David Miliband on Democracy

I’ll do it my way, you’ll do it my way

Gwydion M. Williams looks at David Miliband’s call for global imitation of the West’s post-industrial model of parliamentary democracy.  Written in 2008, when he was Foreign Secretary.

In his speech at the Aung San Suu Kyi Lecture at St Hugh’s College at Oxford, Foreign Secretary David Miliband declared it was Britain’s mission to tell the rest of the world how it should live.  States all round the world are to be required to engage in a kind of bloodless civil war every few years, in which the opposition has a chance to legally overthrow the existing government:

“We can specify the indispensable conditions of a democracy – that the people choose the government, that they are free from arbitrary control and that the government respects the right of the people to dispense with it.”

The process is best thought of as a bloodless civil war, because it forces you to think about whether it will indeed stay bloodless.  Kenya is the latest example of this failing to happen.  Earlier, what were then East and West Pakistan split after an election won by a party based in East Pakistan.  The USA, the first modern electoral democracy, was also the first to start a war directly after an election.  The Southern states began to secede after Lincoln won the Presidential election with 40% of the vote (much odder than the 47.9% that Bush won in 2000).  The British Isles came close to a civil war in 1912-14 with the Home Rule Crisis and was perhaps saved by the outbreak of the Great War.

Why is electoral democracy such a great idea?  If it works and everyone is happy with it, fine.  But where it has only led to instability and bad government, why force various unhappy countries to try it again?  Miliband did not say, coasting along on the general willingness of Britons to believe that foreigners should do things our way.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband did not say “both the UK and USA are holding out against Proportional Representation, the norm throughout the world, but obviously against the selfish interests of the two big dominant parties in each country.”  He did not say “Britain established a parliamentary system by executing one king and chasing out another, plus various episodes of rioting and civil war.”  He did not say “Britain has had a stable multi-party system from 1688, but the first British election that could conceivably be called democratic was the one in 1885”.  He did not say “up until the 1832 reform, a majority of seats in the House of Commons were controlled by a couple of hundred rich men, plus the occasional rich woman exercising power in circles from which she was officially excluded”.

Miliband did not say “the first election in which all adult males in the British Isles could vote was 1918 – and then we fought a vicious war against Sinn Fein, which got a clear electoral mandate for Irish independence”. [B]  He did not say “we didn’t let any woman in Britain vote until 1918 and discriminated against them until 1928 – but that’s better than France, that didn’t let women vote until 1944, not counting the Paris Commune.”

He did not say “my predecessors in government blockaded the democratically elected government of Spain in the 1930s, pretending not to notice the massive intervention by German and Italian fascists”.  He did not say “the British government never for a moment considered boycotting the 1936 Berlin Games, even though Hitler had already made himself dictator, established Concentration Camps and passed laws that defined Jews as non-citizens and racially inferior.” [C, D]  He did not say “the 1967-74 dictatorship in Greece was backed by the USA, and Britain’s hands are far from clean”.  He did not say “the root cause of Burma’s weak government is the assassination in 1947 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and most of his close colleagues – an assassination in which there was definitely some British involvement.”

He did not say “we denied the non-white Empire any sort of serious self-government until after World War Two, when events like the quick Japanese capture of ‘invulnerable’ Singapore had discredited White Racism.”  He did not say “we never bothered with a vote for Hong Kong Chinese, until Chris Patton had the bright idea of giving them one in 1991, after it was already agreed that they would be handed over to People’s China.”  He did not say “we and the USA helped defeat Western-style democracy in Iran in the 1950s, supporting the dictatorial powers of the Shah until the Islamists threw him out”.  And he did not say “Iran now has a lively democracy, different from ours, but capable of raising up and removing national leaders by direct popular vote.”

He did not say “our great ally the USA has organised the overthrow of more elected governments than any other single power.”  He did not say “the possibility of the UN underpinning democracy was ended by what happened in the former Belgian Congo in 1960, when democratically-elected Prime Minister Lumumba trusted the United Nations to support him and instead they undermined him and contributed to his murder”.   He did not say “Britain jailed Mahatma Ghandi and the other Indian leaders who later made Indian democracy a success.”  He did not say “Britain worked hard to produce the Muslim-Hindu split that later cost the subcontinent so much”.  He did not say “British governments, Labour as well as Tory, remained ‘soft’ on action against racist South Africa until the system became quite unworkable”.  He did not say “British governments pretty much ignored Nelson Mandela until they realised they needed him.”

