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4 September 2019

Britain’s image is changing: in Europe they no longer recognise us

Coming from Turkey, I know that the ballot box is not enough to sustain a democracy.

By Elif Shafak

Years ago, long after I had moved to London from Istanbul, I was on a panel with a conservative politician, who cut me off and said, “But surely you are not comparing Turkey with the UK, are you?” I had been talking about the threats to liberal democracy and cultural pluralism, and how in the post-financial-crisis world the new wave of reactionary politics could permeate countries including the UK. Taken aback, I stammered a bit before finding my voice again. More than what he said, it was the certainty of his tone that surprised me; his conviction that this country was beyond all such comparisons, his unfaltering confidence in British exceptionalism.

He was not alone in this assumption. Until recently, many assumed that some European countries were immune to the rise of populist nationalism and authoritarianism. After having gone through the darkest tunnels of nationalism and racism, Germany was believed to be “inoculated”. Sweden, with its deeply rooted welfare state, was seen as a bastion of liberal democracy. Years of the Franco regime, so went the argument, had made the Spanish more appreciative of pluralist democracy than citizens elsewhere. And the UK, with its long parliamentary history, was regarded as a staunch defender of civic liberties and the rule of law.

Today, we need to revise all these arguments. For the first time since the Second World War, a far-right party has entered the German parliament. A political party with neo-Nazi roots has been ascending in Sweden. The Vox movement in Spain longs for the “good old days under Franco”. Meanwhile, here in the UK, our parliamentary democracy is threatened like never before. People talk of “uncharted waters” – but the waters we are swimming in have been charted by countries that have seen a dramatic rise in populist nationalism.

If the UK is changing, so is its image in Europe. Recently, I visited Copenhagen to give a talk. It was the week Donald Trump cancelled his visit to Denmark after his absurd comment about buying Greenland. Wherever I went people asked the same thing: how is it possible that the UK is siding with a politician like Trump over its old allies in Europe? This summer when I was travelling through Germany, Switzerland and France, I heard similar remarks. People often say that they almost cannot recognise Britain, a country that they once viewed as a bulwark of political stability. A similar element of shock and surprise, albeit accompanied by hurt, is also visible in Ireland and Scotland. That Tory members were willing to see the break-up of the United Kingdom if that were the price of leaving the EU is alarming.

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Brexit sucked the oxygen out of conventional politics. Today, reason and logic are belittled, while emotions guide and misguide political rhetoric. And while moderates have been either intimidated or continue to suffer from Brexit fatigue, hardliners have come to dominate the public space with a renewed passion and zeal. What we are losing is the common ground of shared democratic values and the liberal tradition of political compromise.

Coming from Turkey, I know that the ballot box is not enough to sustain a democracy. Russia has elections. Turkey has elections. Brazil has elections. None of these countries is a democracy. Without checks and balances, democracies cannot survive for long. Suspending parliament is an assault against the separation of powers, which is at the heart of liberal democracy.

Countries such as Turkey have shown us that for a democracy to thrive, you need rule of law, free media, independent academia, women’s and minority rights, freedom of speech and a division between legislative, judiciary and executive powers. If judges are targeted as “enemies of the people” by tabloids, opposition MPs are in need of police protection and there is a rise in hate crimes and divisive speech, we should be extremely concerned. Politicians come and go, but the damage to institutions lasts for generations.

No country is immune to the rise of so-called illiberal democracy. We have entered a turbulent age in which we all need to defend core democratic values. Unless moderates start to speak louder and more boldly, our public spaces will continue to swing towards ideological extremes. Am I therefore comparing Turkey with the UK – or Brazil with Poland, or the Philippines with Hungary? Yes, I am, and what I see leaves me with a terrifying sense of deja vu. 

“The battle for parliament”: read the rest of our symposium on Britain’s political crisis here.