The See-Saw

1 December 2022

The See-Saw

And the need for new institutions.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

The accession of Rishi Sunak to the office of Prime Minister has one benefit which members of all parties can enjoy. Nowadays if you switch on your television, the news is no longer dominated by the doings of Westminster and you have a chance to read about other things. That isn’t of course because the other things have become more important but rather because, with the fall of the UK populists, the news from Westminster has become less interesting. Corbyn – gone, Johnson – gone, Truss – gone, and in their place Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, quiet-spoken men focusing on policy rather than merely on the polls. Very dull but, what a relief, we can turn our attention elsewhere.

And elsewhere the inevitable progress from hubris to nemesis which has overtaken the populists can be seen in full flow. Take the great dictatorships, for example: Xi in China, Putin in Russia, the Ayatollahs in Iran. Until recently they were all riding high and one could fairly wonder whether these oligarchs made better decisions than did the democracies where popular sentiment dominates the political scene. Trump in America, Brexit in Britain, the general failure by Europe to stand up for itself against the economic and military muscle of the East, all pointed to decadence and the gradual collapse of the liberal social model. Surely it was only a matter of time before the ball was passed to those parts of Asia whose rulers use their firm domestic positions as the base from which they can push back the hegemony of America and its allies. And yet what has happened? Those domestic positions are beginning to show cracks. There are calls on the streets of China for Xi to step down after his bungled response to Covid.  There are protests on the streets of Iran which must be getting near to a tipping point. Putin, with his expansionist policies in chaos, must be watching nervously as the veterans come home, or, worse still, do not come home at all. How things change over a few months. And meanwhile at the other end of the see-saw the democracies begin to pull together, reduce, at some cost to their living standards, their dependency on countries whose regimes seek to undermine them, and break away from the tradition of weak decisions which has threatened to ruin them.

It is one thing to talk about dictatorships moving from hubris to nemesis but the German philosopher Hegel would have used his Greek differently, preferring to talk of thesis and antithesis, with each theory of government throwing up an opposing theory to challenge it; dictatorial government making space for protest and democracies creating a desire for something more authoritative. That is all natural enough but his dialectic goes on a further step under which the conflict is ultimately solved by synthesis, a new way forward borrowing from both its predecessors and it is for that that we anxiously wait. The mixed system in which the checks and balances of democracy are balanced by sufficient authority to get things done is something which the world needs badly at the moment.  Pure democracy will never provide the will to deal with the environmental challenges which are the key issues of our day. Oligarchy, however well-intentioned, will stumble over the corruption arising from a permanent hold on power.

Every country has its checks and balances and ours have not served us badly in the last few weeks. Faced with a foolish choice of Prime Minister, the establishment moved quickly both to put matters right and at the same time to see that Boris, that ultimate populist, was kept from power. Yes, politics have become more boring here but they are also far less dangerous. In the US too, the electorate seem to baulk at the restoration of Trump and has left the power brokers of Washington with the opportunity to use his tax affairs to drag him down. In Brazil, Bolsonaro, the man who could have destroyed the rest of the rainforests, has been forced from power. Yes, in a number of places democracy has triumphed as a method of decision-making but many of its victories have been very close-run things and, what is more, the pendulum will eventually sweep back. The UK will get bored with dull and honest politicians, rather in the way that Italy has; US nervousness about demographics will set political fires in the country districts. God knows what will happen in Brazil. Sooner or later populism will surge again and so it is crucial that the really important decisions, those about environmental targets, for example, should be lifted out of voters’ hands and entrusted to some form of international oligarchy, democratically accountable no doubt but sufficiently remote from political pressure to prevent that distorting its policies. Perhaps that can be done through the United Nations, perhaps through a new network of treaties. Either way the search should be on for a structure which allows the really big decisions to be made in a manner which can be described as grown-up and responsible.

Cover page image: creative commons

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