Western admirers of democracy are having difficulty deciding whether to condemn Egypt for an army coup against an elected President, or praise the people power which triggered a change of regime and the promise of new elections after alleged anti democratic decisions by the outgoing President.
It is all too easy for us in the west to feel morally superior, knowing that in the UK and the US the army does not intervene in politics, and that regime change occurs if people want it at General elections. In practice power in western democracies is more nuanced than the theoretical models suggest. It is all more complex than the slogans and soundbites we learn in our youth.
It is true that in the UK the army has not visibly and directly intervened in politics in an unconstitutional way since the English civil war. Even then, the army was a major force in politics largely because it was led by MPs who used the army as an adjunct to their Commons strength. In past centuries the UK has prided itself on having only a small army in peacetime, and making it clear the army leadership should only undertake tasks that the elected government proposes to them.
However, US democracy was partly created by the field army the rebel colonists used against the British forces and the loyal settlers. Winning the war of independence led to the rest. In Great Britain the use of the army against the King in the 1640s assisted Parliament’s assertion of rights to influence and shape government.
There has been plenty of exchange and mutual influence between the army and politics in both the US and the UK since those founding battles. Top Generals like Washington and Wellington became President or Prime Minister. Modern US Generals are potential recruits for the roles of Secreatry of State or Secretary for defence. UK Generals can end up as legislators in the Lords, and an Admiral became a Minister in the last UK government. The UK Defence chiefs join War Cabinets in the event of conflict, and have influence at all times over senior members of the government.
The Egyptian issue raises another fundamental question – can the establishment in a country curb or even change an elected government which goes beyond the establlishment’s view of what is reasonable or permissibile conduct? In the UK a Minister is regularly advised of the legal restraints on his or her actions and is rightly expected to obey the law. The Minister’s privilege is he can change any law he does not like if he has the agreement of his colleagues, but only for the future.
Mr Blunkett experienced the unwillingness of his officials to implement an instruction he made concerning a prison riot. Mr Blunkett changed his mind the next morning and de facto accepted the advice he had expressly overruled before. It was an extreme and public example of a continuous process of debate between Ministers and officials. Ministers may decide (within the law) but officials may choose the timing and method of implementation unless the Minister has been very precise and foreceful in following up. A Minister may think he has decided, but officials may regard the decision as provisional or something they intend to return to later.
More fundamental to limiting the power of the elected official is the ever looming presence of EU government in the UK. Just as the army in Egypt sought to limit or direct decisions by the elected President, so in the UK the unseen hands of the EU are constantly shaping and reshaping Uk policy on a myriad of items. Modern UK Ministers have very limtied powers of decison and discretion thanks the huge powers transferred in recent years to the EU, and thanks to the massive build up of EU law. Ministers in Euro area economies have even less power, with new governments forced to continue with the otugoing government’s economic policies however unpopular they may be.
So before we feel too superior about the maturity of our democracy and too dismissive of those in Egypt arguing over how to find a democratic model athat works for them, we should remember two things. The army has at times played an important role in UK and US politics. Our own UK democracy is facing a crisis of authority and accountability thanks to the many decisions that now cannot be made by any elected official, whatever the wishes of the UK people.