In defence of liberal democracy

By Matt Beebee

Whether it is right or wrong to do so, political thinkers from Machiavelli to the present have often put forward an idea of the ‘proficient elite’ and the ‘inept many’. For what might seem like obvious reasons, anyone who holds such views would be seen as an enemy of democracy. This is not strictly true. Liberal democracy has asserted itself as the dominant strain of democratic theory and governmental practice around the world but, by its very nature, only a small number of people will actually play a role in governing a society under such a system – the so called ‘political class’.

Despite only an elite minority gaining a role in government it matters how this elite secures and retains office from the many, for the many. Liberal democratic elites do so through the employment of pollsters and advertising campaigns and while politicians do their best to confuse the electorate, they intended to gain votes and secure political office through persuasion and open debate, as opposed to the coercive use of secret police, corrupted courts or politicized armies favoured by totalitarian elites. Democratic elites allow themselves to be thrown out by the electorate at regular elections, they are held to account by the electorate and do not intend to hold power for life as a totalitarian dictatorship does.

More importantly, liberal democracy encompasses competition between candidates, usually from a party that represents a particular ideological tradition. This competition produces better government than non-competitive elite rule or the noble encompassing intentions of direct democracy. Liberal democracy means that we are inevitably ruled by a group of elites but the competitive aspect of liberal democratic voting ensures that incompetent elites are replaced by more competent elites. Although, as in the US and to a degree in the UK, voters may only choose between two competitors, the open competition within a framework of free elections does produce efficient government – the incumbent elites wish to perform well to boost their competitiveness in relation to their opponents.

However, just who can become a member of the political class is a contentious and controversial issue. Despite western liberal democracies – most specifically in mainland Europe – having fiercely competitive elections, the system of recruitment to the political class is often seen as restrictive. Take the UK for example: a large proportion of the UK cabinet is made up of privately schooled, university educated, middle-class men. All three of the main party leaders were educated at Oxbridge; both David Cameron and Ed Miliband read PPE at Oxford – the so called ‘Prime Minister maker’ of degrees. For liberal democracy this raises the question ‘just how representative is the political class?’ Despite its competitive electoral process, this process is often seen by the electorate as competition between likeminded individuals vying for power who are often pejoratively viewed as ‘professional politicians’ doing nothing but go straight into the battlefield of party politics.

Yet we should not be so quick to judge ‘professional politicians’ with cynicism for a numbers of reasons. First, there are many worse political systems than liberal democracy. Second, doctors, just like politicians, are often not very like the majority of people they care for in terms of lifestyle and education yet we still value them as integral members of society. Thirdly, if politicians do a poor job of promoting the interests of the people they represent on a local and national level they can be voted out at regular intervals. Fourthly, political failure is often more than sheer incompetence; politicians face conflicting pressures and are presented with tasks that are often difficult to perform without something going wrong along the lines. Without meaning to sound patronising, could the role of a professional politician be improved if ordinary citizens were given more political activity in some Athenian-style democratic system?

Liberal democracy brings with it one fundamental advantage and that is its ‘liberal’ aspect of private freedom; liberal democracy crucially sees a difference between the state and society meaning that individuals can prosper unimpeded and pursue one’s own economic, occupational, educational, social and religious choices without hindrance. Indeed, most of us see these liberties as far more important than our political liberty to the right to vote as these are liberties that affect us on a day-to-day basis. This is one of the reasons why half of us do not exercise the right to vote in important national elections; we know whatever the outcome of the election we will retain our private freedom. While this may be true to a degree, it is a rather sad situation that the most redeeming feature of liberal democracy, its protection of private liberties, is all too often taken for granted while the political system that supports these liberties is neglected. More to the point, this is only half the reason why we no longer vote.

