I was in Beijing with my China team on that fateful day when the result of the June 2016 referendum on Britain’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union took place. I’ll never forget the reaction of my Chinese colleague when I sat there, shocked and devastated, “ Well that’s democracy for you!” she said.
I was born in Hong Kong and have lived and worked in China for over half my life. It is common to be asked the question by fellow Europeans as to whether China will ever become democratic. For anyone who has ever spent any serious amount of time in China, and observed the sweeping changes taking place in the country, and the extraordinary industriousness of her people, it often seems like a very naïve question. China has one of the most educated populations of any country in the world, and it has been extraordinary to both witness and experience the opportunities that have emerged for individuals to raise themselves up from extreme poverty to take their place in the burgeoning affluent middle class. If our systems of government should be designed to support the maximum well-being for the maximum good for its individuals, China might well be a contender for first prize. But China is far from politically democratic as we all know.
I now live in France and am, and always have been, a passionate Europhile. Having lived outside the UK for nearly 20 years, I was unable to vote in the referendum due to the 15-year rule that prevents British citizens having lived abroad for this length of time being able to vote. Disenfranchised for having lived abroad for most of my life, the situation has, on more than one occasion, caused me to question the dynamics of a democratic system that cannot adapt to suit the changing needs of ‘populations who move’. This is but one of the many reasons we need an overhaul in the system. But I digress. Had I been able to vote, I would most certainly have voted Remain but my reasons for doing so have little to do with a vested interest in keeping my freedom of movement (although that is important to me) but more to do with my experience of living and working in China and seeing the evolution of this new world power.
To my mind, we can debate the failings of the European Union for as long as we like (and I’m not talking about the accusation that Brussels exercises too much control over the shape of the carrots we purchase, an apparently life-threatening issue still unable to be proved by my Brexit-voting family members) but the forces at play in our world and the shifting power structures are so great that alliances such as the European Union are necessary to strengthen a balanced, multipolar world that would avoid the extremes that caused the conflicts that erupted in the 20th century. But, most importantly, my reasons for voting Remain would be that the principles of unity, of leadership, of co-operation, of strength in diversity are innately of ‘higher order’ than those of isolationism, racism and xenophobia, a faux individualism born of arrogance and a nostalgic, misplaced sense of one’s place in the world, a demand for efficiency at the expense of unity.
Indeed it is that ‘higher order’ thinking that, to me, underpins the democratic institutions and ideals that have taken such a bashing of late.
This week, I have observed the country where I was born, Hong Kong, as well as the country whose nationality I claim, Britain, wrestle with two very different but complementary aspects of democracy. In the first, the right to peaceful protest and the demand to be able to vote in democratic elections to choose one’s leader; in the other, tensions in the role of parliament and the people in maintaining peace and stability in the face of leaders who have been known to manipulate and connive in pursuit of ego-driven and less than noble goals.
I am one of the estimated 1.3 million British citizens living in Europe who, along with the 3.2 million European citizens living in the UK, every day during this Brexit nightmare, are living in extreme uncertainty about what our future holds, from everything to whether our right to freedom of movement will be upheld, whether we will have access to healthcare, pensions, education for our children, and whether our work and financial security can and will be maintained. But, crucially, whether the very foundations and principles on which our societies were built are crumbling before our very eyes.
But here’s the thing, democracy as a government framework is nothing if it is not backed up by the higher principles that govern it.
It is common for Brexiteers to claim that ‘the will of the people’, as evidenced by the result of the referendum, needs to be respected. It is a fair point — provided those same people have been fully armed with the facts, free of manipulation of the media to which they have access and, critically, have benefitted from a quality of education that enables them to adequately question all that they see around them. These other pillars of democracy — access to information, a free and unbiased media, and the citizen responsibility to ensure they are adequately informed — have all spectacularly broken down.
So, what then, is left?
To me, democracy demands of each one of us an adherence to a higher principle of how we support and uphold the true and innate freedom of man, as evidenced in how we vote and support our own responsibilities within a democratic system. Democracy has always been based on those higher set of ideals than simply the machinations of government. It requires of each one of us a passionate adherence to, and upholding of, the more spiritually elevated ideas of freedom of thought, individual accountability, unity in diversity and a commitment to empowering the equality of all men and women. This is no less an imperative for our leaders as it is for ourselves as citizens. We must be mindful of those who lay the blame for our current mess on forces outside of ourselves for the contract between the citizen and the government must always be one of mutual accountability and of holding both ourselves, as well as each other, to that very highest standard of behaviour.
Martin Luther King was one leader who dedicated his life to ensuring that human law was in line with higher principles.
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
And, as the British people negotiate what is ‘legal’ or not in their current situation, squaring what happens with that more elevated sense of justice is what both individuals and public officials should be charged with doing. To ensure that our voting systems, our governance and governmental structures, bear witness to enabling and empowering that highest conception of man to emerge — whether that is within individuals as political and business leaders, or within citizens and how they call to account those that have entrusted them to govern.
It used to be that the West was seen as the upholder of the values of democracy, freedom of thought and expression, accountability between the governors and the governed, a free press — but most of all, decency, a respect for human rights, and a sense of moral responsibility to those less fortunate than ourselves, all underpinned by the Judeo-Christian ethic of the individual’s right to determine their own salvation and equality for all in the eyes of God.
There’s another moment during my time in China that stands out clearly in my memory. The night after the Olympic closing ceremony in Beijing, when the city handed the Olympic flame to the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the same team member who had pronounced her perhaps fatalistic and disparaging comment on democracy post-referendum incredulously asked me, with a wry smile on her face, who was this individual who had bumbled his way through the ceremony, his hands in his pockets, his shirt unbuttoned, casual and disrespectful to his Chinese hosts. I shuddered with embarrassment, this apparently the best that Britain could do. A short time later, she shared with me how she had then been inspired to look up on a map of the world to take a closer look at the British Isles.
“It’s amazing to think that this tiny country could have once ruled over so much of the world”.
Indeed it is.
But the jury’s not out yet. There’s still time for the ship to turn around. For leaders all over the world to choose to exercise that servant leadership that has at its heart, a deep conviction in humanity’s extraordinary potential. The potential for goodness, for justice based on a higher law, of integrity, honesty in government and a desire to always do the right thing. For love — not fear — to reign supreme. There’s still time for the third way.