It is now more than three years since the Copenhagen climate conference. If it is remembered at all in the UK, it is not remembered fondly. For all the sleeplessness that it induced in the then Climate Secretary, Ed Miliband, it did not produce a great leap forward in our response to climate change.

The earth keeps getting hotter; the ice caps persistently melt; and amid the wreckage of a deeper and more sustained GDP slump than the notoriously grim 1930s, it is not obvious that many of us can even shrug.

But, maybe, the conference was more telling, even positive, than all of this suggests. While Martin Jacques and Benjamin Barber interpret the conference very differently, they both see great significance in it. Not so much in terms of our capacity to respond to climate change but insofar as where political power now resides.

Jacques was a co-founder of Demos and has since gone on to author When China Rules the World, a powerful and highly readable study. In it he writes of the conference:

“China forged a close alliance with India, and also Brazil and South Africa, in what became known as the Basic grouping ... For the first time in a major global conference in the modern era, neither the United States nor Europe was in the driving seat; indeed, Europe was not even a serious player in the final stages of the conference. The authors of the final agreement were the Basic countries led by China, with the United States playing a secondary role.”

Barber – who this year will publish a book called If Mayors Ruled the World – saw the same conference rather differently. Under the headline ‘can cities save us?’ the RSA recently reported on an interview with Barber in which he said:

“If you look at the attempts to follow up Kyoto at Copenhagen and Rio, the bad news was that about 180 nations showed up to explain why their sovereignty did not permit them to do anything. The good news, however, was that mayors were convening as well as heads of state. They stayed on, signed protocols and took action.” 

Power is passing west to east for Jacques; from the United States and Europe to China and other Basic countries. In contrast, power is passing from nation-states downwards to cities, according to Barber. And both Jacques and Barber take the conference to support their perspectives. 

How can Jacques and Barber look at the same conference and read it so differently?

The Jacques analysis stops when the nation-states go home, whereas Barber thinks this is when the real action begins. Jacques is right to see the rising power of the Basic countries, with their emphasis upon their own development and the inviolable sovereignty of nation-states, as explaining the failure to reach a binding agreement. But Barber is also right to see something revealing and encouraging in the protocols signed by mayors.

It is in acknowledgement of the eastwards shifting power analysed by Jacques that our Prime Minister has enlarged his carbon footprint this parliamentary recess by going to sell UK PLC to India. His Deputy, however, only travelled as far as Mansion House to announce that twenty more areas of England are to be given greater independence from Whitehall under the “city deal” scheme.

While David Cameron looks east to an export-led recovery, Nick Clegg seeks an economic renaissance built outwards from our cities. As Cameron adjusts to the world that Jacques sees emerging, Clegg tries to build a different world upon the insights of Barber.

Cities are, according to Barber, units of pragmatic problem solving, while states are bedevilled by gridlock and inability to deliver. Similarly, while the urgent often drives out the important in western democracies, the Chinese state has a capacity to overcome problems by remorselessly favouring the important, instead of the urgent.

In this sense, the future belongs to the pragmatists, whether they are running cities or countries. Be it cross-dressing or reaching across the aisle, the point of pragmatism is to do what is needed to tackle problems. Less politics and better government, the precise opposite, in fact, to what Christian Guy argues the government’s social care reforms amount to.      

More power for English cities should be a step towards better government. And a UK better able to adapt to the changing world that Jacques heralds and deliver the problem-solving that Barber looks to cities to generate.

Recent reports that English cities are facing an unprecedented financial crisis mean, however, that even if Clegg can succeed in prising power away from the zealous and untrusting citadels of Whitehall, this power may exist only exist de jure, not de facto. It may be more the other way around in China.


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