After seven years at No 10, I believe that government retains a great power for good, and that politicians are as impressive, and ethical, as their counterparts anywhere else. The danger is not from hubris, but that governments will believe the myth that they are condemned to mistrust and powerlessnessby Geoff Mulgan / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
When I first came into government in the heady days after 1st May 1997, I imagined a brief, frustrating period of struggle with the bureaucracy before a return to normal life. Some insiders had advised me to wait a couple of years before going into government, on the grounds that such an inexperienced group of ministers would be bound to make a mess of things at first. Others said that few people with a think tank background, like mine, had thrived amid the compromise and backbiting of Whitehall and Westminster.
But I was keen to work in government because I was already familiar with big bureaucracies. I had started my career at the GLC and then worked for the European commission. I also knew many ministers fairly well, having run Gordon Brown’s office in the early 1990s, and I had been involved in drawing up Labour’s programme, which I thought sensibly limited in ambition but practical enough to make a real difference. The lessons of social democratic hubris had been learned, and a disciplined and personable team was entering government on a wave of public enthusiasm.
I stayed for seven years—far longer than I intended—and was able to observe at close quarters what will come to be seen as one of the more successful governments of recent times, at least in domestic policy (despite immense energy, its international policies have brought thin returns so far). In political life the crucial patterns become apparent only in hindsight, but in what follows I nevertheless try to offer some provisional lessons from my experience.
1. Governments have not become powerless
It is widely assumed that governments have lost power—upwards to a globalised market or Brussels, downwards to the people, or outwards to the private sector and the media. This is one of the reasons why social democratic governments have reined in their ambitions, and I expected to leave government more conscious of its constraints than of its possibilities.
But instead I came away convinced that the perception of powerlessness is an illusion. Strong forces do limit government’s room for manoeuvre: global markets and treaties impose limits on economic policy, and the media and business constrain government as much as churches and trade unions did a few decades ago. Yet the basic powers of governments have not diminished. The capacity to tax, for example, remains in rude health. Across the OECD, governments’…