LONDON – As 2021 draws to a close, the greeting “Happy New Year!” may sound implausibly optimistic. Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops near his country’s border with Ukraine. Chinese President Xi Jinping broods threateningly about whether now is the right time to invade Taiwan. And the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the lives and well-being of people around the world, with the new Omicron variant reminding us of the danger of large populations remaining unvaccinated – especially in the poorest countries.
US President Joe Biden has tried to breathe a little optimism into global politics by holding a virtual summit of the world’s actual and purported democracies. The gathering has elicited predictable hostility from China and Russia, as well as criticism within the United States about the choice of invitees. Some, understandably, have emphasized the overwhelming importance of the democracies in attendance setting an example through their behavior, rather than simply preaching (sometimes a little hypocritically).
But, away from the summit, a tawdry political scandal in Britain – concerning parties held in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official residence and office during lockdowns late last year – has recently highlighted one of the central virtues of genuinely democratic societies: their leaders cannot get away indefinitely with bad, corrupt, or self-serving behavior. At long last, Johnson now seems to be finding that out.
Although Johnson has a well-deserved reputation for maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with the truth, many voters seem to have priced this in to how they perceive him. Moreover, Conservative Party insiders, and those who previously worked with Johnson in journalism (his career before politics), have always known that he was unlikely to follow any rules that did not suit him.
This rather large personal failing was apparent even in his boyhood, as a remarkably prescient school report by his Eton College housemaster noted. “I think,” Johnson’s teacher wrote, “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Of course, problems come thick and fast when one carries that approach to life into government. In particular, Johnson’s allegedly Conservative administration, assisted by allies in the media, has set about trying to weaken many of the checks and balances that should constrain central government power.
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Thus, the BBC, Britain’s great public-service broadcaster, has come under attack for not toeing the government’s line. The Electoral Commission and judges are criticized for trying to rein in ministerial and party-political actions that contravene existing laws. Johnson routinely flouts the codes that are supposed to police the behavior of ministers and politicians in general. The government uses parliamentary procedures to circumvent proper legislative scrutiny, and in 2019 even illegally suspended (or prorogued) Parliament itself because it looked as though the legislature might get in the way of Johnson’s Brexit plans.
All this has now crystallized in the “Christmas parties” row, which paints a picture of a government “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” After all, the gatherings took place while the government was telling the rest of the country that, because of the pandemic, parties were banned. In fact, the ban on people congregating went even further than that. People could not visit dying friends or relatives, because meetings of any sort were thought to increase the risk of spreading the deadly virus.
Johnson’s handling of this emerging scandal has not increased confidence in his leadership of the country, to put it mildly. This is particularly troubling at a time when it is vitally important that citizens should trust the government to take the right public-health measures to safeguard the whole of society.
The most serious and generic lesson to take from the affair, at a time of increasing debate about democracy and liberal values, is that in a country that upholds them, public officials cannot reliably hide wrongdoing. Freedom of the press and accountability to voters mean that bad behavior, on smaller and larger scales, cannot be denied without inquiry.
Contrast this with the situation in China. The world has suffered as much as it has from the coronavirus in part because of the secrecy in which the Chinese government shrouded the early stage of the pandemic as well as the precise origin of the virus.
In a more recent example of unaccountable totalitarianism, Xi’s regime has tried to choke off any investigation of, or knowledge about, former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli’s alleged predatory sexual behavior toward the professional tennis player Peng Shuai. Now imagine how far you would get if you were to try to investigate the financial dealings of senior Chinese leaders and their families and friends.
In democracies, leaders’ behavior is constrained by the knowledge that sooner or later, they may have to own up. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes always cover up. In which sort of society would you prefer to live?
Thousands of Hong Kong citizens who are now leaving their wonderful and formerly free city for a new life elsewhere are giving their own answer to this question. I wish all of them an especially happy new year in their new homes, and extend a similar greeting to those who have had to stay behind, and to all who are trapped in authoritarian or totalitarian states.
But their happiness and prosperity will of course depend to some extent on those attending Biden’s summit – including Johnson – behaving like democrats who really do believe in and practice the values of an open society.