Jeremy Browne speaks on Government's approach to supporting democracy around the world

At the launch of the UK's 'How to Note on Electoral Assistance', Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne gave a speech setting out the Government's approach to supporting democracy and free and fair elections overseas.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Jeremy Browne

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being here today and thank you to ERIS for sponsoring the launch of the Government’s “How to Note: on Electoral Assistance”.

It won’t surprise you very much to hear that I start with the assumption that proper elections are vitally important. I do, after all, have a vested interest: as a politician the course of my life depends on them. I am here today because of the mandate I have received to represent the people of Taunton Deane in Somerset as their Member of Parliament. And personal experience has taught me that a politician can never take that mandate for granted. My re-election in May was in fact the first time an MP was re-elected in my seat since 1992. And I will never forget the first election I contested, standing in Enfield Southgate in 1997, when Michael Portillo, the then Defence Secretary, famously lost his seat. Indeed, that defeat was regarded as so seismic that a Channel 4 poll ranked it, rather surprisingly, as the third greatest TV moment of all time.

With the launch of this note, I want to take this opportunity to set out for you the government’s approach to supporting elections and democracy around the world and to reassure you that we understand elections are only a part, necessary but not sufficient, for the advance of democracy.

But let me start by saying I think elections are important for two fundamental reasons. One - because I believe that individuals should be free to make choices about how their life is governed. And two - because as a citizen, and perhaps even more so as a Member of Parliament and Minister in government, I believe the ability of individuals to hold the state to account is fundamentally important.

Credible elections enable this: they reflect the views of the population and ensure that those views are respected by those chosen to represent them in Parliament and government; they require the executive to be mindful that they will be held accountable for their actions; they are a check against abuses and the arrogance of power.

From my perspective as someone who stands in elections, they expose me to debate and a healthy competition of ideas. The process is almost Darwinian as ideas are tested and challenged until only the strongest survive. They encourage genuine engagement with the electorate. I listen to what people say - their different opinions and priorities - and in return give them my views so that people understand what I will work for if elected and what I will do on their behalf. People are then free to make a distinct political choice between candidates and vote for the one who they think will represent them most effectively. And this is a practical, ongoing process. Next week I will be meeting with students in my constituency to discuss Coalition policies that they, perhaps, do not agree with.

In a representative democracy, candidates should not be swept along on gusts of popular opinion but should stand by principles and policies that they believe are in the best interests of society. A proper electoral process enables the case to be made for these ideas. It is an important exchange that ensures government is democratic, not demagogic.

But does this mean elections are the full answer - that if individuals are able to vote they are enjoying democracy to the full? Of course not. Elections are a signature of democracy, but not the whole story.

In too many countries, elections have become a means of consolidating personal and party power, rather than a means by which power can be transferred according to the will of the people. The entire purpose of the election can be skewed and subverted, often by the incumbent government, to create an unlevel playing field and to actually maintain the status quo. Such elections are merely democratic window dressing and do little to advance the individual freedoms of the people to choose their form of government. They intend to confer a stamp of legitimacy onto an illegitimate regime.

Recent elections in Burma serve as a particularly insidious example. As you will all know, the military junta held elections for the first time in 20 years. The British government does not believe the 7 November elections were free, fair or inclusive. Instead they were a sham process that reflected a regime intent on entrenching its grip on power rather than an expression of the views of the Burmese people. Although some consider the very fact of elections was a step forward, there are others who argue that, with such a severe curtailment of freedoms underpinning the process, it would have been more honest to have no elections at all.

The strength of what lies beneath an electoral process is vital to its legitimacy. In my adult lifetime, the British government has changed only twice: in 1997 when New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative government; and this year when our Coalition came to power. These were major changes that overturned years of a particular party holding office, in which Secretaries of State not only lost their posts in government but also their seats in Parliament. But they enjoyed the acquiescence of the defeated party, and the acceptance of those who voted for the defeated parties.

The same cannot be said everywhere in the world, where weak institutions and absence of rule of law can mean that election results are disputed violently, sometimes at great cost to the population. The recent events in Cote d’Ivoire serve as a troubling example and we welcome the strong stance taken by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union. They have sent a clear and unequivocal message that Africa’s institutions are determined to uphold democratic principles and to take robust action against those that seek to frustrate the will of the majority.

The UN validated the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission confirming that Mr Alassane Ouattara won the elections. The ECOWAS Summit resoundingly reinforced this position. The United Nations Security Council and the African Union have also called for the election results to be accepted. We will continue to engage closely with our African and other international partners in support of a resolution that respects the will of the Ivorian people.

And, as I have been explaining, elections themselves are not enough. There needs to be much more if individuals are to enjoy the freedoms to which they are entitled. The goal must be real democracy- that is moulded to the specific requirements of any given country. There are fundamental elements to democracy, without which it would cease to be democracy, but how best to represent people is an evolving process not an end state. This is evident from our own democracy in Britain, which over the last hundred years has seen the introduction of universal suffrage, the lowering of the voting age and will soon undertake a referendum on electoral system reform.

As the Foreign Secretary has said:

“We have to recognise that other countries are likely to develop at different paces. Democracy rests on foundations that have to be built over time: strong institutions, responsible and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, equal rights for men and women, and other less tangible habits of mind and of participation, debate and association. Elections alone do not create a free and democratic society.”

While we understand that democracy develops over time, this is not an excuse for those societies without democracy not to change. We will continue to support its advance worldwide because we believe democracy is the system of government that best allows for individual freedom and gives power to citizens. So what are the elements of democracy that need to be present for individuals to enjoy their freedoms?

