Approving of autocracy

If you write favourably about Qatar or Russia, are you speaking up for dictatorships – or acknowledg

Yesterday Mehdi Hasan wrote an excellent post about the extraordinary reaction to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup.

Quite apart from the fact that the emirate will undoubtedly make a great success of the event – I went to the opening of the 2006 Asian Games in Doha and even though they had the misfortune to suffer a downpour, an exceedingly rare event in those climes, the ceremony, choreography, fireworks and lighting of the torch were the most spectacular display I've ever witnessed – Mehdi's was a very mild defence. He did not deny that the "country, like every other Gulf nation, has an autocratic and reactionary regime and is far from liberal or democratic". But speaking up for Qatar was still a step too far for the many who then attacked him in the comments section.

It appears that automatic disapproval is what is expected – demanded, even – whenever one writes about a country that fails to meet our standards when it comes to human rights, democracy and liberal values; no matter how recently we as a society may have come not only to protect in law but also embrace those values in practice. (Think of our attitude towards gay men and women in public life being a good instance of a halo we have bestowed on ourselves though we haven't quite earned it yet – or are we ready for a gay prime minister?)

Certainly, there are states that you would have to be particularly perverse to want to defend – Burma, for example, or North Korea. Yet what about countries that strike us as illiberal and whose practice of democracy is erratic or barely existent – but whose peoples seem content with or approving of such deviations from our ideal?

Take Russia, whose prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has been accused by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev of acting as though "democracy stands in his way". But has the electorate there chosen a semi-autocracy instead? The Stanford academic Michael McFaul put the reasons for Putin's success well in Foreign Affairs magazine two years ago.

In the 1990s, under post-Soviet Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, the state did not govern, the economy shrank and the population suffered. Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.

McFaul, a specialist in Russia and the former Eastern Bloc, thought this was wrong: the country, he said, would have done better "if democracy had survived". However, he also conceded that: "This narrative has a powerful simplicity, and most Russians seem to buy it. Putin's approval rating hovers near 80 per cent, and nearly a third of Russians would like to see him become president for life."

To take another example: semi- or fully autocratic regimes were the norm throughout south-east Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. In Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has argued this is because what he calls "Asian values" prevail in the region. That this is a distinctly unfashionable analysis is not likely to trouble MM Lee in the least. However, there are some western observers who agree that there may be something in it.

In Joe Studwell's 2007 book Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and South-East Asia, he wrote that the countries he covered (he did not include Indochina or Burma) were experiencing a "developmental honeymoon", and so were not so bothered about their lack of western-style liberal democracy. In this state, he wrote:

Populations are unusually willing to trust authority and their leaders' promises to deliver continuous improvements in standards of living. When south-east Asians were told that free association of labour was antithetical to growth . . . and that constraints on individual freedom and the media are part of Asian culture, they acquiesced.

Like McFaul, Studwell believed they were wrong to do so. But he still thought the relevant populations gave their de facto assent to this bargain – and not without reason. "With the average GDP growth rates from 1986 to 1995 picking up to 8-10 per cent a year in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, versus 6-8 per cent in the period after 1960, they trusted the politicians and waited for the bourgeois nirvana that would release them from the shackles of economic need."

If this is the kind of deal that operated there, would it not be even more attractive to the permanent populations of Gulf states such as Qatar, whose citizens can expect plentiful financial benisons – way beyond the pleasures suggested by a mere "bourgeois nirvana" – to be provided for them throughout their lives by their governments?

The points I am making are simple, but there is a particular reason for making them here, in the New Statesman. Many commenters regard it as axiomatic that left or left-leaning writers should not only speak up for the kinds of liberty and democracy we enjoy here, but also regard them as universal values that are therefore applicable – if necessary, by force – around the world.

But it seems to me just as left or left-leaning to ask what it is that people want and then to respect that choice, at least to the extent of admitting that it is their decision to make and not ours. If it turns out that they don't actually want our brands of liberty and democracy; if they are quite content without them, or even vote to give up some of the freedoms we would cherish, some seem to think it is the role of the left not just to tell them they are wrong, but to try to force them to change their minds by economic sanctions, trade wars and bellicose rhetoric.

This attitude, to me, smacks rather of what France in the 19th century referred to as its "mission civilisatrice". We in Britain were a little more honest about it. We called it "imperialism". It is a mystery to me why anyone should think there is anything left-wing about that.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle