Although there is nothing objectionable with this stated objective of governing, there is often a wide gap between the objectives and actual results. There are several reasons why this is so. Firstly, there might be no unity of purpose and co-ordination among the various agencies and groups that were instated to carry out the objectives of governance. Secondly, of the two aspects of governing – improving and authority – the former is likely to be overlooked and the latter is prone to be abused.
While national governments are not the only institutions of authority, they are quite distinct from the other forms. For example, institutions such as the Church, minority groups, trade unions, professional associations, human rights groups, etc all wield authority over certain people up to certain levels. This is true even with institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union, which apparently have a broader jurisdiction to exercise their authority. But the authority of the state “has a control of territory and population that is not generally given to other organizations and institutions, and ultimately it has coercive powers that are also not generally given to others. The government governs in the name of ‘the people’–the population of a given territory. Often, this population is a nation; and we generally associate governments with nation states, although identifying the nation is not always easy.” (Bromley and Clarke, 2009, p.326) This insight into the difference between state authority and other forms of authority is quite crucial to understanding why the former is constantly under scrutiny. In all other cases, the objectives are limited and interests are narrowly defined. Moreover, there is no pretence of serving the interests of the ‘greater common good’ with any of the aforementioned institutions. But in the case of a nation-state and its governance through democratic means, the general public has expressed their preferences electorally and is in anticipation of its execution. But only rarely do promises made during election campaigns get reflected in actions and results. Often, election campaigns turn out to be no more than an exercise in grabbing and exploiting authority, rather than an exercise of carrying out the public mandate. Given that this has largely been the trend since the inception of parliamentary democracy in Britain, it is no surprise that the general public views its government with a high degree of suspicion. Seen in this context, it is easy to understand why the authority of the state to govern is always contested. This is true in Western democracies such as the U.K. and the U.S.A, as it is in more authoritarian and dictatorial states elsewhere in the world (Bromley, 2009, p.422).
When one takes a look at the disconnection between public policy and public opinion in the U.K., one is inclined to say that contestation of state authority is much warranted. Take, say, the most recent economic crisis that the world witnessed. In early 2008, the whole world was plunged into an economic recession, following the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States. The U.K. too was not immune to this global wave and hence got affected quite badly too. Just as some of the major institutions in the U.S.A were on the verge of bankruptcy, our own Bank of England, Royal Bank of Scotland, Merrill Lynch, etc were teetering on the brink as well. The policies of the New Labour government in the years leading up to the economic crisis and the remedial measures in its aftermath do give away where the government’s loyalties lie. The blind adherence to the principle of ‘light regulation’ and the irrational faith in unfettered capitalism had led to several economic crises in the past. But despite repeated failures of this system, the U.K. government has not learnt its lessons, making the people vulnerable to more such turmoil in the future too (Blakeley and Saward, 2009, p.352). Just as Sir David King, rightly pointed to the flawed priorities of the government in the context of the War on Terror, the same can be said of the economic policies of our government in the last few decades. Despite growing disparities in the distribution of income between socio-economic groups, and despite falling education standards at primary and high school levels, and despite no improvement in the standard of living for the middle classes, our government is keen on pushing the capitalist agenda on its people. Hence, it is understandable why people have become suspicious of their governments and sceptical of its policies. In order to change the situation, people have to organize at the grassroots level and conduct public demonstrations as a way of letting know the government that its authority cannot be taken for granted.
Simon Bromley and John Clarke, Chapter 7, Governing Problems, Exploring Social Lives, published in 2009, The Open University.
Georgina Blakeley and Michael Saward, Chapter 8, Political Ordering, Exploring Social Lives, published in 2009, The Open University.
Simon Bromley, Chapter 9, Pirates and Predators: Authority and Power in International Affairs, Exploring Social Lives, published in 2009, The Open University.