Real change or empty rhetoric?

Earlier this week Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivered an interesting speech to the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Oxford. He talked of the power of today’s technology in organising and uniting communities around the world on particular issues, such as climate change, the financial crisis or matters of foreign policy, and said that this citizen empowerment meant that we could create a “truly global society”, that foreign policy “can never be the same again” and could “no longer be run by elites”.

It was a powerful speech with some welcome words. It wasn’t really picked up by traditional media but the world of Twitter (NB Brown’s wife, Sarah, has over 440,000 followers) was alive with praise. There was also much skepticism, including from within the audience he spoke to. Did he really mean it? How would he balance this ‘global citizenship’ with the national interest? He is of course right about the empowering nature of the internet and digital communications which bridges national boundaries, people and cultures. 10 Downing Street is participating in Bebo’s Big Think to encourage users to inform our politicians about ideas for the future.

But it’s not the first time the Prime Minister has spoken about technology changing foreign policy forever. Gordon Brown is right that global injustices and events are prevalent in our living rooms within seconds of them occurring (the best recent example being Iran). But this ‘global citizenship’ he speaks of is a bottom-up approach. Foreign policy – and indeed much of global policy – is governed by structures and systems that are inherently top-down. Our representative democracy was built upon it. Brown admitted this by suggesting that we can’t deal with environmental problems through existing institutions and that the likes of the United Nations are now out of date in dealing with foreign policy. It remains to be seen what he would advocate instead or whether this is just empty rhetoric as we move towards a General Election next year. However, his proposed ‘constitutional changes’ to Parliament as a result of the MP expense debacle shouldn’t necessarily fill us with a whole lot of confidence.

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