Tuesday, January 21, 2020
To adapt Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum about not being able to fool all of the people all of the time, it is similarly impossible to please everybody even for some of the time. So to obtain order in the conduct of human affairs, some way has to be found of determining the will of the people. The best means is to consult them and let the majority prevail. It is called democracy, and some will argue, while it may not necessarily be the best, it is probably the least bad option.
I was prompted to follow this line of thought by a recent commentary in the British press about Western democracy being founded on the principle of what political scientists term ‘losers’ consent’. The American Declaration of Independence boldly asserted, of course, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. It follows that, for democracy to work, the losing minority in an election must accept its defeat even if it may resent such an outcome. Although it is incumbent on a losing opposition to scrutinise and criticise an incoming government’s policy as necessary in order to hold it to account, failure to accept its legitimacy – assuming there has been no electoral fraud or other wrongdoing – can undermine the political and electoral system and the public’s confidence in the conduct of the nation’s affairs.
Democratic elections are designed to create unequal outcomes. That is their purpose, and the system only really works if the vanquished side in a ballot is prepared to abide by the result. So the losers have a moral obligation to offer - voluntarily and willingly - tacit acceptance of an outcome it will not like.
It struck me this is relevant to the current political situation in both the US and the UK - specifically, this week’s impeachment trial of President Trump and the long-drawn-out Brexit process that, mercifully for everybody, is due to come to a head at the end of this month with the UK’s departure from the EU. It also, of course, has relevance in a democratic country like The Bahamas.
As is surely now clear, the Democrats never accepted the outcome of the 2016 election and have been seeking to impeach Mr Trump almost from the beginning of his presidency. Not only do they consider him unfit for office but, since he lost the popular vote, they claim his victory was illegitimate despite winning the Electoral College.
In Britain’s 2016 referendum on its future relationship with the EU, voters opted - by a small margin - to leave. But the so-called liberal elite refused to accept this outcome and for over three years pursued delaying tactics in an effort to frustrate the freely expressed view of the British people in the biggest democratic exercise in the nation’s political history. In this case - and in the US election - the correct electoral process was followed and there were no credible claims of voter fraud.
Many people view these actions as an attempt, in their different ways, to change the result of legitimate elections and are thus an assault on democracy. In politically mature countries, electoral systems are well established and constitute the agreed basis on which to run a national poll. If the outcome is ignored or rejected by the losers, that opens the process to abuse and ultimately to the danger of anarchy and dictatorship - as, for example, in military coups in Africa where the strongman with guns and money simple assumes power by force irrespective of the will of the people.
In the US, the impeachment trial could last for weeks and it remains to be seen how the public will react to it; but, by failing to accept their defeat in 2016, the Democrats may well become losers again in November’s election. Meanwhile, last December’s general election in Britain saw the defeat of the hard-Left and a victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy and an honouring of the people’s EU decision.
It seems to me the lesson of all this for politicians ought to be that, while losers’ consent is clearly important, the winners should not lose sight of the need for restraint - and that is particularly important here in The Bahamas when the FNM government has an overwhelming majority. It can also be argued, for example, that former Prime Minister Theresa May should have been more imaginative in respecting the concerns of the substantial numbers of losers in the EU referendum instead of allowing, through inaction, deep divisions to occur which are likely to persist.
So, both winners and losers have a responsibility to act wisely because successful governance in a democracy requires consensus and a constant effort to reconcile conflicting interests and demands - that is surely what politics is all about.
Some reasons to be cheerful even in dismal January
In the Northern Hemisphere, January is on average the coldest and most dismal month of the year. In Britain, people have been battling against high winds, leaden skies and a boring commute. It is a similarly cheerless time in, for example, New England where I recall a hard and protracted winter during schooldays there long ago.
