Beware authority without legitimacy

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Institutions have no power without legitimacy, English exam boards are learning this lesson the hard way

Legitimacy is the answer to the question: “What gives them the right to do that?”. The search for legitimacy has taken President George W.Bush to the United Nations Security Council. But legitimacy is necessary not only for political authority.

Global business can operate successfully only by persuading a sceptical public of its legitimacy. Everyone who makes decisions or demands attention needs legitimacy – religious leaders, police officers and intellectuals. And legitimacy is essential for those who stand in judgment on us – courts and examination boards.

You may not have previously heard of OCR, the examination board, in the news for its manipulation of exam results. This anonymity is deliberate. OCR was formed by a merger of the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations, the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and the examination board of the Royal Society of Arts. Oxford, Cambridge and Royal are global brand names to die for. Who would not prize a qualification with such labels?

But not everyone sees it that way – and not the new board of OCR. In modern Britain, this approach is deemed elitist. According to Tony Giddens, sociologist and New Labour guru, in a modern Third Way “the only route to establishing authority is democracy”. But Prof Giddens is wrong. Max Weber, the founder of sociology, described three routes to the exercise of authority: tradition, charisma and rational process.

And while democracy is one rational route to authority, it is not the only one. Proven success is another: Sony and Microsoft have legitimate authority in shaping the future of their industries, derived from their past achievements. The answer to protesting demonstrators who ask of business “what gives them the right to do that?” is that legitimacy comes from success in meeting consumer needs in competitive markets.

Tradition and charisma matter, too. Mr Bush’s presidency had a shaky start – had he really won by a rational process? But the office of the presidency gives authority even to undistinguished figures: the lustre of Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy rubs off. Tony Blair’s charisma gives him the authority to offer Mr Bush support, while Edmund Stoiber’s lack of it kept him out of the German chancellery.

But OCR relies on processes and flow charts, not people. Charisma is the hallmark of the great teacher but the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which regulates exam boards, has no truck with charisma: its concern is with technical standards. Having eschewed tradition and charisma and success, OCR derives its legitimacy from the QCA. The trouble is that the QCA does not have much legitimacy to confer.

You do not need to worry much about the legitimacy of your actions when things are going well. If Mr Bush could be sure of winning the war and establishing a stable Iraqi regime in a few days, it would not matter much what the rest of the world thought. But, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, “legitimate regimes have a fund of goodwill that excuses them from short-term mistakes”.

If Mr Bush is to prosecute a war, he needs that fund of goodwill. OCR needs it too. Examiners and examining bodies have always made mistakes but they can weather them as long as there is general belief in the legitimacy of their processes. Still, we can ultimately look to a democratically elected government to sort things out.

The greatest problems of legitimacy are faced by bodies with no tradition, no charisma, no record of success and not even a vestige of democratic accountability. When drought hit publicly owned water suppliers, customers prayed for rain and reduced consumption. When the reservoirs of privatised Yorkshire Water began to run dry, people blamed the water company and jeered at water-saving measures. The fund of goodwill had vanished like the water itself.

We knew British Rail was incompetent but as a publicly owned entity it enjoyed legitimacy. There was no tolerance of error by Railtrack, its privatised successor. When things began to go wrong, the company encountered waves of hostility. When they got worse, it panicked and engineered its own destruction.

To exercise authority without legitimacy is to court disaster. That is why Mr Bush needs to go to the UN. And it is why Britain’s educational administrators, having swiftly eroded the legitimacy of the long tradition of A-level qualifications, are now toying with a baccalaureate – re-establishing legitimacy by stealing tradition and charisma from elsewhere.

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