Democratic revolutions?

 

                     In the 1980s and 1990s, especially around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world lived through a series of notable democratic revolutions. People threw off the communist or dictatorial yoke, by refusing any longer to obey their governments. In most cases the regimes fell quickly and with mercifully few fatalities. Many of the countries that went through this process have settled down to political parties, free elections and greater civil liberties.

                     This week-end we have been witnessing high drama on the streets of the major Egyptian cities. This follows hard on the heels of something similar in Tunisia. Where the government resists violence occurs. The commentators and experts in that part of the world seem surprised it is happening, and are very unsure of what will happen next.

                      It is difficult to see that the Egyptian President can continue in office. The crowd wants him out,  and he has lost control of the cities. The bungled attempt to impose a curfew failed. The crude intervention to stop people using mobile phones and other modern technology to direct the rebellion is failing. The proposal that they could have new Ministers of his choosing to solve the problem will not convince many. There are limits to what tanks and armed troops can do against a protest as large and determined as this one seems to be.

                   There are two crucial questions for all our futures. Will this spread to other countries? And will it result in a more liberal civil and political society, or some other form of tyranny?

                     There could well be more of this, as other oppositions in  other countries study what the Tunisians and Egyptians have done. The experts are at a loss as to what might emerge in its place. As we have seen in other Middle East countries where democracy has been imposed by new forces after western military intervention, it is unlikely a country can go straight to a western style party based democracy with a good range of civil liberties. Nor, on a brighter note, is it possible to see how any new arrangement and government can impose the same degree of control as in the past, now there is so much anarchic new technology available to the young and energetic populations of countries like Egypt.

                   The ability of government to keep the peace and to keep authority is always a difficult task, even in well organised and stable democracies. Our approach in the west is to say to people you may not like what the government is doing, but you have freedom to campaign peacefully against it, and to work away to dislodge the government at the next election. Where states allow neither of these pressure valves, they are vulnerable to street riots, as we now see again.

                     Elected governments can also experience difficulties in maintaining authority, where they misjudge the mood or make serious mistakes. The Irish government has just been brought down by the pressure of public opinion. The interesting question there is what happens if the Irish people decide to elect a new government or group of parties that do not  accept the EU loan settlement the old government is just pushing through? Then there will be a test of how much democracy an EU member state in special measures still enjoys.

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32 Comments

  1. lifelogic
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    Lessons for the non democratic EU and the UK government (and the so called Liberals) to take on board now as it will very soon be too late.

    You say.

    “Our approach in the west is to say to people you may not like what the governemnt is doing, but you have freedom to campaign peacefully against it, and to work away to dislodge the government at the next election. Where states allow neither of these pressure valves, they are vulnerable to street riots, as we now see again.”

    Yes a good approach in general.

    Unfortunately in the UK the party structures and the voting system (giving people one vote every five years on all the mixed issues and that for someone who will not do as promised anyway) is not much democracy at all in reality. I have never been able to vote on the EU as you have to be over 53(?) to have been conned by Heath’s common market, his daft policies the three day week, his silly anti inflation plans and short disastrous government. Perhaps the current government should read about Heath’s short period of government – they might learn something. They are perhaps, nearly all, too young to remember the Heath’s period directly, though they should at least remember Major’s similar disaster.

    Reply: You can vote for parties which want less EU involvement or want out altogether.

    • lifelogic
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Yes but other than the mildly sceptical(?) conservatives then (at Westminster) they have virtually no chance of being elected despite having an strongly anti EU electorate. This because all the issues are mixed up together in a voting melange for a person probably more loyal to their party than to their voters.

      The devolution into Scotland and Wales further distorts the so called democracy into regional issues as was doubtless intended.

      The voter cannot do anything on a single issue even if 80% of voters wanted it very strongly they are powerless due to the melange of issues. At best they would just get a worthless cast iron guarantee or dishonest referendum promises thrown to them just to win votes.

    • Electro-Kevin
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Not viable parties, I’m afraid.

    • Andrew Smith
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the public could vote for a party that wants to change our relationship with the EU, which can only be done by leaving. But the 3 old parties and their friends in the press and media continue to deny fair exposure to any alternate view.

      Furthermore, the Conservative Party continues to make deceptive statements about its intentions (reform CAP, take back fishing, cast iron guarantee, referendum lock, etc) and so it acts as an anger sink; drawing much of the anti-EU fire which now accounts for such a big percentage of the population.

      Your colleagues, John, are not open and honest about their values but instead serve the interests of the EU and will do anything to prevent the people having their way.

