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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 7:28 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 7:28 pm, 13th October 2008

In a moment, I want to continue the argument and the conversation that Sir Malcolm Rifkind began. He took the debate into interesting and difficult territory that forces us to examine some rather large issues.

Before I do that, let me say that one of the joys of a debate on democracy and human rights is that one can talk about almost anything one wants. I could not help but be struck by the headline of today's The Times; it was simply: "Banks nationalised". The idea that there would ever have been such a headline in The Times beggars belief. It immediately put me in mind of Sidney Webb's Fabian essays of 1889, in which he says:

"The inevitable outcome of Democracy"— with a capital "D", by the way—

"is the control by the people themselves, not only of their own political organisation, but, through that, also of the main instruments of wealth production".

Of course, that was the belief of many in my political tradition: democracy was not simply a set of political arrangements but a way in which the people could discipline private power. Indeed, that was the governing class's fear of democracy, and why it was resisted so furiously for so long. The worry was about not just people having a vote but about what the vote would do, and what people would want to do, armed with the vote, to private economic power. It is a nice symmetry, therefore, that today the banks are being nationalised, and I shall return to that at the end of my contribution.

When we talk about democracy, we use the term without defining it. We use it as a shorthand for free electoral competition, free expression, the rule of law, respect for differences and for minorities, and so on. We often prefix it with words such as "liberal" or "pluralistic" to show that we do not believe simply in majoritarianism, because, as my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested, it is possible to have majoritarian tyrannies. Human rights are properly attached to democracy as a qualifier, to show that we believe not in majoritarian tyrannies but in the kind of democracy that recognises that individual citizens possess rights that are to be protected, even against majorities.

That is why the link between democracy and human rights is important. It is a source of regret that in recent years the phrase "human rights" has begun to be used pejoratively by the Daily Mail and parts of the Conservative party. That profoundly damages the broader human rights cause, because it detaches us from a broad movement for human progress and the protection of individual freedoms. We must not allow such denunciation or criticism to enter our culture of human rights, and I hope that it no longer prevails.

I often think that there is a certain unreality to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Question Time. We tend to ask the Government to do things about places almost anywhere in the world. We have a roll call of places where things need to be done, and we ask Ministers what they are going to do. The realistic answer in almost all cases is, "There is nothing very much that we can do about those things on our own. All we can do is work with others to try to make some improvements." The mentality that we bring to proceedings, however, is that the gunboats are there, poised to be dispatched to whichever part of the world is causing difficulty. We need a dose of realism.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea gave us a dose of realism when he explained why intervention to do good almost always does harm, certainly if military means are used. He argued his case extremely powerfully, and I want to pursue it by briefly discussing two instances that have preoccupied the Commons in recent years: the Iraq adventure and Europe and the European treaty, which force us to think rather large thoughts about democracy and human rights.

I dissent somewhat from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as I believe that the tragedy of Iraq is that it stopped us thinking creatively about the doctrine of liberal intervention, because it seemed absolutely to validate the proposition that he advanced. So catastrophic was the failure that it persuaded people that it was not even worth thinking about how we can sometimes intervene to do good, even by military means, and I say that as someone who did not vote for the Iraq war. I wanted to believe the arguments. I wanted the then Prime Minister to tell me that this campaign was directed against the world's worst tyrant, and that we were going to ensure a little instalment of freedom, but he was careful not to say that. He said that, in fact, it was consistent with international principles: the objective was not regime change, it had been validated by the United Nations, and so on, but none of that persuaded me. Nor was I persuaded, to use the right hon. and learned Gentleman's test, that it would do more good than harm. I thought that the warnings about the acceleration of terrorism were probably justifiable, and that we should do things only if there was a good chance of their succeeding.

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