Worrying signs of moves towards illiberalism
Opposition parties often complain about the unfairness of the rules of the political game. Until they win a majority. Even the Tories have sung this song. Given their attachment to FPTP – which has delivered Tory governments for 45 out of the last 75 years – they have presented self-interest in more technical (unfair boundaries) or high-flown terms. It was Lord Hailsham who popularised the phrase “elective dictatorship” to describe the ability of a government with a Commons majority to pass laws without having a wide enough support in the country (“wide enough support” left conveniently undefined). This objection, raised during a Labour government, disappeared from view as soon as the Tories won power, also with a limited range of support in the country. It was not the rules Hailsham objected to, it seems, more that the wrong chaps were able to benefit from them.
Setting the cynicism aside, what does stop governments using a Parliamentary majority to do something quite unconscionable (and, no, I don’t mean Brexit)? For instance, the removal of citizenship or other liberties normally enjoyed in a free society from certain groups? Or – a real example – the use of interrogation techniques amounting to torture to defeat an armed insurgency in the state. Does it even matter if it does, if that is what people voted for?
Rulers’ self-restraint is one of the most important – if less formal – ways by which governments control themselves. The belief that there are some limits, generally understood and shared despite political differences, beyond which you do not go because it is not the “done thing”, not the British way, not least because when you are out of power you don’t want to be on the receiving end. It is the “good chaps” theory of government. Coupled with that is a belief that even a democratic system requires checks and balances, that the system of government has a value which should be preserved and endure beyond the needs or desires of those in power at any one time.
Two unacknowledged – or maybe forgotten – reasons for self-restraint were the memories of WW2 and the examples of Communist societies. The horrors perpetrated by governments claiming to represent (and in some cases doing so) the People’s Will were a reminder of the importance of boundaries for rulers, of independent civic and other institutions able to challenge government, of what happens when civilised norms are abandoned, of the importance of realising that “might” does not make “right”, of the differences between democracy and despotism and the value of freedom and liberties under the former.
Those lived historical memories have faded. Western democracy is generally seen as having won the battle with Russian-inspired Communism. Chinese totalitarianism is not (yet) seen as a threat. Indeed, some aspects of Chinese control may be seen, in some circumstances, as necessary. There are new battles to be fought; politicians are either from a new generation or consider themselves responsible for different priorities. The distinction between democracy and despotism, the ability or willingness of even democratic governments to limit or disregard freedoms or rights in favour of some apparently more important purpose is not perhaps as well understood – or feared – as it ought to be. Even countries which only recently escaped Communist rule are willing to embrace the idea of “illiberal democracy”, an explicit challenge to the basic assumptions underpinning Western political norms since the war – that even democratically elected governments need independent institutions as a safeguard against government excesses, against a “tyranny of the majority”.
It is easy to take what we have – and have had for so long – for granted. The British conventions governing democracy and the consensus around them endure for as long as they are understood, believed and accepted. They become vulnerable, their weaknesses exposed when the reasons for them are forgotten or not valued or not understood. What if it is not “good chaps” who are elected? What if they are seen as stultifying by those impatient to effect change and willing to get rid of anything in their way? Or if checks and balances are simply described as obstruction and not seen as having any inherent value? Some do think that a government with a Parliamentary majority should be free to do whatever it wants and can get through Parliament: electoral might is right. It is certainly an attractive doctrine to those in power and those sharing that government’s aims. Whether it is wise, quite another matter.
All too easy to see such concerns as an overreaction to even the most modest proposals for change. Yes, this is a danger. No system should be immune from challenge. Some changes can be for the better, can help achieve the intended purpose of the convention or rule more easily, particularly in different circumstances.
But beware: such arguments are often presented disingenuously by those with more interest in dismantling such checks, even as they claim to want their improvement. A certain amount of scepticism about what such changes will actually achieve – not merely what is loudly trumpeted – is always necessary when those impatient for change make such claims. Political revolutionaries, let alone self-proclaimed “disruptors”, should no more be trusted than commission-hungry salesmen selling the latest complicated financial product. The small print should always be very carefully reviewed.
One paradoxical result of Britain being on the victors’ side in WW2 is not a sensitivity to how easily civilised or democratic counties can fall prey to darker forces. Rather, it is a complacent belief that it is automatically and absolutely on the right side of the democracy vs authoritarianism argument. Illiberal, authoritarian, totalitarian movements came from Them. They were not for Us. (The irony of using a Them and Us meme, so beloved of such illiberal movements, seems lost on those agitating for Freedom, especially when praising the superior British way to those with real life experience of despotic regimes.) There is a belief in an English exceptionalism (often based on a very partial and often superficial understanding of British history: our political system, culture and civic values were better than in those countries which did not resist totalitarianism. What then could Britain have to learn?
Well, one important lesson is that no country is automatically immune to illiberal forces. Countries change; it is unwise to assume they have a permanent “character” or that it is only the better angels of their nature which will rule. If Germany can change, so too can Britain. The factors which gave rise to illiberalism or worse in past times can occur again, even if they present themselves differently.
If such factors exist, if similar political tactics are used as before, this does not automatically mean that tyranny and despotism are about to be unleashed on a country. But it does mean that there are warning signals that all may not be well. We should pay more attention to such signals than we do.