A summer to review, renew and prepare for action

By James Arroyo OBE

At a time of transition from lockdown in the UK, the Ditchley Summer Project aimed to help members of the influential Ditchley community review what they had learned so far during the pandemic and prepare for action in the struggle to renew and rebuild that surely lies ahead. Over seven hundred people joined the Project spanning different generations, geographies and fields of expertise. Over the three weeks we held over thirty events and discussions with an extraordinary range of panellists and speakers.

This article, which is also the introduction to the summary document from the programme, lays out from my personal perspective only, some of the major themes that emerged. Key points and participants for each session are detailed in the document, with each bullet summary linked to a fuller account. It amounts to a tremendous resource of wisdom and commentary from many distinguished and thoughtful people from eighteen to eighty and up who shared their thoughts freely and frankly.

What struck me most is that this crisis is a complex challenge to our belief in the fundamental value of personal freedom. This came out most explicitly in Nick Burns’ conversation with Secretary Condoleezza Rice but was implicit in many of the other discussions. We will have to find our way through this pragmatically, balancing freedom with the need of the moment for order and compliance. But we need to be clear at all times that a resumption of the human journey towards individual empowerment and freedom remains our overriding aim. We should try to use our recovery from the crisis as an opportunity to take a big new step forward toward that often interrupted but never abandoned dream. 

Here is what I heard:

A continued crisis of self confidence in the West. The US was seen as repeatedly asking itself ‘who are we’ and acting like ‘a defensive fortress,’ worried about what others might do to it with cyberattacks; fretting about the Chinese authoritarian model, its efficiency and its ability to ‘deliver’; beset by a retreat into identity politics, twisted around a series of internal crises. When the US, still the necessary power for the World, steps away from international leadership, then there is no one to take its place and that sets the tone for the rest of us. This is despite the objective strength and the continuing global appeal and economic success of the democratic world as a collective. There was agreement that regaining confidence is crucial to the renewal of democratic health, vitality and effectiveness but also that the reverse holds true – confidence flows from effectiveness.

The importance of a sense of mission and purpose for institutions. Institutions with clarity of social purpose are doing well in the crisis. Those whose purpose is muddled or minimal are struggling to find their way. This applies across government, politics, the private sector and civil society.  A clear sense of purpose will sustain institutions as ‘a guiding light’ through the difficult times ahead and over the long term. Brad Smith described Microsoft as a company where technology and business must ultimately be subservient to democracy. NHS and London police leaders’ discussions also stressed how clarity of mission was helping them work through the grey and ambiguous dilemmas of this crisis.

The necessity of competence for today’s world not yesterday’s. Mission and purpose are going to ring hollow without a basic ability to deliver. The root of incompetence in crisis is a failure to have prepared in normal times, whether this means stockpiling equipment or building knowledge through education. Where there has been sustained investment and seriousness of purpose over time, then systems and people have stood up to the strain – an example was the resilience of the Internet and Cloud services which have coped well. Where that investment was lacking and benign conditions have been taken as permanent, there has been no resilience and responses have stuttered. Another essential trait of competence is that it marries long term ambition with short term incremental progress. There was close to consensus that we need large scale transformation, especially in education and adult education, but this will be achieved through an aggregation of ‘small actions undertaken consistently over time’. Perceived competence – a value judgement on performance – is also impossible without frankness and honesty over the scale of challenges. Leaders need to be straight about what they know and what they don’t; what they can do and what they can’t; what has been achieved and what hasn’t.

More realism but less cynicism from all of us as the public. We appear to be in a cycle of perpetual disappointment with our leaders, amounting to a deep cynicism that effective leadership is even possible. This feeds a deep suspicion that everyone in public life is corrupt. Journalists have been shocked to discover that the public views them as part of the ‘elite performance’, the flip side of the coin to the politician on the make. In the UK, the appointment to the role of prime minister has become the almost inevitable prelude to a long-lasting loss of personal reputation. But we haven’t yet identified where and how we will discover the more perfect leadership we crave, and we haven’t yet quite admitted to ourselves that our leaders generally reflect what we have become. We have a right to insist on standards, but we have got to get away from the position that everyone who disagrees with us is either stupid or evil, all the time. As Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, ‘If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.’ But we’re not devils either. We, the public, have to take responsibility and realise our agency alongside leaders.

