Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

We all wrestled with the arguments at that time. I wanted to believe them, and I would have signed up to a campaign simply to remove tyranny, because we had such an opportunity, and I thought, rightly or wrongly, that it would be worth doing. I was not persuaded, however, by the argument about its success, nor was I persuaded that it would not produce more terrorism, rather than diminish it. I was not persuaded, either, by the argument about the link between Iraq and previous terrorism. It was hard to sustain the argument, and I had doubts about the larger ideological prospectus attached to it.

Having said all that, I had huge respect for those who, like John Bercow, supported the decision on the right grounds, and I wanted it to succeed. I take no pleasure from the fact that it has proved so awful.

I return to where I began: unlike the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, I do not want to cite this with relish as vindication of the argument that international attempts to sort out monstrous regimes inevitably fail. He said that he was not defending a tradition of national sovereignty, but that was his argument. I do not think that tyrants can do what they want simply by citing the doctrine of sovereignty. It is sensible to consider whether any action will do more harm than good. That approach argues for caution in many circumstances, but that does not mean that the development of the doctrine of liberal or humanitarian intervention should be junked, although many people have readily wanted to draw that conclusion from Iraq. If we say that, it does no service to people in the world who need us on their side. Although it is difficult, tricky and contentious, we must work inside international organisations to make sure that they better equip themselves to do the things that we want them to do.

This debate has been full of frustration with international organisations and the dangers posed by people who want to bypass them and do things directly through a coalition of the willing. We do not want that, but we do want to try to transform those organisations so that they can do things more effectively when they need to be done. They should not simply stand aside, with us swapping frustrations as horror follows horror, and every tyrant knowing that they will be protected because the international order says that they will be. Our concern for democracy forces us to explore such huge issues further.

My next point is to do with my own area of contention—Europe and the recent European treaty. I want to relate that to democracy because of a paradox, about which we have to be open and through which we have to try to work our way: that, to be effective in the world, we have to be more effective than we can be on our own. We have to be effective players in the big international blocs, and the big international bloc in our part of the world is the European Union. On issue after issue, we are asked to be effective at EU level. That is the reality; it does not matter what the issue is.

The ideological essence of democracy is that we have to go where the power is. We have to follow the power with the democratic disciplines, but that is precisely what we have not done in relation to the international financial system. We have allowed a globalised financial system to happen—I was going to say that we had "created" it, but that is probably not the word—but we have not put in place global regulation of the system. Domestically, we have thought it crucial to discipline private power in that way, but globally we have not.

It is no good saying that it is all the fault of the rotten bankers, although it no doubt is. There has been a failure of democratic imagination and will on a scale that is difficult for us and involves establishing the international mechanisms necessary to control the new sites of power in the world. That is what democracy is about. Europe is one of the mechanisms for securing leverage on the wider sources of power, which is why we have to be part of it.

We have to go upwards, to European and other international levels, to control those forces, but the more we go upwards, the more people feel removed from the sources of power that affect their lives. To be real, democracy usually has to be near and accessible. The paradox is that for democracy to be what it has to be—the mechanism that disciplines power for us—we have to go upwards ever more. That makes it difficult for people, small people in a big world, to understand how they can get democratic leverage and control.

That is why those who say that we do not have to be effectively engaged at the European level, or have institutions and treaties that enable us to do that, are wrong. They are right, however, to reflect anxieties about how we control such mechanisms. We have not yet begun to do that in any effective way. That is the challenge.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website