Democracy is under siege around the world
Published by The i paper (12th August, 2019)
Once again, I am reporting on turbulent events in a place where ordinary people are risking their liberty to demand greater freedom from an autocratic government. This time it is Hong Kong, where the bumbling actions of a Chinese stooge called Carrie Lam have sparked street protests to the alarm of her political masters in Beijing. There are fears these clashes in one of the world’s main financial centres could end in bloodshed as arrests mount, tear gas swirls in the streets and threats from the authorities intensify.
Most of those in the protests are teenagers and young adults in their twenties. They are polite and friendly when I talk to them about their actions while it is fascinating to observe their fluid tactics and flat leadership. They admit to fears and tell me they are prepared to confront China’s tanks and troops with their gas masks, umbrellas and wok lids. When I ask why they might risk their lives, they say they are battling for democracy and freedoms being eroded. “I’m so afraid there will be casualties and deaths but our values are under attack,” said one 18-year-old science student.
These are young people who grew up in comparative freedom in a globalised city and fear for a future living under the straitjacket of Communist Party control. They are desperate to avoid being subsumed into a state that relies on repression and technology to control one-fifth of the world’s population. They have morality on their side in a showdown seen as a defining tussle for our age between freedom and autocracy. But it is hard, sadly, to be optimistic they will win – as most freely admit.
What a contrast to Britain, home to the mother of parliaments, consumed by a wide perception that democracy is decaying. This has been underlined by the think tank Onward, which claimed to find a desire for more authoritarian government in a poll with more than half of respondents agreeing that having a strong leader who does not bother with parliament was a good thing. The findings were particularly alarming among younger voters, with one-quarter of 25 to 34 year olds saying democracy is a bad way to run a country, one-third supporting army rule and two-thirds liking the idea of a “strong man” leader.
Onward uses this poll to try and demolish liberalism. It leaps to conclusions that the pendulum in politics has swung to ‘the politics of security and belonging’ based on a survey showing people are fed up with Westminster and tend to be mildly conservative, even opposed to the growth of cities or more people entering higher education in its research. Yes, the results underline the importance of family and community – but all recent prime ministers claim to have espoused these priorities. The big question this really raises is why politics has failed so disastrously in Britain, especially for younger people?
It is easy to pick over policy failures that have led to such intense disgust – the Iraq invasion, the expenses scandal, the banking crisis – through to issues that affect younger people such as lack of housing or the sluggish response to climate change. It is also easy to ignore successes, such as the skill with which Britain positioned itself as the gateway to the European Union to attract Asian car makers and Hollywood film producers. Some core problems also face other nations in the struggle to respond to rampant globalisation and a technological revolution transforming society with such speed. Certainly these emphasise the need for wise government, not simply less government.
Yet the solutions go far beyond political positioning. It is not about the Tories turning even further right or Labour’s revival of radical chic socialism. The problem is abject failure of our political system, symbolised by a Brexit farce that appalls most voters regardless of stance. Just look at the recent run of governments that led us into this hideous mess. Each one was worse than its predecessor until we ended up with a slippery and unprincipled buffoon in Downing Street displaying contempt for our parliamentary system, his strings pulled by an aide who shows similar contempt towards almost everyone.
Our antique political set-up struggles with modernity, exposed in pitiless light by Brexit. Proportional representation would help ensure Westminster better reflects the nation and embraces fresh voices, yet as we can see elsewhere in Europe this does not thwart the rise of populist demagogues. We need to drastically reform the system to kick out hereditary peers, devolve power faster, thwart the toxic influence of party paymasters, tear apart tribalism that looks so anachronistic in an age of tech-driven transparency, stop ex-politicians from jumping on sleazy gravy trains.
Then we should go further. I recently hosted an event with Rory Stewart when he asked why ministers need to be MPs, a good question since this clearly limits the talent pool as seen by a glance at the current cabinet. Do we need more direct democracy, whether based on the Athenian or digital model? Were the Chartists right to insist MPs serve only one year? How do we bolster accountability? And get evidence to play a bigger role in policy, a need highlighted by Boris Johnson calling for tougher sentencing and more prison places despite the clear failure of such headline-grabbing stunts.
For all its faults, democracy remains the most dynamic and tolerant system of government. Younger people dismissing it so lightly must ask why others around the world are risking so much to share in their good fortune of living in a free society – and why my father’s generation suffered to protect it from the Nazis? Spurn defeatism. Focus instead on finding ways to restore faith in a tarnished system – and nothing should be sacred since this is our fight for the future.