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Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: When democracies stop working

Democracy can a splendid alternative to civil war.  Though it is the natural enemy of liberty and property, it is also the natural friend of order, allowing a bloodless exchange of power.

But around the world, across the Caribbean, Africa, and some parts of Asia there are many countries that are democracies that we do not consider "healthy".  It is of interest to consider why.

The most straightforward way democracies can be unhealthy is when there is a significant party that the others cannot accept winning.  There are two key categories of this.  The simplest is where, if a party wins and thereby has control of the army and police, it uses that power to lock up its political opponents.  More subtle variants are the many democracies around the world in which the leader of the main losing party in an election is then prosecuted for some spurious crime or other - tax evasion; supposed sexual deviancy; treasonous contact with enemy powers.  Political forces will not consider democracy a useful alternative to armed conflict if defeat in elections means political oppression.  A key lesson from this is that wise folk should be instinctively sympathetic towards the reluctance of countries like Italy to prosecute major political figures after they lose elections.  It's a very bad habit to get into.

Another case of parties not being able to accept losing is where the political debate is focused too much upon the rules of the game or the tools of the state, rather than on how power is used once acquired.  An extreme case will be be elections including Islamist or Communist parties that, if they win, propose to abolish elections.  Variant cases may be where a winning party says it will limit voting in subsequent election to only members of particular races or religions.  Again, if a winning party says it will break the country up or fuse the country with another one, other parties may feel the democracy is a poor alternative to warfare.

More generally, democracy can only be healthy where proposed constitutional change is modest.  I would struggle to accept a Liberal Democrat government, because it would change our constitution so much that many aspects of British life that I consider especially attractive would disappear.  I'm not saying I would take up arms, but I might move to another country.  Democracy works best when there is broad agreement between the main potential governing parties over the rules of the democratic game - how voting is done, what governing institutions there are, what is the balance of power between those institution and principles guiding their operation - and political debate concerns how those governing institutions are used.

In many countries there simply is not enough or broad enough agreement over institutions.

Democracy can also only be successful where it is possible for power to change hands and then change back.  There are many "democracies" in the world in which there was one election at the time a universal franchise was introduced.  At that election power was lost by the previous governing party, with a new former revolutionary power coming in to power.  And that new governing party has ruled ever since.  An easy example is Zimbabwe, but South Africa is yet to see a second transition of power.  We can contrast these cases with a much healthier new democracy such as that in Taiwan, in which power has moved from the KMT to the DPP and back again.

A closely related form of democratic disorder is where the support for parties is heavily racial or religious.  For example, in Guyana the Indo-Guyanese vote for the People's Progressive Party, whilst the Afro-Guyanese vote for the People's National Congress.  There are about one and a half times as many Indo-Guyanese as Afro-Guyanese, so the People's Progressive Party now wins every time.  In other countries there are parties that nearly all Christians vote for parties nearly all Muslims vote for, or parties nearly all Hindus vote for - and variants in which there are denominational parties (Shia, Sunni, etc.).

Another variant democratic disorder is where parties become overly focused on representing the interests of particular regions.  There becomes a party for the South and one for the North, or a party for the Cities and a party for the Rural Areas.  Such parties are not necessarily damaging if there are enough transitions - if the concepts of "South" and "North" are sufficiently vague, flexible and fungible.  But if boundaries become too fixed, then power becomes static and representation becomes a matter of one region lording it over another.

There are lessons for us, here, in how we regard foreign democracies, in how we evaluate the concept of democracy in criticising relatively liberal states that are not democratic, in how we try to impose democracy on countries we invade, and in how we try to develop democracy in multi-national settings such as the United Kingdom or the European Federation.

But there are also lessons for us in the UK.  Our democracy will not be healthy if parties seek to impose revolutionary constitutional change as a consequence of just one election victory without securing the assent of losing parties.  Our democracy will not be healthy if one of our parties is overwhelmingly the party of rural areas and the South and another party of cities and the North, and neither properly aspires to evolve its regional base.  Labour must try to appeal to Southern voters and not see its role as representing the interests of the North, Wales and Scotland.  Conservatives must actively seek to win seats in the North of England, in Scotland and Wales, even in Northern Ireland - or at least to have regional partners in these places (e.g. Unionist parties).  Conservatives must have policies for the inner city.  Labour must not be willing simply to reflect urban cultural attitudes to things like fox hunting.  Similarly, if Labour represents itself as the automatic party of Black or Asian voters, or of Muslims, that is anti-democratic in a very fundamental way.

For democracy to function, we need to agree broadly on the rules of the game, and to be debating how the tools of government can and should be used to the general benefit of the population, environment, national honour, true religion and virtue.  There is nothing automatic about democracy that guarantees it does work in that way.  We need liberal institutions that guide democracy along healthy paths.  But we also need a political culture that aspires to healthy democratic norms of conduct.


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