Speakers in this debate:
- Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
- Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
- Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
- David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
- Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP)
- The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Rory Stewart)
- Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab)
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the International Day of Democracy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. In 2007, the UN General Assembly resolved to observe 15 September as the International Day of Democracy. The aim of the day is the promoting of and recommitting to the principles of democracy. Member states are invited to mark the day as one for celebrating our achievements in democratisation, but also for recognising the shared challenges in nurturing democracy at home and abroad. While we are not quite yet at 15 September, I do not believe there is any harm in kicking off the celebrations early.
I turn first to article 21(3) of the universal declaration of human rights, which states:
“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
That simple but powerful principle, expressed as a human right, seems common sense to us all here today, but for most of our history it was quite the opposite, and it remains disputed by too many regimes across the world. I hope the debate will be outward looking in considering the challenges facing democracy across the globe and what we, both as a state and as parliamentarians, can do to support democracy abroad. However, the debate should also be self-reflective, as we look at the steps we need to take here to help democracy flourish.
This year, the theme of the International Day of Democracy is democracy and conflict prevention, focusing on the need to strengthen democracy not only as a good thing in itself, but also so that we can manage and reduce the risk of violence and conflict. That can be seen at all levels of polity, whether we look at the global level, across our European continent or within these islands. Even the briefest of surveys suggests that, where democracy, rights and civil society are disregarded—often for short-term gain—peace and stability are undermined in the long term and conflict ensues.
The link between democracy and peaceful societies is recognised by goal 16 of the sustainable development goals, which seeks to:
“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
Such institutions play a vital role in preventing the spread of violence, which can have destructive and disastrous impacts on a country’s development. In the context of war and violence, it becomes virtually impossible for a country to combat challenges such as extreme poverty, lack of access to education or gender inequalities, for example. Goal 16 and the prevention of violence are therefore fundamentally important to achieving the ambitions and the ambitions agenda set out by all 17 global goals for sustainable development. I am sure the Minister will be eager to update us on the UK’s progress in achieving those goals—goal 16, in particular—both internationally and at home.
It is appropriate to turn to what the UK is doing to support democracy abroad and on conflict prevention, and to ask where there is still room for progress. In 2016, the House of Lords International Relations Committee published a report on co-operation between the UK and UN, and outlined priorities for the UN’s new Secretary-General. It concluded that:
“The UN needs to invest more in conflict prevention. Member states should consider awarding more financial resources, intelligence and analytical capacity to support the ‘good offices’ of the Secretary-General. The UK should take the lead in this field.”
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister what progress has been made in that regard.
The report identified a number of ways in which the UK could further assist UN peacekeeping operations, including by increasing our contribution and stepping up support for the training of other forces. It also suggested that:
“The UK might provide ‘greater and more systematic general and specialist training, which could be expanded to special training’ to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers.”
Similarly, it would be useful to hear from the Minister about what work is under way to take forward that recommendation.
Another significant development in the past few years is, of course, the conflict, stability and security fund, which is overseen by the National Security Council. In terms of budget, it is potentially now one of the world’s largest mechanisms for addressing conflict and instability. I think there are questions over the accountability of that fund, and it is early to say how effective it has been and whether its role is defined appropriately, but we should recognise some of its important contributions. Over the past couple of years, it has funded a doubling of the UK’s troop contribution to peacekeeping through two new deployments: providing essential logistical support for the African Union mission combating al-Shabaab, and providing 370 UK military personnel to give engineering and medical support to the UN mission in South Sudan. I pay tribute to the personnel undertaking that work. Again, it would be helpful to hear more from the Minister about how the CSSF will aim to support democracy and conflict resolution in the years ahead.
Another way in which the UK can play its part is in promoting democratic values through its participation in the Community of Democracies, which is an international organisation founded in 2000 that aims to strengthen democratic norms and values around the globe by combining the expertise of Governments, civil society and the private sector. The next Community of Democracies conference is scheduled for later this month in Washington DC. However, I understand that there are concerns that the meeting will not take place as President Trump is still to commit to hosting the event. As a member of the governing council, I hope the UK Government will make representations to ensure that the conference takes place. I will be grateful if the Minister will comment on whether that is under way.
It is also important to remember the great strides taken by the UK’s devolved nations in promoting peace and security around the world. Aside from playing its role in welcoming refugees fleeing violence in Syria, and providing funding to aid agencies in that region, Scotland will be working with the UN to host an international women’s summit in Edinburgh. That will support Syrian women by providing training in communication, negotiation and post-conflict planning, to help ensure that women play a key role in building a lasting peace in the region when the opportunity arises.
My hon. Friend rightly mentions the role of women in making peace. The Finnish Crisis Management Initiative found that, since 2000, fewer than 2% of peace agreements were signed by women and fewer than 9% of peace negotiators were women. Does he agree that a whole lot more needs to be done to bring women into that process, to bring a lasting peace that works for everybody in society?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I very much hope that the Scottish Government’s work with the United Nations will at least set that ball rolling in the context of the crisis in Syria and the middle east. That work certainly has to be done on a far greater scale in relation to conflicts around the world.
As well as asking questions of our Government, I will turn to the work of individual parliamentarians and what we can do to support peace and stability through strengthening democracies abroad. I freely confess that, until the debate, that is probably not something I had given enough thought to, never mind participated in, so what follows will really be a tribute to the work of colleagues across all parties who are taking action where I have merely made speeches. By way of a very immediate example, Iraqi Kurdistan will hold an independence referendum on 25 September. The Scottish National party will share its experience of holding a peaceful, democratic referendum, and members will attend as observers.
