Fish out of water: how we might save liberal democracy


We all used to believe that liberal democratic principles would inevitably spread to consume the whole world. Peace, stability and prosperity would, as a consequence, reign supreme.

How wrong we were.

The events surrounding the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi have shocked the world – or at least some of it. In its wake, many Western personalities withdrew from the Saudi-organised ‘Davos in the Desert.’ Now we learn that their place was rapidly filled by an increased number of delegates from China and Russia.

The world’s authoritarian dictatorships are hanging together.

We can all speculate where this will lead. One scenario is a split between the world’s democracies (a minority) and authoritarian regimes who will continue to support each other no matter what.

If that happens, it is unclear whether the democratic world will either hold together or have the will to stand up to authoritarianism. We have already seen that neither the UK nor the USA are willing to withhold arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the killing. The prospect of those billions disappearing and maybe being re-directed to China and Russia has stopped them in their tracks.

No doubt the hope is that the incident will pass and we can get back to business as usual with a regime that is seen as a crucial Western ally in the Middle East and remains a source of oil for the Western world even while it finances terrorism, continues its devastating destruction in Yemen, and now embarks on murder and dismemberment of its critics on foreign soil.

When we published our book titled The Death of Liberal Democracy?, some people were shocked at the title (in spite of our question mark at the end).

In it we argued that democracies must re-invent themselves fundamentally if they are to continue to prosper and if democracy as a concept is not to continue to decline.

Since its publication, we have seen autocracy take over in Turkey and the EU embark on a tussle with some of its own member states in an attempt to preserve democratic principles. Political parties with illiberal tendencies are in the ascendancy almost everywhere – from Austria and Germany to Sweden and Italy.

Yet, what we have not seen is any evidence that the ruling elite is taking these threats seriously, embarking on meaningful soul-searching and doing what is necessary to revitalise liberal democracy.

As someone put it “Fish will be the last to discover water”.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Peter Arnold says

    The trouble is, the demagogues and the dictators have all the best lines at the minute. Liberals and democrats, by comparison, appear to be weak and divided. What unites the tyrants, criminals and other undesirables are the mantras of “strong government”, “law and order”, and “decisive action”. What do Liberals have to offer in return? Not a lot, it would appear. No clear alternative to violence, intimidation, death and destruction. Liberals appear to have lost the will to stand up for their beliefs, to take on the demagogues in debate, propaganda, and campaigning. Until that happens, nothing will change.

  2. David Evans says

    Sadly the problem we are confronted with is summed up in your first sentence “We all used to believe that liberal democratic principles would inevitably spread to consume the whole world.”

    To which I would answer, only those too naive or too lazy to face up to the problems of the real world.

    We got too comfortable, too self confident and definitely too lazy to stand up and carry on the fight. We ignored our own problems and chose the comfort of trusting our leaders absolutely, who in turn got complacent.

    You only have to read the self justifying memoirs Hilary Clinton or any of those involved in coalition. Nowhere do you read the words – “I got it totally wrong.” Hillary got more votes but lost the election – why? Because she didn’t believe she could lose those rust belt states. Nick got the one big chance liberals had all worked for decades to get and then he ignored them as they were destroyed year after year. But next to nobody tried to change things.

    However, too many of us still seem to believe too much in the absolute superiority of our cause and dare not even contemplate the possibility that we (i.e. Me personally) are failing.

    The saying of DH Lawrence “Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.” is sadly prophetic. Clinton, Clegg are clearly the children in this.

    However Ronald Reagan’s saying is more worrying – “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.” The right wing understand this truth so clearly and their version of freedom is winning as a result.

    Our problem still is that too many of us believe it is Oh so easy. We just have to leave it to our icons who tell us what we want to hear. Even in your piece there is the comment “we have not seen is any evidence that the ruling elite is taking these threats seriously.” I would say What are you personally doing to get them to change or to change them?

    Liberalism can’t be saved until we all accept we got it massively wrong and want to change. We are nowhere near that yet.

  3. says

    Thank you Peter and David for your comments.

    You are both right – complacency has led to hubris and an inability to come up with any new thinking. That is what we are trying to shake people out of at Radix – and we welcome any help that anyone is able and willing to give.

    I have to say that I have been surprised (though maybe I was simply naive to expect otherwise) by the level of resistance to any kind of new approaches and new thinking from the ‘liberal’, ‘centrist’ crowd – whichever party they belong to. All we get is a kind of nostalgic belief that all this is an aberration and things will eventually return to normal – whether it’s when Trump is out of the White House, or through some other kind of magical thinking.

    The result is yet more fiddling while Rome burns.

    We welcome any ideas as to how we can push for radical re-thinking and be a platform for your ideas and actions.

  4. Laurence Cox says

    Joachim Ronneberg, the Norwegian Resistance fighter, who died last week at the age of 99 spoke of why he started talking to young people about his wartime experiences in the 1970s after many years of keeping silent about them: “Those growing up today need to understand that we must always be ready to fight for peace and freedom,” he said.

    Going forward, I would recommend Conrad Russell’s “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism” as a source for Liberal principles, and thinking about how we get consent for any policies that we wish to follow. One way forward is the increased use of citizens’ assemblies to discuss issues that need consent but are too complex for a simple yes/no vote as in a general election or referendum.

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