Miliband did quote Sir Winston Churchill saying democracy is “the least bad system of government we have yet devised”.  But not Churchill in the 1920s praising Mussolini, the former socialist who invented fascism and was already clearly recognised as a dictator:

“It is quite absurd to suggest that the Italian Government does not rest upon popular bases or that it is not upheld by the active and practical assent of the great masses.

“If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

Unless Miliband reads our publications, he may not even know Churchill said such a thing.  The normal reference works have been adjusted to conceal it.[E]

Miliband did manage to speak one profound truth:

“And in countries such as China seeking a stable path to political reform it’s important to recognise that democracy is not a threat to instability but a way to guarantee it.”

Democracy is indeed a wonderful guarantee of instability, but I doubt that’s what he meant to say.  He may even have been misquoted and said ‘stability’ rather than ‘instability’.[A]  But if you study China’s fate when it tried naive Westernisation after the 1911 overthrow of the last Chinese Emperor, you see the complete foolishness of thinking an unfamiliar system will work without decades of preparation.

A Western-style Chinese Republic was established in 1911, was superficially reformed by the Kuomintang in 1926-28 and collapsed ignominiously in the 1940s.  It achieved absolutely nothing during its period of rule.  There was a small amount of growth in the coastal cities, but this was outweighed by the decay of a rural economy dominated by a parasitic landlordism. [F]  The Republic’s air force was so useless that the USA preferred to organise the ‘Flying Tigers’ with foreign (mostly-US) pilots.  The Republic’s armed forces showed some courage but little effectiveness in resisting the early stages of the Japanese invasion.  Repeated US attempts to get the remaining Kuomintang armies to fight in Burma or anywhere they might damage the Japanese had little success.  The Kuomintang preferred to sit it out in the interior of China and let the US defeat the Japanese, trusting that the US would still have to work with them because they would hardly work with the Chinese Communists.  Which was true as far as it went: what they misunderstood was that US help would not be enough against a Chinese Communism that had become a functional mass democracy meeting the needs of the people.

Without Chinese Communism and its authoritarian idealism, China today might be as big a mess as Africa.  Mao restored China’s dignity, and in the Korean War the Chinese Red Army scattered veteren US forces and drove them back hundreds of miles.  It was a worse defeat for the US military than the Battle of the Bulge in World War Two, which they anyway recovered from.  It was maybe the USA’s worst setback since the British capture of Washington DC in the War of 1812.  The Korean War showed that the Chinese under the correct sort of leadership were not the corrupt weaklings they had previously been seen as.  They were denounced as ‘blue ants’, but at least they were taken seriously.[G]

The Republic of China had tried a multi-party system and produced chaos, followed by ineffective authoritarian rule by the Kuomintang.  The Chinese Communists looked to Leninist models and succeeded wonderfully.  China’s intellectuals have mixed feelings, but everyone in a position to know the opinions of Chinese peasants reports that the vast majority of them still revere Mao’s memory.  Maybe that’s why Miliband’s speech soft-peddles on Western-style elections in China.  Supposing there were open elections, equivalent to those in Albania that ended Communism and introduced narco-gansterism?  But supose things went differently and the voters chose a left-wing faction calling for a return to Maoism?

The Russian Commuists nearly won the 1996 Presidential Election, despite their failure in years of stagnation before 1991.  It was the election of 1996 that re-elected Yeltsin that was the start of the ‘machine politics’ that is now complained of in connection with Putin and his chosen heir.  China meantime is doing very nicely with the political system created by Mao.

What about Taiwan? Taiwan has been an economic success and also has multi-party government, has had peaceful transfers of power.  But Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945.  If it had been constituted as a sovereign state in 1945, it could have been expected to do well, Japanese Imperialism was brutal but it was also efficient and almost all parts of the former Japanese Empire have done well economically.  Japan had created a functional parliamentary system for itself from 1890, with something like normal multi-party government until the crisis of the 1930s.  Taiwan might have done better without Kuomintang dumped on it, which happened in 1945 at a time when the USA expected to keep China under its own control.

The Republic of India has been the biggest successful extension of Western-style democracy.  The electoral system started off with the prestige of being the system of their former British rulers, but that was equally true of other ex-colonies that ended up as a complete mess.  The Republic of India benefited from the overwhelming prestige of the Congress Party.  Benefited also from the fact that for many years the most obvious alternative was Communism, with successful Communist regional governments in places like West Bengal, so that the USA was tolerant of the mild democratic socialism that it conspired to overthrow in many other countries.  The Republic of India has all along benefited from the USA seeing it as a plausible counter-weight to Red China.

It’s true enough that the checks and balances of a multi-party system help stop bad things from happening.  But the same system also helps stop good things from happening.  Parliamentary systems can become a round of pointless debates and no effective government.

