I went last week to one of those slightly random events where you don’t know anyone and you’ve been invited because you’re ‘interesting’. It turned out to be great fun, lots of people of relevance, and most importantly a renewer of my sense of optimism, which has been sorely tested in the last few months.
One of our projects was to identify something that could improve Britain’s place in the world. Some of the ideas included a sort of international citizens’ service, and a project helping SMEs to identify export opportunities. But my favourite one was a suggestion that we should start a new kind of world governing structure.
Obviously that was utterly implausible. But it got me thinking. Also last week, I heard a minister expound on his theory of speed limits… He said that if someone wanted to introduce lower limits, they had to work around all the various people and institutions involved, do their homework, get ambient speed testing done, and only propose at most a ten mile per hour reduction. Then once that was accepted, go back and start again, for another ten miles per hour. And if necessary another and another. There was no point in trying to reduce a 60 limit to a 30 straight out. But if you worked at it for some years, you might even eventually get a 20 limit.
The same theory applies to all sorts of areas of public policy. Persuasion, co-option, evidence and incremental change are far likelier to produce the outcome that you desire. But to be fair, it’s not terribly interesting, it’s really hard work and it takes a long time.
So it’s hugely encouraging that there are still politicians out there with so much faith and optimism that they propose big ideas. Alan Duncan’s proposal on global arms trading is a great example – and one of the reasons that he will be taken seriously is that the UK is a real leader in development policy.
You can agree or disagree with the principle of aid - as I have said many times, I believe that effectively deployed aid and development money (and knowledge transfers, security support and all the other areas that help other countries to progress) is a sound investment both for moral and self-interested reasons (and because we signed up to an international treaty forty years ago, and if we don’t abide by them, why should anyone else).
But beyond that, given that we do, and will continue to, have an aid budget, the very least we should do is ensure it performs as well as possible. And to do that, we have to be prepared to make some imaginative and very different suggestions – which requires optimism and hope and a conviction that politics can indeed make the difference. Dogged implementation is important, but to have something worth implementing, a sense of radicalism and a belief in a big idea is imperative.