Can There Ever Be Any Real Progress In Politics?

On 17th October, former Compass Management Committee Member and Visiting Professor of Human Rights at the LSE, Francesca Klug participated in a discussion, hosted by Prospect Magazine, with David Runciman, Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge. Below are Professor Klug’s opening remarks/reflections. 

Who would be me tonight? What possessed me to agree to the request to argue the positive case – that there can be real progress in politics.

To steady my nerves, I consulted a dictionary. Accordingly, ‘progress’ is defined as:

The forward or onward movement towards a destination; an improved or more advanced condition. 

No one could deny there’s been movement, but improvement? If Harold Wilson were alive now, he’d say a day is a long time in politics, never mind a week. Although whether this perpetual motion is taking us round in circles or towards a clear destination, let alone a positive one, I’m too giddy to judge. 

The most disturbing aspect for me of the volatile new normal is the corrosion of democracy in the name of democracy; not just here, not just in America, but in many parts of Europe and the world. 

As David Runciman convincingly demonstrates in How Democracy Ends, military coups are so last century, by and large. 

The bigger threat in our era is from, as Runciman puts it, “elected strongmen chipping away at democracy whilst paying lip service to it”. This is particularly striking in the West. Having sought to persuade the rest of the world for most of the last century that the highest form of human life is a representative democracy with sufficient checks and balances to restrain an overmighty executive. 

But virtually all of the features of what became known as liberal democracies are being destabilised from within. And not just in Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy’ as president Orbán has proudly labelled it, but here, right now. Phrases like ‘unelected judges’ (which is arguably the whole point of judges) and ‘vassal states’ (to describe countries cooperating with each other), act to reinforce the assumption, quite new in the UK, that democracy purely boils down to a vote – however narrow – which thereafter determines an unalterable ‘will of the people’. Mechanisms designed to reflect other opinions or protect minority groups are an encumbrance at best and anti-democratic at worst.

Overhanging this populist politics is the idea of the nation with a singular character and destiny which democracy should capture and project. 

Given all of this, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a Hansard Society survey earlier this year, suggested that 54% of British voters want “a strong leader willing to break the rules”. And 42% think the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn’t have to worry so much about Parliament. 

This apparent dip in confidence in our liberal democracy – although seemingly very sudden – had a long build up as we know, including the expenses scandal, a financial crisis from which incomes have not recovered and grotesque and visible inequalities in wealth, not just between individuals but between regions and communities. And that’s just in the UK. We all know about the tweeting American President and his bromances with some of the world’s most authoritarian leaders; and then there’s the global climate crisis and the potential extinction of our species and others. 

And yet I do see signs of real progress here and elsewhere.

Not in the Steven Pinker sense. The author of Enlightenment Now provides statistical evidence that the world has never had it so good. But human beings don’t live their lives as statistical aggregates and there’s plenty of evidence of growing unhappiness, a mental health epidemic and even slowdown in life expectancy. 

What’s in my mind is the comparison between now and the years of democratic stagnation when democracy itself was not in question, but nor was much else! Here the fiercest debates were over whether New Labour’s academy programme was better than the Tories or which invasion was worse – Iraq or Libya. I’m not saying there was no difference between political parties, but I am suggesting that democracy had become largely a spectator sport. 

Runciman suggests in his book that our democracy is tired, is suffering from a mid-life crisis and may possibly even be hurtling towards an eventual death. 

But I see signs of renewed energy and life. I see a rebooted democracy, if anything, as young people – but also many older ones – refuse to take the woefully inadequate and inconsistent measures to combat climate change lying down or rather they do lie down in what looks likely to become the biggest act of civil disobedience since the suffragettes in this country. And despite the growth of the alt-right, there are gradual signs of resistance to the onward march of the populist right in Europe and America – and not just in the courts or Parliament. 

But I recognise that protest – on the streets or at the ballot box – should not be conflated with progress. For progress to be real, it needs to last and have more tangible effects than a Whitehall demonstration. 

Here I want to dwell on the evidence of progress that is sometimes missed or downplayed in discussions on democracy. Since the days of Thatcher and Regan – and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Western leaders have encouraged an association between what we now call neo-liberalism (or free market capitalism) and liberal democracy. But since World War Two there have been other models – or should I say visions – of liberal democracy. 

What I would call a human rights democracy is the one that took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or UDHR (adopted by the UN 70 years ago). It’s the most translated document in the world and the 4th most popular post-war innovation (after penicillin, the computer and the internet) according to a poll conducted by the British Council. 

The UDHR is living proof that lessons can be learnt from the mistakes of the past as it sought to correct the errors of the Enlightenment. 

A human rights democracy is not value-free. The dignity of the individual cannot be assured through the ballot box alone. The most frequent word in every human rights instrument, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), is ‘everyone’. This reflects the principle – brilliantly articulated by Justice Brenda Hall – that a human rights-orientated democracy “values everyone equally even if the majority does not”. 

For everyone to have a stake in democracy certain outcomes need to be guaranteed alongside the vote, including rights to education, protest, accurate and objective information and free speech. And on the basis that freedom without the social and economic wherewithal to live a dignified life is no freedom at all, basic social and economic outcomes (laid down in the UDHR) also need to be protected[1].

As the right to participate in decisions that affect you is also a crucial human rights norm, another term for this model of democracy is participative democracy. This shouldn’t be confused with a tick box politics where people say yes or no when presented with a decision – often quite a complex one – in a referendum (which isn’t to say that we should never have referendums).

But citizens’ assemblies – used with such great effect in Ireland to break the deadlock around abortion – are the kind of mechanisms that should be encouraged in a participatory or human rights democracy. 

Over the last 70 years more and more campaigners around the world have taken inspiration from the norms laid down in the UDHR and the many international treaties that flowed from it. From democracy protesters in Hong Kong to the women’s resistance to Trump’s misogyny and racism in the US, they call themselves human rights defenders, as giants like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr did before them. 

Despite the growth in hate crime, to my mind this humanisation of liberal democracy represents real progress, at least compared to what went before. None of the human rights treaties, norms, courts or tribunals that we have come to take for granted, existed just 70 years ago. 

Now they too are in peril. The Trump administration has set up a “commission of unalienable rights” to signal that it wants to return to the days when the freedom and sovereignty of the US was not bothered by this globalist movement of human rights. And here in the UK, Dominic Cummings has written that after Brexit is done “we’ll be coming for the ECHR referendum…and we’ll win that by more than 52-48” [2].

If the new populism doesn’t ‘come for’ human rights first, then Runciman makes a convincing case that artificial intelligence (or AI) could complete the job, as it threatens to ‘de-individuate’ us all.

Many of you will have read the Guardian report on how AI is further dehumanising the benefit system. And this week Phillip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, will sound the alarm on the human rights implications of AI at the UN[3]

My simple point is that if real progress isn’t recognised when it’s achieved, then it can’t be defended when under sustained attack as the ideas, visions and laws of human rights are now. 

We humans still have agency. Before the dystopian future of a polity of AI, by AI and for AI takes over, we better wake up and try to hold onto the real progress that we humans have indeed made in the name of our common humanity. 

[1] This was the basis of the UN special rapporteur Philip Alston’s critique of poverty in UK

[2] Dominic Cummings BLOG, 24th  March, 2018. See also Adam Wagner’s After Brexit they will come for human rights—and this time the public debate must be won, Prospect, 9th  June 2019

[3] Alston’s report was presented to the UN General Assembly on Friday 18th  October.

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