  2. alan jutson
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    You mention Democracy, but what is real demorcracy ?

    A vote every 5 years ?

    There are a number of versions around the World it would seem, but the growing power and control of all Politicians, with the “We Know best” attitude, is destroying peoples perception of most democratic types of Government.

    The worry is what comes next !

    • Richard Calhoun
      Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Maybe the nearest we can get to a real democracy is the version they have in Switzerland, I haven’t studied it properly, but it does seem to give the electorate more say.
      There economy is certainly well run and they are not in the EU

  3. Peter
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    2 points, first most of the dictatorial and unpleasant regimes in the middle east have been supported, encouraged, financed and armed by the US (and UK) for decades. The only time that either country has been pro democracy is when they see the tide is turned against the old order. It is laughable that Obama criticises Egypt and Tunisia for human rights violations when America is involved in torture, illegal imprisonment, (word left out-ed) and subverting sovereign states on a daily basis.
    Second- the western democracy’s failure is that the electorate do not have a real choice in elections. Here we had a grossly incompetent pro EU, pro public spending statist Labour party or a marginally more competent appearing Conservative party that is still pro EU, pro public spending and statist. Only the faces and the language changes.

    • Bernie in Pipewell
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Well said,I agree wholeheartedly with you.

    • Richard Calhoun
      Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Of course we have real choice in elections.
      We have had UKIP as an alternative, a perfectly stable and moderate party, but there is simply not the strength of feeling in the general electorate against the EU.
      This may be because the EU sceptics have been making a poor case and are not coordinated, both true I think!

      UKIP have never won a seat in Westminster, they came 4th in the Oldham by-election, until the EU sceptics in the main parties, the pressure groups et al coordinate their efforts we will not gain any traction.

      We are being badly let down.

  4. Stop Common Purpose
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Any government that takes away men’s access to Internet porn is bound to be overthrown.

  5. Alte Fritz
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    There is indeed something suspicious in the way in which Mr Cowen has beeen so anxious to push through necessary legislation before going. The question, whether in Ireland or Egypt, is less “what do people not want”, but “what do they want”?

    The door to tyranny is wide open when there is no general agreement on the shape the country should be. Naturally, when opinion is stifled over decades, there has been no chance for positive public opinion to form. And here I do not just mean Egypt, but Ireland or the UK where successive governments push particular agendas, obvious example being the EU, so that, say, Euroscepticism is seen as something between eccentric and disreputable.

  6. Acorn
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Power of the people, I’ll say. There is an interesting stage now; where a large mob climbing on the tanks, has a couple of people in that mob that recognise the guys in the tanks. They know which tribe and which family they come from. The same goes for the cops; “we know where you live” is the last thing a cop beating you over the head wants to hear.

    If the Tunisian and Egyptian governments’ spooks, acting as “agent provocateurs” can’t create riots to force a “legitimate” clamp down by the cops and the squaddies; they also will want a seat on one of the elite’s Lear Jets, heading for their swiss bank accounts. Some have already landed in Canada this morning according to US radio.

    Next a group will come out of the shadows; with a plan; well organised and disciplined. The US will have kittens. I read the cops have already given up on the Egyptian / Gaza border already. Israel will be having kittens. Watch the Crude Oil price this week.

  7. Woodsy42
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    You say
    “but you have freedom to campaign peacefully against it, and to work away to dislodge the government at the next election. Where states allow neither of these pressure valves, they are vulnerable to street riots, as we now see again.”

    Yes, and ‘pressure valves’ is all they are, freedom to campaign is not democracy unless there is a real route to influence policy. When there is actually no such real route because government does not listen and all the main ‘democratic’ options are going the same way with authoritarian agendas, nannying and rubber stamped Eu regulations these valves will cease to work.

    And as for “The interesting question there is what happens if the Irish people decide to elect a new government or group of parties that do not accept the EU loan settlement”

    As often the case in modern politics a disgraced and dying government is trying to force through a hugely important ‘law’ in the ‘tidying up’ period. You have no idea how much pleasure it would bring, even to me as an outside observer, to have the people reject them, and the EU.