The SNP’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy project liaises directly with the Kurdish regional Government and the three main political parties there. Each of them has agreed to a cross-party delegation to Scotland and London in 2018, to review and learn from the processes of the UK and Scottish Parliaments. The main objective is to strengthen the case for resuming the normal parliamentary processes of the Kurdish Parliament, which was disrupted following violence in 2015. I pay tribute to my colleagues—and former colleagues from the previous Parliament—who have already been in Kurdistan, met politicians there and worked to strengthen the understanding of the operations of our Parliaments here. I know that other parties have had similar experiences with their own projects, and it is right that we take the time today to reflect on what we, as a Parliament, can offer to people elsewhere, by means of training and capacity building, as they seek to enhance or even restore democratic rule.
The International Day of Democracy is not only about what we can do to support democracy elsewhere, but is a chance to look at where we are going wrong here. Indeed, it undermines our arguments for there being democracy elsewhere if we are not seen to pursue best practice at home. I had the privilege of meeting Maina Kiai, the former UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, on his last official visit to the UK. He said in his report on that visit:
“It is imperative that the same standards that the UK calls for internationally…are implemented domestically.”
Building democracy must be an ongoing process of renewal, not just an historic roll-call of celebrated achievements along the road to where we are today.
Everyone here today will have their own ideas about what more can be done. My party will continue to advocate for the abolition of the House of Lords. In Scotland, we implemented votes for 16-year-olds and put in place the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. We also opposed the Trade Union Act 2016 in Westminster because of its attack on the democratic right of freedom of assembly and association, and we stood against the oversized powers of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 because of their invasion of privacy. Ultimately, my colleagues and I would argue that our goal of independence is about enhancing democracy and the accountability of political decision-making in Scotland.
Putting all that to one side, today I want to focus briefly on another piece of legislation. My party has repeatedly voiced concerns about the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, having heard about some of its impact on genuine charities that are trying to inform debate. Everyone in the House can appreciate that there is a difference between charities working to fight injustice and a commercial lobbying firm seeking to shape a debate in their client’s favour. Treating lobbying firms and charities as the same seems to be entirely the wrong way to go about it. Registered charities are regulated in a different manner than lobbying firms, so the elision that occurs in their treatment under this Act seems very much to be a backwards step. We know from various reviews that it caused serious problems for charities at both the 2015 and 2017 elections. I therefore ask the Minister, who might not know himself, but can raise it with colleagues, when will the Government respond to Lord Hodgson’s report on the Act? How do they plan to implement its recommendations and what is their timeframe for doing so?
In concluding, I am grateful as a parliamentarian to have had the opportunity offered by the International Day for Democracy to reflect on what we can do to support democracy abroad and nourish it at home. It is a human right that we should never take for granted, and I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members today.
Thank you for your chairmanship today, Mr Betts. I also thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for introducing the debate.
Clement Attlee said:
“Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”
It is a sentiment that we in this House might do well to heed from time to time.
Over the summer I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Honduras through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, at a conference of young political leaders drawn from around Latin America. It was, I have to say, inspirational and incredibly humbling. In a part of the world where the threats of communism and military dictatorship are all too real, these young leaders, who were all aged between 18 and 30, shamed me and would shame many of us here today with their confidence, passion and enthusiasm for democracy and the rule of law. I was taken aback by how, out there, so many still look to this place as a source of hope and inspiration. More than once people out there described this place as still the mother of Parliaments. To them, freedom and liberty are not abstract notions or taglines for the next Marvel Avengers film; they are genuine, live and emotive topics, and so too is democracy.
If we look around the world today, we see far too many countries where the right of individuals to choose freely, without let or hindrance, those who govern them—the ability to hold their government effectively to account—simply does not exist. In the west, and in Europe and North America in particular, where the idea of getting a say, having a voice and choosing to vote has been the norm in some form or another for centuries, we take democratic freedom too much for granted.
One of the most common refrains in the past two or three years in Scotland in particular is that we have had too many elections and too many referendums—in fact, too much democracy—and that people are getting fed up of voting. I think that that is highly depressing. In modern parlance, what a first-world problem to have. Although I am no fan of referendums, I have recently become a huge convert to unexpected general elections; but imagine telling the oppressed peoples of the world that one of the problems in our country is that we have to vote far too often.
The hon. Gentleman mentions being a convert to snap general elections. May I push him a bit further and ask whether he would join us in being a convert to the concept of votes at 16—the idea that if someone is old enough to pay tax, get married and join the Army, they are old enough to vote? Is that something he is willing to welcome?
I absolutely will. I have gone on the record in the past saying that I would welcome votes at 16, and I am willing to stand by that again today. I also think that it is very important in a democracy that we learn to respect the results of referendums and elections—something that the hon. Gentleman’s party might do well to remember.
I am for more democracy, and would argue that we could start with directly elected provosts or police and crime commissioners in Scotland following the UK Government’s excellent example. I am not sure that I expect cross-party support for those, however. I am very proud of this country’s role in helping to strengthen and spread democracy around the world. The UN and Inter-Parliamentary Union International Day of Democracy, which we debate today, does great work in attempting to drive positive democratic change through political dialogue and action. I believe that it is our duty as democratically elected representatives to champion, defend and encourage the spread of participation in government, through initiatives such as this one and others, to ensure that, in Abraham Lincoln’s words,
“government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on presenting this debate. It is just a pity that we did not have more contributions. We are all here because we are democrats, we believe in democracy, freedom and liberty, and we were elected—that is the democratic process. The fact that the numbers are not great does not take away from the importance of this debate and of the issues that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) have presented.