It’s also a pretty good rule that a newly-established electoral democracy needs a single dominant party for at least a couple of generations.  That applied to the Republic of India, and still does apply in Singapore and South Africa under majority rule.  Restoring the damaged democracies of West Germany and Italy needed the dominance of the Christian Democrats – but odd things started happening in Italy when the Christian Democrats considered a coalition with the Italian Communists, and both they and the German Christian Democrats suffered a rash of scandals when the Cold War ended and the USA may have figured they were no longer needed.  Meantime Japan did very nicely under their Liberal Democratic Party and went into decline when its rule became uncertain.  France needed the authoritarian rule of General de Gaulle to turn a confused out-of-date society into a modern power that for a time was richer than Britain (this reversed again in the 1990s.)

The USA itself is thought of as a classic two-party system.  But a single core group dominated its politics from the 1770s until 1801, at first unofficially and then as the Federalist Party.  The Federalists were replaced by Jefferson’s ‘Democratic-Republicans’, more in touch with the majority of ordinary white men, but run by people close to the Federalists, both personally and in ideas.  Something like two-party populism began with Andrew Jackson in 1829, and by 1861 it had produced a Civil War.

Why on earth should we believe that democratic multi-party elections creates harmony between different elements of a complex society?  The notion is an article of faith for most liberals, but the hard facts say otherwise.  It’s a pretty good rule that a electoral democracy without a single dominant party will lay open and widen any ethnic split that may exist.  Congress in India and the ANC in South Africa have so far managed to bridge the gap, and a delicate balancing act has so far worked in Malaysia, where Dr Mahathir was called a kind of dictator when he saved Malaysia during the 1997 crisis.  Democracy split the original Pakistan and may well split the diverse peoples of what’s left.

Multi-party democracy split Czechoslovakia, but both sides were sensible and that split happened smoothly.  It fragmented Congo in the 1960s and when Mobutu’s dictatorship was overthrown it split it again.  It led to the painful fragmentation of former Yugoslavia, as each nationality voting for a party that flattered it.  Democracy under US supervision has split Iraq along its ethnic and religious divides and has been bad for minorities like the Iraqi Christians, safe as a community under Saddam.  Electoral democracy in Afghanistan is more nominal than real, no one takes the central government seriously but the Taliban grow ever stronger.  Multi-party democracy really is not a good way to handle diversity.  It requires a single strong and uniform demos to make democracy run smoothly.

Democracy means rule by the people, rather than by a monarch or a ruling class.  Electoral multi-party politics as a way to govern nations began among the ruling classes of several different European or colonial nations, and was only slowly extended to the people.  It can work if there is nothing very drastic to be done in the society, and if there are no issues worth dying for.  Otherwise avoid it.


[A] The official account – [http://www.britainusa.com/sections/articles_show_nt1.asp?a=47750&i=41068&L1=41012&L2=41068&d=-1] – has ‘instability’.  A comment at [http://prismwebcastnews.com/pwn/?p=2151] also quotes it as ‘instability’, without noticing anything odd.  Likewise the Brunei Times, [http://www.bt.com.bn/en/analysis/2008/02/27/democracy_ideal_or_dangerous].  Some other websites have ‘stability’, which is obviously what was meant.

[B] The fog-and-darkness school of Irish historians try to confuse the issue by saying that Sinn Fein did not get a majority of the votes cast.  This is technically true, but overlooks the constituencies in which Sinn Fein was returned unopposed.

[C] The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 reduced Jews to something like the status of Black South Africans under Apartheid.

[D] “President Paul von Hindenburg died on 2 August 1934. Rather than holding new presidential elections, Hitler’s cabinet passed a law proclaiming the presidency dormant and transferred the role and powers of the head of state to Hitler…  Combining the highest offices in state, military and party in his hand, Hitler had attained supreme rule that could no longer be legally challenged.”  Wikipedia article on Hitler.

[E] Brendan Clifford drew attention to these remarks in The Reason For Irish Neutrality, contrasting the silence on the matter with the noise over Ireland’s neutrality in World War Two.  I went into the matter in more detail in Cowboy Diplomacy & ‘Wonderful Anglos’, issue 70-71 of Problems of Capitalism & Socialism.  This shows in detail how the Encyclopedia Britannica has been re-written to downplay both this and Tonypandy.

[F] These and other interesting figures can be found in Angus Maddison’s The World Economy: Historical Statistics – a book generally accepted as the best source for such matter.

[G] A 1963 book called Mao Tse-Tung: Emperor of the Blue Ants was in no way unusual for its time.  Google produced 897 English pages for “China” and “blue ants”, though some really are about ants.

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