On Monday, a Maltese investigative journalist was blown up by a car bomb. I had never met her, but her husband is an old friend. We were in the same class at school and at university together.
Daphne Caruana Galizia made it her life’s work to expose corruption and shady political dealings. Much of what she alleged was investigated by the European Parliament. It was also the subject of court cases in Malta. With both the courts and the police stuffed full of political appointees, few had much hope that the allegations would be fully investigated. Following the bombing, a police sergeant who is supposed to be part of the investigation posted on his Facebook account: “Everyone gets what they deserve.”
This horrible act highlights the dangers of an over-powerful executive. One that systematically weakens the checks and balances on which a democracy is based and undermines anything that might stop it exercising unfettered power. The Malta case is extreme, but there are worrying signs of similar trends in many places that are considered ‘mature democracies’ – including the UK.
The 2016 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit classified 17 EU member states as flawed democracies. Countries like Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands saw a slide in their democratic credentials. In Spain ,we have had the spectacle of police beating people with batons when they turned up to vote in a Catalan referendum ruled illegal. Poland and Hungary are leading a crackdown on any organisation that challenges the government of the day.
And the UK is following in these footsteps, albeit not to the same degree. The handling of the Brexit process by the government is shameful. Newspapers brand impartial courts upholding the law of the land as enemies of the people – and government ministers fail to condemn them. “Crush the saboteurs,” they suggest. I have written before about the dangers to democracy of political groups clothing themselves in ’the will of the people’ and using that line to swat away any kind of opposition to their own views. And of the generally miserable state of UK democracy.
We all complain about Donald Trump. But at least what we are seeing in the USA is that their democratic institutions seem to be holding up. Trump is being frustrated by Congress and the courts at almost every turn. He is unable to rule by decree. In the UK, Brexit is turning out to be not just a disaster being handled by an incompetent government, but also a process that is undermining democracy. From the total breakdown of collective cabinet responsibility, to the intimidation of Tory MPs by the whip’s office if they dare to exercise their proper role of scrutinising proposed legislation and putting forward reasonable amendments, to Brexit-supporting ministers and Tory MPs avoiding discussion about the destructive path down which they are dragging the country – one cannot help but feel more than a whiff of authoritarianism about the current government.
First the Bank of England and now the Treasury are subjected to vicious criticism because they insist on clarifying the impact of a no-deal Brexit. And no word in their defence from a Prime Minister cowed into menial submission by a few dozen of her backbenchers.
Since her election as Prime Minister, Theresa May has done nothing to heal the Brexit divisions across the country, or to attempt to bring together Leavers and Remainers. Instead she has chosen to widen division and increase political polarisation. She has failed to stand up for the checks and balances of democracy and to welcome dissent. Instead she has chosen to attempt to exercise unchecked power – until the electorate rightly told her that that was not on and stripped her of her majority.
The longer the government chooses to foment division rather than unity, executive power rather than democratic checks and balances, and ideological sloganeering rather than the national interest, then the more we will slowly slide along the path of weakening democracy. It is easy to rest easy and believe that a horrific event like that in Malta would never happen in Britain. Until one remembers Jo Cox.
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