Anyone who tuned into the special election edition of ‘The Weakest Link’ last week would probably have experienced few revelatory moments when hearing what the seven party leaders had to say in their allocated 90 seconds. True, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett were less familiar to the wider audience accustomed to either the Punch & Judy theatrics of PMQs or Nasty Nigel’s regular TV oratories on Europe and immigration, but it’s doubtful whether any floating voters would have decided upon the colour of the harbour to head for as a consequence of viewing this scripted and somewhat stale spectacle.
Those who retain old party loyalties and those who plan a protest vote will also have been unaffected by what they saw or heard on Thursday evening; yet, we are told, this was democracy in action. This was the only opportunity the electorate would be given to witness a not-so magnificent seven sharing the same platform and persuading us to scrawl a cross next to their name, even if relocating to Wales and Scotland would be a prerequisite for favouring two of the participants. It was not an event that inspired democratic action, if truth be told, but what alternative do we have?
Democracy has been a useful buzzword in recent years where American and British foreign policy is concerned; it vindicates illegal invasions and regime changes and is sold to people who have lived their whole lives under systems where they have had no say in who governs them as a social panacea. Democracy has become an ideological equivalent of a microwave meal, implemented overnight in countries with little or no history of democracy when it took centuries for it to develop and establish itself in Europe. The French, for example, needed a good hundred years from 1789 to finally settle on the kind of democracy they have today, a century encompassing several more revolutions as well as a self-made Emperor and a staggering body count. But the confused citizens of the instant democracies are told this is their reward for liberation from decades of oppression under an evil totalitarian state. So, go away and get on with it.
The dramatic collapse of the Soviet Bloc twenty-five years ago highlighted what can happen when a political system in which generations have been schooled abruptly ends with no long-term plan in place to supersede it. The understandable euphoria when a corrupt president or regime is suddenly overthrown, as manifested by the multitudes dancing on the Berlin Wall and statues of Saddam Hussein, is often quickly followed by a revival of either sectarianism or nationalism, symptoms of division that the previous system suppressed. Giving people ‘freedom’ is an admirable notion on paper, but in practice the post-revolutionary celebrations are a brief prologue to a storm unleashing anarchy, bloodshed, civil war and military coups that eventually install an unelected dictator. And we’re back where we began. It’s like the headmaster and the entire teaching staff of a school resigning en masse and inviting the pupils to take over the running of the establishment, with next-to no idea of how to do it. Inevitably, the school bully and his cronies would punch, kick and kill their way to the top.
Similar chaos followed the abrupt withdrawal of the British from India and from their numerous colonies dotted throughout Africa; in many cases, a pseudo-Marxist system of governance was viewed as the proper successor to the ‘Imperialist oppression’ that introduced strong legal and educational systems, gradually raised literacy levels, improved the health and wellbeing of the native populace, installed modern communications and a civil service. Sometimes, regimes that the people haven’t chosen can have genuinely beneficial and overlooked offshoots, such as the protection the endangered Siberian Tiger received in the USSR or the childcare programme of the GDR. The end of the Soviet Union saw Yeltsin attempt to impose western capitalism with a haste that plunged the country into economic meltdown, leading to a thriving gangster underworld on one hand and dubious oligarchs on the other. It’s no wonder so many Russians regard Putin as a saviour, and why they are content to turn a blind eye to the less enlightened aspects of his rule when he has restored a semblance of order to the chaos that preceded him. And, for all the controversy surrounding the process, Putin was (lest we forget) democratically elected.
Perhaps the two non-democratic countries to have garnered more media attention and column inches in recent years than any others have been China and its notorious neighbour, North Korea. The latter employs the mother of all totalitarianist systems, one Christopher Hitchens surmised was derived from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, with Orwell’s novel being used as an effective manual; China, however, is a more intriguing proposition for a political system.
Under the iron fist of Mao, China was as closed to the rest of the world as North Korea is today; the late-60s Cultural Revolution he instigated as a means of maintaining his cruel rule was an exercise in state-sponsored mass-murder that sits alongside the Holocaust in the dark annals of the twentieth century’s most appalling crimes against humanity. And yet, Mao’s deceptively-benign image still looks down from the exterior walls of public buildings in China, a curious anachronism surrounded by every international chain-store imaginable, from MacDonald’s to Starbucks. What China has achieved economically since the tentatively cautious reforms begun in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976 has seemingly gone against the historical and political grain, blending free-market capitalism with a theoretically communist one-party state to produce an economic superpower within the space of little more than a generation. Would China benefit from the dismantling of the unelected body that has overseen this stunning transformation of a nation so vast in terms of landmass that the thought of British-style elections being introduced would constitute something of a logistical headache? I sometimes wonder if universal suffrage is really that essential after all.
Of course, the many opponents of the Chinese way have much to point at – the poor human rights record, the imprisonment of anyone publicly opposed to the party, the heavy state surveillance, internet censorship, Tiananmen Square, the occupation of Tibet and absorption of Taiwan, not to mention the obvious fact that its people do not choose who rules them. And yet, can we in the west afford to be so smug and superior?
How many innocent men, women and children languish in British and American penal institutions? How many of those falsely imprisoned have been brutally fried alive in certain US states? How many cameras monitor our every move outdoors? How much of our internet traffic is free from the prying eyes of GCHQ or the CIA? How many citizens of the UK or US dwell in abject and intractable poverty? How many mentally ill and physically disabled subjects of Her Majesty or Mr President been abandoned and regarded as capitalism’s collateral damage? How many draconian laws have our elected representatives introduced to curb our civil liberties, including those that limit what we can and cannot say online and warping the legal system by dispensing with juries in the name of National Security? How uncensored is a press that selects an agenda as truth and will not allow voices to be heard that contradict this agenda? How many residents of the Free World are shot down whenever they air a ‘controversial’ opinion in public, losing their jobs and set upon by media hounds, both mainstream and social? How many terror suspects were whisked away to clandestine army prison camps and detained for years after interrogation, torture and a military trial held behind closed doors? How many illegal incursions into foreign territories have we sanctioned, endorsed or participated in, many of which make the invasion of Tibet resemble a coach-trip to see the Blackpool Illuminations? But…we choose our leaders, so we must be better than China, right? No doubt we’ll prove it on May 7.
As Confucius said, I can’t bloody wait