Good and Bad Power: The ideals and betrayals of government, by Geoff Mulgan

Lessons from our masters
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Few political thinkers have any experience of the higher reaches of political life, and fewer still have first-hand knowledge of the operation of the machinery of government. Geoff Mulgan is an exception on both counts. Formerly Tony Blair's head of policy, he was also an adviser to Gordon Brown - the only person to have worked at such a senior level for both politicians. In an earlier incarnation he was director of Demos, the think-tank closely linked with the formation of New Labour. Before that he worked as a civil servant in local government. Combining an intimate familiarity with high-level politics over the past decade with extensive practical experience of the business of administration, Mulgan is unusually well qualified to diagnose the disorders that are afflicting government today.

The starting point of Good and Bad Power is that we are in one of those periods in history when governments are seen as corrupt and immoral. Mulgan believes this perception is unfounded. He aims to show that "the business of government is becoming more moral, not less; that many governments are stumbling closer to an ideal of service that has been imagined for as long as states have existed but was rarely realised; and that, just as new knowledge has given governments vastly greater power, it has also made them more dependent, more accountable, and more embedded in their societies."

In Mulgan's view, what people want from their governments does not vary much. Despite the fact that the state has often been used as an instrument of predation, government is an inherently moral enterprise. People have always looked to governments for protection, welfare, justice and truth, and when they have been seen as embodying these four values the power they wield has been accepted as good. Mulgan uses this insight to consider some of the most difficult problems of contemporary politics, such as the ethnic violence that often surrounds the establishment of democracy and the lack of civic commitment in many long-standing democratic regimes.

It is a far-reaching argument, and one of the virtues of Good and Bad Power is that it ranges freely across epochs and cultures. This is not just another survey of the Western canon from Plato to Nato, but a refreshingly bold attempt to apply insights derived from thinkers from many traditions to the contemporary political condition. Mulgan is as conversant with the political thought of ancient China, India and the Islamic world as he is with that of the Greeks and modern Europe, and he shows convincingly that thinkers in very different cultural and historical contexts have struggled with similar problems of power and legitimacy.

From king Ur-Nammu of Ur who reigned around 2100BC to the first theorist of political realism, the Hindu thinker Kautilya who lived 2,000 years later, and onwards to the present, governments have been charged with many of the same duties. At a time when the conventional wisdom of the academy continues to resist the idea of human nature, it is refreshing to see how government can still be understood as responding to perennial human needs.

Mulgan's interpretation of contemporary politics is less convincing. A career spent largely at the apex of power tends to produce a certain outlook on the world, and the peculiar perspective that goes with life at the top - a highly developed sense of the immense difficulty of government combined with a marked reluctance to admit to any of its mistakes - is evident at several points. One of the goals of the book is to dispel the prevailing cynicism about politics, but Mulgan shows little sense of why this cynicism has arisen. The role of governments in generating public disillusion is barely mentioned.

Reading him, one would hardly suspect that a ruinous war had been launched in the Middle East on a basis of delusion and disinformation. The impact on trust in governments throughout the world of the special rendition of suspected terrorists to places where they can be safely tortured is not discussed. Where such developments are mentioned it is only in passing, as minor blotches on a record of continuing progress that only malcontents will dispute. Equally, there is nothing that echoes the observation that many British institutions have stopped working. It is all very well to say that government is more ethical than in the past, but the claim that it serves us better than it did is hard to square with endemic chaos in public services.

Over the past decades government has certainly become more morally ambitious, but the result has often been to default on basic obligations of administrative efficiency. The chronic failure to deport foreign nationals convicted of serious offences is a good example of how "joined-up government" works in practice, and one can only hope that, if we are to have a hideously expensive system of ID cards imposed on us, it is not run on the lines of the Child Support Agency.

Perhaps the largest gap in Mulgan's analysis of current politics concerns the pivotal role of news management. Governments have always tried to shape the way they are seen, but the incessant effort to manipulate perception that has accompanied the development of 24-hour media is new. One consequence is that policies have ceased to be instruments for achieving specific changes, and instead become tools for moulding opinion. Who knows the government's policies on schools or pensions? They are as disposable as yesterday's press release.

Policy-making has become an exercise in which actual results are no longer particularly important, and all parties follow Blair in seeing the construction of virtual realities as the main business of politics. If - as now seems feasible - the Tories succeed in toppling New Labour, it will not be because David Cameron has better policies. It will be because he runs a more effective and entertaining PR operation. There is much to be learnt from Good and Bad Power, but Armando Ianucci's absurdist comedy The Thick of It comes closer to the reality of government today.

John Gray is professor of European thought at the LSE; his most recent book is 'Heresies' (Granta)