[SCMP Column] Light without Progress

January 04, 2016

I was a politician once. Not a serious one that gets to throw shoes and bananas in the Legco chamber. But serious enough to learn about politics, political parties, and the strange people that populate the world of politics. Serious enough to persuade me never to aspire to be a politician, and to leave lifelong reservations about how to make “democracy” work.

I was 22, and foolhardy enough to agree to stand in elections for our university’s student President. This was 1972, and I was being championed by moderate students who wanted to get back down to study after five years of radical Marxist upheaval that had been focused on shutting every university in the UK.

To my shock – and horror – I won, and then spent the following sabbatical year in the bizarre world of campus politics, as the main student intermediary to perplexed University academics. If you thought Occupy or HKU protesters were uncouth and disrespectful, you have much to learn.

The experience taught me many important things about politics, parties and democracy. First, the tiny minority of people who are true politicians have a special gene. It’s a gene that enables them to enjoy interminable weekend hours holding microphones in Victoria Park, or parsing the fine print of constitutions or meeting minutes to discover procedural tripwires that will block “enemy” initiatives.

Second, normal people don’t enjoy or give priority to political activity. They prefer to be with friends and family. To play sport and walk in country parks. To eat nice meals and watch Star Wars. They only let politics into their lives when they are forced to – when things are going horribly wrong. In my year as University President the only crisis occurred when the University Bar proposed increasing beer prices. Here was an issue that mattered.

Third, the amount of conflicting information you have to wade through to discover appropriate solutions to problems is huge. It is not a job easily undertaken by amateurs. If you seriously want people to participate meaningfully in a democracy, you have a massive challenge in getting them to absorb all the information they need.

Through a lifetime of journalism I have never forgotten this awesome challenge of equipping normal busy people with the information they need to participate in a democracy.

Lately, as we have entered our eighth year of global recession, I have thought often of the challenges we face in sustaining effective democracies. Because most democracies are in a sorry state. Whether it is the US, and the venomous dislocation between Republicans and Democrats and the emergence of preposterous candidates like Donald Trump, or in Europe with the emergence of extreme, xenophobic and distasteful political groups like Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party, or Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, or in politically gridlocked Asian countries like Thailand, the Philippines or India – wherever you look, democratic politics are an embarrassing shambles.

The pragmatism and compromise essential for functioning democracies has ebbed steadily away, victim to the prejudices, paranoias and zenophobias stirred by eight painful years of recession. The awful truth is that countries need growth if democracy is going to work – because politicians need to promise that things will get better, and no political party can win a popular vote by promising: “We will offer you less pain than the other parties”.

So Hong Kong people are not alone feeling that political institutions and politicians are failing us. No wonder we see in China a rising confidence that their own distinct political model – ugly, opaque and corrupt though it often seems – has some strengths that are painfully absent in western democracies. No wonder we have bright academics like Zhang Weiwei, in his “The China Wave”, confidently preaching the distinct virtues of the “innate genes of China’s civilisational state”.

However ugly the word “civilisational”, Zhang makes good points. He says the debate on the merits of different political systems should not be based on “democracy versus autocracy”, but on “good governance versus bad governance”. Calling for more attention to be paid to “performance legitimacy”, he insists: “Whatever the political system, it boils down to good governance.” I must confess that as I look at our floundering Hong Kong political system, I have to ask what “performance legitimacy” does CY Leung have?

The reality is that those who believe that democracy is the “least worst” of all political systems need to pause, and list the evidence that would support that claim. It is no accident that Zhang Weiwei makes the same claim for China’s “civilisational state” – and on the back of the progress the country has made over the past three decades, I suspect he can bring more evidence to bear for his claim than most of us can bring from our own dysfunctional democracies. Lifting 400 million Chinese people out of poverty and political chaos has been no small feat.

So democracy for democracy’s sake means little. Democracy is no more than a home’s plumbing, or the electrical wiring that delivers power around a home: it has merit only if it efficiently delivers light and heat – or water – when and where we need it. Whatever the ideological merits of democracy in India, or the Philippines, their governments’ failure over decades to bring relief to the millions of struggling poor in those countries does democracy little credit. Their plumbing may be democratic plumbing, but it does a poor job delivering water.

The lesson for us in Hong Kong? That 30 years of perpetual haggling over constitutional architecture has disserved us horribly. Our politicians should not measure themselves in terms of progress towards “one man, one vote”, but in terms of improving our health care system, of giving security in old age to our elderly poor, of giving us access to affordable housing, or giving us clean air. Until we start measuring our political representatives – and our government officials – in terms of “performance legitimacy”, then we will get what we deserve – pretentious political posturing, and procrastination. If we want our “one country two systems” arrangement to live beyond 2047, we have to do better than this.
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