Is it better to let dictators retire in peace?

The moral answer is obvious – dictators should be prosecuted – but granting amnesty has some advanta

While attention has been focused on whether the changes in Egypt represent the beginning of the end for Middle East autocracy, a rearranging of the guard or even an Islamist revival, the question of what happens to the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak and others remains open. Although Mubarak has vowed to remain in Egypt for the moment, rumoured destinations for him and his family range from Saudi Arabia, to where the Tunisian tyrant Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has already fled, to Britain. This raises the question whether it is better to allow dictators to retire peacefully and enjoy their ill-gotten gains, in return for standing aside, or whether it is important to prosecute them fully, even if this means that they are more likely to cling to power.

From a moral perspective, the answer is relatively straightforward. If the international community is at all serious about enforcing human rights then those who have engaged in repression and unlawful usurpation of power, such as Hosni Mubarak and other Arab autocrats, should face punishment. Furthermore, the obligation to bring former tyrants to justice is so great that it overrides any considerations of sovereignty, jurisdiction or amnesty. The House of Lords judgment in 1998 that Augusto Pinochet could be extradited to Spain, and the establishment of the International Criminal Court four years later, followed this principle.

In contrast, some theorists, such as Professor Jane Curry of Santa Clara University, have argued that such a hardline approach is too simplistic, and may prolong crises by discouraging autocratic leaders from leaving office lest they face prosecution. Indeed, Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University, author of the forthcoming book The Dictator's Handbook, contends that, "the ability to grant amnesty in the face of a credible threat that the dictator is about to be overthrown is the smart thing to do".

Bueno de Mesquita argues that presenting autocrats with a face-saving alternative to clinging to power might even save lives, because they would then have "less reason to be severely oppressive".

However, even when viewed solely in utilitarian terms, such "pragmatism" comes with its own drawbacks. Game theory suggests that encouraging current dictators to leave office by making retirement more attractive will also encourage future dictators to seize power, by lowering the risk that they will face prosecution. Given that 60 countries, representing nearly a third of the world's population, are (according to Freedom House) only "partly free", and therefore at risk of moving further into totalitarianism, this should be a grave concern. There is also the possibility that lenient treatment may allow dictators to regroup and mount a comeback, like Joaquín Balaguer in the Dominican Republic.

Even Bueno de Mesquita admits that his suggestions need to be treated cautiously. In particular, he warns that allowing leaders to leave with their loot may give them a green light to plunder during their stay in office. He also confesses that, on a personal level, he "would not be happy" with dictators enjoying an opulent retirement. And he believes that immunity from arrest should come only if they fulfil conditions, such as a speedy and painless exit, rather than be offered as a matter of course.

Ultimately, Mubarak's failing health may mean that the debate over whether he should be prosecuted for the crimes committed during his regime becomes moot. However, any impression that Britain and the United States are happy to let dictators enjoy an opulent life after office will not be viewed positively in the region, and may encourage those in the military and security services to make their own bid for power.

Matthew Partridge is a freelance journalist and a PhD student at the London School of Economics.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496