England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

What’s the Big Idea?


This article was originally published in Total Politics.

The ridicule of Steve Hilton’s ‘blue-sky thinking’ has just reminded us that politicians should admit that they don’t have all the answers

Steve Hilton has been getting a tough press recently. Leaks to the FT about some of his more ‘original’ ideas such as abolishing maternity leave or improving the weather with cloud busting machines (literally blue sky thinking) have led to widespread derision in the media. Critics have also questioned his understanding of the machinery of government, following reports that he asked the cabinet secretary why David Cameron had to obey the law.

The big society, Hilton’s most widely recognised big idea, is also under fire again, with a TUC report claiming that more than 2,000 charities are cutting services and reducing staff as a result of local authority funding cuts. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence Ed Miliband is facing a similar, if lower key, backlash against his intellectual talisman Maurice Glasman, particularly around his comments on stopping immigration.

Of course both men have their defenders. Andrew Rawnsley argued in the Observer that “Big organisations go to sleep without some provocateurs to challenge group think and disrupt stifling orthodoxies… We need more of these intellectual agitators on both sides of the aisle.” Meanwhile in the inaugural Sandy Bruce Lockhart lecture last week Greg Clark compared the scale and reach of the big society to the 1945 post war settlement and claimed that “Ideas on this scale take years to bring to fruition – but that is a strength and not a weakness.”

What is missing from the debate about these ideas, however, is a critical interrogation of the model of intellectual and political leadership that underpins them. As Clark’s frequent references to Churchill reveal, all of this relies on a charismatic ideal: the big, brilliant idea pushed through by bold political leadership, providing a definitive solution to the problem at hand. But if such leadership is necessary, it is far from sufficient.

The real challenges we face as a society are characterised by their complexity and by their diffusion. Reforming public services in an era of austerity; caring for a hundred fold increase in the number of vulnerable elderly people; mitigating climate change and adapting to more frequent extreme weather events; maintaining social cohesion in increasingly diverse communities, these and other challenges will not be met (or not only be met) by big top down ideas, but by local actions, inspired by emergent, distributed leadership in communities across the country.

What then does this require of our political leaders? Big ideas have their place, but most of all politicians have to be able to lead the conversation, set the terms of the debate and be robust and honest in their analysis of the problems we face. But this conversation must be a genuine dialogue not a party political broadcast. They must have the political courage to admit that they do not have all the answers, and to his credit Greg Clark claims to be serious “in believing that Westminster and Whitehall do not have the monopoly on good ideas”. At the same time we as citizens need to be realistic in our expectations of our leaders and take responsibility for exercising leadership of our own.  That’s a fundamental shift in the relationship between government and governed, but unless we can find the honesty and the boldness to make it, the gap between blue sky thinking and the grey skies of reality will never be bridged.

Jonathan Carr-West is a director at the Local Government Information Unit. Follow him on Twitter @joncarrwest