By Kieran Fowlds
In the strictest sense, liberalism is the willingness to accept the opinions, wants, needs, behaviours, and individual rights of others whilst illiberalism seeks to suppress them. It can be difficult to notice times in which totalitarianism and illiberalism are rising when we live in a world that is rife with unrest and conflict. Wars, ethnic cleansing, rights violations, suppression of speech and religion seem to have become a part of everyday life. Yet, observers of comparative government and human rights can clearly identify times when respect for the rights and liberties of human beings begins to gutter and wane.
In the 20th century, democracy — not just the system of holding elections, but the entire package of human rights, minority rights, free expression, civil liberties, and social-democratic welfare protections — was the only system that managed to defeat totalitarianism instead of morphing into totalitarianism. At its most fundamental level, illiberalism is a lack of respect for the value of individual human beings, while democracy is the elevation of respect for humanity to the status of society’s fundamental organizing principle.
Recently, news headlines from around the world give us a continual stream of negative portents. Concentration camps and forced mass sterilization of minorities in China. Millions rendered stateless by a new law in India amid a retreat of secularism. A coup attempt and election denial as a normalized political strategy in America. These examples highlight the fact that we are moving to a more authoritarian, xenophobic society.
Furthermore, Freedom House, a think tank that tracks global political and civil liberties, warns in its 2020 report that “democracy and pluralism are under assault”. You can quibble with Freedom House’s measurements and definitions, but they have remained consistent and suggest the world has been inching towards illiberalism for the past 15 years. In the aforementioned 2020 report, Freedom House observed a drop of 46 points in democratic net gains from 2005 to 2019 whilst net declines increased by 12 points. Additionally, The Economist’s Democracy Index shows a deterioration in the last two to six years with the global average score of 5.37 out of 10 being the lowest recorded since the index began in 2006. The V-Dem Institute, a Swedish think tank, finds much the same in their 2021 report with 34% of the world’s population living in autocratizing countries and only 4% living in democratizing ones.
Even after the rise of Ethnonationianlist movements and increasing votes for populist parties, the UK only dropped from 96 in 2009 to 93 in 2021 in Freedom Houses’ reports. This, however, is still a decline and the growth of illiberalism has been felt throughout the nation. The rise of populism in British politics and high opposition to immigrants has surely only served to make the United Kingdom less democratic at least ideologically. It has created a massive problem of immigrant destitution and mistrust in our allies; hence, the UK is not immune to the global trend towards illiberalism.
However, it would seem that many of the world’s most powerful nations are much less resistant to the pull of authoritarianism. China is by far the most autocratic of the great powers; however much Trump and Modi have chipped away at democracy, they have created nothing like the massive surveillance state, pervasive party apparatus, and systematic minority repression that China has built. Its slow but steady territorial expansionism against multiple neighbours threatens to bring back an era where big countries take what they want, regardless of international laws. It doesn’t seek to advance a global totalizing ideology like the USSR or seize racial lebensraum like Hitler, but China’s neighbours clearly realize the danger represented by its growing power and aggression.
Even more troubling, however, is America’s democratic decline. The United States is not yet an authoritarian country, but Freedom House catalogues its slow slide in that general direction. Some blame Trump’s family separation policy and his use of federal agents as policemen as reasons for this rise in authoritarianism. However, the biggest threat here is the apparent rejection of electoral democracy by the dominant faction of the Republican Party. Trump’s attempt to brazenly deny the result of the 2020 election and use every means short of civil war to overturn the result might not be a one-off thing; they provided a blueprint that the GOP now seems to be embracing for the future.
This rise in illiberalism could be the result of many answers, including the death of the WW2 generation, the rise of social media, new disruptive technologies, economic inequality, the failures of late capitalism. However, one reason that seems to appear more than any other is fear.
According to the aforementioned reports, the trend towards illiberalism began to return right around the mid to late 2000s, which was driven by two notable political events — the rise of China and the Iraq War. Both events can be interpreted as being broadly part of the same overarching trend — diminution of the ‘Democratic West’. These events created a power vacuum as the world came to realise that the west was no longer the conglomerate superpower of the world. A deep fear set in as many nations realised their defence pacts with western countries may not be able to protect them any longer. With a power vacuum and the nations of the world in a panic, illiberalism was bound to make headway as many countries began to turn to authoritarianism to keep control of their populace or to stronger autocratic neighbours who they believed could better protect them.
