Rory speaks on the International Day of Democracy

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

In 2003, George W. Bush, making his State of the Union address, provided one of the great optimistic statements about democracy. He said that because democracies respect their own people and their neighbours, freedom would bring peace. At that period, 14 or 15 years ago, many academics believed that democracy would have that extraordinary instrumental effect. People wrote articles arguing that democracy was the best guard against terrorism, the best guarantee of economic growth and prosperity, and the way to cease sectarian violence—that democracies could be guaranteed not to go to war with each other.

Following that high day of optimism we have faced, over the past 10 to 15 years, a series of bewildering setbacks. We discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq that attempting to create democracies and holding elections, driven by the government of people such as George W. Bush, did not deliver the instrumental benefits that people had hoped for. It turned out that it was possible to hold formal elections in a country and still end up with a corrupt judiciary, an extremely unpopular Government, nothing resembling civil society, the media barely operating, sectarian violence exploding, terrorist groups establishing themselves and, indeed, countries at the edge of war with their neighbours.

The situation has got worse, as has been pointed out in the debate. For example, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) has pointed out that the move to authoritarianism has accelerated in the past five to seven years. Many states have gone through a process whereby I can hardly visit them, as a Minister, without hearing about the closing space for civil society. That is jargon for the fact that regimes are increasingly locking up Opposition politicians, shutting down newspapers and closing down civil society groups. They do so for a range of reasons. It does not seem to matter whether we talk about societies in east or south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or, indeed, Latin America. There appears to be a consistent admiration for either the economic model of China or the authoritarian model of Russia.

That poses a major challenge to us in the United Kingdom and the west, in terms of how we talk about democracy; but we have no choice. Democracy is and must remain the answer for our society and other people’s societies. Why? First, because it does not matter where one travels in the world: whatever the cultural differences that divide us from someone in a village in the back end of Somalia, I challenge anyone to find an individual who does not want a say in who governs them. I have never met anyone who has said, “I am quite happy to let someone else decide who governs me.” I also challenge anyone to find someone who does not want their basic human rights to be respected. I have never met an individual who has said, “I am quite happy to be arbitrarily arrested or tortured.”

In that sense, those values are universal; but they are moral values. They are not instrumental values. We should not argue for democracy because we believe that it is a cunning technique for making oneself wealthier, or a cunning trick for guaranteeing peace. The reason we believe in democracy is that we believe fundamentally in the equality and dignity of humans. The idea of one person, one vote is simply a mathematical expression of the fact that my view or your view, or the view of anyone outside this room, is worth exactly the same: it is the formal embodiment of the moral idea of equality. That is what gives it its strength and universality, and that is what will in the end make democratic societies more resilient than any others.

To move forward, we need to consider how we talk about democracy, and what, specifically, the British Government do for democracy. We were encouraged by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to look at ourselves. I join the hon. Member for City of Durham in paying tribute to his speech, for its humility and introspection; the hon. Gentleman pointed out that if there are flaws in democracy, that is because there are flaws in us humans. Democracy is, in the end, a mass expression of the fact that each of us, as an individual, has flaws in our judgment: there are flaws in the information to which we have access and there are flaws in the way we respond to the world around us. Democracy, however, like any important moral consideration, is not a state but an activity—a way of behaving. It is a form of active, lived contract between the politician and the citizen.

If democracy is to work in this or any country, in terms of looking at ourselves—and I was struck by the challenges to look at ourselves raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—it needs to be based on a fundamental contract of honesty, under which politicians are prepared to be honest with the public. There are so many temptations and risks in democracy that lead us not to be honest. They lead us to construct a political narrative that says the majority of our potential voters are victims; that there is a small group of evil people—an elite, or some ethnic or sectarian group—that is somehow responsible for our ills; or that we are supermen and heroes who will transform and save the world with a brand new platform that will lead people to a promised land.

Not only do we engage in that practice; politicians here and elsewhere appear to suffer from an even more profound problem in admitting that we do not know things. We present ourselves as endlessly omniscient and omnipotent. We are incapable of admitting things to the public. For example, when I stand at the Dispatch Box and am asked exactly what we are doing in Togo or Benin, perhaps we are not doing a great deal in Togo or Benin. We may not know a great deal about the situation there or, indeed, about our own society. Our knowledge is actually limited.

The second consideration that we need to take forward is the idea of difference, which is where the arguments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East were particularly powerful. Democracy is based on a fundamental principle of equality and dignity, but we need to recognise that different societies have different responses to democracy. Even within a single cultural society, there can be a completely valid set of disagreements, equally democratic, about the kind of institutions that we want to have.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who comes from a particular rational, radical tradition, has profound differences from myself, as a Conservative, when it comes to issues such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and our electoral system. This is perhaps not the place to go through why I happen to disagree with him, although I can gesture in that direction: the idea that a second elected Chamber is going to perform better than the House of Lords needs to be judged more on the basis of performance than rational principles. It is very flattering to politicians to believe that the answer to the ills of their country is to generate more democratically elected politicians.

I could also, if we had the time, engage in an argument about proportional representation. I feel very strongly that the links with our constituents that are embedded in the first-past-the-post system are deeply precious. I am worried by colleagues in European states I go to that have full proportional representation systems, who say, “I can’t understand why you visit your constituents so much. I don’t need to; I am on a party list. That isn’t part of my life.” I think the geographical link—the link to place—is very precious.

However, it is perfectly valid for us to argue about those things. It is perfectly valid for our constitution to be changed through a democratic process. Where I actively and energetically agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh East and for City of Durham is that one of the great failings of our democracy is in respect of decentralisation. We could learn a great deal about difference from France and the ways in which its mayors operate at a local level. I feel that Cumbria would be deeply improved if we had directly elected local mayors. I also agree with the hon. Member for City of Durham that we can do an enormous amount more to give financial autonomy, as well as theoretical political autonomy, to devolved bodies.

