We Cannot Have a Foreign Policy That Defends Democracy Abroad Whilst We Abandon It At Home

British foreign policy has long been underpinned by the democratic ideals and well-established freedoms that we enjoy in our daily life.  As the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world it is no surprise that successive British governments have taken an active interest in the spread and growth of democracy abroad. We only need to look over the last seventy years to find a litany of examples where Britain has used its influence to encourage and defend democratic freedoms and human rights across the globe.

It is this extensive history as a stable parliamentary democracy with far-reaching democratic freedoms that gives the UK credibility on the world stage. Yet today that credibility is under threat and with it our role as an international moral arbiter.

This existential threat is not the threat of foreign invasion or from terrorists. Instead it comes from the slow degrading of our democratic institutions and the debasing of our public discourse. It is our citizens’ growing disappointment with elected officials, and a growing distrust of our nation’s institutions.

To be clear this threat is not unique. In democracies across the world, we see that ordinary citizens seemingly have less faith in politics and the so-called ‘political establishment’. Populism is fashionable again. The old battles between separatism and nationalism are raising their ugly head once more.

For many countries without a long history of democracy, the spectre of autocratic rule looms afresh. In Poland and Hungary nationalism has been resurrected and weaponised to undermine democracy and the judiciary. In Russia and Turkey democracy has become little more than a façade where constitutions are rewritten and amended to ensure that their respective leaders rule for life.

It can be seen in the Arab world, where there is a common belief that Arabs don’t believe in democracy. This analysis is over-simplistic as more often than not when free elections are held, the vote has been overturned.

We only need to look at the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s born out of the establishment’s rejection of the Islamic Salvation Front’s electoral victory. Or more recently in Egypt, with the overthrow of the democratically elected conservative president, to see what happens when democracy is violently opposed and deliberately undermined. In both these countries, the local populace has since become disillusioned with the very act of voting.

Meanwhile in Syria, Bashar al-Assad has such little need to even pretend there is any democratic legitimacy that he held an election in 2014 in the middle of a civil war, where he controlled a minority of the country, and declared that the result legitimated his rule nonetheless.

In these examples, elections are reduced to little more than a sham, where the outcome is already predetermined and voting is merely a collective rubber stamp. The ‘wrong’ decision is swiftly and sometimes violently punished and the electorate is told to vote again.

The state’s monopoly of violence is the tool most commonly used to re-write election results but there are plenty of instances where coercion and financial incentives have been enlisted by more ‘civilised’ states.

The European Union has long taken a stance that national referendums on EU treaties are messy and must have a pre-determined ‘yes’ vote. In 1992 the Danes were told to vote again on their referendum rejecting the Maastricht Treaty and the Irish were told the same thing after voting down the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Both countries were openly offered financial incentives and told to re-run the election. It also explains why the European Union has not had a new treaty since then, largely due to the fear of a number of divisive national referendums that would reject it, and the ability of single states to fail to ratify.

Since June 2016, all aspects of British policy have been engulfed by our plans to leave the European Union. The referendum sparked a national debate that still rages. For many who voted Leave one of the overarching reasons was the undemocratic nature of the EU itself. However, since then the tone of the debate has shifted markedly. No longer are we talking about the economic benefits of remaining or leaving, no longer are we debating the benefits of freedom of movement and immigration, instead the debate has now shifted to the very legitimacy of the vote and its ability to be reversed.

A dangerous narrative has developed by those who hang onto the notion that the UK must stay in the European Union at all costs: that those who voted to leave were somehow misled, uneducated or just plain morally wrong. This narrative says that we cannot trust democracy and instead must entrust our country to ‘educated’ technocrats who happen to know what is in the best interest of the people. I cannot think of another election that has spurned such a dismissive and destructive response from some of those on the losing side.

There is a longing for the clocks to be rolled back to a pre-2016 world that ‘made sense’. To this minority, Brexit is the greatest catastrophe of modern times and must be obstructed and stopped at any cost: even if democracy itself must be sacrificed.

If this argument is taken to its natural conclusion and the vote is overturned without the support of the majority of people, it will inevitably bring with it a fresh wave of discord and division. Far from bringing the country together, it will tear it further apart. It will undermine the very idea of elections, for as the rest of the world has shown us the greatest threat to democracy always comes when the losing side rejects the result and mobilises against the very democratic processes that led to their unwanted state.

This disowning of our democratic heritage far from building up our reputation abroad will only undermine it further. It will send a clear and unambiguous message of rank hypocrisy, where we expect other countries to hold themselves to higher democratic and moral standards than we ourselves enjoy. No longer will we be able to decry the stuffing of ballot boxes, or military coups in far off lands, nor would our outrage against autocratic rulers ignoring the democratic will of the people ring true. Instead, we would be both smaller in size and moral authority.

For at the end of the day we cannot have a foreign policy that defends democracy abroad whilst we abandon it at home.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.