Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Freedom needs a champion. Let it be Britain
The Times - January 3rd 2011

The past few years have been hard for lovers of democracy, and this one also starts awkwardly. Freedom House, the New York-based think-tank that monitors democracy and free speech, will this month publish its annual rating of "Freedom in the World", probably to much clucking and soul-searching about setbacks, if the previous four years´ reports are any guide. There are certainly grounds for gloom, not just from President Laurent Gbagbo´s refusal to accept the election verdict in Cote d´Ivoire but also from the arrival as president of the European Union´s Council of Ministers of Hungary, whose government has just adopted a draconian new media law empowering a special watchdog, controlled by the ruling party, to punish media outlets for "unbalanced coverage".

            Meanwhile, two of the largest countries in the world, Russia and China, stand as flagbearers for authoritarian capitalism. Russia´s decision last month to lengthen the jail sentence of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil mogul, for nakedly political reasons was a two-fingered gesture at principles of democracy and the rule of law, unless by that is meant the law of the ruler, namely Vladimir Putin.

            China is the bigger challenge because it is now a true economic and political superpower, and is the first prominent country since Stalin´s Soviet Union to have attained that status under an authoritarian system. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Chile also got rich in that way, but none ever approached global influence, nor were likely to be treated as a rival model to western liberalism—and right now, thanks to the economic crisis, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, that western model is looking tattered.

            Yet let us not get too gloomy, so soon in the New Year. The setbacks in Freedom House´s ratings since 2005 simply trimmed the share of the world´s population said to be living in "free" countries from 45.97% in 2005 to 45.49% in the January 2010 report, and either number remains a spectacular success compared with 20 years ago. The loud international condemnation of the Khodorkovsky show trial, of China´s snubbing of the Nobel Peace Prize award to its imprisoned dissident, Liu Xiaobo, and (even from neighbouring West African governments) of Mr Gbagbo´s refusal to stand down imply that democracy and freedom still please the crowds far more than any alternative.

            Admittedly, the cause of such western values, which we rightly consider to be universal, continues to be held back by President Barack Obama´s greatest promise-breach, his inability to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, leaving a reported 170 people still in custody there and deprived of the judicial rights for which America supposedly stands. Another stain on those values is the treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of providing the confidential material to Wikileaks, who has been held in solitary confinement since last May, awaiting a court martial.

            With President Obama now facing stronger Republican opposition and in some danger of losing the 2012 election, there is sadly little prospect of either of these stains being removed. So the task of promoting western values can and should fall to Britain, for 2011 will provide the opportunity to strengthen our democratic credentials in important ways.

            The most quixotic, but still satisfying, way would be for David Cameron´s government to speak out strongly against Hungary´s new media law, for if EU treaties truly were statements of principle Hungary ought now to be expelled. That would also require Italy, with its media firmly under the thumb of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to be kicked out too, which is why it won´t happen. But it would be good for the government and British pride to stand up in Europe for the freedom of the press.

            Such a stance would be made more credible if, as spring approaches, the coalition´s draft Defamation Bill were to propose a serious reform of Britain´s libel laws, tackling at last our reputation as the favourite haunt of libel tourists, a place that offers legal succour to Russian bullies and sundry polluters. If, heaven forbid, America requests the extradition of Wikileaks´ Julian Assange, Britain can also boost its free-speech credentials by rebuffing it, for while we may disapprove of Wikileaks´ publication of diplomatic cables, we should with Voltaire defend its right to do so, especially as that publication breaks no law in this country.

            However, there are two much bigger democratic issues coming up. The simplest is electoral reform, and the referendum in May on switching to an "alternative vote" system. This stands to be rancorous and potentially devastating for the coalition. Many, especially on the Conservative right, still hanker for single-party government and believe the first-past-the-post system must be preserved. Most Liberal Democrats, despite their past scorn for the inadequately proportional AV system, will feel they have no point or future as a party if the referendum is lost.

            The crucial issue is one of legitimacy. This coalition, and indeed this referendum, have come about because the share of the vote in British elections commanded by the two main parties has declined steadily and inexorably, to the point where coalitions will anyway be frequent, and single-party government would now occur only with support from 35-40% of votes cast, at most. The danger is that the "elective dictatorship", as Lord Hailsham once called it, of the House of Commons will become increasingly illegitimate. That legitimacy gap will need to be narrowed, and AV would be a good way to do it. For Tories to seek to block this is to endanger the very democratic system they purport to wish to conserve.

            The other, far harder, topic is that of control orders, the euphemism used for the powers of indefinite house arrest that were created by Parliament in 2005. A handful of terrorist suspects have, under these powers, been deprived of their liberties and normal legal rights. Disagreement over the issue has been threatening further to deprive Nick Clegg of his credibility, since during the election campaign he called for their abolition. If yesterday´s Sunday Times was correct, however, the cabinet will next week abolish them, replacing them with powers to use much weaker, less draconian restrictions on suspects´ movements.

            If so, Mr Clegg´s victory should be welcomed by anyone keen on traditional British values—as long as the weaker restrictions are not themselves illiberal. For although control orders were an understandable response to terrorist threats and to the way human rights conventions forbid us from deporting suspects as we might like to, and to the fact that the costs of covert 24-hour surveillance are huge, they are nevertheless Britain´s mini-Guantanamo: extra-judicial and potentially arbitrary powers that, once adopted, are hard to get rid of as politicians fear being blamed for terrorism.

To give them up requires us to decide to accept some increased risk of terrorism in return for the restoration of traditional rights and liberties. If the Cabinet has made that decision, it will be a brave and fine moment for democracy and the rule of law—British style.


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