Firstly, it requires the rule of law. Without it, the “tyranny of the majority” can undermine freedoms for the minority. All societies contain people with different interests, many of them competing. The rule of law provides a framework to manage differences and to resolve them peacefully.

Rule of law means having accountable police who serve the public interest, an independent judiciary and a party political structure that can hold governments to account. People need to have confidence that the state cannot act with impunity. In Zimbabwe in 2008, there was no such confidence as Government-sponsored actions prevented people from exercising their democratic rights without fear of violence and intimidation.

Secondly, democracy is intrinsically linked with human rights. They are not the same but they cannot survive long without each other. In a democracy each individual is equally important. One person, one vote - no more, no less. But for that to be a reality, the right to freedom from discrimination needs to be protected.

Democracy needs debate and at the heart of this is freedom of expression. Freedom of expression allows for challenge, and it allows for change. Democracy needs to be participative. We must protect “grassroots” rights, such as the right, and popular tradition here in Britain, of any citizen to organize public meetings, where they can express political views without fear of repression. The media and internet are powerful tools for realising these freedoms. But many countries impose severe limitations on these platforms. Print and broadcast media are censored. Bloggers are monitored. Facebook, even, is blocked.

Countries must only restrict freedom of expression if it is absolutely necessary to protect the rights of others - to privacy or to freedom from discrimination - or genuinely in the interests of public safety or national security, in line with international law. But there is a legitimate private realm. A balance needs to be struck between transparency and the loss of confidentiality. I do not believe that Wikileaks are right to publish secret US documents. No more than it is right for Government to put citizens’ NHS records or confidential tax returns into the public domain. There is a private realm even within an open, free society.

Thirdly, the civil society that underpins a truly democratic system cannot operate without the actions of committed individuals. I can think of no better example than Aung San Suu Kyi whose integrity and determination are truly humbling. Her choice to work outside the bogus electoral process demonstrates that elections cannot be our only goal. They must come hand in hand with a strong civil society in which freedom of expression and civil disagreement is embraced by Government and people alike. We will maintain pressure on the regime in Burma to ensure that her release brings about genuine dialogue and further prisoner releases.

And there are many other inspiring examples. We should never forget Neda Agha-Soltan, killed during the crackdown on protests following the disputed Iranian elections in 2009. Those who stand up against oppressive regimes deserve our admiration and support. They are often targeted by the state, either directly through threats or actual violence, or indirectly through controlling their sources of finance. Their lives are threatened; the lives of their family are made difficult. And yet still they go on, striving at great personal cost to bring about change for the people of their countries.

And we must never underestimate the change that can be achieved. A formative moment in my lifetime was seeing the joy of thousands of young people at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. A generation of people liberated from the oppression of authoritarian government after a struggle that had lasted many decades and cost many lives. It was a moment that resonated around the world and has left an indelible mark on history.

Lastly, democracy needs effective political institutions. It needs opposition parties that are not marginalised and have a stake in the system because they know that in a credible democracy they have the opportunity to win power. It needs a transparent legislature and independent bodies that can hold the government to account.

So as I have said, Britain supports democracy worldwide because we believe it is the system of government that best allows for individual freedom. But is not only about values: supporting democracy is also in our enlightened national interest. There is correlation between societies that are secure and prosperous, and those that enjoy participative democracy. Democracy assists the peaceful pursuit of political change and the management of power in society. Elections act as the automatic stabilisers of accountability on governments that might otherwise pursue destabilising or irresponsible policies. It is essential to long term security. We also believe that democratic societies are more prosperous in the long run. Democracy creates the right framework for poverty alleviation, reduces corruption and supports sustained economic development.

The British government is determined to support the hopes and ideals of those seeking democracy around the world. The launch of this new DFID/FCO guidance on election assistance puts some of these ideals into practice. It reflects what I have talked about here this afternoon. It recognises that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Democracy is a universal ideal, but it can have many different forms. The way we act to support elections and democracy in each country will be different depending on the context and needs of the country. Our approach is practical, recognising where we can and even where we cannot make a difference. We will focus on where we can have impact - and often this in countries where some elements of democracy are already present. But we will not shy away from the difficult cases. As the Foreign Secretary made clear in his speech a few months ago on Values:

“This does not mean that we will overlook human rights abuses in some countries while protesting about them in others. We should never turn a blind eye to countries that display the trappings of democracy while violating basic human rights.”

In all our Posts overseas we support projects to entrench the many elements of democracy. For instance in Mexico, thanks to British assistance there is now a coordinated method to register and monitor attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, enabling the media and civil society to confront and lobby the Mexican authorities. In Azerbaijan we supported a project that organised an independent, 1500 person strong election mission. And in Indonesia for the first time grass roots civil society organisations have the tools to analyse the performance of local legislatures and hold their elected representatives to account. These three examples provide a snapshot of the important work that Britain is doing across the globe.

What is less tangible, but perhaps just as significant, is the power of our example and our relentless advocacy of democracy in the UN, the EU and in bilateral country relationships around the world.

I hope that what I have said makes clear to you that the British Government is taking a comprehensive approach to support the advance and improvement of democracy. This guidance we launch today demonstrates that we believe in the international standards for elections and that we believe in supporting others to reach them.

Now I happy to hand the floor over to my colleague, the Minister for International Development, who will speak about democratic politics and development and the work we do on the ground in support of democracy work around the world.

Updates to this page

Published 13 December 2010