“Democracy”, says Charles Crawford, ‘the world’s first diplomatic blogoir’, “once was the quintessence of civilisation, based on sophisticated philosophical ideas of responsibility and honesty.” Yet the same Charles Crawford defends – on pragmatic grounds – the use by the USA and UK of intelligence obtained by torture. He doesn’t seem to find any inconsistency in this.
So is democracy really reduced to a moral cesspit in which its professional diplomats labour to assure us that all is for the best in the worst of all possible worlds?
I remember, as an eleven-year-old boy, listening to Neville Chamberlain’s sombre broadcast on 3rd September 1939, when he announced that we were at war with Germany. He concluded by saying:
“It is evil things that we shall be fighting against - brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution - and against them I am certain that right will prevail.”
It did – but only after a grim struggle in which many terrible things were done by ourselves and our allies, as well as by our enemies.
The wars we are involved in today are of a very different kind. Their essence is an ideological struggle between irreconcilable social systems, one of which – that of our adversaries – is far more deeply rooted in religious beliefs than was Hitler’s war. The motivating force of religious belief is a conviction that one’s thoughts and actions are inspired by a supernatural being. This gives great strength, even to those who are physically weaker than their enemy. Whether the supernatural being really exists is irrelevant: devout belief is all that is required to inspire people to extreme action. Such a belief is nowadays largely lacking in Western democracies and – much more seriously – so is informed belief in, and adherence to, the humane values which distinguish democracy from its critics.
What are these values? First and foremost, freedom of speech and expression. This is the bedrock of democracy, underpinning all other freedoms and rights, because it is only through freedom to speak our minds freely that we can win or defend all our other liberties. Secondly, personal privacy – the right to shape and lead our own lives as we wish, provided that we don’t impinge upon the equivalent rights of others, and to do so without being snooped and spied upon by the State or anyone else. Thirdly, toleration of all views, opinions, and lifestyles which don’t deny equal toleration to others: tolerance is not a one-way street. Fourthly, adherence to rational discourse, as opposed to dogmatically imposed beliefs grounded in uncritical adherence to dogma. Fifthly, commitment to scientific method and experimentation in enlarging our knowledge of how things work and in devising new technologies essential for the future health and wellbeing of humankind. Sixthly, academic integrity and a willingness to follow the argument wherever it leads.
Doubtless there are many other components of democratic thought and practice which can be added to this list. But I hope it is sufficient to demonstrate that democracy cannot exist without open-mindedness. And open-mindedness is the fundamental quality which is largely and ever more rapidly being eroded today. We are living through an era of ‘political correctness’, when the range of acceptable viewpoints is shrinking because they are frowned upon by authority; and legal curbs on free speech have been imposed in the last few years which would have been unthinkable only a couple of decades ago. Even worse, this policy is largely driven by fear of violent reactions by those living amongst us who don’t share our traditional notions of democracy but wish to replace it with alien concepts originating from other parts of the world. Britain is still an open society – just – but we have enemies in our midst.
Our political discourse, and our political debate, is correspondingly debased. There has always been an element of school playground “yah boo sucks” rhetoric in party politics. But when Charles Crawford laments that “we are now reduced to whose imaginary ex-cat stinks the most”, he might ask himself why. My answer is cowardice.