More value to quiet and local, rather than noisy and national, virtue. Taking responsibility means doing things in real life, not just emoting on social media. The crisis has shown the immense capacity of the public for kindness, neighbourliness and resourcefulness, alongside its less attractive revelation of inequality and hate. There is a hunger for responsibility and the right to allocate resources at the level that most people can comprehend, which means locally. People say they want ‘levelling up’ to be something they are helped to achieve, not something that is done for them but by them. Communities should be given the tools, the command over financial resources and the challenge and responsibility to live up to their demand for agency. Building trust locally is the first step to a renewal of national and international trust and a step back towards essential multilateral action. Too much centralisation destroys trust in authority and elites and infantilises people.

We can push back on globalisation but we can’t undo the way we have connected the global and the local. Technology has reduced the effectiveness of borders in separating one country’s conception of the rule of law and rights from another’s. This has far reaching consequences. Open societies broadcast the totality of what they are in an entirely uncontrolled way across the Internet. Goods, ideas, intellectual property and people flow in and out. This brings advantages such as innovation and vitality but also vulnerabilities such as the foreign manipulation of information, cyber attacks, economic espionage and a hell of a struggle to control a free-flowing virus like COVID-19. We should work on our vulnerabilities, for example trying to develop cyber deterrence and more resilient supply chains, but we can only go so far before we kill the free exchange that defines us and is the source of our success. We can’t separate success at home from success abroad.

We have to put our trust in the power of freedom. Secretary Condoleezza Rice made an extraordinarily personal and articulate plea for belief in the power of free men and women to prevail. This strange crisis poses difficult questions for freedom in its blurring of personal and collective risk and intrusion into personal life. We will have to find our way through this pragmatically, balancing freedom and order, but we need to be clear at all times that a resumption of the human journey towards individual empowerment and freedom is our aim. We should try to use this crisis to take a big new step forward toward that often interrupted but never abandoned dream.

Freedom means messiness, contradictions and inefficiency but it’s better than the alternative. We’re having a tough time but we’ve had it much worse in the past and come through. We have a series of complex interlocking crises because we’ve connected the World. But there have been bigger tipping points and greater evils: World War II, Stalin’s purges, assassinations and, on race in America, lynchings and killings attracting not global demonstrations as happened after the killing of George Floyd but only a minor footnote in the local press. To get through, we will have to balance idealism with pragmatism, individual freedom with collective action. We need grown up leadership but we have to be grown up citizens too. Taking lessons from Isaiah Berlin, this means navigating contradictions between values, accepting the world as it is but without succumbing to cynicism, or losing our hope of making something better.

Well-founded confidence is both the best defence and the best ambassador. We need to be both clear eyed about the nature of China today and frankly critical on actions that we see as incompatible with our conception of universal human rights, or that threaten our core interests. There were unpleasant aspects of the West’s mercantile embrace of China’s economic possibilities that we should reject as incompatible with who we are. We shouldn’t let China use Russia as some sort of well armed but crazy younger brother that only the sober and greater power of China can contain. But our main approach has to be positive, not negative. The democratic world remains profoundly competitive and we should stop talking below our weight. We need to make investments in the future: more vision, more competence, more innovation and more education. Together these investments should build confidence in our core value of individual freedom for all, built on the individual rights of all. With our confidence regained, we should be able to accept and engage with the many aspects of China that are positive: the contribution to the global economy, Chinese innovation, Chinese culture, and what will be an an absolutely essential Chinese contribution to global challenges on climate, food, biodiversity and disease.

Actions not words, especially not 280 characters. The crisis has given, at least those of us not grappling with it directly, some time and space to think, let’s not waste it. We’ve been reminded that as human beings we don’t always perform well on the hoof – snap judgements tap into our prejudices and emotions; snap communications spark prejudices and emotions. When it comes to how to run a country, the best means of communication, both at home and abroad, is example not exhortation. Let us show the world what we can do and put less emphasis on what we say. One way suggested to signal this: if you are a serious person then stop using Twitter, at least other than as a sign post to serious work. Slogans and soundbites have their place but it’s noticeable that we wisely don’t apply them to things we really care about, such as our personal relationships. Why do we apply them so freely to our democratic relationships? Most of all, let’s stop lying, to ourselves and to others. There’s a global pandemic. Superpower competition could have unintended consequences. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to find some common purpose.

As the second wave of the pandemic builds in intensity in Europe and beyond, then it is clear we face a tough winter. With this in mind, Ditchley’s October conference, in hybrid face to face and virtual form, explored the difficult question of what we should do if hopes for vaccines and effective treatments prove overly optimistic. In the US and the UK, measures to control and manage the pandemic have revealed weaknesses in democracy and highlighted the question: what is it about modern liberal democratic societies that makes a world without a vaccine so difficult to manage?

The report from the October conference will be available shortly, but in the meantime, the full set of summaries from each of the sessions held during the Ditchley Summer Project, including short and long reads, can be found here.