The other half is apathy and our perceived lack of political accountability that stems from the previously noted problem of representation. Most of the apathetic attitude towards politics is due to the feeling that voting in elections is our only role within the democratic system; however, every citizen also upholds the democratic right to follow and question government action. This can easily be done by remaining active; contacting or meeting the local politician, being on the floor of a political TV show or even joining a political party. We fail to keep an effective check on our politicians, often cynically dismissing liberal democracy as impossible to hold accountable and therefore there is no point in even voting to begin with. This is a view that should be avoided at all cost. Both the electorate themselves and the political class must do more to increase the experience and the competence of matters of political engagement and politics more generally.

As imperfect as liberal democracy is, it is, ultimately, indispensable with the rule of law within a civil society. However rule of law is not the means to creating a civil society, quite the contrary. Rule of law is the by-product of a society based on liberal principles: absent of snobbery, social integration for women and immigrants and the diminishing of economic and social inequalities at large. Without these facets, the rule of law is a meaningless concept and so is liberal democracy. It is these liberal principles that give liberal democracy its democratic nature as previously accepted grounds for claiming political power have been removed by-and-large (as well as power in the private sphere). It is not foolish to argue that the core values that underpin liberal democracy are its social, not its political, aspects. For this, we should be thankful; as problematic as it is, there are much worse and challenging political systems than liberal democracy and the decent government it encompasses.


I don’t know whether is it was just some Fleet Street thing: Nick Clegg and the danger of morality doorstepping

By John Newton

Nick Clegg has been accused of making a gaffe after appearing to down play the seriousness of domestic violence on his LBC Call Clegg programme. Newspapers reported that the Deputy Prime Minister had described an incident involving Charles Saatchi putting his hands around his wife, Nigella Lawson’s throat as “fleeting”. However, what Clegg said and the response it elicited point to interesting currents at play in the relationship between politicians and the media.

Modern politics is sometimes a depressingly stage managed affair, with entire departments of well qualified and savvy media operators working manically to ensure that in every contact with the press or the public our politicians come across as normal, decent human beings.

This is actually surprisingly difficult, so naturally when the assiduously conceived mask slips and the plausible ‘hard working public servant’ goes off script, the press seize it gratefully and run with it, often with opposing parties providing supporting cover down the wings.

There have been Ken Clarke’s infamous comments questioning the legitimacy of date-rape on BBC Radio 5live, which prompted Labour leader Ed Miliband to call for his resignation, or Gordon Brown’s much vaunted ‘bigot’ remarks in the run-up to the 2010 election.

Both of these things were legitimate sources of news as they provided pertinent and substantial insights into the views of the politicians involved. Ken Clarke was at the time he made his comments on the Victoria Derbyshire programme the Justice Secretary. This clearly provided a disturbing perspective on the way he would act as a Minister.

Similarly, during the 2010 general election campaign, a key issue for the Gordon Brown’s government was a collapse in support amongst traditional working class Labour voters over issues like immigration policy. By accusing Gillian Duffy of being a “bigot” on a microphone which had been mistakenly left on, Brown seemed to show a lack of understanding of the views and fears of one of his party’s core demographics.

In the case of Nick Clegg’s comments however, it seems that while the response was one of unequivocal condemnation, the narrative is much more nuanced.

Clegg’s words were not elegant or inspiring. It can safely be assumed that a more wizened political operator would have quietly stressed they couldn’t comment on an individual case and loudly condemned domestic violence.

The Liberal Democrat leader in fact seemed to do the opposite.  Asked if he would have personally intervened in the particular incident depicted between Saatchi and Lawson, he initially said:

“What a difficult question…I find it so difficult to imagine. So you see a couple…I’m like you, I don’t know what happened. When you see a couple having an argument, most people you know, just assume the couple will just resolve it themselves. If something descends into outright violence then that’s something different. I just don’t know.

“There was this one photograph. I don’t know whether that was just a fleeting thing or…I’m really sorry … I’m at a loss to be able to put myself in that position without knowing.”

Only then adding when asked to comment more generally: “I hope everyone’s instincts would be…to try and protect the weaker person. To try and protect the person who might be hurt.”

