Egypt: democracy is not always the answer
From Brother Ivo:
Few things make the case for English conservative gradualism better than events such those unfolding in Egypt today.
It is hardly unprecedented.
From the French Revolution, with its radical re-drawing of the calendar and the abolition of marriage, through the Russian Revolution, with its collectivisations and consequent pogroms, to the Chinese famines created by 'rationalists' who could logically order economic society better than the 'chaos of the markets', we have seen it all before.
Somehow our outdated constitutional Monarchy seems to provide a model of stability and prosperity even in the comparably worst of times, and perhaps those who came together for the 'People's Assembly' might care to reflect on how this country has managed to get so much right before it plans to follow the path of radical reform.
Ours is an old democracy. It has evolved slowly and by incremental adjustment. It has addressed many challenges, and some of those past problems have contemporary resonance.
Egypt has its tensions between those of strict religious adherence and the large minorities of Christians and liberal secularists. But England has already ridden that storm, first through the resolution of church/state rights in the times of Henry II and Thomas Beckett, and then through the events which began at the Reformation but re-appeared with the Union of Anglican/Catholic England with Calvinist Scotland. The atheism of Charles Bradlaugh posed a new challenge, but it too was accommodated, as were votes for women, and, more recently, the aspirations for self-government of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are probably not finished yet in that particular regard.
Our non-conformists know what it is to be treated as civic outsiders, yet within the bias towards tolerance that is the hallmark of the English speaking peoples, they gradually came in from the cold after applying themselves diligently and intelligently to making a success of those areas of life - principally commerce - that were available to them. They knew that peace and liberty were important to them as foundational steps towards fuller integration within the society, and so, in time, that followed naturally.
In similar ways, successive waves of immigrants came, embraced the opportunities which the English settlements afforded to them and brought prosperity to themselves, their families and the host community which received them. They did this by embracing and celebrating that which made their acceptance possible - a tolerant acceptance of difference within a culture and a set of institutions that placed loyalty to those institutions at the heart of what it meant to be British.
Religious difference and immigration are potentially inflammable ingredients when carelessly managed, yet we have hitherto coped with both, relatively successfully, though not without incident, tensions or victims. But we have managed these complexities and it has not been by accident.
We are often mocked by outsiders and 'radicals' for being too wedded to our traditions, our unwritten constitution and the oddity of doctrine expressed as the 'Queen in Parliament', yet it is that culture and those quirky institutions which we may thank for being a safe place to anchor ourselves firmly when social turbulence strikes.
Brother Ivo has returned from the USA where he had occasion to debate these matters with friends as we chewed the fat over current problems on either side of the Atlantic. It is when challenged over our quaint institutions that one sharpens an appreciation of their strength and utility.
Egypt and the USA may seem poles apart, yet both are currently thoroughly polarised; both are engaged, to greater or lesser degree, in 'culture wars'.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood used its democratic success to begin to establish an Islamic state; it did not become immediately Iranian in its fervor, but there is little doubt as to the intended direction of travel. In the USA, there has been a similar drive to change the culture swiftly and decisively, this time in a secular liberal direction. And we can see huge intransigence on both sides, with the tensions over abortion, gay marriage, immigration reform, public health care, and the restriction of gun rights.
Within both movements, there has been a blind eye turned to constitutional propriety and cultural peacemaking by those who see a short-term advantage to be gained for some temporary project. Within both movements we see within the dominant force a degree of tolerance of the abuse of power in pursuit of short-term perceived advances.
Within both movements, there is a sense of urgency, disrespect for opposition and, above all, an acceptance that 50% +1 is all you need to undertake transformational societal change.
In the USA that single vote is not even that of an ordinary voter, but rather the vote of a single Supreme Court justice appointed through a sharply political process tipping a finely balanced court.
The founding fathers attempted to model their balancing provisions on those of the old country, replacing the counterbalance to the power of the elected Commons moderated by a conservative House of Lords and Royal Prerogative, with a Senate and a requirement of a two-thirds majority for constitutional change.
