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Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford discusses the benefits and drawbacks of authoritarianism versus democracy, and the role of free media in voicing the masses

charles-crawfordIn June 2015, we Brits celebrate something remarkable that happened 800 years earlier at Runnymede, a water meadow not far from central London. King John of England and a group of powerful barons signed a ‘grand charter’ limiting the King’s powers.

This document, the Magna Carta Libertatum (The Great Charter of the Liberties of England), did not solve the power struggle: a war between the King’s forces and the barons soon began. But the ideas articulated in the Grand Charter took root in law and politics. One principle became unchallengeable and spread to different parts of the planet: no-one should be punished except through the law of the land. People and rulers alike had rights – and those rights should be defined – and limited – by law. See today how the High Court often strikes down British government schemes as ultra vires (‘beyond powers’). Yes, governments, the law gives you impressive powers. But you have only those powers. And they must be exercised within the law.

Right from the earliest days of the United States of America, the colonists drew explicitly on Magna Carta principles. This led to the revolutionary idea at the heart of the Declaration of Independence:

‘Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

The consent of the governed! Five words that say so much. Above all, that governments are there to serve people; people are not there to serve governments. A newly elected President of the United States knows more or less to the hour how long his (and one day her) Presidential mandate will last. After that, it’s back to private life, come what may in the meantime. The United Kingdom has no such strict limits, but every five years or so the country’s rulers brace themselves for glumly vacating their offices within hours of a resounding election loss.

Thus the basic division between political systems round the world today. Those where the masses regularly can vote to change their leaders, and indeed leaders do change. And those where they can’t, where individual leaders or one-party leadership cliques stay in power for decades on end untroubled by any sort of accountability.

For most of the past 100 years or so, it looked as if the modern ‘Western’ model of democracy was the best way ever invented to do things. The act of voting required public debate and participation by men and women equally. This required free media. The rule of law required honest judges and the separation of powers. Universal franchise incentivised the powerful to agree welfare arrangements for the less powerful. And all these things combined to allow people and businesses to keep and invest the results of their work. This unleashed innovation to create wealth at a staggering pace, including in Asia, where first Japan then South Korea showed how modern pluralism and market forces could achieve miraculous results.

Hence the struggle for ideas and influence that dominated the twentieth century, nowhere more than in Asia, where the world’s main population growth was occurring and European colonial rule was ending. Which model should prevail? Something drawing strongly on Western pluralism but with its own forms and priorities (as in India, by far the world’s largest democracy)? Or un-Western enforced collectivism with echoes of Soviet-style oppression adapted to local conditions (China)? Did either of these ways of organising society necessarily make more sense in Asian conditions? Did it make sense to talk of ‘Asian’ values shared across such a vast area?

Some Asian leaders thought that it did. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia claimed that Asian culture had distinct features: family ties, social harmony, collective welfare, and respect for authority. This (they argued) contrasted with the West’s weaker family ties, strong individualism, freedom of choice, less respect for authority or even open dissent. Asian cultural norms required strong state mechanisms stressing social consensus and the authority of firm leadership: the economic and welfare results for the mass of people could be no less impressive than anything achieved in the West.

These claims looked bedraggled after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when the region lacked shared mechanisms to help cope with the turmoil. Yet they still have resonance, and help the Chinese communist elite justify their continued hold on power.  Chinese leaders even sometimes present their way of doing things as representing basic human values that Western societies are losing. In late 2011, Jin Liqun, head of China’s massive sovereign wealth fund, had terse things to say about Europe’s problems:

‘If you look at the troubles which happened in European countries, this is purely because of the accumulated troubles of the worn-out welfare society … the labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking. The incentive system is totally out of whack…’

All of which is true. Last year I visited Vietnam for the first time. It’s still run by a steely communist party that stands tough for Vietnam’s independence, but it’s a communist party that praises free enterprise and presides over feverish hard work and entrepreneurship. The bustling streets of Hanoi were as far as you can get from the smug, bureaucratic, doomed ‘European social model’. Vietnam appears to operate according to one precept that everyone understands: ‘No work? No food!’

Against all this, we Westerners might sniff that insofar as China and other Asian countries are surging ahead it is because they have abandoned the worst features of traditional Asian collectivism, and instead are adopting policies associated with historic Western freedoms: respect for private property, honest courts, rewards for individual effort, growing transparency and improved (or at least improving) human rights. And by the way, we Westerners have invented the Internet. Take that, Asian autocrats!

Mobile telephones and the Internet are indeed creating swirling new possibilities for transparency, engagement and mobilisation. It’s scarcely possible for any society to function now without the productivity disciplines and network effects delivered by IT (although North Korea is determined to try); this is why Africa is at last developing fast. But these gadgets have radically disruptive political effects. Facts and rumours spread at lightening speed. Millions of people have a new voice that expresses annoyance at clumsy state propaganda and brutish policies, and starts to clamour for change.

Asia’s one-party leaderships, and other autocracies hitherto, have done a pretty good job in allowing their populations to get richer in return for not challenging the political status quo. How this works varies widely.

But is this sustainable? When so many people can link up and exchange ideas, is it wiser to try to block democratic change and hope for the best, or to steer towards some popular participation in power without allowing Western-style party politics and, horror, loss of control? Burma is the latest striking example of a tough ruling elite opting for a pluralist way forward as the safer bet.

All in all, Asia is becoming more democratic, or at least notably more pluralist. But it’s a slow process with twists and turns. We Westerners pride ourselves in our political freedoms, forgetting just how many centuries it took to achieve them. Switzerland is usually seen as a country with top-end democratic traditions, yet it was only in 1971 that women won the right to vote in federal elections, while women could not vote in some local areas for a further 20 years after that. As we in the UK see in our current battles over Scottish independence, privacy, freedom of the press, the UK’s European Union membership and ever-more intrusive state controls over everyday life, the nature of our own cherished democracy is changing fast – and not for the better.

Perhaps we all are being swept along in a vast new global trend driven by mass access to new technology. Perhaps some sort of messy global average pluralism is emerging, where the power of the state and the power of the masses reach an uneasy stalemate. Perhaps people in the Western world are seeing their freedoms edge down, just as across Asia, Africa and the Middle East people are enjoying more power vis-à-vis the state?


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