The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy, on 15 September 2017, is democracy and conflict prevention. If someone were to do a quick check of the contributions that I have made in Westminster Hall and the Chamber, they would see that a surprising amount of them refer to democracy. That is because I believe it is so important, and that is why I am here to speak and support the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. It is a principle that is dear to my heart, and the very heart of this place. This is the world’s greatest seat of democracy, and it is an honour to be a servant of that democracy as the Member of Parliament for Strangford.
One of my great heroes—I quote him often in this House, and the girls in my office say that I am becoming more and more like him, but I hope not in a facial and visual sense—is Winston Churchill. As he so famously said,
“democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
We have got the best system, though it is not ideal. It is in no way perfect—indeed, it is inherently imperfect because we as individuals are imperfect—yet I am proud of the democracy at work in this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am proud that no matter how the media have spun Brexit, the underlying fact is that we are in a democracy; the majority of people exercised their democratic vote to vote out, and that is something that we and the media must respect. Many of those who had a different opinion from me have accepted that and moved on, but some have not. That is how democracy works: we will not agree on every decision, but it is incumbent on all elected representatives to carry out the work that democracy dictates.
I can remember, at the time of the Belfast agreement, being fundamentally opposed to prisoners being excused for their terrorist activities, and voting against the agreement. I can even remember wearing a badge afterwards that said, “Don’t blame me, I voted No”. At the same time, democracy dictated that I went into government with those people, who had a mandate, and I worked within the parameters of the Belfast agreement despite my heart-held view. That is the democratic process at work. We accept the will of our constituents and of democracy and move forward. That is the position that all remainers find themselves in today. I understand that the International Day of Democracy is a fact—I will shortly turn my eyes externally—but even when we do not agree, we must accept democracy and work hard to achieve the best we can within its parameters.
In my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I see so many countries around the world where there is what may loosely be labelled a democracy, yet where there is no freedom, which is something that we completely take for granted here. We have a right to speak out on things that we believe in or disagree with, as long as we do so in a safe and respectful manner. Hopefully all debates in this House will be held in a safe and respectful manner. There are too many who do not have that protection, and on the international day of freedom, it is only right and proper that we give thanks for our freedoms and democratic rights. We also need to ask ourselves—in this House and this debate, and outside—whether we are doing all that we can to see those same rights preserved in other countries.
I will reiterate some facts that illustrate what we have here and what others do not have. I have already highlighted some of these in the Chamber, but they are worth repeating in this debate. Many of these are from countries with a nominal democracy, yet if we see that no freedom exists, we can rightly question the presence of real democracy. In more than 100 countries around the globe, more than 215 million Christians continue to face intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion or assault. The so-called Islamic State’s attempts to eradicate the Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have nearly succeeded. The Christian population has plummeted from more than 1 million to less than 200,000 in Iraq, and from 1.25 million to half a million in Syria. Many of those people remain displaced and face discrimination that prevents them from gaining equal access to food, shelter, education, employment and the ownership of houses and property—just normal life for the rest of us.
In Eritrea, 122 Christians, including entire families and disabled people, were rounded up from their homes in May and detained. This escalation in the crackdown on Christians coincides with the Orthodox Archbishop’s 10th year under incommunicado house arrest.
In Russia, the Supreme Court issued a decision in April that declared a Christian sect, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an extremist organisation. It banned its headquarters and all 395 local organisations from operating, and ordered that its property be seized by the state. These are countries that say that they have a democratic process, but clearly their definition of democracy is different from ours in this House.
It is not just Christian groups that are targeted because of their religious identity. Other groups deemed a threat are often targeted as well. I have already raised in the House the fact that a few months ago in Pakistan a Shi’ite man, Taimoor Raza, was charged with blasphemy and handed the death sentence for his comments on social media—the first time that has ever happened in the history of Pakistan.
In Myanmar, which we debated in this House just yesterday, almost 170,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country since 2012. They are fleeing attacks by the military that include the burning of homes and the rape of women. We have seen illustrations on television over the last few weeks of the height to which Myanmar’s problems have escalated. There have been fires in forests, villages have been burned and people have been displaced. Yesterday, in the main Chamber, we had the opportunity to question the Minister on behalf of the Rohingya Muslim people in the province of Rakhine. Myanmar masquerades as a democracy, but it is quite clear that its definition is different from ours. People have walked for days up the bay of Bengal, and some have being smuggled in boats to Malaysia and even Australia. Bangladesh has almost 90,000 of those displaced people.
It is clear that the democratic rights that we enjoy do not exist worldwide. That is why the International Day of Democracy is so important, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said. We believe in it wholeheartedly, and we need to instil that belief in others so that they, too, understand what it means. It is also clear that we can and must do something to help by using our connections and our ability to grant aid and promote international development. The Government should be proud of what they do through the Department for International Development; I support wholeheartedly their contributions to the betterment of people in so many places in the world. We always hope that people will not only see the practical benefits, but look to us for an example of how the democratic process can work. As well as granting aid and promoting international development, we must use our embassies and ambassadors.
We also have a role to play ourselves. I look forward to the reply from the Minister and his Department, which is always fruitful and helpful, but I have three questions not just for him to ask himself, but for all of us to ask ourselves. First, is the promotion of democracy important to me? Secondly, what I have I done to help the democratic process? The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East has helped it today by introducing the debate, and so have others who have contributed or who have to come to support it. Thirdly, what more can I do? We all have a role, and we can all do more.