Alas, radical impatience has intervened.
Unlike the United Kingdom (and the title tells you something), abortion rights and gay marriage were not secured through the ballot box or constitutional amendment to Federal law needing a two-thirds majority, but via litigation. Gun rights may be limited in the same way and, whatever the rights or wrongs of any of these issues, it takes little imagination to see what a stark contrast this it to the way these things have been managed in the UK.
Brother Ivo is a clear campaigner for redrawing the laws on abortion and is opposed the re-definition of marriage not least because David Cameron did not place the issue with the prominence it merited in his election manifesto. Brother Ivo intends to punish him appropriately at the next opportunity.
That said, he cannot, in conscience, deny that these and other laws with which he profoundly disagrees were passed within our constitutional framework and the Queen, whatever her individual views may be, was able to signify Royal Assent to these and other controversial enactments.
Such is the long appreciation of history in this country that we know that the overall value of our tolerant, subtle and balanced constitutional Settlement is so important that its continued existence is more crucial to our public welfare than any individual grievance.
Perhaps what should have been written, however, is that we ought to know that this is so valuable and so important that its continued existence is more important to our public welfare than any individual grievance.
Within our country today we have movements similar to both the USA and Egypt, dedicated to securing the earliest confrontation with both the polar opposite in worldview and the benign constitutional Settlement that somehow has kept this country as free, prosperous, open and peaceful as any in the world, despite its increasingly diverse populace.
Left to itself, that populace might easily find ways to disagree. Between militant secular republicans desperate to drive out of the public space all trace of God, Monarchy and history, to militant Islamists seeking shariah law and 'no-go areas' in parts of our major cities where there is a Muslim majority, we can see that within this Kingdom there may well be times of conflict ahead between those who are sure that theirs is absolutely the right road to travel, and time must not be lost in implementing change.
Between the USA and Egypt we have distant warnings of how such conflict might easily come to express itself on these shores. Between those two extremes we in the UK have a set of institutions that have evolved and stand with a proven record of success in holding together peoples of disparate views; foremost amongst these is a Monarchy which values and honours people of all cultures and religions, and so has secured the trust loyalty and affection of the vast majority of the public.
It is remarkable that the only times we see the Army on our streets is nominally to hold back the crowds who come to celebrate their point of unity under the Crown.
During the same-sex marriage debate, Brother Ivo lamented that the Prime Minister appeared to have not only forgotten the value of marriage, but also to have forgotten the value of institutions. Institutions sometimes need an element of privilege to work their unifying magic in a world where rationalist reforms have so often created chaos.
We certainly have a Deputy Prime Minister so keen to make his radical mark that we may easily lose elements of the delicate edifice with little benefit to real outcomes, and with the potential to break the balances that have grown on a pragmatic basis over many years of trial and error. As Edmund Burke observed: 'By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation.'
So, as we look abroad and watch the tensions mounting in both old and new democracies, we need a sense of our history, and we need a degree of sophistication frequently lacking in our more radical democratisers. We need better to understand and defend our tried and trusted institutions, and we need to make a concerted effort to do so.
Two centuries ago, Burke identified and defended the value of institutions which work and protect our culture and our liberties better than the more fickle vagaries of popular democratic whim. He had seen the chaos of revolutionary populism in France, and we can now see what is happening in Egypt where a democratic mandate has drifted similarly off course. He warned that minorities (like the Coptic Christians and street preachers) can be oppressed through democracy. He foretold the whipping-up of mob violence by demagogues, and he was alert to the tyranny of the majority.
It is in times such as these that we need to remember our past and its heroes, and none deserves recollection more than Burke.
Brother Ivo is in the middle of reading Jesse Norman’s biography of the man, and it would be very suitable reading for our Prime Minister and his Coalition colleagues who might be well instructed by it. Perhaps a primer for Owen Jones and his People's Assembly might be Mr Norman’s next project.
Above all, as we watch political zealots - both secular and religious - abusing their democratic mandates. we should recall Burke’s advice: 'All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.'