  8. English Pensioner
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Those who see what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt should beware of celebrating to soon. I remember when the Shah of Persia was overthrown and large numbers of people particularly the anti-monarchists proclaimed it as being a great day for democracy. I wonder if they still think so?
    The problem in most of the near and middle east is that there is no united opposition to take over from the existing governments and there seems to me that there is every chance that the extremist Islamists who are “waiting in the wings” will take over and we will have another Iran only the width of the Mediterranean away from Europe. Egypt, in particular, is a target for the extremists as in their view it is far too westernised and has committed the unforgivable sin of reaching an accommodation with Israel. Yemen, which is also in turmoil, will, it seems, almost certainly become another Iran thus significantly increasing the dangers to shipping to and from the gulf. At the same time we are reducing the size of our navy and scrapping the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft. Total Madness!

    • alan jutson
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      English Pensioner.

      Exactly. The new lot could be worse than the existing.

      Lets also wait and see what happens in Afghanistan when we all pull out, do they think it will remain a sort of western type democracy ?

      Only when we are gone will the result of our sacrifice be known, will it have been worth it, wait and see.

  9. Nick
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    You’re next.

    You sit and dictate.

    When do we get a say on an issue?

    Ah, I can here it now. We can get rid of you at the next election.

    So lets see. John Redwood versus the BNP. We have to vote BNP to get rid of you.

    It’s not democratic control when you have to shoot yourself in the foot to get rid of any fraud.

    Reply: My electors get a lot of say on issues, as do readers of this site. I listen carefully and try to come to sensible judgements, which I explain to electors and others. That cannot be the same thing as always agreeing with each voter, as voters disagree with each other on wide ranging basis.

    • lifelogic
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      You JR are fine and do an excellent job all round but you are rather rare. The problem is most of the rest of MPs are career politicians who will do anything to keep their party nomination, job, expenses and pension and will do whatever the party wants every time.

    • Iain Gill
      Posted January 30, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

      to be fair to john he is at the better end of the spectrum of our elected representatives

      my own mp replies to thoughful letters from his constinuents only with copy and paste from his parties electoral literature, frankly he is a disgrace

      • rose
        Posted January 31, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        You are lucky to get a reply at all! We don’t.

  10. Steve Cox
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m no expert on the Middle East or North Africa, in fact I spent most of my working life in the oil industry avoiding those places. While I dislike supposedly benevolent dictators such as Mubarak and Ben Ali, I’m guessing that these changes (assuming that Mubarak does have to stand down) will leave the countries wide open for Islamist politicians, and that can never, ever be good news for us in the West. Knock the US or UK foreign policy in the past if you like, these guys may have been bastards, but as a US bigwig once said, at least they are our bastards (apologies for my French! 🙂 ) . If this trouble spreads to the Arabian Peninsula, then we will probably soon be thinking of petrol at £1.40 a litre as an absolute bargain.

    • rose
      Posted January 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      And where will the many refugees come flocking?

  11. Bazman
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    This present government have not got the police on side as much as the Thatcher government that they seem to be modelling themselves on. Thatcher looked after the police and they where very much on her side as an instrument of the state. I dont think as many people are on the side of the state after letting an elite live under entirely different principles while the rest of us live under capitalism. Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can’t. to quote Withnail from the film Withnail & I. The electorate have with the help of the internet become a bit more savy than in the 1980’s

  12. Iain Gill
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I no longer believe the UK has a system worth aspiring for

    The vast majority of the UK people have lost faith in the system

    Issues like the way candidates are selected by the main parties, the excess influence by very small section of society, and so on, none of which the voters have a realistic chance of changing at the polls

    So I don’t think we can preach and indeed I have been many places, which at first glance would look to have a much less democratic country, but which under the surface are much fairer and more balanced

    As regards Egypt I really don’t think a minor power with run down armed forces in Europe has much of a place speaking out on these issues, we should leave the Egyptian people to figure out themselves what they want

    As regards issues closer to home if this ends up pushing petrol and diesel prices any higher we are going to have a major crisis in this country, I would prefer you John to tell us your views on that aspect

  13. Bernard Otway
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I have said in posts on several issues on this site,but I have to admit ,that the EU and all that is bad that it entails for the UK runs through every subject,from law and order to political correctness to any issue you care to name involving politics and government,That I believe a tipping point has arrived.As other comments here say every five years we vote for a govt that then goes and does in a lot of cases the exact opposite of what we want ,eg Immigration and the EU, lots and lots of others,UNLESS our elected representatives including you John recognise and actually listen to and DO what we want ie the majority,then this supposedly peaceable people are now MAD,I am 65 and am quite willing and able to go to jail for my beliefs,I have no option and much time left,but even those in their twenties are MAD .In this time we are in, the EU clearly costs us more much more than it benefits us ,the longer we wait to properly engage with the rest of the world apart from the EU the longer it takes that we can take advantage of that engagement ,so if you are 25 now and it takes another 10 years for instance,then you will only be 35 when you start getting benefits from this engagement,the lost 10 years is like putting your retirement back to 75,every age group is beginning to realise this.another thing I would like to point out here is that Conservative Home are increasingly Censoring my comments among many
    and that I believe this would not be published on there,What do they think that this censorship/Moderation achieves ,it only gets us Mad,I am now telephonically in touch with many fellow commenters and all are angry.

