Reflections from the troubled European summer

The last two months I spent in Europe increasingly gave a feeling of an end of a democratic era. This is the era of representative social democracy which followed the second world war, survived counterculture movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s and emerged as a broad neo-liberal consensus from the 1990s (with the accompanying assumption that capitalist liberal democracy had now proved its dominance).

Two themes hung over much of the news and the academic discussions of the trip – the challenge to current forms of democracy from the populist right and its nationalist autocracy and the not entirely unrelated horrors of the war in Ukraine and the effective end of the post-Soviet democratic settlement in Europe.

The sense of the end of an era in Europe felt confirmed with the death of Queen Elizabeth II shortly after we arrived in the UK. Her funeral procession, viewed from the Mall, was both splendid and anachronistic – a throwback to imperial days, with echoes perhaps of the nostalgia and worldview which underpinned the rhetoric of Brexit. This was coupled with a further lurch right in the leadership of the UK Conservative Party to an outlook of even lower tax, lower spend, and further reduction in environmental and social protections, all in the name of growth and competitiveness. Shortly afterwards, a far right President was elected in Italy who uses a slogan popularised by Mussolini.

Are we truly moving from the hopeful social democracy of the post-war years and the wider aspirations for sustainable development and global equity of the 1970s to a simple replay of the destructive nationalism and autocracy of the 1930s?

But at the same time there are glimpses of an alternative future. The people we met were still people, able to be thoughtful and loving of others. There were wondeful mixings of distinctive cultures and places wherever we went. Perhaps it is the processes of democracy that are letting us down and fostering nationalism and autocracy, not the people. That means we need to address the crisis of current demcoracy by recognising that the representative market-led democracy we have inherited is not enough for this new century.

Attending the European Consortium for Poltical Research (ECPR) main conference, hosted this year by the Univesrity of Innsbruck, I was struck by the huge energy in the sessions on democratic innovation and deliberative and participatory democracy, especially in the context of the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Here there was a sense of new democratic purpose and forms. I especially enjoyed the freewheeling sessions led by David Laws at University of Amsterdam on Restorative democracy: governance, legitmacy, and policy conflict and by Oliver Escobar of University of Edinbugh on Climate Assemblies. I also owe particular thanks to my fellow panelist for the session on Policy Change and Bureaucratic inertia for their contributions and insights.

The day after the Queen’s funeral, I was grateful to lead a seminar at Institute for Government in London on my book Towards a new civic bureaucrcay and the theme of the future democratic role of public bureaucracy . The results of the session will be published shortly but the idea of rethinking the democratic function of bureaucracy was agreed as being an important debate. The core challenge was how this change could be made possible. How, for example, could it be related to party political interests and language, and would the legislative/structural route I advocate in the book suffice to create change or was there a naivety in such an approach to institutions?

The issue of democratic revitalistion in the face of crisis is certainly more current now than when I began writing. Perhaps the next key task is to make positive alternatives to our troubled democratic model come alive – capturing that energy and hope seen in the ECPR sessions on participative democracy, reconnecting people to place and planet, and charting a new course for our institutions of governance.

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