Matthew Barrett is a freelance journalist.
Newsnight recently ran a story noting that although Fidel Castro is now gone, leaders that the media consider to support some form of authoritarianism are perhaps more fashionable now, in the post-Castro era, than at any time since the end of the Cold War. (I say post-Castro but I should of course say post-Fidel, since, in true left-wing fashion, Raúl kept Cuba in the family).
The programme pointed out this apparent embrace of strongmen in China, Russia, Turkey, South Africa and India, but also in more obviously democratic states like Hungary, now the United States, and perhaps France in the coming period.
A study by the Journal of Democracy, a publication of the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy, was also cited. It showed that when adults in the United States and Europe were asked to rate from one to ten how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy”, there were some noticeable differences to do with geography and age.
First, a geographical difference: 72 per cent of Americans born before the Second World War rated the importance of living in a democracy as ten out of ten, yet only 55 per cent of the same age group in the Netherlands did the same. The Dutch share with us and our Anglophone relatives around the globe a few key similarities: they have a reputation as hard-working, internationally-minded, free traders, with a Protestant work ethic, drinking beer-not-wine, and so on. Yet, evidently, the Dutch find democracy less vital than do Americans.
If we cross age and geography there is another point of interest: while about 55 per cent of Europeans born before that war find it essential to live in a democracy, those born in the 1950s are most likely to find it essential, and support then declines among those born in the 1960s and after. One might start to wonder: maybe the 45 per cent of Europeans born before the War who find democracy inessential are Cold War Warriors nostalgic for a simpler time of law, order and trains arriving on time.
This is unlikely, since in fact, the same pattern can be observed in both Australia and the United Kingdom: moderate support for democracy being essential among those born in the 1930s, more support among those born in the 1940s, even more support from those born in the 1950s (about 75 per cent in both countries), before a decrease from those born in the 1960s and onwards.
Why should this be? Well, one theory I have is that there used to be a distinction that is increasingly being discarded in modern politics: that democracy and liberty are not the same thing, do not necessarily require each other, and sometimes actively work against each other. Are the fundamental tenets of liberty – the freedom of association, expression, and worship – being maintained to their fullest extent under western democracies? Some would say not. Is the democratically-elected Viktor Orbán a guardian of Hungarian liberty? Is the democratically elected Mr Trump a fierce protector of American liberty? Many would say not.
And we can easily find examples of liberty without democracy: until 1984, Hong Kong had no democracy, but it was one of the freest parts of the world. Thanks to British civil servants such as Sir Robert Black, Sir David Trench and most importantly, Sir John Cowperthwaite running the show, a tiny outpost of Empire became a bustling society and a thriving hub of the world economy. Even when Hong Kong did move towards some form of democracy, it was based on all kinds of schemes – indirect elections, a limited franchise, constituencies based on sectors of employment rather than location (there was a constituency called “Financing, Insurance, Real Estate and Business Services”, which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “Harrogate and Knaresborough”): anything to avoid direct democracy and universal suffrage.
Conservatives who take an interest in the United States will be well-versed in the fact that there was a sentiment among some of the authors of that country’s constitution that democracy should be limited to protect against the excesses of popular opinion. In fact, unlike “liberty”, the word “democracy” appears not once in either the declaration of independence or the constitution.
Hamilton said: “We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments”, and in Madison’s essay Federalist Number Ten he also makes the distinction between a republic and a democracy. His critique of “pure democracy” was: “from this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual”.
To that end, the Senate was not elected directly, designed to mimic our own enduring, pragmatic limited democracy model: the House of Lords. We limit the “extremes of democracy” in this country, have a working constitution and have never come particularly close to being ruled by overt extremists. The system works.
If we are witnessing an era of alleged strongmen and authoritarian governments abroad, it is because in several cases, democracy has been the tool of those authoritarians, and will carry on being so. Democracy can be hijacked because it is a process, and not a philosophy. The concept of liberty cannot be manipulated by authoritarians, only its availability. Democracy is not enough to guarantee a free society: let us instead focus on liberty.