hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Speaking Big Truth unto Big Power

Riga, Latvia. 29 September. It is a curious phrase to speak truth unto power. It is believed to have originated in the US in the 1950s when a group of pacifist Quakers wrote a book seeking an alternative to the Cold War. It has also become a virtual motto for the British Civil Service. Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I am no pacifist, but I am utterly committed to the maintenance of a just peace and as committed to the defence of freedom. The purpose of this blog is not to frustrate establishments or annoy elites (although the latter has an allure). States need effective elites and establishments. My purpose is to help make them better and to remind them that in democracies they are accountable to me the citizen.  

Back here in Riga I am at the sharp-end of democracy, a place where the benefits and dangers of big power are very clear. For Latvians the rise again of its noisy neighbour and the illiberal ‘big’ military power it eschews raises big questions about whether the liberal states of the West are any longer capable of generating the necessary countervailing big military power needed to defend Latvian freedom. However, the need for such big power also raises a fundamental question that is at the heart of Europe’s, and indeed America’s political malaise; big power is necessarily distant power and distant power can be inherently anti-democratic. 

This paradox was brought home to me on the plane over here last night. For much of the journey I read pro-EU Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his new book “The Euro”. It is a masterpiece and I will devote another coming blog to the many lessons Stiglitz has for Europe’s failed elite from the failed single currency. However, what struck me reading Stiglitz is the extent to which in the absence of proper democratic oversight far from becoming more efficient Europe’s distant elites became progressively and dangerously inefficient. For Stiglitz the Euro disaster was caused by an ideologically-driven elite whose fervour for ever more ‘Europe’ led to them dismissing the political and economic fundamentals needed to make function a single currency across of continent of widely differing polities, economies, languages and cultures.

Tonight I will have the honour of addressing His Excellency the State President of Latvia Raimonds Vejonis, together with an audience of assembled dignitaries on the defence of the Alliance.  My message will be blunt (as it often is); in spite of the many other pressures on Western democracies the first duty of the state to its people is their security and defence. That means a Europe that once again begins to understand the first principles of big defence power, how to afford it and apply it.  

And yet the defence of the Alliance is being undermined by dangerous disillusionment in publics across Europe and the wider West. This is partly the inevitable consequence of eight years of austerity (see Stiglitz) following the 2008 banking crash that was caused by yet another unaccountable big power elite. It is also partly the result of a failed ‘ideological’ Brussels elite (again see Stiglitz), and partly because the drift towards mega power, as expressed through mega trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, has inexorably fuelled a popular sense that power is inexorably moving away from the people leaving democracy a fallen, rotting husk on the autumn lawn of power. Brexit was certainly driven in part by this unease and the historical English distrust of unaccountable, distant power.

Free from any real accountability some ‘democratic’ elites have begun to do the same thing to their people as illiberal states routinely do to theirs; treat them like children because they the elites ‘know best.  Worse, bereft of influence or power organised legitimate dissent has drifted away from the chambers of representative democracy towards the new, extreme, and often illegitimate anarchism of social media. A drift that has further weakened the bond between leaders and led in democracies and too often enabled the likes of President Putin to insert an alternative ‘truth (MH17), and to further undermine the social and political cohesion vital to the defence of freedom. 

But here’s the ultimate paradox; in the world of the twenty-first century big power IS necessary. Indeed, the very freedom of the individual to express dissent about big power is dependent on effective big power. What is needed is for her/him to again feel a connection with it. If the West’s political elites are to re-capture the trust of the people which in a true democracy is the real foundation for the defence of freedom then they must begin to treat their fellow citizens like grown-ups and speak truth unto people. If not ‘populists’ and Putins will continue to fill the vacuum of mistrust with their own very trumped-up truths, and the West will continue its downward plunge into decline and division.

Therefore, what is desperately needed is for Western elites to again conceive of big power differently to illiberal big power. That means re-embracing democracy rather than treat it the same way large companies treat tax; something to be circumvented, and if possible avoided. In this dangerous age big power must speak big truth unto its big people, but it must also learn to listen and mean it.

Julian Lindley-French                 

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