I truly treasure democracy—even when it works against me, as I said. I am proud to take my seat in this seat of democracy, and I urge everybody to support democracy all over the world. On the International Day of Democracy, I pledge again to play whatever role I can to achieve that goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts—for the first time, I think. I fear we may have scheduled more time for this debate than we require.
My brief as a spokesperson for the third party—the Scottish National party—relates to the Cabinet Office and the constitution, rather than to international development. However, I have been asked to speak in this debate on the UN International Day of Democracy because we see it as an opportunity not to exhort others to catch up with us, but to reflect on how we can improve our own democracy within this Parliament and on these islands. That is what my comments will address, but I appreciate that the Minister may be unable or unlikely to respond to them all.
Over the summer, I was privileged to be asked to give the Thomas Muir memorial lecture. Thomas Muir was a radical Scottish lawyer in the late 18th century who formed an organisation called the Friends of the People. He was an associate of Thomas Paine, Wolfe Tone and many other radicals of the time. He argued for universal adult male suffrage, as well as for annually elected Parliaments—an idea that some hon. Members may not like. He was accused of sedition, sentenced, and transported to the colonies for 14 years. Such was life in the 18th century; they do not do that to us today.
I thought I would reflect on what Thomas Muir might make, if he were alive today, of the imperfect democracy we have achieved in the several hundred years since his death. I think he would be surprised by some aspects of our democracy in the United Kingdom in 2017. First, given that he argued for elected Parliaments, he would be very surprised that the majority of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom are not elected by anyone. The House of Lords is an affront to democrats. It has more than 800 Members, and apparently its numbers are set to be increased with no upper limit. It is now the second-largest legislature in the world, after the National People’s Congress in the People’s Republic of China. Nobody has any say over who the Lords are, what they do or how they can be held accountable. We are long overdue a major reform of Parliament that abolishes the House of Lords and replaces it with an elected second Chamber that can properly revise legislation and do the business of Parliament.
I think Muir would also be rather shocked that on 8 June, 14 million people in the United Kingdom chose not to exercise their right to vote, for which he and many others died several hundred years ago. It is incumbent on all of us who value the democratic system to ask why not, because it is a serious problem. Are great numbers of people apathetic, and happy to leave decisions to others and consent to them? Or is there a degree of alienation, so that many people feel that there is no point in participating in the political system because it does not represent their views or seem to do anything to change the lives of those around them? I think there is a bit of both. I do not know what we can do about the apathy, but there are certainly some things we can do to improve the electoral system.
First, we should completely overhaul how we teach civics and democratic participation in our school system and in our society more generally. We have to see politics as something that people actively participate in—something they do, rather than something that is done to them. The teaching of elections, electoral processes and politics needs a radical overhaul at all levels, from primary school upwards.
Secondly, we could overhaul the process of voting. In this day and age, it is bizarre that people can vote only in a very defined period, in a defined place and a defined way. We need to look at using 21st-century technology to allow people to vote in much greater numbers than ever before. I see no reason why people cannot be given a secure ID number to allow them to cast their vote online. For Conservative Members, that would have the added benefit of dealing with one of their greatest concerns, the threat of personation—people voting when they are not entitled to. Giving people a unique ID would take care of that problem.
Thirdly, we need to do something about the electoral system. The first-past-the-post system is another affront to democrats, because it quite simply does not allow the representation in Parliament of people’s views in the proportion in which they exist in society. It has created a two-party system that obliges people to have their views compromised rather than represented. I firmly believe that modernising our electoral system through a form of proportional representation would allow the growth of many more parties, a much more pluralistic debate in our country and the emergence of better Governments. To those who complain, as some do, that PR gives unstable Government, I point out that on two of the last three occasions on which first past the post was used for elections to this House, it has produced an inconclusive result, and, I would argue, an unstable Government, so we urgently need to look at electoral reform.
My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech, and I very much support the points he makes. Before he moves on from the process issues around elections and electoral set-ups, does he agree that we also need to look at a better system of electoral registration in this country, perhaps going to auto-enrolment? It struck me during the independence referendum that we saw people registering to vote who had not voted since the poll tax. We really need to make sure that we reach everybody and allow them, as much as we can, to have their say in elections.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, I do agree, in short. It is ridiculous that people have to apply for the right to vote. For citizens of the country, that should be automatic; it should be given, and people should not have to apply for it. If the state is capable of interacting with its citizens when it comes to issuing driver licences, collecting taxes and in many other areas, it really ought to be possible, when there is an interaction between a citizen and the state, to check whether that person is on the register, and if they are not but are entitled to be, to automatically put them on it. It seems to me that the technology is available to us to do that.
My personal view on the issue of the monarchy is that we need to review the relationship between the monarchy and Government. The extent to which powers still lie with the monarchy in terms of the apparatus of state is questionable. I realise that many people will consider even looking at the issue highly controversial, but it seems to me that the succession—I do not know when it will come, but perhaps not many years from now—should be taken as an opportunity by everyone in society to look again at the relationship between monarchy and Government. I hope that most people would agree that if someone is to exercise executive power over someone else, they really ought to be accountable. That is the definition—is it not?—of a democracy.
I do not want to go on much longer, but I wanted to mention another aspect of democracy, which is the notion of empowerment. Democracy is not just a matter of structures and the right to vote once every four or five years. A democratic society is also one in which people feel that they are empowered to control the things around them, whether that be the litter on their street, what is taught in their local school or many other things.
We really need to do something about the degree of political centralisation in this country; I mean the United Kingdom, but it applies equally to Scotland. We are long overdue a look at how we can have better provincial and local government throughout these islands. One of the things that we need to do—
Subsidiarity, yes. I was a big fan of that in its day. Basically, it is the principle that power should be exercised at the level closest to people at which it can be exercised and at which it is practical to do so. I am all in favour of power and governance being transferred to the most local level possible.
I will make just one other suggestion. We tend to get hidebound in these debates and conflate two things that ought not to be conflated. One is the question of community participation and communities setting their own priorities; the other is the management of things. For example, there was a headline in the Edinburgh Evening News that it would be possible to have at least a dozen—if not more—local councils in a city the size of Edinburgh. However, that does not mean that there must be a dozen refuse departments or a dozen education departments. We could separate the process of running and managing services from the process of deciding on the priority of the things those services should achieve. If we could do that, we could make big strides forward and we would emulate some of the much more successful schemes in Europe, including in Scandinavia, and in other parts of the world that allow much better local governance and setting of priorities.
I conclude by saying why this issue is important, including why it is important for the United Nations, and why we often talk about democratic rights and human rights being intertwined. It is because all the studies show that there is a clear relationship between people’s participation in society, the control they have over their everyday lives, and their happiness. Improving democratic rights and the way that people can participate and run their own lives is also about improving the human condition. It is about becoming a more civilised, more progressive and better, more modern society. This opportunity to discuss the UN’s day—I hope that our discussion is the beginning of the debate, rather than its conclusion—allows us to reflect on these issues and consider how we can improve our processes here, because we cannot just wait for an election in another two, three, four or even five years before we get round to considering these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Betts.
I am very pleased that this debate has been called to mark the International Day of Democracy, which takes place next Friday. I know that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is hosting an event in Parliament next week, which I will attend in my capacity as shadow Minister for International Development, and that many other events will take place around the world, including at the UN, to mark the day and to reaffirm our commitment to democratic values. So I really thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this debate.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a really passionate defence of democracy and the need to uphold our democratic values in this institution and beyond. I will come back later to some of the points he made.
I was not sure whether I would find that I had any common ground with the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). Actually, however, I did indeed find common ground. His comments on the House of Lords were very well made, as were his points about how we, as legislators, need to make it easier for people not only to register to vote but to vote.
I think what we have seen this afternoon is an outbreak of support for the principle of subsidiarity. We are all signing up to that principle, because there seems to be common agreement that our system of governance is much too centralised and that we need to think about how we can devolve matters more effectively than we are doing at present.
The past few years have shown that we cannot take it for granted that democracy is on an upward trajectory. Therefore, it is vital that we continue our efforts to embed democracy around the world, in order to combat many concerning trends. There has been some good news for democracy over the past year, for example in Africa, where countries including the Gambia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso held elections that led to a change of Government. On the whole, however, the trend globally could be better.
In its report last year, Freedom House spoke of
“a worrying lack of self-confidence and conviction”
within leading democracies, so it is right that leading democracies, including Britain, take the opportunity presented by the International Day of Democracy to make a full defence of our system in the face of its critics, both at home and abroad, as their arguments become louder and, for some people, more compelling.
Democracy and dictatorship are not binary states; they are points on a spectrum. So, while the number of pure dictatorships worldwide has thankfully decreased, democratic norms continue to be undermined in many states, perhaps putting those countries on a path towards having more autocracy than they have at present. Some of that is pretty close to home. Hungary and Poland, for example, have real challenges on the freedom of their media and judiciary. We need to make sure that that does not continue and does not support those who are losing faith in representative democracy.
We must continually reaffirm not only the importance of free and fair elections, but of all the institutions that underpin democracy, including legislative checks on the Executive; the rule of law; a free media; an informed citizenry; and the independence of the judiciary. Outside Parliament the freedoms of assembly, expression and association and a free and vibrant civil society are crucial components of democracy, but they are all aspects of our democratic system that we do not talk enough about in this institution and certainly do not do enough to uphold. A Labour Government would repeal the Lobbying Act because, as outlined earlier by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, it undermines the way in which charities and others can actively campaign in this country. The Act was a backward step. We need to properly fund civil society organisations and work with trade unions, because all those different agencies are a vital and vibrant part of our democratic system. Their work should be supported and not curtailed.
Our democracies face new threats, particularly from foreign interference in election results. We have already seen some of that in the US, although I will not go into it in too much detail. Such threats work only in so far as they magnify an underlying polarisation in our societies. In upholding our democracy we have to try to work against that. That is extremely difficult for us as parliamentarians because we often have to take time to explain to people how complex our decision-making process is. Also, in a representative democracy it is not a simple case of a group of residents coming to us with a particular opinion and then we speak in support of that opinion and act in favour of it, because another group of residents might come with the completely opposite opinion. So we parliamentarians need to explain the complexity of the world that we inhabit, and how we negotiate a path through that will likely take on board what the majority of our constituents believe, and will also take account of what is in our party manifesto and our own convictions on a particular subject.
We need to respond to what we saw in the previous election, particularly from young people: a desire for radical change in how Britain is run, which gives more weight not only to the key aspects of representative democracy that I have already outlined, but to democracy at more local levels. It is a real pity that we often spend a lot of time—all of us do this—complaining about councils and bodies at local level, but they are really important to our system of governance. Perhaps when we celebrate democracy we should take time out to think about local councillors, particularly local parish councillors who do such a lot for absolutely no money. They are volunteers who give a huge amount to their local communities, and they consult a lot with local people about their priorities.
I am not as generous as the hon. Member for Strangford and I will have some asks for the Minister this afternoon. What will the Government do to support our parishes and councils better? We should not have a discussion on our local councils and the important work that they do for their communities without saying to the Government that it would be helpful if they stopped strangling our local councils with austerity measures that mean they cannot respond to the needs of local communities, because that does not help us uphold our democratic values. We have not put it to the test in many cases, but local people might want to pay more tax to have better services or they might have a set of priorities that are not shared by the Government. In reflecting on our democracy it is really important to think about how to support our councils further.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East talked about the importance of devolved Administrations. He is right to make such points. Since we are having so many discussions about what is happening through Brexit, we might also want to put on the agenda the important work that the European Union does in supporting democratic values and nascent democracies across the world. It does a lot of work on election observation and supporting new Governments. I have not heard that discussed at all by any Minister or anyone in Parliament so far. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that point. What will the Government do to ensure we continue to work with our European partners on embedding democracy worldwide if Brexit takes place?
On the role of democracy in conflict resolution, both the Minister and I have some experience of working in Afghanistan and we know how difficult it is to embed democracy in post-conflict situations. The UN is clear that,
“democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing”,
and such work is a key part of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts. Initiatives such as the UN Democracy Fund focus specifically on programmes to support democracy worldwide, but their commitment to democracy is at the heart of the UN’s work globally. We should recognise that.
However, the introduction of elections in post-conflict situations must be done well so that it does not exacerbate existing societal tensions and lead to an increase in political violence. Institutions need to be effective and hold legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and every effort should be made so that elections are as pluralistic as possible. Also, we must not lose sight of the goal that democracies and Parliaments should reflect and look like the people they seek to represent. We all have a lesson to learn in this. Our Parliaments need a better gender and ethnic balance. If Britain is going to support the UN in calling for better embedding of democratic values, we need to put our own house in order, too. That goes right across the board. It is not only about gender and ethnicity, but how we carry out our business in this institution. If we look at what leads to good governance, we need to speak strongly and passionately for our communities and our values, but we also need to respect the fact that others have a different point of view.
When we celebrate the International Day of Democracy, we should pay tribute in this place to the work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union do to support democracies across the Commonwealth and through the IPU more widely. They do the difficult day-to-day work of providing training courses, sharing best practice and trying to work out the problems that individual Governments face, and help them through those difficulties. As the UN charter states, democracy is a process, and often what those organisations do is help Governments to improve processes, and oppositions to be more effective, so that we have better democratic systems across the Commonwealth and, through the IPU, more widely.
We have had a number of discussions this afternoon about the importance of involving young people in the democratic process, and I agree that we should move to votes at 16. There is a Youth Parliament here once a year. I do not know whether anyone in the Chamber listens to the debates, but they are brilliant—incredibly well researched and articulate. There is so much evidence against the proposition that they would not understand, or whatever the argument is against votes at 16. I think we should have votes at 16. The CPA runs an international Youth Parliament, which is equally amazing. I hope that the Minister will think about that. It is vital to support young people, in terms of not only politics but communities generally, to get more involved in public and civic life at local level. That would enrich our democracy a great deal.
We heard something earlier about sustainable development goals. SDG 16 is incredibly challenging for all Governments, in terms of embedding democratic values. They must ensure a responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making system at all levels. I do not think that we have that. I do not think that many Governments in the world have it. It is incredibly difficult. What will the Government do to monitor how we live up to SDG 16, in its various aspects? What will they do to support votes at 16, and how are we to give better support to institutions in the UK, so that we get more devolution and real decision making at the appropriate level?
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
In 2003, George W. Bush, making his State of the Union address, provided one of the great optimistic statements about democracy. He said that because democracies respect their own people and their neighbours, freedom would bring peace. At that period, 14 or 15 years ago, many academics believed that democracy would have that extraordinary instrumental effect. People wrote articles arguing that democracy was the best guard against terrorism, the best guarantee of economic growth and prosperity, and the way to cease sectarian violence—that democracies could be guaranteed not to go to war with each other.
Following that high day of optimism we have faced, over the past 10 to 15 years, a series of bewildering setbacks. We discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq that attempting to create democracies and holding elections, driven by the government of people such as George W. Bush, did not deliver the instrumental benefits that people had hoped for. It turned out that it was possible to hold formal elections in a country and still end up with a corrupt judiciary, an extremely unpopular Government, nothing resembling civil society, the media barely operating, sectarian violence exploding, terrorist groups establishing themselves and, indeed, countries at the edge of war with their neighbours.
The situation has got worse, as has been pointed out in the debate. For example, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) has pointed out that the move to authoritarianism has accelerated in the past five to seven years. Many states have gone through a process whereby I can hardly visit them, as a Minister, without hearing about the closing space for civil society. That is jargon for the fact that regimes are increasingly locking up Opposition politicians, shutting down newspapers and closing down civil society groups. They do so for a range of reasons. It does not seem to matter whether we talk about societies in east or south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or, indeed, Latin America. There appears to be a consistent admiration for either the economic model of China or the authoritarian model of Russia.
That poses a major challenge to us in the United Kingdom and the west, in terms of how we talk about democracy; but we have no choice. Democracy is and must remain the answer for our society and other people’s societies. Why? First, because it does not matter where one travels in the world: whatever the cultural differences that divide us from someone in a village in the back end of Somalia, I challenge anyone to find an individual who does not want a say in who governs them. I have never met anyone who has said, “I am quite happy to let someone else decide who governs me.” I also challenge anyone to find someone who does not want their basic human rights to be respected. I have never met an individual who has said, “I am quite happy to be arbitrarily arrested or tortured.”
In that sense, those values are universal; but they are moral values. They are not instrumental values. We should not argue for democracy because we believe that it is a cunning technique for making oneself wealthier, or a cunning trick for guaranteeing peace. The reason we believe in democracy is that we believe fundamentally in the equality and dignity of humans. The idea of one person, one vote is simply a mathematical expression of the fact that my view or your view, or the view of anyone outside this room, is worth exactly the same: it is the formal embodiment of the moral idea of equality. That is what gives it its strength and universality, and that is what will in the end make democratic societies more resilient than any others.
To move forward, we need to consider how we talk about democracy, and what, specifically, the British Government do for democracy. We were encouraged by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to look at ourselves. I join the hon. Member for City of Durham in paying tribute to his speech, for its humility and introspection; the hon. Gentleman pointed out that if there are flaws in democracy, that is because there are flaws in us humans. Democracy is, in the end, a mass expression of the fact that each of us, as an individual, has flaws in our judgment: there are flaws in the information to which we have access and there are flaws in the way we respond to the world around us. Democracy, however, like any important moral consideration, is not a state but an activity—a way of behaving. It is a form of active, lived contract between the politician and the citizen.
If democracy is to work in this or any country, in terms of looking at ourselves—and I was struck by the challenges to look at ourselves raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—it needs to be based on a fundamental contract of honesty, under which politicians are prepared to be honest with the public. There are so many temptations and risks in democracy that lead us not to be honest. They lead us to construct a political narrative that says the majority of our potential voters are victims; that there is a small group of evil people—an elite, or some ethnic or sectarian group—that is somehow responsible for our ills; or that we are supermen and heroes who will transform and save the world with a brand new platform that will lead people to a promised land.
Not only do we engage in that practice; politicians here and elsewhere appear to suffer from an even more profound problem in admitting that we do not know things. We present ourselves as endlessly omniscient and omnipotent. We are incapable of admitting things to the public. For example, when I stand at the Dispatch Box and am asked exactly what we are doing in Togo or Benin, perhaps we are not doing a great deal in Togo or Benin. We may not know a great deal about the situation there or, indeed, about our own society. Our knowledge is actually limited.
The second consideration that we need to take forward is the idea of difference, which is where the arguments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East were particularly powerful. Democracy is based on a fundamental principle of equality and dignity, but we need to recognise that different societies have different responses to democracy. Even within a single cultural society, there can be a completely valid set of disagreements, equally democratic, about the kind of institutions that we want to have.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who comes from a particular rational, radical tradition, has profound differences from myself, as a Conservative, when it comes to issues such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and our electoral system. This is perhaps not the place to go through why I happen to disagree with him, although I can gesture in that direction: the idea that a second elected Chamber is going to perform better than the House of Lords needs to be judged more on the basis of performance than rational principles. It is very flattering to politicians to believe that the answer to the ills of their country is to generate more democratically elected politicians.
I could also, if we had the time, engage in an argument about proportional representation. I feel very strongly that the links with our constituents that are embedded in the first-past-the-post system are deeply precious. I am worried by colleagues in European states I go to that have full proportional representation systems, who say, “I can’t understand why you visit your constituents so much. I don’t need to; I am on a party list. That isn’t part of my life.” I think the geographical link—the link to place—is very precious.
However, it is perfectly valid for us to argue about those things. It is perfectly valid for our constitution to be changed through a democratic process. Where I actively and energetically agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) and the hon. Members for Edinburgh East and for City of Durham is that one of the great failings of our democracy is in respect of decentralisation. We could learn a great deal about difference from France and the ways in which its mayors operate at a local level. I feel that Cumbria would be deeply improved if we had directly elected local mayors. I also agree with the hon. Member for City of Durham that we can do an enormous amount more to give financial autonomy, as well as theoretical political autonomy, to devolved bodies.
The reason for that is that the secret of democracy is the genius of our citizens. We live in a unique democratic age. It was quite easy 800 or 900 years ago to suggest that a small elite could decide what was best for people. The reality now in this country is that we have never been so well educated. We have never been so well travelled—more than 43 million people in this country now have passports. We have never known so much about the outside world. All of us are living lives far broader and far more engaged with the world than our parents and our grandparents did, and that is true not just of Britain but of the developing world. I was struck on my recent visit to Tanzania just how different young Tanzanians are. That is what should create much better democracies.
That is what the republic in Athens was looking for: the citizenry that we have; a citizenry that can engage, and in which every single one of the people in the United Kingdom could be in the House of Commons and do just as good a job as we can. I have not met a constituent who could not do the job as well as I am doing it now. That is the genius of our society, and somehow we are not tapping it. Somehow, we are less than the sum of our parts. Somehow, instead of feeling that we now have more than 60 million educated, engaged people and are creating a wonderful democracy, we end up in a world where the more we know and the more engaged our citizens are, the more disappointing our democracy seems to feel.
Moving on to Britain’s place in all of that, there are various things that Britain should do at home and abroad in the way that it thinks about and approaches democracy. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), to whom I pay tribute for securing this debate, focused on this year of democracy and the dimensions of peacekeeping. He raised some important points that are a real challenge to the British Government. We are beginning to move on them and I hope that we have some good news, but there is more to be done.
Sexual violence and peacekeepers are a huge priority for the Secretary of State and the Department for International Development. We have just put additional money into the UN special rapporteur on sexual violence and are hoping to make that an important theme as we move forward to the UN General Assembly. As the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East pointed out, our contributions to UN peacekeepers have increased both in Somalia and South Sudan.