Most agree that it is the worst time of the year which they struggle to get through as a depressing anti-climax after the Christmas and New Year festivities. Such is the dreariness that some wish they could skip working for a living and emulate the hibernating hedgehog and dormouse which sleep their way through the worst of the winter until the spring crocuses emerge. But, with the winter solstice already a month in the past, the days are becoming slightly longer and many Britons are salivating at the prospect of skiing in the French Alps during February and grabbing some much-needed sunshine at the top of a mountain.
On a more serious note, it is interesting to look at significant events that have taken place around the world during January over the years, despite the cold and gloom of mid-winter. An internet research reveals many. But to name just ten - all in the Northern Hemisphere - at random but in chronological order execution of King Charles I in England, death of Queen Victoria, Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln freeing slaves in states rebelling against the Union, introduction of prohibition in the US, inauguration of the League of Nations which was superseded by the United Nations, Hitler appointed Chancellor of Germany, inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for an unprecedented fourth term as President, foundation of the European Economic Community known as the Common Market, admission of Alaska as the 49th state of the US and the Clinton impeachment.
It would be invidious to rank these in any order of importance. But, studying military history, it seems to me January, 1942 was also highly significant because that year marked the turnaround of the fortunes of the Allies during the Second World War. Weeks before, the US had entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and once the sleeping giant had been awakened and its massive military power unleashed there could only be one long-term outcome.
At that time, Britain was an imperial power with colonies across south and southeast Asia. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Japan had attacked its territories of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma – and it was at a low ebb after the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the cruiser HMS Repulse had then been sunk off the Malayan peninsula by Japanese bombers. These losses led to the fall of Singapore and the end of British supremacy in the Far East. But, with the Americans entering the conflict, by January of 1942 the tide had suddenly turned in favour of the Allied forces.
Burns highlights joys of Scotland
Still on the theme of the significance of January, it is widely known that Scottish people - as well as many others like me who admire their homeland - enjoy celebrating the life and work of Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national bard, with a special supper on his birthday on January 25.
In the course of a short but extraordinarily productive life, he was a prolific writer of poems, traditional ballads and songs. He died in 1796 at the early age of 37 and continues to be revered by so many for his outstanding achievements in the literary field.
Scots love to celebrate and a Burns supper comes hard on the heels of Hogmanay - New Year’s Eve in Scotland - which is particularly enjoyed north of the border. The usual dress for men is a kilt, tartan bow tie and cummerbund or tartan ‘trews’, and the traditional fare is haggis which is not carved until Burns’s ode to it is recited - a celebration to savour and one is often able to do this around the world given the huge Scottish diaspora.
When people think of Robbie Burns, they often reflect on the glories of Scotland which is regarded by some as the finest country on the planet. They reflect on its rich history and culture and its wonderfully varied topography - from mountains (including Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles) to rich farmland and deep lakes called lochs (the Loch Ness monster), together with islands like the Isle of Skye in spectacular coastal settings.
They think about fishing and field sports, clans and kilts, bagpipes and Scottish reels, whisky, tossing the caber, the home of golf at St Andrews, the famed Gleneagles Hotel, skiing at Aviemore, famous regiments like the Black Watch and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, prestigious universities and boarding schools, and the incomparable Princes Street in Edinburgh with its castle, annual arts festival and military tattoo – and they are pleased that, reportedly, The Queen regards Balmoral as her favourite royal residence.
They wonder about the location of Britain’s nuclear deterrent in Scotland, but they also think about shipbuilding on the Clyde, the naming of Glasgow as the European City of Culture in 1990 and the city’s highly successful staging of the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Then they consider famous Scots who have made their way in the world – from former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, to explorers in Africa like Mungo Park and Dr Livingstone, together with Alexander Fleming and John Logie Baird who, respectively, invented penicillin and television - and then, of course, the most recognisable name of all, Sean Connery.
Of course, to do justice to such a country, this list could go on and on. But, returning to Burns night, how fortunate we all were at school to be introduced at an early age to the great man’s famous narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. This contains the well-known lines “But pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flower the bloom is shed”. How better to explain that the joys of the world can be fleeting and precious – and, because of that, how important it is to appreciate them.