This is clearly not a well constructed or rousing condemnation of what is generally perceived as a wide-spread but clandestine crime. Rather reasonably, that is because that is not what Mr Clegg was asked to comment on. The caller asked him specifically about what was shown in the pictures of Lawson and Saatchi and whether that would have prompted him to intervene. Having only seen one of the pictures, Clegg said he didn’t know how he would have responded. As it appeared that Clegg was unaware that Saatchi had accepted a police caution for the incident, it seems he strove not to tread too heavily on possibly libelous ground by making any direct statement a about a case he seemed to know little about.

Within an hour of the programme going out, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup claimed in a blog post that the Deputy Prime Minister should “be ashamed of his comments this morning”. Kirkup notably picked up on the word “fleeting” which seemed to be the focal point for the subsequent criticism of Clegg’s comments. Vey early on this conflated the issue of whether Clegg was talking about the incident itself or positing the difficulties in deciding to intervene in an argument you know little about in a restaurant.

Listening to the broadcast, it is relatively clear the latter is the case. Once this conflation had been introduced however, torrents of condemnation followed.

Conservative MP Sarah Woollastone tweeted “So just don’t ‘call Clegg’ if your partner likes to grab you by the throat to emphasise a point”.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper released a statement attacking Mr Clegg for revealing “how little he understands about violence against women” as “too often violence against women is dismissed as fleeting or unimportant”.

Inevitably Mr Clegg’s office rushed out a statement clarifying that the politician unsurprisingly “completely condemned all forms of domestic violence”.

However, it seemed that Clegg’s reticence on the issue had provided a political open goal.

In an interview in Saturday’s Guardian, Labour leader Ed Miliband went further, bringing the focus back to the pictures themselves and the question of intervention. He said:

“Honestly, if you are passing by something like that happening – our duty is to intervene. If I had been in that situation, passing by in those circumstances, the right thing to do is to go up to somebody involved in that and say ‘What’s going on?’”

This was the immediate precursor to a difficult acknowledgement about the limits of Labour’s spending commitments, were the party to win the next election. The article’s topline remained the comments about the incident in the restaurant.

Using such a serious a complicated issue, like domestic violence, which is so often hidden from view, to make political capital is truly reprehensible. Obviously domestic abuse will not be solved by MPs rushing about restaurants demanding to know “What’s going on?”. The Labour party should know better than to treat the issue so cheaply.

The media tactics at play seem akin to ‘morality doorstepping’. Doorstepping refers to the practice of, typically, waiting outside someone’s home to fire questions at them on a particular topic as they make their way from the front step to the waiting car. It’s a favourite ploy for use on disgraced ministers and celebrities, where getting an actual comment is only slightly preferable to getting footage of a dogged figure refusing to answer a question.

When applied to serious and complex issues of morality and in this case as it has transpired criminality, a lack of comment seems tantamount to an endorsement, with which the press can then run with as a gaffe.

In this case in particular the conflation and lack of substance to the stories trivialise the issue as reporters pore over transcripts looking for a ‘smoking gun’ which could be used against Clegg.

The danger inherent in this method of journalism is that politicians will be presented with a stream of ‘what would you do if’, scenarios to respond to. In the main, politicians would welcome this as, with adequate preparation it gives them the chance to talk about themselves and promote a positive image. What is less desirable however is the onus placed on the personality of the politician rather than the gravity of the issue, giving the process a competitive element as political figures vie to give the ‘right’ answer.

Both before and after hearing Clegg’s comments and despite disagreeing with him on almost every conceivable level on politics and policy, I am pretty sure he doesn’t aim to condone or downplay instances of domestic violence.

By using these comments as a political weapon, conversely, politicians and the press have trivialised and distracted from the issues at hand.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, have both pointed to Government cuts to welfare meaning that victims of domestic abuse often have fewer options for escaping violent relationships, as women disproportionately lose out from changes to benefits.

By using the pictures of the incident the press has shown how it can highlight issues like domestic abuse, raising awareness and starting much-needed debates. However by turning the issue into a party political point-scoring exercise or a moratorium on Nick Clegg’s media relations skills this vital opportunity is squandered. This does not just constitute lazy journalism, it is actively damaging.


