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Want to send a message to the world? Defend democracy at home

Posted on April 26, 2022

The map’s a birthday present. It now has pride of place in the hallway and I’m still enjoying the novelty of pausing as I pass to test my knowledge – and to experience the unwelcome reminder of my ignorance and growing lack of recall.

Scale and size are always a surprise, even given the vagaries of cartographic convention. One of these dictates that maps such as mine, produced in Europe, always put that continent at the centre of the world, meaning that our gaze is initially drawn to that territory. It’s small when looked at globally.

Without being picky, it’s fair to say that most countries in the corner that is Europe are functioning democracies – but only just. Gerrymandering, state control of media and, alarmingly, a growing tendency for populations to shun electoral processes that neither speak to them nor provide the sort of political choices they want, have combined to make such democracy a shaky business. From Hungary to Italy, from France to Poland and beyond, elections only just scrape above the line when it comes to providing free, unfettered, genuine choice.

Casting about the rest of the map looking for secure democracies is a challenge. When you find them, crowding in on those enclaves are the dominions of the tough guys; the Xi Jinpings, Putins, Modis, Bolsonaros and now, waiting in the wings, horror of horrors, the Trumps. Jowly, right-wing populism isn’t short of global ambassadors.

All of which brings us, inevitably, to partygate.

From the risible Rees-Mogg to whichever drivelling time-server is sent to face today’s cameras, we hear the same mantra: time to move on, bigger fish to fry, now’s not the time. We have a war-hero in our midst, don’t you know? This is no time to distract him from fulfilling the great office of state. Putin wants nothing more than having us squabble over our own entrails.

Of all these frail arguments, the notion that the exercising of democratic processes, even at times of great strife, is something that should be abandoned because it diminishes our ability to oppose a monstrous dictator, is the most absurd. Here, from a whole raft of arguments, are just three to challenge such claptrap.

First, the replacement of key figures during times of war and conflict is a regular occurrence. The Prime Minister, who clumsily attempts to impress with his scattered learning, purports to look to Churchill as a role model. So he should know that his hero replaced Chamberlain in 1940 when this country was under real and direct threat. When Thatcher tearfully left office in 1990, British troops were in action in Kuwait.

Second, much as he’d like to be, Boris Johnson is not a president. When he offers aid and succour to Ukraine, its leaders and its people, he is doing so as the representative of the government. He may be that government’s mouthpiece and envoy, but he is its servant, not its master. The very idea that such support is reliant on his diktat or force of personality is a preposterous myth – albeit one that he is happy to perpetuate.

Finally, when it comes to what Putin may be thinking – something that has been exercising the pop psychologists (to no good effect) for some time – how on earth can that be a sensible consideration? As far as we can tell, he considers the west and its ways decadent and feeble. If a strong leader can’t play fast and loose with his own laws, if he can’t pull the wool over the eyes of his own parliament, police and judiciary, if he can’t discredit a limp-wristed free media then, really, what sort of leader is he anyway? If we’re talking about sending messages, then one which explains that a mature democracy is untiring in its pursuit of malfeasance, whatever the consequences, seems to be one that we need to get behind now more than ever.

Naively or not, many of us have lived our entire lives unthinkingly accepting that democracy, particularly in our little corner of the globe, was the unchallenged and unchallengeable way of conducting affairs. We awake today to the news that the world’s richest man will now be in control of the world’s largest social media platform. Preening himself behind homilies about free speech, what Musk has really bought is his own freedom to exercise enormous power, devoid of responsibility to anything other than his personal advancement. Somewhere on a Florida golf course, one plump old boy will be looking on with greedy interest. As might be another in a bizarrely decorated flat in SW1A.

However long the cake was in the box, whoever poured the drinks and for whom, whoever couldn’t distinguish between a party and a meeting, it looks like the lawbreakers broke their own rules. In doing so they took the public for fools and that same public now looks to the institutions of a democratic state to address wrongdoing and punish the culprits. Doing so may not send a shiver down Putin’s spine, but it keeps the democratic lights on in one small part on my wall map.

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