British flag in the wind

Britain, Freedom and Democracy

In their latest ‘Freedom in the World’ report into global freedom and democracy, Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, has concluded that democracy globally has declined for the 14th consecutive year. 

Most notably, the report suggests backsliding in terms of democracy and freedom in the world’s two largest democracies – India and the United States. According to the report, the administration under US President Trump “has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights.” 

The move away from democratic norms in major economies is worrying – but the most dangerous aspect of the report is its assertion that these countries are not anomalies. According to Freedom House, more than half of the countries that were rated Free or Not Free in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade. It’s clear that the general trend away from liberalism and democracy is not confined to states in the ‘cultural West’ where authoritarian populism is currently festering, such as Western and Central Europe – but all over the world.

If the United States – in juxtaposition with the last century – continues to fail to lead on freedom and democracy, this role will fall to nations like the United Kingdom, which bucked the global trend and improved political and democratic rights at home. A key aspect of this was the fact that ‘abortion and same-sex marriage were made legal in Northern Ireland by the national government, in lieu of a suspended power-sharing agreement between the region’s republicans and unionists.’

Last week, my colleague Flora Holmes wrote for the opinion site The Article on how populist leaders embrace each other, reinforcing their own regimes, and what this could mean for the status of democracy around the world. It’s clear that areas of government, such as trade deals, are also taking the strain as leaders kow-tow to protectionist demands. Flora wrote, on Trump and Modi’s embrace despite stuttering US-India trade talks, that: “the impasse that India and the United States find themselves in is illustrative of what happens when two populist leaders, suspicious of multilateral arrangements, attempt to reach a trade deal. Both leaders are popular with their grassroots bases for their commitment to protect jobs and fend off foreign competition. Neither can be shown to give an inch.” 

Freedom Houses’ report refers to ‘the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP,)’ and worries that ‘the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.’

There are, of course, areas in which the United Kingdom can work on strengthening democracy and individual freedoms. Controversies, including the Windrush scandal and the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, combined with concerns over the Conservative government’s treatment of the legislature at the business end of the Brexit negotiations (notably attempts to prorogue Parliament) are issues which, amongst others, prevent the UK from getting a perfect score. But it’s clear that, despite arguments that the United Kingdom is growing increasingly insular and nostalgic, the evidence is that the UK is bucking global trends – and the challenge is on projecting those liberal democratic values and institutions into the world.

Certainly, Global Britain can do more to engage with the debate on democracy and liberalism the world over. That could mean doing more to support the mass protests which were a trademark of 2019 – from Hong Kong, to Algeria and to Chile. Global Britain can provide an outlet for protestors, a refuge for those in danger, and a voice on the world stage for persecuted minorities and dependent ‘territories.’

Ensuring that we continue to be a strong voice in the room – in multilateral institutions such as NATO or the WTO – where International Trade Secretary Liz Truss recently set out Britain’s stool as a global leader in free trade, is key. Failure to do so could mean that the global trend against freedom and democracy continues unabated.

Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.