The government must keep its promise to enshrine the aid budget into law

By Alex Bryan

Throughout the past 3 years, a popular lament from Conservatives has been that the Government is being prevented from enacting truly conservative policies by the presence of the Liberal Democrats alongside them in office. The complainants have been particularly vocal with regards to policy areas such as Europe, law and order and liberalisation of employment laws. These are areas where the parties simply disagree, and have managed to form policy around the small amount of common ground they have, occasionally sniping at each other in the media in order to placate grumbling party bases.

Strangely, there are also issues which both parties have previously committed to which have now become areas of disagreement and backbiting, one of which became clear with the Queen’s Speech this week. Despite it featuring in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the Coalition agreement, no commitment to enshrine the current 0.7% foreign aid budget into law was mentioned by the Queen. Both parties have said that they want to retain the current levels of spending, and both extol the virtues of Britain’s international role. Yet three years down the line their commitment to codify this into law seems to have been forgotten.

Why? Consensus seems to be that Cameron is bowing to his less moderate backbenchers, for whom foreign aid has always been an expensive luxury not to be afforded in hard times. A nice idea perhaps, but not one to be given priority at a time when British people are hurting, and our 0.7% would be a welcome boost to the budgets of more important departments. It is not only Tory backbenchers and members who think this: 7 out of 10 people believe that the UK spends too much on foreign aid, with only 7% thinking that the aid budget should continue to rise and be protected from Whitehall cuts.

David Cameron, though a confessed believer in the power of foreign aid, has already given approval to channel some of the aid budget into peacekeeping funds for British soldiers in those roles around the world. This is not a huge departure from the function of the aid budget as it existed before; the money would not go on combat operations or equipment, and would help to stabilise and support peace in troubled states around the world. In terms of ensuring that the aid budget promotes the security and development of individuals to the highest degree per pound around the world, this reform (as long as it does not subsume the rest of the aid budget) is not a bad thing.

But the danger remains that with an unwilling public and an increasingly disgruntled and vocal party, David Cameron will succumb to demands to cut the budget. The chances of doing that in the current Parliament are small, but by refusing to encase the current levels of spending in law, Cameron leaves open the option to cut the budget.

It has been well publicised that the UK has given aid to a number of countries, such as India, Russia and China, which are wealthy enough to be able to look after their own citizens. But international aid, operating in the way the UK government does, is centred around the poverty of individuals or groups of individuals around the world, not on nation-states. Aid channelled through the right kind of non-corrupt organisations into wealthy countries can help lift individuals who receive no help from their own government out of extreme poverty. This remains as true in Russia and China as in Rwanda and Chile.

Unfortunately, the recent changes in where we send foreign aid have meant that some countries such as China and Russia – and also Vietnam, Cambodia and Serbia-  will no longer receive funds. The argument that aid is needed by the poorest people in the world, regardless of how rich their government is, has been lost. But we cannot allow this to become a precedent, the start of a drift into isolationist and realist approaches to the world.

Aid makes a difference. At its most fundamental level, it saves, transforms, enriches and preserves lives. As a developed nation, we do not only have an obligation towards our citizens and allies; we have a duty to attempt to lift the general standard of human existence. In addition to stressing the moral imperative involved in international aid, David Cameron has become increasingly keen on stressing that aid and development help to protect us from extremism. Such an argument seems to me unnecessary, but the premise which supports it is hugely important; that the fight against poverty, illiteracy and war is also a fight against hatred, bigotry and brutism. It is a fight for a better world.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg know this. They know the importance of British international aid across the world; after all, it was they who committed to enshrine the current level of spending into law in the first place. Whilst in office, the previous Labour government was a great champion of international aid, tripling the aid budget from 1997 to 2009. In the midst of an unprecedented financial meltdown, the pressures on the budget were bound to increase, especially given the difficulty of quantifying the effects of aid. The government must resist such pressure and legislate to ensure that aid spending remains at least at 0.7%. It may well be the most important thing they ever do.