  14. Bob
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    So there you have it John, lets get out of the ridiculous EU, reclaim our fishing grounds, resume farming our land instead of paying farmers not to produce anything and make our own decisions on law and order and whether or not prisoners should be allowed to vote.

    Oh, and before you start you’ll have to close down the BBC or you’ll get nowhere.

    Good luck!

  15. Stuart Fairney
    Posted January 30, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    If Mubarak has a brain and the determination to survive, he can. Here’s how.

    Just ship an army division from the South to the North of the country. Give them a few drinks, a lot of ammo and some intensive propaganda about some imagined enemy of Egypt. Hey presto, one bloodbath later, the curfew is absolutely observed and his power is cemented, rather like the Chinese communist party or the current ruling elite in Iran.

    Alternatively, he could be like the useless Shah of Iran and run away. Revolutions tend to be successful when the ruling elite is decadent and cowardly, and has not taken trouble to disarm their populace.

    Ever wonder why Tony took your guns? Wonder no more.

    Reply: The West is rightly urging the government of Egypt to avoid violence – the last thing we want is more deaths in Egypt at the hands of the security forces. They would be wrong in themselves and may urge the protesters on to more.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted January 31, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      I agree entirely, I would no more want state-sanctioned brutality than you, I was merely pointing out the possible outcomes, I was certainly not recommending a clamp-down.

      But I have to disagree with your final point. As Tiananmen Square showed, if the state gets really unapologetically bloody, that’s the end of popular protest, at least for a while.

  16. Ken
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I think we should be guarded against applying our set of standards and morals on other cultures.

    I love democracy. However, some cultures, especially those who place emphasis on strength, interpret the inevitable compromises that democracy brings as weakness. In those societies democracy may be short-lived or have a sham existence.

    Egypt is a vital country to the West and especially to the U.S. and the U.K (with our history with Egypt). In my view interference or even mere finger wagging (or ill-advised female diplomats wearing inappropriate clothing – why don’t we respect other cultures?) will do us no good at all.

    Western media relays voices that happen to speak good English and who may call for free and open democracy. Is the media that relays these voices giving us a representative picture? The majority of Egyptians may just want a change at the top and may want that person to be strong and decisive, regardless of whether he is a politician or an army general and regardless of whether he has stood for election.

    Surely it is times like these when we should restrict our activities to keeping tabs on the (rumoured) whereabouts of nuclear weapons and other immediate dangers such as Israel’s response. We should be prepared to deal with whichever government emerges and so should Israel.

  17. Robert Taggart
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    When will ‘we’ enjoy a democratic revolution ? !
    1. A directly elected Head of State. Voting every five years.
    2. A proportionally / entirely elected Parliament – 100 member Senate, 400 member Commons. Voting every five years.
    3. Unitary Local Democracy – only. A single council with single member constituencies. Voting every five years.
    In short – fewer ‘Politicos’ !

  18. Javelin
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve finally got a handle on Egypt. The opposition is disorganised the West is ambiguous. The protests are little more than eye candy for CNN. The army is too neutral and hence neutered. What really matters to the Egyptian leaders is the economy. The Egyptians are very proud, dignified they even sweep the streets up after the riots. So whilst the situation is volatile nobody wants to upset the apple cart. This is a very polite revolution and I think the Egyptian people above all should be trusted. I think the army and the people should be trusted and respected. I think David Cameron should recognise this and call for the President to step aside until free and fair elections in September.

    • Javelin
      Posted February 1, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

      The President has just announced he will not run again in September, but to admit that means he has no mandate so should resign immediately.

  19. Lindsay McDougall
    Posted February 3, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    After the next election, we may have a couple of problems closer to home.
    (1) What will happen if Eurosceptic Conservative MPs gain a majority in the House of Commons. How will they take on the undemocratic Eurpean Union?
    (2) What will happen if Ulster’s Unionists elect MPs who won’t share power with Sinn Fein? On that day, the Good Friday agreement will become undemocratic.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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