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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 07/06/2009 | 1 Comment

Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point fame, makes the point that prior to the Berlin  Wall coming down few people would have predicted this happening. Indeed he argues that if you had asked people about what might bring the wall down they would have said that politicians would have sat in rooms for hours negotiating and the process would have taken years. In fact, the Berlin Wall came down in a matter of months as a result of mounting, and unexpected, popular protests.
It is impossible to read the papers these days on UK politics and not feel that we are living through a huge, and unexpected, tipping point. Something substantially has shifted in the UK: the sensibility has changed. No-one could have predicted what we are living through or the speed and intensity of the crisis.

What I find fascinating, and welcome, is that this is not just about a lax expenses regime but the very power base of British politics. My academic degrees are in politics. I spent years reading fairly dry constitutional text books and loads of studies on how people viewed politics. There was a time way back in the 1950s and early 60s when people in the UK respected politicians and were not cynical about the political process. These feelings have been slowly eroding over the decades and the expenses row has now tipped many ordinary people into utter contempt.

My own concern about the political process has been mounting for years as a result of the increasing centralisation of power in the hands of the Prime Minister. We are supposed to have a cabinet system of government, not a presidential one yet this is exactly where we have been headed for years. It is the person occupying Number Ten who now controls what happens in the country through political patronage and increasingly the use of the media to control the political agenda. In short, the issue is about power lying in the hands of a very few people in a system, unlike the USA, which has few formal checks and balances.  To restore any faith in politics we need not just a new, transparent  expenses system but we need a shift in the balance of power away from the Prime Minister and Government (whoever might be in office) towards MPs.

We also need a radically different way of running public services. In the last few decades public services have been subjected to increasing centralised control. It is central government departments, often under pressure from a small coterie of advisers, senior politicians and civil servants, who then issue targets and edicts on how services should be delivered. This is often presented as efficient government but it is anything but. Centralised control of this type leads to a huge bureaucracy of planners, checkers, inspectors, reporters … . It also demoralises staff who often end up doing things which they know are not the right things to do but who have little say in how or what should be done. 

These political issues may seem an irrelevance for the Centre but they are anything but. The nature of the political system we live in, whether we have trust in politicians and how powerful or powerless we feel as citizens or public sector workers, all have an impact not only on our confidence but also our well-being.

Comment By Comment
Alex Smith

Comment Posted: 08/06/2009 21:56
I agree wholeheartedly with Carol's comments regarding the centralisation of power in this country and its deleterious effect on the confidence and well-being of our people. Neighbours of mine refused to vote last week and, when my wife argued with them, pointing out how hard-won the vote was, it became obvious that they have completely lost confidence in their ability to influence those who control our lives.

Carol's comments about the coterie of advisers, senior ministers and civil servants echo John Seddon's Masterclass comments. I wrote to John afterwards to relate my wife's experiences which led to her early retirement from nursing. The targets imposed on A & E departments to have every patient dealt with within 4 hours have led to a situation where patient health and safety, patient comfort, even patient survival, take second place to meeting the target. Her particular department had a computer system which flagged to a central controller when a patient was about to 'breach'. This controller would then telephone or visit and harangue the staff to get the patient out of the system immediately - no matter whether that was the best thing for the patient's health. Margaret eventually had enough and quit - two years before she would reach state retirement age - and the NHS lost a committed and experienced staff nurse. Make no mistake, this policy does not just waste money, our money, it kills people!
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