our future in the face of the global challenges
Or as Joseph Jaworski puts it in Synchronicity, we must accept relationship as the central "organising principle". In this context, social media are just that – media – on which we have the opportunity to draw relationships with whatever skilfulness and care we choose to apply.
Whilst working on the global challenges, we must both work on our local issues and recognise the continued importance of the nation state. We have no hope of influence beyond what we call our borders if our own house is divided: witness President Barack Obama's difficulties in influencing the wider world on global warming when the US is hopelessly polarised about its carbon addiction at home.
That is why local projects as championed by the RSA are important. They might seem of limited reach in themselves, but are nevertheless all part of the wider system and may have an influence well beyond their scale. And that maybe why in the UK voters made the choices they did; sensing perhaps a need for greater balance both at home and abroad. Maybe we even realise we might need to give some things up, if not for our own benefit – it may be too late for that – then perhaps for the sake of the generations that follow.
In this interpretation, the UK government coalition is part of a pattern of change in the world, in which we begin to learn what it means to emphasise relationship over competition, and to learn how to accept some sacrifice, because that is the only way to overcome our difficulties. In this interpretation, we need our coalitions, like marriages, to last much longer than a short honeymoon. We made our choice over an alternative, because we placed greater than ever importance on the ability to relate to people.
Dr David Fraser
is an Independent Facilitator and Programme Management Specialist and author of 'Relationships Made Easy: How to get on with the people you need to get on with… and stay friends with everyone else'.