The current drama in Italy is only the latest – acute – reminder of the sense across the developed world that an era is ending and the journey into a new one is uncharted, uncertain and fraught with risk.
It was just one of the factors which provoked George Soros, speaking in Paris on Tuesday and a deep supporter of the European Union, to urge the EU to “transform itself into an association that countries like Britain would want to join”, as he warned that it was “facing an existential crisis” on several fronts.
The rise of globalisation, with its threats to established ways of living across the world, has provoked a powerful political response, most notably through the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as US President, but also with the growth of populist movements – left and right – in a range of European countries.
The politics of protest and posturing is beginning to get a real grip on the levers of power, or, perhaps more accurately, of impotence.
The background is straightforward. The post-1945 settlements have become excessively strained – whether in international relationships and co-operation, in the establishment of welfare states and social protections, in the funding of traditional state service provision or in the setting of economic priorities to generate prosperity.
And the media has become increasingly powerful in framing current democratic and governmental choices while decreasingly focused on society’s real challenges and feeling little responsibility towards society as a whole.
As a consequence, very significant sections of popular opinion have lost confidence in the ability of governments, of whatever colour, to address issues of important day-to-day concern to them. They do not see the state providing the basic economic and social security in which they, quite reasonably, expect to live.
Britain is currently an excellent case in point as both government and opposition appear stranded in a complicated game of virtue-signalling and false controversies without seeming to have any coherent approach to the challenges they face.
Brexit is the most obvious of these, but it is by no means the only one. As was highlighted in research published last week, the NHS is at breaking point, facing a significant shortfall in funding – and cutting spending in other areas to make up the gap is no longer possible. The choice is a politically unpalatable one that politicians have been reluctant to face up to: either raise taxes to maintain and gradually improve the health and social care system, or keep funding as it is and lower our expectations of what the system can and should provide.
Similar tough decisions need to be made on housing, immigration and how to reverse the economic decay of some parts of the country, among other issues. The lack of serious thinking about these challenges was reflected in the 2017 general election manifestos (at least after the Conservative manifesto launch blip, which in some ways illustrated the problem).
Too often, politics and governance have seemed to focus on the increasingly trivial at a time when the future challenges are in fact increasingly complicated and the solutions very difficult. In many countries, lengthy political stalemate has made decisive leadership very difficult to exercise.
That is why the Policy Institute at King’s College London is launching “Towards and sustainable state”, a new project that provides a platform for informed debate and analysis of some of the UK’s biggest policy challenges during this time of uncertainty.
Populist movements have no hope of providing clear answers to the strategic challenges faced by our societies. It is mainstream political parties that must therefore tackle them. Our hope is that we can contribute to this process and stimulate some new thinking on these issues before the next general election, which may end up being sooner rather than later.
Charles Clarke is a former Labour Home Secretary and Visiting Professor at King’s College London