Democracy is in far greater peril than the complacent West realises

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Writing in The Telegraph, William Hague said:

For anyone who believes in democracy, the year 2021 has had a very bad start. The Capitol building in Washington DC, the great cathedral of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” was invaded and desecrated. Worse still, this happened at the hands of a mob incited and motivated by the president of the United States himself.

On the same day, in Hong Kong, 53 pro-democracy legislators and campaigners were arrested for “subverting state power”. Their offence was to have organised or taken part in primary voting to choose candidates for an entirely legal election. Such activity now amounts to “disrupting and undermining the Hong Kong government”. These arrests took place conveniently just after the EU had signed a new investment agreement with China, with European leaders played for fools.

Meanwhile, voters anywhere trying to make sense of events are battered by categoric assertions that have no basis in fact. Trump has continued to maintain that he won by a landslide an election that he lost by seven million votes, even though there isn’t a single scrap of evidence to support him. Allegations about the dangers of vaccinations have led many millions of people in France to be unwilling to be vaccinated at all. In China, the foreign minister, Wang Yi, spoke last week of his country having “raced to report the epidemic first” and that “the pandemic is likely to have emerged in many places around the world”, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

The combination of a loss of trust in elections in the world’s most powerful home of freedom, the cost-free snuffing out of democratic ideas by totalitarians and the steady erosion of the public’s grip on what is true or false add up to a gathering crisis for the future of free and open societies. In Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, there is much satisfaction at the chaos in Washington and at the state of the West: increasingly unsure of its own institutions, polarised within nations and suffering severely in a pandemic that hits free people particularly hard.

Global surveys have demonstrated a growing loss of faith in democracy among young people. Even in countries with democratic traditions going back decades, the space for effective opposition to incumbent governments is being constrained. In Hungary, the media and judiciary have fallen under the control of ministers;

in India, the Modi government is showing autocratic tendencies; in Erdogan’s Turkey, some opposition politicians are in prison; in Sri Lanka the government is empowering the military and abandoning commitments to justice and human rights.

Complacency about democracy is too easy. We all believe the 20th century made the world safe for it and the Cold War proved its timeless superiority. And in the decades since, we have felt able to get on with our inward-looking disagreements without worrying about its future. We reassure ourselves that democracy has proved its resilience time and again. Isn’t it great that the courts in the US refused to entertain the baseless arguments of Trump’s legal team? Didn’t the Republicans do well to finally turn against him, rather than set aside the outcome of a presidential election? The system did indeed hold up. But we cannot be sure that it could withstand another president trying to stay in office whatever the cost, or another time that vast numbers of people believed an election was stolen.

We can no longer be sure that the faltering performance of many Western nations in the face of a pandemic, the growing gulf between populations and elites, the discontent over inequality, the loss of trust in public institutions and the disaffection among young people are just problems we can overcome eventually, with the system still intact at the end. Attention needs to be given to repairing, sustaining, justifying, strengthening and defending democratic values. The virtues of freedom, and the human dignity and fulfilment that come from allowing competing ideas in a tolerant framework within the rule of law need to be advocated and championed again.

Of course, this is a vast and complex task. Democracies like ours will have to forge a stronger common national purpose so that conflicting cultural identities don’t pull us apart. We will have to allow more decentralised decision-making. It will be vital to regulate social media so that varied views are heard instead of a stream of assertions that reinforce our prejudices. We will have to be better prepared for an unexpected crisis such as the pandemic. Such challenges will be the work of decades.

But we can at least begin, with a robust defence against external interference, a clear-eyed understanding of what is going on under authoritarian regimes, and a reinvigoration of the Western alliance with intensified cooperation on trade, technology and security. Joe Biden’s election is a rare opportunity to do so, since he is committed to at least trying to bring the world’s democracies together. Given that Twitter last year alone deleted more than 1,000 accounts promoting state-backed Russian propaganda and thousands spreading Chinese official opinion, it is fair to assume that a massive effort is still going on to ensure voters are misinformed and misled.

The world’s democratic leaders should agree to pool their efforts to disarm such attacks. They should speak frankly about the conditions in countries without the freedoms we take for granted. Tomorrow, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission will publish a new report on China, detailing a wide range of abuses including torture, arbitrary arrest, forced confessions and the incarceration of huge numbers of people in Xinjiang.

Such findings should be taken seriously by leaders who still prefer to turn a blind eye to the nature of a ruthless one-party system. And with Trump’s go-it-alone attitude on the way out, Western nations should work towards finding solidarity on trade, so that Australia isn’t being penalised by the Chinese at the same time as Brussels pushes for a trade agreement with Beijing.

If Joe Biden can muster the clarity and create the unity that is needed, democracy could be in better shape by the end of this year. He needs support from those who love freedom, anywhere in the world.

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