That is what happened to the world in the 1930s. When Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, he was talking about a banking crisis, but on some level, he already knew that what he was really talking about was a growing trend of fear and illiberalism. The First World War had collapsed the old European-centered global power structure, and the US and USSR had not yet taken on their superpower roles. The German Reich was a consequence of fear, economic devastation, foreign domination, permanent instability and decline. A similar process brought the rise of militarism in Japan, and Stalin and Mao leveraged plenty of fear as well.
How can this trend be reversed? The great global protest wave of 2019 and 2020 seemed to be a spontaneous uprising against illiberalism. Freedom House made the same inference, even titling its 2020 report “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy”. However, while these protests are valiant, more is needed to tackle the issue.
The world needs champions against illiberalism, which means restoring economic leadership and moral leadership. Most countries that have little to no decline in their democratic ratings like France and Germany are European, which provides the UK with a great opportunity. The UK, despite Brexit, still has excellent ties to these nations and could shift the focus of these European countries to address the growing trend of illiberalism, especially inside EU borders in places such as Poland and Bulgaria which have seen a sharp decline in their democratic index scores. There was a time when the UK was regarded globally as the ‘Cradle of Democracy’ and there is no reason why it could not reclaim this title. The UK just recently signed a military defence pact with the United States and Australia, which has been largely seen as a bid to curb Chinese influence in the indo-pacific. While this deal did anger some European nations like France, it is a step towards action against the spread of authoritarianism. If the likes of Europe and the United States are to be seen as bastions of democracy once more then it will take a push for them to get there and it would seem like the United Kingdom is willing to do so. With our relatively high freedom scores and arguably the strongest link to the United States within Europe, the UK is in the prime position to kick start the growth of democracy once again.
Restoring economic leadership will be hard when the United Kingdom is so far from the emerging economic centre of the world. Its best bet is to continue to dominate in cutting-edge knowledge industries. If the UK can become one of the global leaders economically speaking then it will have a much better chance at encouraging democratic growth outside its borders. That includes funding world-class scientific research, as the British Government has already set out on doing, which will allow the UK to lead the science and tech industries. Furthermore, taking in large numbers of skilled immigrants will aid the UK in dominating the global pool for top technical talent. A renewed focus on maintaining and building infrastructure is also necessary if the UK wants to have the ability to handle an increased presence on the world stage and better conditions for its citizens. The majority of this spending on infrastructure should be used to address the problem of the United Kingdom’s underfunded health system, which is currently struggling to cope with both the COVID-19 pandemic and the reduced availability of medicine after Brexit. The successful vaccination effort offers encouragement that the UK is more economically robust than many had believed, but at best it’s just a good start. If the United Kingdom can patch up its flaws in funding healthcare and infrastructure whilst also further specialising in knowledge industries, then it would surely be a strong economic leader. Being a strong leader will allow the UK to better leverage its trade and relative power to other nations in order to enact social change around the world. For example, the UK along with other nations like the US, France and Germany could limit their cutting edge technological output to countries that fail to respect the rights and civil liberties of their citizens. However, this would only be politically feasible if the UK can grow its presence internationally.
Furthermore, economic leadership also requires creating dense networks of trade and production between the UK and potential allies. This will require making deals like the attempted Trans-Pacific Partnership that the US failed to go through with. Having a closely tied economic relationship with other nations will allow the United Kingdom to promote democratic ideals in the form of both trade policies like ethical fair trade agreements and political pressure that can be placed upon countries that do not respect the human rights of their citizens.
Tackling the issue of moral leadership will be a similarly difficult task. The UK needs to take the lead on tackling international problems like climate change, instead of dragging our feet. The hosting of COP26 in Glasgow is an excellent start but it remains to be seen if the conference will have an impact on global willingness to combat climate change. A reduction in inequality and poverty here in the UK will be needed in order to show the world that the British model can provide for all of its citizens.
Recalling that history teaches us an important lesson – that this has happened before – is crucial if the UK wants to deal with the growth of illiberalism. There have been many points in history in which illiberalism began to rise but there were always those willing to stunt its growth. If the trend of growing illiberalism around the world is to be reversed, then global powers must be willing to do the same. The UK is in the prime position to revitalise Democratic thinking around the globe, allowing for a huge reverse in totalitarian and populist beliefs. And so it would seem that the UK can reclaim its title as the Cradle of Democracy once again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.