Good and bad power: the ideals and betrayals of government Geoff Mulgan; Allen Lane 2006.

Author:Bright, Martin
Position:Reviews - Book review

The man in the serious cardigan

Geoff Mulgan, a man who could fairly claim to be the chief ideologue of New Labour, takes himself very seriously indeed. I remember an incident shortly after the 1997 election when he complained about a diary item that appeared in the now defunct Observer political diary, Demon Ears. The item reported that he had worn a cardigan to a meeting at Downing Street, something that had caused sniggers among the suited-and-booted young guns of the new regime. Mulgan contacted the Observer, where I was working at the time (in fact I enjoyed a rather nice bottle of champagne for bringing in the scoop), to say that he failed to see the public interest in reporting his attire when he was on important state business.

After reading Good and Bad Power, I now believe Mulgan has every right to be taken seriously. This is a formidable piece of work and you only wonder what he could have written if he hadn't spent so much time in Downing Street. Mulgan's argument would be that his years of public service have informed his thinking on political history and philosophy and I hope, for his sake, that is true. Because he spent a very long time at the heart of a project which is beginning, in its decadence, to look something very much like 'bad power'.

Mulgan worked on policy and strategy within Downing Street from 1997 to 2004, and has been at the heart of the Blairite project in government from the outset. He was, at various times, director of the government's Strategy Unit and head of policy in the Prime Minister's Office. Since cutting the Downing Street umbilical cord two years ago, he has been Director of the Young Institiute, which devotes itself to examining how political thought can have an effect on the ground, something once known as praxis in the trendy left-wing circles from which Mulgan emerged in the 1980s.

The scope and ambition of this book are vast: it aims at once to be an examination of political power since the beginning of human history and provide signposts to the way forward. It begins with an impressive anecdotal romp from ancient Sumeria, through Zhou China, to revolutionary France and twentieth-century state-building. This allows Mulgan to develop his theory that trust (rather than money or violence) is the defining characteristic of successful states. What follows is a persuasive argument for the study of the ethics of government power. The middle section of the book carefully examines the relationship...

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