Liberty and authoritarianism


David Aaronovitch's latest piece in The Times it so far off the mark that it is worth reading just to remind yourself why you don’t read him. The title is Politicians mess everything up – wrong. Yes, in a democracy stupid errors occur, but our constant carping ignores the greater danger: the rise of authoritarianism. The principal strand of his argument is that, “if you don't have a liberal democracy, everything else goes to hell". To prove this he uses the historical examples of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and the Rwandan genocide.

According to Aaronovitch, “we are in a nasty phase of attacking democratic politics and its inevitable representatives, the politicians, for their deficiencies and taking refuge either in populism, legalism or magical thinking." This statement sits oddly in the article, as in his previous paragraph he sets out how the legal system and fellow politicians were complicit in the atrocities mentioned above. The only exception is Aaronovitch’s glib claim that it was not, “strictly legal under the laws of Rwanda for Hutu militias systematically to kill their Tutsi neighbours with gun and machete". The fact that ID cards proved an essential tool in this massacre (something that Aaronovitch is keen on) is entirely neglected.

The populism that Aaronovitch fears comes from three sources:

1) “The casual, jokey bracketing of politicians with fraudsters."
2) “The influence of potty-mouthed right-wing bloggers on some political journalism."
3) “An impatience with foreign workers and other minorities."

In answer to the first point, most politicians are indeed corrupt; perhaps not as corrupt as in some other countries, but nevertheless we need more checks against their power. On the second point, who are these potty-mouthed right wing bloggers? The only ‘potty-mouthed’ bloggers I know of are strong libertarians. No political grouping is more distant from the politics of authoritarianism. Regarding the third point, the protectionism of the left is equally (if not more) culpable of impatience with foreign workers and other minorities. Remember 'British jobs for British workers'.

Aaronovitch’s conclusion, “how depressing it is that there are Grand Conventions in defence of liberty and none in defence of politics". What he fails to appreciate is that as far as political systems are good, they are built upon the protection of the individual: liberty. Historically, democracy has not proven enough of an impediment against authoritarianism. We need more. This is why the sooner parliament becomes more transparent, ID cards scrapped and CCTV camaras taken down, the better.