you're reading...
politics. Libya. protest. democracy. Middle East, revolutions.

Selling democracy in the desert – a Marshall Plan of the mind.

  If as seems increasingly likely,  the day of the dictator is drawing to a close in North Africa and the Middle EAst, what should we be doing to hasten the sunset?  No fly zone in Libya?  Perhaps, if Gadaffi continues to use aircraft to kill his own people.  Suspend exports of arms?  Absolutely: it is indeed shameful that we have been supplying ammunition for the guns that have mown down pro-democracy supporters in Libya.  A Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of North Africa – undoubtedly, in the longer term, if only because this would be in our economic interest to create new markets and trading partners.   But what else?  What should we do now?   Are pious lectures about introducing democracy enough?

   Actually, they might be. 

   I am normally highly critical of apologists for liberal capitalism lecturing about freedom as if there weren’t profound problems about political representation in western democracies .  But not now – this is no time to quibble or debate the finer points.   What we have will do.  A message needs to be sent to the people risking their lives in dusty squares in remote town centres in North African and Middle Eastern dictatorships that they can achieve freedom.  That message has to be that they are right to protest, that democracy is worth it, and that by overthrowing the dictators they will not simply swap one form of oppression for another.  

   Yes, I know that they are going to be disillusioned.  Exactly the same happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.  The chaotic introduction of liberal capitalism – often by unthinking advocates of the more extreme variants of free market ideology – plunged countries into economic depression and social dislocation.  Russian life expectancy plummeted.  University professors were left digging potatoes.   Millions were thrown out of work. In countries like East Germany, industry and infrastructure was so poor, it mostly had to be scrapped. Countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia took two decades to get back on their feet. 

 However, is there anyone today, of any political persuasion, who would deny that the collapse of communism was worth it?   They were prepared to tolerate impoverishment so long as they gained their freedom. 

 Many on the Left hesitated in 1989, unsure whether the pro-democracy protests in Eastern Europe were for real.  A number hoped that, beneath the communist bureaucracy, there might be something salvageable of socialism.    Turned out there was very little that could be saved from the great communist experiment.  It was an unmitigated disaster, and an eternal stain on the conscience of the Left.   The peoples of Eastern Europe continue to resist socialism because they associate it with communist dictatorship, and that isn’t going to change.    They embraced the church because it had stood with them through the long communist nightmare. 

   It’s a lot easier this time because no on believes that beneath the carapace of tyranny there is anything other than tyranny and oppression.   Do not let our reservations about western democracy to get in the way of freedom in North Africa.  The people there understand so much better than we do, in the comfort of our safe protected lives, the value of liberal democracy.  The rule of law. The power to vote governments out of power.  Freedom from arrest. 

   So, let’s get behind the protests by giving them a few lectures on freedom.  The new democracies will need a constitution, charters of human rights,  proportional electoral systems, an independent civil administration, army that defends the people not dictators, a civil police force that locks up criminals not dissident.   We can do this, we have the universities and more politicians than we know what to do with.  There are numerous think tanks with little to do.  We have the political expertise to deliver a Marshall Plan of the mind.  

   We’ve spent the last five decades selling them weapons; let’s spend the next five months giving them the tools for civil society. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


5 thoughts on “Selling democracy in the desert – a Marshall Plan of the mind.

  1. couldn't agree more. whatever the doubts, or outright disdain that we have for Western democracy, there's very few of us who live in fear of death or imprisonment for our political beliefs. as such, you have to accept that any form of democracy in Libya and elsewhere will trump what was there before.During the Cairo protests I joked that Mubarak should erect large screens so that protestors could watch a live stream from the House of Lords consideration of the AV referendum bill, and that they would soon go off the idea of democracy. Thankfully the Egyptian experience was relatively bloodless. There's no jokes to be made about what Libyans could be facing over the coming days though. One can only hope that Gaddafi is despatched elsewhere, by whatever means, before he can do further damage.

    Posted by Anonymous | February 23, 2011, 2:30 pm
  2. "The new democracies will need a constitution, charters of human rights, proportional electoral systems, an independent civil administration"Then once they have all those in place, maybe they could teach us a thing or two about proper democracy! The pupils become the teachers.

    Posted by Doug Daniel | February 23, 2011, 3:20 pm
  3. While agreeing with most of your analysis Iain I do have to point out that this statement " The peoples of Eastern Europe continue to resist socialism because they associate it with communist dictatorship," Ignores the fact that in many countries the left successors to the old communist party's have won elections.

    Posted by Sheridan Trial | February 24, 2011, 7:27 pm
  4. Mr MacWhirter,You wrote:"They were prepared to tolerate impoverishment so long as they gained their freedom."That has been true of most revolutions when people succeeded in getting their independence and freedom. After the American War of Independence there was economic hardship. It did not however send them running back into the arms of Great Britain. Generally that has been the case when people seek freedom from what they see as a repressive regime or from a system or union that no longer serves their aspirations or providesthem with the framework to achieve their aspirations. The desire for freedom in those circumstances is not trumped by economic considerations.

    Posted by CWH | February 24, 2011, 11:00 pm
  5. I find your views reckless Iain and there really is no excuse for you. You should know better. We are not fit to tell anyone what to do, or to demand anything. This is none of our business. We should keep out of it. We, the West, created most, if not all, the problems on the planet. I would also not be surprised if somewhere in among all these allegedly completely out of the blue uprisings there was in fact Western involvement. (Have you noticed the American accents in many of those being interviewed in all these places?) And I don't care if I can write that without fearing being thrown in prison. It is still true. We are liars, we are untrustwrthy, we start illegal wars, we slaughtered innocent civilians by their tens of thousands in Iraq and when Gadaffi was the man we were doing business with him. Furthermore, if we truly embrace democracy here in the UK why is Cameron ignoring the pleas to get off the backs of the poor and make the bankers pay? And if millions turned up around Parliament Square to keep saying it to him or called for him to go, do you think he would stand down? No I don't think so either. And if it got truly out of order you bet your sweet life our democratic government here would have police, the army and water cannon on the streets in no time. There are people in this country right now slavering at the prospect of Gadaffi being cornered and literally ripped apart (and getting film of it). That is disgusting. And while we're about calling for "revolutions" , has anyone heard our lot calling for the people of Saudi to go on the streets? Odd that, isn't it? Leave the hypocrisy to the politicians Iain: it really doesn't suit you.

    Posted by Jo G | February 25, 2011, 5:52 pm

Twitter Updates

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 57,081 other followers

Follow Iain Macwhirter on WordPress.com



%d bloggers like this: