Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan used his visit to London to deliver one of his most important speeches as US President. In his address at the Palace of Westminster on June 8, 1982, he launched a “crusade” to “foster the infrastructure of democracy” around the world. With the support of Democrat as well as Republican leaders, the initiative resulted in the creation of a remarkable new body, the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as a series of important institutions which includes the International Foundation for Electoral Systems on whose board of directors I currently serve. These bodies are funded mainly by the US government but operate independently and openly.
The project of giving advice and assistance to political parties, NGOs, trade unions, newspapers, and electoral commissions in foreign countries has had a historic impact. Thirty years ago, Russia and its satellites remained under Soviet rule. Ferdinand Marcos was in power in the Philippines and Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Taiwan was under the thumb of the Kuomintang. Apartheid remained in South Africa.
Despite the inevitable teething problems, the National Endowment for Democracy and the other new democracy-promotion bodies participated in their first decade in peaceful transitions to multi-party democracy in the Philippines and in Chile. Publicly announced grants to Solidarity contributed to its success in the ground-breaking multi-party elections in Poland in 1989 and soon afterwards in most of the rest of Eastern Europe. In 1991, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office set up the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, based largely on the US model. Other Western countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands have followed suit.
The spread of multi-party elections to an ever larger number of countries has not been a complete triumph for human freedom. In a considerable number of states, elections have had to be held in almost impossible conditions of violence and chaos. In an election in Iraq, the risks to personal security were so severe that foreign observers tried to carry out their work from the relative safety of Amman. In Afghanistan, the international community has been invited to assist in the conduct of relatively fraud-free votes. There is considerable doubt within some of the bodies involved about the practicalities of achieving this objective. The prevalence of drugs cartels in the funding of election campaigns has tainted elections in parts of Latin America, particularly Colombia. In Africa, elections have been a spur to tribal killings, as in Kenya, or have led to fighting over disputed results, as in Côte d’Ivoire.
The severity of these problems cannot be minimised. Nevertheless, the balance sheet of progress is highly positive in many nations which were governed by dictators and one-party regimes 30 years ago. It is in the established democracies that some of the most worrying challenges to democracy have emerged.
In Britain, national elections are coming to mean less than they used to. While democratic institutions such as political parties and the House of Commons are losing ground, non-elective ones are usurping their powers.
Power-hungry and fee-hungry members of the British legal establishment and commentators with Liberal Democrat sympathies are overly fond of citing Lord Hailsham’s 1976 critique of our “elective dictatorship”. The idea that our elected representatives have virtually unlimited powers which, therefore, need to be restricted would be laughable, were it not so often accepted. Hailsham’s mistaken and outdated analysis has been used by advocates of constitutional reform to reduce the role of an already weakened House of Commons still further. The danger is that the real powerbrokers in British and European politics have devised ways to make themselves largely immune from the popular will as expressed at the ballot box.
Britain’s entry into what was then the European Economic Community and is now the European Union has led to a loss of sovereignty on a scale that was hardly understood by British electors in the 1970s and has been carefully disguised since then. Whatever the merits of the EU, it has undermined the democracy of its member states without substituting a continent-wide democratic alternative. The result is rule by technocrats and by cartels of political leaders.
The pressure in much of Europe and in Britain itself for elections by proportional representation and for the state funding of parties has led to what Peter Mair and Richard Katz term “cartel parties”. Almost irrespective of the election results, governments are characteristically formed or overthrown in backroom negotiations between party bosses, all of whom are assured of their public salaries and benefits.
Policy decisions are increasingly determined by judges in national and international courts. Senior civil servants, often linked too closely with barely regulated pressure groups, are ascendant. There are more elections but they decide less and less.