Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dictators v democracy: a (perhaps necessary) clarification. And as things go ever more wrong in Argentina, it begins to fake inflation figures and pick another fight with Old Blighty over the Falklands

After my entry of a few days ago highlighting Peter Hitchens report from Moscow, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, clarify my view in case it is misinterpreted. The essential point I was trying to make was that everything comes at a price, just as energy cannot be created from nothing, but merely changed from one form to another, or ground gained here must be lost there.

Most certainly I would like to live in a free society, a democracy, and I do. But Britain achieved its freedoms after many centuries of complex evolution. Even the Commons we had at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century was more a gathering of rival gangs of cronies than anything resembling a group which represented the citizens of Britain. The apparently progressive Reform Act of 1832 was, at heart, just a cynical exercise by the ruling class – that is no mere buzz phrase, there really was one – to ensure its survival by allowing the upcoming commercial class to vote. This was done while memories of the French Revolution, which took place uncomfortably close to Britain, were still real for many.

It is, therefore, not just sheer nonsense to claim that democracy can be introduced to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, is dishonest nonsense. Certainly, they can have a parliament which is elected by universal franchise and most certainly the voters will be glad for the chance to have their say. But there is far more to democracy than holding an election every few years. And it takes just a little more than an edict from Washington for a people to think democratically, for its culture to be so suffused with the principles of democracy that not living in a democracy is quite inconceivable. Democracy demands, at the very least, the rule of law, and where the rule of law is absent, claims that a country is a ‘democracy’ are pretty premature.

By all accounts the rule of law has absent from modern Russia. Certainly, a the level of traffic offences, of course, or petty theft, there is likely to be the usual mechanisms involving the police and the courts, although one does here that corruption among the police is widespread and that is quite possible to bribe one’s way out of trouble. But rule of law most certainly doesn’t exist where the stakes are higher. Any number of businessmen who fell foul of the Russian leadership – for which read Vladimir Putin – suddenly found themselves under lock and key for ‘tax offences’. And until there is a true rule of law, which would, for example allow businessmen and women who feel a contract has not been honoured to go to court for an impartial judgment on the matter, Russia can kiss goodbye to any thoughts of a thriving economy which doesn’t rely on selling off the family silver, or in its case oil and gas.

The trouble with democracies is that they can be messy. When a free vote was held in the Gaze Strip several years, Hamas came to power, an outcome which the West and Israel could well have done without. One of the difficulties slowing down all attempts to resolve the euro crisis is that our democratic principles demand that everyone affected should have their say according to the protocol laid out in a country’s constitution. And it is that delay (which in the case of the euro will most certainly lead to disaster) which is the price we pay for living in a democracy.

Conversely, in countries led by a ‘strong man’ there is, apparently, far more order. Things happen far faster (although the country is not necessarily more efficient as a result), for the simple reason that no one need be consulted. Wise ‘strong men’ ensure that the majority of their nations people life in comfort and have no immediate cause to get uppity and question the arrangement. Those at the bottom of the pile, of course, are kept in check by terror and sheer brutality.

My analysis is, of course, broad brush and each country will have its own local variations on the two themes. But I feel my central point still holds: you pays your money and you makes your choice. Opt for freedom and the rule of law and put up with any number of irritations, delays, petty differences and the like. Opt for a more totalitarian state and, if you watch your Ps and Qs life need not be too bad. But you have to watch what you say.

There’s the story of the dog who arrived at the Ukrainian/Russian border and demanded to be let into Russia. The amazed border guard told him that he got many dogs coming the other way, but he was the first actually wanting to leave the Ukraine.
‘Why do you want to go to Russia?’ he asked.
‘Because I’m fed up with going hungry every day,’ the dog told him. So he was let through.

The dog was back a week later.
‘I thought you were fed up with going hungry in the Ukrained,’ the border guard told him.
‘I was said the dog, and I shall be hungry again. But at least I can bark in the Ukraine.’

. . .

No one would or could, I think, claim the Economist is sensationalist, although almost every fourth issue contains an apology of some kind or another, so it might even gain a certain reputations among those who care about these things as being a maverick. It does often take an oddly high-handed tone as in: ‘The world is coming to an end: here’s how to stop that happening’, and my brother once suggested that the line it would take in the issue which appeared after Armageddon would be: ‘Well, the worst is over. What lessons can be learnt.’ But as a rule it is surely classed as one of the world’s more ‘boring’ newspapers and magazine (despite is glossy, A4 format, it likes to call itself a ‘newspaper’) along with the FT, the FAZ, Die Zeit, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Actually, they are anything but boring, but that, at least, would seem to be how they are regarded by the mass of people who would prefer to watch a soap opera than think.
One of the Economist’s features at the back of the magazine (‘back of the book’ is the newspaper jargon to this day I have never been able to get used to, though I couldn’t tell you why) are loads of economic data. This is very interesting stuff, I’m sure, if you understand it, but I don’t (understand the data, though I do many of the issues) so I have not spent more than eight seconds reading that section since I started reading the Economist.
Part of that data is the rates of inflation from around the world, and last week the Economist announced would no longer be publishing the official Argentine inflation figures, but would still publish relevant data from private sources. Why not? Well, because as far as the Economist is concerned, they they are thoroughly phoney: whereas Argentina claims inflation is running at around 8/9 pc, private sources reckon it is well above 20 pc. Remember, Argentine pulled the plug on all is debtors and defaulted a few years ago, so it has form.
When official figures are fake (as we can now only suppose they are), the obvious conclusion is that the economy is in a terrible state, and has been for some time. In recent months, Argentina has also become increasingly bellicose about what they like to call the Malvinas but which we all know are really called the Falkland Islands. This is no flash in the pan and it has already persuaded neighbouring countries to deny access to British flights and  only yesterday a cruise ship was unexpectedly and without notice turned away from the Argentine port it was heading for. Things are going wrong domestically, so external trouble is created to take the restless citizens’ minds off matters: a strategy as old as the hills.

. . .

It is just before 9am. Just outside my brother’s flat in London where I sleep when I come to work is a primary school. By this time I am usually up and gone to work (a short 20-minute walk away in Kensington) but occasionally I am still here. And as the young children arrive for school, they gather in the playground and play until the bell is rung to summon them in. And from around 8.45 until just before 9, there is a crescendo of young shouts, young shrieks, young calls and all the other noise young innocents make when they are playing with each other. For me, it is one of the most delightful (and when I am in a certain mood, most moving) sounds on earth: children playing. I just love it.

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