Governments everywhere are nowadays being overpowered by the problems and tasks they face.
This is the clear conclusion to be drawn not only from the terrible time U.S. President Barack Obama is having, but also from the travails of many other political leaders. In France, President Sarkozy seems widely disliked. In Germany, the former savior Chancellor Angela Merkel is now being disparaged. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is struggling to survive. In Japan, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s popularity is sliding. The list goes on. One and all are trying, and failing, to meet impossible expectations, impossible time frames for delivery and impossible obstacles to success.
So what are the policies that might lift governments back into the position of authority and respect they once enjoyed, and enable people to trust their leaders? The answer is that the question itself is wrong. It is not policies, however copious or detailed, but ideas that inspire today’s peoples and electorates — and they need to be big ideas, too.
The winning ideas will be those that are drawn from a profound understanding of the way the world now works, pierce through the fog of information overload and are promoted with wisdom and conviction. No use for leaders to rely on clever ad men, public relations experts who miss the real mood, or fashion-obsessed focus groups. And no use drowning a nation’s citizens in endless promises of detailed policy goals that an increasingly skeptical public doubts will ever be achieved, and certainly not by central government.
And no use, again, relying on the old ideological rallying calls of the past, when neither the collectivist state nor the marketplace any longer has all the answers, and common sense shows clearly that a skilled mix of the two is needed.
With all the detail in the world available on the Web in continuous flood, the message people really want to hear from their leaders is how this bewildering flow makes sense, what the real underlying truths are and where it all is leading. They seek deep reassurance and guidance as to where they belong, what the nation they inhabit stands for and what position it aspires to in the new global landscape.
Well above all the usual bread-and-butter wants — about which they have heard so may unfulfilled pledges — people are ready to have their minds open to new possibilities, for themselves and for their children, and to have their imaginations fired about the future.
To some degree Margaret Thatcher, after a slow start, succeeded almost 30 years ago in reinvigorating the U.K., which was a deeply dispirited and demoralized nation when she first took over. But that sense of pride and purpose has long since melted away and now a new uplifting lead is once again crying out to be articulated. Everyone needs a country to love, and the moment for a profound renewal of the nation state, as wise former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali once described it, has truly arrived.
Where should the British now look for that sense of renewal? Some British voices have been arguing for a generation or more that the answer is primarily within the European Union. That, they claim, is where Britain’s destiny lies. These voices are not as strong as they were, but they are still influential. Others put the trans-Atlantic relationship with America as the top priority.
But in reality the first step to restoring national confidence and unity is to show that while the British are, and will remain, good Europeans (it is after all their immediate neighborhood), and while relations with America should always remain solid, a modern nation like Britain need not see itself as bound to either entity when it comes to its global positioning, and that its interests and potential go far wider.
The world is now a network in which confident and agile nations of all sizes can play their part with a mixture of alliances and bilateral links all round — and especially links with the rising powers of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Now that really is a big idea for a nation that has lost its way and has long felt somehow torn, even squeezed, between the two Atlantic blocs.
It will surprise many to know that the one voice of true authority to have spoken out recently in support of this vision of renewal for Britain, and for all its citizens, is a royal one. It is that of Queen Elizabeth II, who clearly set out where the best future for Britain may lie. In lots of ways, she told the nation in her recent Christmas Day broadcast it is the Commonwealth that is “the face of the future.”
What she said is probably what most British people feel, although it may not show up on the surface of opinion polls and tests. The British are not anti-European, and certainly not anti-American. And nor are they nationalist in the narrow, obsessive sense. But they do long to make their own special contribution on the international stage, and the Commonwealth of 54 nations offers an amazing soft-power network through which that can be done.
The political leaders who follow this royal guidance will strike a deeper chord of sympathy and assent than anything that can be achieved with promises of good times round the corner. In doing so they will be offering a truly big new idea around which a divided and disoriented nation can loyally unite, and thereby regain for government the trust, authority, respect and capacity to meet great challenges that, for the moment, it seems to have lost.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.