The G 7 summit is of foreign ministers, with representatives from guest democracies in attendance, is currently meeting in London. A major item on the agenda is how to respond to and protect from threats to democracy posed by autocratic powers, namely Russia and China. Unfortunately the stark fact is that the greatest threat to democracy comes not from without, but from within. Put simply, it comes from the multiple structural, social and economic failures of democracy itself.
For far too long it has been a given that democracy was in itself so pure, that within it anything goes. I am not convinced this was ever true, but it is very not true now. And the problem for the image of democracy is that it shows. No longer is there certainty that the freedom to do as you like and say what you want are the only freedoms of value. No longer is it a given that the democratic state serves the people. There is a growing perception that it serves the elite.
Its economic model favours assets over labour. Often it favours private enterprise over the state, with resulting shortfalls in infrastructure, capability and support. Public services operate under varying degrees of financial restraint and scarce resources. Rewards for the professional classes are generous, often excessive, but for ordinary workers who keep the wheels of modern life turning, their lives are ones of long hours and low reward. Costs of housing, private childcare and social support are out of control and for those who have to rely on state support, these services are inadequate or non-existent.
The pandemic has exposed many truths lurking thus far unseen. When it comes to the crunch it is not the lawyers and hedge fund managers you need. It is the bin collectors, the healthcare workers, the people who provide light, power and connectivity. When comparison is made between the Covid performance of the world’s largest democracy, India, with the world’s largest authoritarian regime, China, China wins hands down.
Because of the absence of a written constitution laying out clear rules for government, Boris Johnson has been able to use the almost limitless powers of the prime minister and cabinet to curb freedoms and drive through programmes in the pandemic emergency. After early mistakes and a good deal of incompetence, the Johnson government is delivering world beating outcomes in both vaccine rollout and emergency financial aid. The more democratic EU has done rather less well.
So rather than blame outsiders for threats to their equilibrium, real though they may be, the G7 and its guests also need to take a long hard look at themselves. They will find much they need to fix.