Peter Bye

A sense of perspective

As I write, the political parties in the UK are beginning their campaigns for a general election, to be held on the 12th December. It’s the first December general election since 1923; December elections are generally avoided because of the weather and small amounts of daylight. The past few weeks have seen the government agree another exit deal with the EU, which MPs voted to pass to a second reading. The Prime Minister then aimed to restrict the time available for debate to a couple of days, but lost the vote to enable that to happen. Finally, after much wrangling, Parliament voted to have a general election[1].

I cannot recall a time when the country was more divided. As I have argued here before, I believe the problems arise from having a referendum in what is supposed to be a representative democracy. Requiring just a simple majority of those who voted on such a complex issue compounded the problems. As result, the UK is embarking on a course which is likely to make it worse off in the long term, and to leave a legacy of division which will take years to heal. The sad fact is that Brexit is an act of self-inflicted damage; nobody was threatening the UK[2]. In spite of some of the language used by the Brexiteers, the EU is not a hostile state – for that matter, it’s not a state at all – but would rather the UK remained in the EU, as its departure weakens the EU as well as the UK.

I recently attended an event which put the supposed Brexit crisis into perspective. It was a conference, held in a committee room in Parliament, about the appalling abuse of human rights in Iran. It’s sobering to hear about people who face real problems rather than the self-inflicted problems caused by Brexit. Many members of both the Commons and Lords, across parties, are vocal critics of the régime in Iran; a number of them spoke at the event. The people of Iran risk imprisonment and even death for speaking out against the government. In behaving like this, Iran shows a number of the characteristics of a totalitarian state[3], such as one-party rule with a (usually) self-appointed leader, a central ideology, and repression of dissent through extreme coercion.

Iran is sadly not alone in grossly abusing its citizens; North Korea is another such state. In fact, it may be a better (worse?) example of a totalitarian state than Iran. The Kim family’s years of rule have impoverished the citizens and isolated the nation. The people of Iran demonstrate against the government, in spite of the risks of speaking out; they give hope for future liberation. And it does hold elections, although the opposition has no chance of success. The citizens of North Korea are kept under the government’s thumb and largely cut off from the world. While there may be some covert opposition, there are no demonstrations against the government as there are in Iran.

Another feature of totalitarian states is the development of a personality cult of the leader. Past examples have been Stalin and Mao; in North Korea’s case the Kim family members have almost deified themselves: hence the ‘Great Leader’ and Dear Leader’ descriptions of the first two Kims. The Iranian equivalent could be the supreme leaders, in particular Ayatollah Khomeini, who assumed office following the fall of the Shah, a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for Iran.

Iran and North Korea are not alone in being repressive, although perhaps rather extreme cases. A worrying feature is that more countries are now showing authoritarian tendencies than was the case a few years ago; liberal democracy is on the defensive. Meeting some of the victims of repression as I have, people who have suffered appalling abuse and the loss of friends and families, puts the so-called Brexit crisis into perspective. I believe it also suggests that Western countries should be more hospitable to those fleeing repression than they sometimes are. The descent into authoritarianism and even tyranny can happen anywhere; people will even vote for it.

Notes and sources

[1] Since the Fixed Term Parliament Act, passed after the 2010 general election, general elections can only take place every five years. To hold an earlier election requires a two thirds majority in a vote of MPs, or, after a vote of no confidence and an inability of the opposition to form a government.

[2] Lionel Barber wrote in the Financial Times of 3rd November: ‘Britain’s departure from the EU is an act of self-harm, a strategic mistake that will leave the UK marginalised and the EU sorely diminished’. Mr Barber is the FT’s editor and was once the FT’s Brussels correspondent.

[3] Hannah Arendt wrote a comprehensive study of totalitarianism and its causes in ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, first published in 1951, followed by several more editions. Orwell’s novel 1984 describes a totalitarian state, an imagined future version of the UK.

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