We are also pleased to say that the Community of Democracies event, which the hon. Gentleman raised, is going ahead in Washington DC. Sustainable development goal 16 on inclusive societies, which the hon. Member for City of Durham raised, is something that Britain was very proud to work on in the drafting process to get included, but it remains really tough. The language of that SDG contains within it the tensions of trying to convince many different countries with different governmental systems that they want to sign up to what is fundamentally a democratic vision.
There are six things I think Britain should do as general principles moving forward. The first is not to panic. We should not give up on democracy or on the basic fundamental moral insight that equality and dignity require democracy, and that there is nothing more capacious, resilient, inspiring or successful than a democracy.
Secondly, we should put our money where our mouth is and support states that are moving in a democratic direction, such as Ghana. We should celebrate the fact that Sierra Leone is going to go through a civilian democratic transition, and we should recognise and acknowledge the huge progress made in Nepal from civil war through a series of democratic elections.
Thirdly, we should play a waiting game in the authoritarian regimes. There will be places where it will feel completely miserable and where, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, Christian and minority groups are abused, sexuality is abused, disability is abused, minority ethnic groups are abused and pastoral communities are abused. In those situations, the obligation of the British Government is to stick with those civil society organisations and back them, not betting that this year or next year necessarily the Governments of those countries are suddenly going to say, “We acknowledge and embrace those minorities”, but acknowledging that those Governments will eventually go. When they do, the seeds that we have continued to nurture and the civil society organisations that we have continued to support will be able to re-emerge. Without the support from Governments such as the United Kingdom’s, it will be very difficult to rebuild civil society or defend minority rights in any of those contexts.
Fourthly, we should work with others. The hon. Member for City of Durham pointed out the important work that the European Union is doing, but that is not enough. It is not enough for the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States to go around telling other people to be democracies. In fact, it goes down extremely badly and discredits our project. We need to embrace other countries, above all those such as Brazil and India, which are huge democratic successes in the most challenging developmental contexts—countries struggling internally with corruption and huge problems of sectarian violence that are still keeping democratic systems alive.
The fifth point is about young people and was raised by many Members. Clearly, anything that we are doing in a democracy needs to think about how we engage with young people. That may be about voting age, but it is also about the massive technological transformation and the way in which all of us have just emerged bewildered from an election in which we have suddenly discovered that everything we believed about Facebook and Instagram and Twitter in 2015 no longer seem to be valid in 2017, and everything we had assumed about newspapers and television was turned on its head. That is just the beginning. Engaging young people with politics will involve thinking very nimbly about new technological media and, probably, new messages to fit those media.
Finally, we need to redevelop our confidence in ourselves. The only way in which we are going to be able to project democracy to the world is if we rediscover faith in our own democracy, while recognising all the things that depress us. Many things are deeply wrong in our society, such as when I see in my constituency an 88-year-old woman looking after a 93-year-old doubly incontinent man, struggling to get up every two hours through the night to look after him, or when I open a door and see somebody who is mentally ill behind it who is not receiving the support they need. When we see illegal immigrants struggling to access Government services and get the support that they require, we are seeing things that are deeply wrong in our society.
However, there are also things that we need to rediscover our pride and confidence in. There is the precious blessing of peace—the fact that this country has been at peace for hundreds of years, and the fact that we are able to do really difficult things in the face of hugely difficult political challenges, and perform them peacefully, nimbly and adeptly through an electoral process. We should be grateful, above all, for the fact that our democracy is not elections-only and does not stop in this Parliament: it is our media, our civil society and our citizens. It is on that note that I want to conclude.
If the International Day of Democracy is about anything, it is about not Parliaments but citizens. If democracy is to flourish in Britain and the world, we need to discover a mutual trust—a trust of citizens in their politicians and, perhaps most difficult of all, a trust of politicians in their citizens.
We may not have had a huge number of contributions, but we have definitely had some very powerful, thoughtful and varied ones. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) put me to shame: within three or four months of his election he has already participated in a trip to try to help support democracy abroad. It has taken me more than two years since my election even to speak about it, but I am inspired to put that right.
As ever, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made an incredibly powerful speech. He reminded us that democracy is about not just having a vote, but having a voice and other fundamental rights, including, of course, freedom of religion. In a previous life, I acted as an immigration and asylum lawyer, and I met clients from a number of the countries he mentioned. As ever, I pay tribute to the work he does in championing freedom of religion and other fundamental freedoms through his all-party parliamentary group and during debates.
I was very sorry to miss the Thomas Muir lecture of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), so I was very grateful to have the opportunity to hear some of it today. He was as eloquent and powerful as ever in raising questions about the democracy we have here—particularly relating to the House of Lords and the electoral system. More fundamentally perhaps, he spoke about the link we should see between democracy and other issues relating to empowerment.
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) warned about the crisis of confidence that is emerging in some democracies—some very close to home, in eastern Europe—while rightly highlighting the EU’s good work abroad. I was very grateful to hear that we can work together to repeal the lobbying Act just as soon as we get rid of the Government—whenever that may happen.
Speaking of which, I am very grateful to the Minister, who made an incredibly thoughtful and eloquent speech. He answered most—not all—of the questions that were put to him in the course of the debate, but that is better than most Westminster Hall debates. We will perhaps get back to him about the lobbying Act on another occasion. Like the Opposition spokesperson, he highlighted the huge challenges we face in reversing the democratic slide in some countries. He also said that we should take pride in some of the institutions we have established here. He laid down a challenge to us all as parliamentarians to be honest, to engage our constituents properly, to support developing democracies abroad and, more than anything, to build trust among all those institutions. That is a task for us all, and I feel inspired to get on with it after our debate. I hope everybody else does, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the International Day of Democracy.