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It Depends on What You Mean by Democracy

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Democracy is looking sick just now. At the start of 2008, Churchill's nostrum that it is the worst form of government "except for the others" is being tested close to destruction, assassinated in Pakistan, sabotaged in Kenya, massacred in Iraq, strangled in Russia, ridiculed in South Africa and purchased in America. But then it depends on what you mean by democracy.

This week the "better" democracies are wagging fingers at worse ones like 17th-century Popes reprimanding missionaries in the distant jungle. They tut-tut over a stuffed ballot box in Nairobi, a banned radio station in Islamabad or a murdered journalist in Moscow. They condemn a riot here, a bombed polling booth there and an imprisoned politician somewhere else. How dare these "developing" peoples corrupt the sacred rites of mother church?

The British government is peculiarly unable to resist such finger-wagging. While Tories long to rule a better Britain, the Blair/Brown Labour party longs to rule a better world. Last month the foreign secretary, David Miliband, told Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, "what actions we expect his government to take." Last weekend, Gordon Brown telephoned president Pervez Musharraf to explain to him "the need to push ahead with the democratic process and to avoid any significant delay in the electoral timetable." He added that Britain expected Pakistan's elections to be "free, fair and secure."

On the other phone line Brown had the benighted rulers of Kenya, another of Kipling's "lesser breeds without the law" needing instruction in the democratic catechism. He professed himself "appalled" at events in that country and "would be talking to the various parties... to see talks between them," apparently unaware that Kenya is no longer part of the British Empire. The British commanded Kenyans to "behave responsibly".

If I had been Musharraf in receipt of such patronising remarks, I would have drawn deep from the well of irony. I would have referred Britain's prime minister to his poor poll rating and said Islamabad was "dismayed" he had funked a democratic mandate last October. I would have expressed Pakistan's disappointment at Brown's record on habeas corpus, ID cards and the exploitation of Pakistani doctors by the NHS.

One peep from Brown about the Taliban and I would have pointed out that it was his drugs policy that underpinned the world price of heroin and thus subsidised the Taliban, among other things, to kill Benazir Bhutto. As for protecting elected politicians, I would inquire into the life expectancy of those in British-controlled south Iraq. And Britain's war in Helmand had about as much to do with democracy as Pissarro's conquest of Peru had to do with Christianity.

Democracy has never been perfect. From the moment self-government lost touch with "self" -- departing the agora of Athens, the 'althing' of Reykyavik and the town meeting of New England -- it adapted itself to nations and peoples. Its institutions depend more on local history, culture and geography than on Madison, Mill and de Tocqueville. This week the rituals of heredity, not democracy, decided the leadership of Pakistan's PPP. Most Asian and African democracies are ballots qualified by assassination, corruption and inheritance. Yet we still grace them with the term.

Students of politics are taught to tick off the qualities that award the status of democracy to a polity. Are there free and fair elections? Can the franchise turn a regime out of office? Are there supporting institutions such as an open parliament, security of public assembly, elected local government, a free media, the rule of law? No one of these is either sufficient or necessary for democracy, which is rather a sliding scale of liberties, to which constitutions and regimes ascribe varying degrees of priority.

It is thus presumptuous for the post-imperial west to demand that the world take the same route to self-government that it spent blood-thirsty centuries pursuing. We may regard liberal democracy as the one true religion, but it is doubtful if many Russians or Chinese do likewise at present. Like many places on Earth, they give a higher rating to security and prosperity.

We are not so clean that we can lecture others on how they should govern themselves, especially those whom the west has polluted with aid, debt, trade curbs and wars along their borders. Democracy in Pakistan and Kenya may be looking violently unwell at present, but western democracy too is qualified by the corruption of party lists, eccentric primaries and electoral colleges. The British and American constitutions are both currently battered by criticism from their subjects for falling short of democratic ideals, notably in handling accountability and checks on executive power. The outcome of America's 2000 election was decided not be the ballot but by an appointed oligarchy. Americans would hardly have welcomed election monitors from Ukraine, India or Thailand encamped in the Miami Hilton.

I may believe that democracy is the best path to a stable and prosperous society and hope that others agree as to it virtues. Unlike the earlier propagation of Christianity, I do not regard this as a matter of blind faith. Democratic principles are rooted in human freedom and tested empirically over time. Other things being equal, or even unequal, I would advocate them as of universal application to every society. Those who espouse them merit not just the World Service of the BBC but active friendship and support, especially in time of trouble.

But democracy is best propagated by example, not by conquest or official admonition. There are too many blots on Britain's escutcheon for its leaders to go lecturing the world in terms redolent of the new interventionism. There may be beams in the eyes of other democracies and motes in ours, but their beams are not our business.

Pakistan is the sixth biggest country in the world. Its fragile half-democracy is conditioned by the insecurities of its recent past and by a desperate poverty. There are a hundred ways of helping it along the rocky path between democracy and dictatorship, a path Britain spent a leisurely two centuries traversing. But ultimately Pakistan, like Kenya, will be the stronger for taking this path alone. The last thing they need is a hectoring phone call from a post-imperial nanny.