A legacy of effective institutions?

One of Tony Blair’s blind spots – as I think he would be among the first to admit – is that he has tended to underestimate the importance and value of effective and lasting institutions. As he contemplates his legacy he seems now to be coming round to understanding this.

Looking back at the successes of previous governments, we remember mainly the institutions they built as their lasting legacies. Lloyd George gave us national insurance; Clem Attlee gave us the National Health Service. We don’t remember Andrew Bonar Law much, because he built nothing. Harold Wilson famously cited the creation of the Open University as his greatest achievement.

This Government’s most notable institutional changes have been devolution, the independence of the Bank of England and the partial reform of the House of Lords: planned in opposition and implemented soon after the 1997 election. In Government, the PM has taken the view that the priority is to put in place the right people to take the right decisions. I think this is a manifestation of New Labour’s philosophy that they would go with “what works”. They would govern with pragmatism, not ideology; and that meant appointing the right people and getting on with it rather than constructing effective and long-lasting institutions that might limit their discretion.

In that context, the Prime Minister’s speech on 27 January in Davos made interesting reading, because it is all about the need for more effective international institutions:

This is my major reflection on 10 years of trying to meet these challenges, 10 years in which, as a deliberate policy, Britain has been at the forefront, for better or worse, of each of these major global issues. Interdependence is an accepted fact. It is giving rise to a great yearning for a sense of global purpose, underpinned by global values, to overcome challenges, global in nature.

But we are woefully short of the instruments to make multilateral action effective. We acknowledge the interdependent reality. We can sketch the purpose and describe the values. What we lack is capacity, capability, the concerted means to act. We need a multilateralism that is muscular. Instead, too often, it is disjointed, imbued with the right ideas but the wrong or inadequate methods of achieving them.

None of this should make us underestimate what has been done. But there is too often a yawning gap between our description of an issue’s importance and the matching capability to determine it. … Global purpose, underpinned by global values requires global instruments of effective multilateral action.

This emphasis on the need for more effective multilateral institutions is both right and important. As the world become more interdependent, there are more and more choices that we need to make collectively. These include the provision of global public goods, collective security, and mechanisms to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are fairly shared so that progress can be sustained. As I think the Prime Minister is now saying, if we do not have legitimate and effective institutions to take these decisions, we will find that we have no way to meet these needs and aspirations, nor to resolve the world’s tensions.

Britain has quite a specific long-term interest in this too. We are witnessing the rise of new world powers such as China, India and Brazil. I personally welcome this, though there is a lot of angst around about what it means for us. One thing it almost certainly means is that in 20 years time, Britain will no longer be a major world power with the same amount strategic influence at the most important forums such as the G8 and the Security Council. If and when that happens, we will depend on the existence of effective multilateral institutions to protect our interests, and those of other middle-ranking powers. It seems to me that we should be using the power that we have today, while we still have it, to put in place those institutions and build them up so that they are effective and legitimate in the future. That is a legacy for which future generations in Britain may well thank us.

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