Somehow, as the last millennium began to turn up its toes, Winston Churchill’s “least worst” system of government became a quasi-religion for those who worshipped shining cities on hills. Democracy, loosely defined, had slain the red dragon of Marxism. Henceforth, St George Bush could launch his crusades against the infidel (waging more wars to end wars). Ballot boxes possessed the supposed power to deliver peace, harmony and full partnership in global growth. They magically separated the good guys from the bad guys.
But now, much assisted by John Kampfner’s acidulous essays in autocratic reality, we can all wake up. Kampfner, political journalist turned human rights campaigner, isn’t dealing here with the shambles of Afghanistan. His more amorphous target is the anaesthetised freedom of the city state of his birth, Singapore, and the insidious spread of Lee Kuan Yew’s model democracy – not just to Malaysia, but on to Beijing and beyond.
Can you have economic success without political freedom? The Bush and Blair camps would probably answer no, with a windy rhetorical flourish. Capitalism depends on the market and the market depends on human beings (aka consumers) exercising free choice. But Singapore has slyly inserted another level of choice. It has made what Kampfner calls “a pact” with its citizenry. You can accrete wealth and trappings, eat good food, live in fine houses and enjoy a “good” life: just don’t rock our boat.
It’s a covert deal intended to keep everyone happy. It offers those who’ve made it the ability to keep it. It gives new generations of loyal citizens the prospect that they, too, can grow rich and contented. The price – a certain quiescence – doesn’t seem so high by the side of a swimming pool. What alternative is there? Utter a word out of place and you’ll be sued, banned or taxed out of existence. Play the game and the world smiles with you. Free choice can mean choosing not to get involved.
There’s one further factor that Kampfner shrewdly pops into this pot: simple fear, as in terror of chaos. Lee Kuan Yew, like his disciples in Kuala Lumpur, trades on fear of communal violence. Beijing has centuries of civil war and imploding dynasties to shiver the timbers of its fledgling tycoons. Vladimir Putin, offering order against the drunken debacles of the Yeltsin era, adds Moscow to the list. And so, from India to Berlusconi’s Italy, to Brown’s phone-tapping Britain, we see true freedoms under attack, fading, dying.
It is a pungent thesis, argued with verve and an abundance of telling detail. Maybe the force diminishes as we reach Obama, because he doesn’t (yet) fit. Maybe the shock of the new blinds Kampfner to the grot of the old. Was there ever a golden age when Labour in office served all of the people all of the time? And Kampfner’s habit of parading his travel schedules in the present tense – like Alan Whicker playing John Pilger – gets irritating.
But none of this diminishes the fundamental questions of Freedom for Sale, often posed with a clarity that makes you wince. We in the west still swagger over a cold war won; we still see, if not the end of history, then a dividing line with grim things past; we still employ the verbiage of liberation, hope and achievement. Has the crunch squeezed all of that out of us? No, not quite. Business as usual remains somewhere on the back of the menu. But what does it amount to?
Government by some of the people for some of the people (the ones who matter). Election by clique, twist and fiddle. Lip service to public service. And fear rippling onwards, as rationale or excuse. Where will this cowardly new world go when the threat is real? Is there a strong man who will bust through the facade of freedom and construct a rescue pact? It’s where John Kampfner’s grisly logic takes us next, one more reason to read and flinch. Perhaps we haven’t seen anything yet.