The nagging feeling that the UK was perhaps not the bastion of democracy, human rights and good governance that it had always claimed to be had been creeping up on me for a while.
Issues such as the questionable basis for the Iraq War and Britain’s potential complicity in the abuse of detainees; reports highlighting poverty, inequality and other systemic problems were all certainly worrying. I was aware that our system was not perfect. But I never fundamentally questioned its core structures.
My confidence was seriously shaken by Brexit, on which many politicians – including Government ministers – made shameless misrepresentations about the costs and benefits of staying in versus leaving the EU, and the implications of the various options before us.
Eventually, this prompted my resignation from the Foreign Office in 2019, when I realised that I could no longer promote the Government’s half-truths with a straight face.
Since then, I have watched our country’s trajectory with dismay, as the Government has continued to:
- Downplay the costs of Brexit
- Overlook its impact on individual citizens and businesses
- Make ever more contorted rationalisations for its approach
- Grapple inconsistently with COVID
- Lurch from scandal to scandal.
But I was triggered last week by news of the Kazakh President’s shoot-to-kill policy of protestors demonstrating against his regime. Sure enough, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, was quick to denounce the violence. Yet, it immediately reminded me that this violence was taking place in a country in which kleptocratic leaders were using British financial services and institutions to launder their ill-gotten gains.
We were, of course, not actively encouraging suppression, but arguably we were indirectly complicit. This led me to reflect on other areas where there is a gap between our words and deeds:
- We promote electoral reform in other countries, even as our own system produces highly skewed results in which less than 50% of the vote consistently produces governments with large majorities; and includes an unelected upper chamber.
- We criticise cronyism in other countries, while major donors in Britain are awarded knighthoods, juicy contracts and other sinecures.
- We campaign for corruption to be eradicated overseas, as the money of kleptocratic regimes washes through our system.
- We lecture on foreign standards of governance, though no truly independent mechanism exists to hold our own ministers to account.
- We advise other countries on their constitutions, though we do not have a written constitution of our own.
- We urge other countries to work constructively with political opponents, but operate a ‘winner takes all’ approach in our Parliament.
- We support a global arms trade treaty, yet sell arms to countries with dubious human rights records.
The Reality of Hypocrisy
The problems have become worse and the hypocrisy more apparent under Boris Johnson’s Government.
We encourage respect for minority concerns in other countries, but this Government drove through Brexit despite its rejection by majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
We demand other countries respect international law, though our Government threatens to renege on its own deal with the EU.
We promote conflict resolution, and frequently offer to share ‘best practice’ from the Good Friday Agreement, while the Government pursues a form of Brexit described recently by the agreement’s negotiator, Jonathan Powell, as “political vandalism”, for the damage it does to the delicate balance in Northern Ireland.
The Government urges other countries to treat migrants with dignity but does its best to prevent refugees from coming here.
The Government demands other nations abide by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, but seeks to reduce the same court’s influence in the UK.
The Government supports independent judiciaries, respect for the rule of law and human rights overseas while:
- Proposing new laws here allowing it to reject court rulings it dislikes, reduce the power of judicial review, and water-down the Human Rights Act.
It says that it deplores suppression of protests overseas but is introducing measures to restrict protests at home.
Critics will say that I am making ludicrous comparisons. They will say that in no way can the UK be compared to some of the autocracies we like to criticise. That, of course, there is no danger of this country sliding into authoritarianism: we are the country of the Magna Carta, we fought two world wars to uphold freedoms, British experts helped create and run many of the world’s leading institutions, that ‘Global Britain’ is a force for good.
But, if that was ever once true, I question if it remains so now. Complacency and apathy are the death of democracy.