The reason for that is that the secret of democracy is the genius of our citizens. We live in a unique democratic age. It was quite easy 800 or 900 years ago to suggest that a small elite could decide what was best for people. The reality now in this country is that we have never been so well educated. We have never been so well travelled—more than 43 million people in this country now have passports. We have never known so much about the outside world. All of us are living lives far broader and far more engaged with the world than our parents and our grandparents did, and that is true not just of Britain but of the developing world. I was struck on my recent visit to Tanzania just how different young Tanzanians are. That is what should create much better democracies.

That is what the republic in Athens was looking for: the citizenry that we have; a citizenry that can engage, and in which every single one of the people in the United Kingdom could be in the House of Commons and do just as good a job as we can. I have not met a constituent who could not do the job as well as I am doing it now. That is the genius of our society, and somehow we are not tapping it. Somehow, we are less than the sum of our parts. Somehow, instead of feeling that we now have more than 60 million educated, engaged people and are creating a wonderful democracy, we end up in a world where the more we know and the more engaged our citizens are, the more disappointing our democracy seems to feel.

Moving on to Britain’s place in all of that, there are various things that Britain should do at home and abroad in the way that it thinks about and approaches democracy. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), to whom I pay tribute for securing this debate, focused on this year of democracy and the dimensions of peacekeeping. He raised some important points that are a real challenge to the British Government. We are beginning to move on them and I hope that we have some good news, but there is more to be done.

Sexual violence and peacekeepers are a huge priority for the Secretary of State and the Department for International Development. We have just put additional money into the UN special rapporteur on sexual violence and are hoping to make that an important theme as we move forward to the UN General Assembly. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East pointed out, our contributions to UN peacekeepers have increased both in Somalia and South Sudan.

We are also pleased to say that the Community of Democracies event, which the hon. Gentleman raised, is going ahead in Washington DC. Sustainable development goal 16 on inclusive societies, which the hon. Member for City of Durham raised, is something that Britain was very proud to work on in the drafting process to get included, but it remains really tough. The language of that SDG contains within it the tensions of trying to convince many different countries with different governmental systems that they want to sign up to what is fundamentally a democratic vision.

There are six things I think Britain should do as general principles moving forward. The first is not to panic. We should not give up on democracy or on the basic fundamental moral insight that equality and dignity require democracy, and that there is nothing more capacious, resilient, inspiring or successful than a democracy.

Secondly, we should put our money where our mouth is and support states that are moving in a democratic direction, such as Ghana. We should celebrate the fact that Sierra Leone is going to go through a civilian democratic transition, and we should recognise and acknowledge the huge progress made in Nepal from civil war through a series of democratic elections.

Thirdly, we should play a waiting game in the authoritarian regimes. There will be places where it will feel completely miserable and where, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, Christian and minority groups are abused, sexuality is abused, disability is abused, minority ethnic groups are abused and pastoral communities are abused. In those situations, the obligation of the British Government is to stick with those civil society organisations and back them, not betting that this year or next year necessarily the Governments of those countries are suddenly going to say, “We acknowledge and embrace those minorities”, but acknowledging that those Governments will eventually go. When they do, the seeds that we have continued to nurture and the civil society organisations that we have continued to support will be able to re-emerge. Without the support from Governments such as the United Kingdom’s, it will be very difficult to rebuild civil society or defend minority rights in any of those contexts.

Fourthly, we should work with others. The hon. Member for City of Durham pointed out the important work that the European Union is doing, but that is not enough. It is not enough for the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to go around telling other people to be democracies. In fact, it goes down extremely badly and discredits our project. We need to embrace other countries, above all those such as Brazil and India, which are huge democratic successes in the most challenging developmental contexts—countries struggling internally with corruption and huge problems of sectarian violence that are still keeping democratic systems alive.

The fifth point is about young people and was raised by many Members. Clearly, anything that we are doing in a democracy needs to think about how we engage with young people. That may be about voting age, but it is also about the massive technological transformation and the way in which all of us have just emerged bewildered from an election in which we have suddenly discovered that everything we believed about Facebook and Instagram and Twitter in 2015 no longer seem to be valid in 2017, and everything we had assumed about newspapers and television was turned on its head. That is just the beginning. Engaging young people with politics will involve thinking very nimbly about new technological media and, probably, new messages to fit those media.

Finally, we need to redevelop our confidence in ourselves. The only way in which we are going to be able to project democracy to the world is if we rediscover faith in our own democracy, while recognising all the things that depress us. Many things are deeply wrong in our society, such as when I see in my constituency an 88-year-old woman looking after a 93-year-old doubly incontinent man, struggling to get up every two hours through the night to look after him, or when I open a door and see somebody who is mentally ill behind it who is not receiving the support they need. When we see illegal immigrants struggling to access Government services and get the support that they require, we are seeing things that are deeply wrong in our society.

However, there are also things that we need to rediscover our pride and confidence in. There is the precious blessing of peace—the fact that this country has been at peace for hundreds of years, and the fact that we are able to do really difficult things in the face of hugely difficult political challenges, and perform them peacefully, nimbly and adeptly through an electoral process. We should be grateful, above all, for the fact that our democracy is not elections-only and does not stop in this Parliament: it is our media, our civil society and our citizens. It is on that note that I want to conclude.

If the International Day of Democracy is about anything, it is about not Parliaments but citizens. If democracy is to flourish in Britain and the world, ​we need to discover a mutual trust—a trust of citizens in their politicians and, perhaps most difficult of all, a trust of politicians in their citizens.

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