Our systems of governance from local to international are not fit to face 21stC challenges


It’s not just dealing with the world of all things online that our present institutions are struggling with.

One of the most wise and high calibre people I’ve ever met, Dr Catherine Howe, tipped us off on this blogpost about governance by former New Labour supremo Geoff Mulgan, one of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s key policy advisers the 1990s & 2000s.

The paper is published by Nesta – formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts (an organisation spun out of the Dept for Culture, Media and Sport).

Mr Mulgan writes:

“In the 19th and 20th centuries, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation initially had disastrous results for millions as they moved to cities blighted by pollution, high crime and disease. In response, societies created a plethora of new institutions – from police to public health, from universal education to inspectorates, from trade unions to microcredit, and from welfare states to regulators.”

For those of you familiar with my Lost Cambridge blog, the above sounds very familiar. Shortly after Parliament passed the necessary legislation, we got our first police station. Fast forward to the present day and the Conservatives want to close Cambridge’s last police station, leaving the city without a permanent police base inside the city boundaries for the first time since Cambridge Borough Council voted to create and fund a borough police force.

Things Cambridge got to deal with social problems over the past 200 years.

We also got a new courthouse in 1843 at the top of Castle Hill.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 Photo

…but this was at the expense of the last remaining building of the old Cambridge Castle.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_1 1841

…and the Liberal-supporting Cambridge General Advertiser was not slow on who to blame for this.

410804 Remains of castle hill gatehouse demolished_2 1841.jpeg

In the end, we lost both to that glorious 20th Century invention, the Car Park.

As an aside, the Commons Science & Technology Committee have recommended that the Government bans the sale of cars powered by fossil fuels by 2035. So they’ll need to find another use for that car park – like an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

This was also a time of growing museum and library expansion – Cambridge legend John Pink got us our first public library.

181016 First Free Public Library Jesus Lane Friends Meeting House

…and stuck around for the next half century to build it into an institution with purpose-built premises.

And for all the criticism of Victorian prisons, what we had before them was even worse. William Milner Fawcett‘s prison on Castle Hill was quite modern.

Cambridge County Jail

This was the site that would see Cambridge’s last public hanging.

We also got a big post office in town.

181006 Petty Cury Post Office 1900

This was on the corner of Petty Cury & St Andrew’s Street – long since demolished for the Lion Yard redevelopment. In the various housing crises we got inter-war council housing

271130 Cambridge Housing Soc new homes

…and in the post-war crisis my neighbourhood got pre-fabs.

461018 Lichfield Rd prefabs Neville Rd Nissan huts

When we started running out of burial ground space we got a new crematorium.


…but it took us decades to begin to address our town’s car parking problem – we’re still struggling.

360323 First Car Parking signs in Cambridge 1936

…This new ‘street furniture’ was quite controversial that it became the subject of local satire – alongside what is now the current guildhall in the mid-1930s.

360919 Ronald Searle road signs as vegetables

Newspaper images from the Cambridgeshire Collection – founded by John Pink!

In post-war Cambridge, demands for new retail and shopping facilities led to many a plan put in place by Gordon Logie – all of which seem to have been rejected.

180930 Gordon Logie in Reeve_2 1960s

From The Cambridge that never was, by Reeve. (1976) 

While we didn’t lose gems such as Robert Sayle’s premises, we didn’t get the fun stuff we were promised such as two new civic halls and an international centre.

“What does all of the above point to?”

Political institutions & actors engaging with civic society to invent institutions (and buildings to house them) to solve social problems in a rapidly-changing society.

Mr Mulgan writes about the challenges of long term social care in an ageing society. Lifelong learning is another – covered by Nesta here. With no more ‘jobs for life’ the idea that the individual has to pay to retrain over-and-over again to get to a high-skilled level – in an era of very high housing costs, is clearly utterly unsustainable. Something’s got to give.

Climate emergencies and ecocide

The forest fires in The Amazon, as well as those in Alaska and Siberia amongst other places have rung serious alarm bells. Earlier this evening I took part in a very large cycling critical mass ride through Cambridge – one of the largest I’ve seen. As I said to one of my fellow riders, fascist heads of state setting rainforests on fire is one of my big red lines.

And no, EUR20m is not nearly enough to fight the fires, let alone pay for the recovery costs.

I have no clue how to respond to any of this

As an individual I feel utterly bewildered at the scale of what is happening to our environment and climate. It’s similar to what Laurie Penny mentioned in her thread here on the impact that this is all having on our collective mental health.

There are also similarities to similar dark times in decades and centuries gone by, and how people and organisations responded. The example I have is how the Cambridge Daily News reported what was happening in international politics in the 1930s, and how it and local people responded to them – something rarely covered in conventional history books. In summer 2018 during the heatwave, I spent a whole month in the Cambridgeshire Collection going through every copy of the Cambridge Daily News between 1935-39. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. What’s clear to me is that people and institutions were grappling with phenomena they had never had to deal with before.

With the two historical blogposts, focus on the local reaction to the events rather than the events themselves – which inevitably carry a huge amount of historical and political baggage as we know what happened. The people writing and reading the newspapers at the time did not. For example, while the British Government had given up on the League of Nations as an institution, the people of Cambridge clearly had not – for our League of Nations Union was still meeting.

381111 Cambridge League of Nations Association.jpg

Cambridge had its share of peace meetings – this one below from 1936 with a soon to be famous face, Aneurin Bevan, the founder of the NHS as Minister for Health in Attlee’s postwar government.

360303 Peace Meeting with Aneurin Bevan.JPG

Above – both from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Cambridge – a protesting city

I wrote about the number and variety of protests that had already taken place at the start of the year in this blogpost. The news of the Amazon fires increased the turnout of cyclists at the latest critical mass by XR Cambridge.

A list of protests on issues beyond Brexit and the Environment, such as funding for schools and health have already been organised locally for the autumn. And yet for all of the protests outside of the Guildhall, the seat of Cambridge City Council, that council has perilously few powers and even fewer resources to respond to the crises that are afflicting our city – from homelessness to air pollution to the state of public transport. Which is why it doesn’t matter how much money the Prime Minister is able to release to the list of towns awarded high street funding, the institutional structures that caused many of the problems linked to austerity are still there. But which political party has the courage to bring in much needed local government reform – radical reform?

The United Nations – or just a talking shop for executive branches of nation states?

What the UN (whether through the General Assembly or the Security Council, or other agencies that makes it up) is not – and never was, was an assembly containing representatives of the people. For a start more than a few of the member states represented on the UN are dictatorships.

The idea of a global parliamentary assembly is not a new one. It was one of the ideas put forward when the League of Nations was constituted over a century ago. The concept was in part introduced to us in Cambridge by Lella Secor Florence when she moved to Cambridge shortly after the First World War.


Hero: Lella Secor Florence a few years before her marriage to soon-to-be Cambridge economist Philip Florence. 

A genuine internationalist, she was previously been a member of the Women’s Peace Party in the United States of America -an organisation that amongst other things demanded a World Federation – as one of the photos in this blogpost shows.

As we go forward, the historian in me hopes that we learn from the successes, failures, and actions of those that tried to solve similar overwhelming problems in the past – for example those women in Cambridge who made the case for women having an equal basis in international diplomacy as men at the end of the First World War. (We’re still waiting for this to be achieved – institutionalised sexism being stubbornly resilient).



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