The Covid-19 crisis is an emergency like no other. Every British citizen depends on the Government mobilising every conceivable resource to save lives, protect the economy and plan for the future.
But the response in countries such as the UK is not just important for those reasons. It will also shape the global debate about the future of democratic government.
Last year was the first in more than 100 years that the total income of countries governed by authoritarian systems outstripped that generated by democracies.
Think about that: 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy is in retreat around the world. From China to the Middle East and across important parts of Africa, autocrats are in the ascendancy – and democrats are on the back foot.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and former British Foreign Secretary
Russian President Vladimir Putin was pithy in his contempt: he said last year that the liberal idea, founded on the equal protection of the dignity and worth of every person – the very heart of democracy – is ‘obsolete’.
Putin would certainly like it to be obsolete. Just look at the fate of his political opponents.
Since 2006, the majority of countries in the world have seen a reduction in political freedom. Judges less independent, the press less free, elections less fair.
Within the EU, Hungary – a country for which the collapse of the Soviet Union meant escape from nearly 50 years of oppression – has now legislated to suspend its constitution and lay the groundwork for unlimited rule by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The effort to quell Covid-19 is going to become a battle to define which political system is better suited to meeting the challenges of the 21st Century.
The Chinese leadership, as part of its effort to sustain its grip on public opinion at home and increase its international influence abroad, will claim superior performance in managing Covid-19, and link that to its one-party political system.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was pithy in his contempt: he said last year that the liberal idea, founded on the equal protection of the dignity and worth of every person – the very heart of democracy – is ‘obsolete’
Its leadership needs to bury in a feast of hagiography the suppression of free thought that allowed the disease to take root and spread in January.
Beijing’s newscasts are already glorying in the contrast between the apparent return to normality in Wuhan and the harrowing pictures from hospitals across the US.
And you can be sure that, amid the domestic propaganda about what China is doing abroad, there will be no coverage of complaints from Holland and several other countries about faulty equipment sent by the Chinese.
Forget the fact that democracies such as Germany and Taiwan have handled the crisis well, and autocracies such as Iran have made a tragic mess of it. The truth we need to understand is that the holes in America’s safety net and the confusion of its response have already made the US death toll a simple battering ram for those who would say to their own people: ‘You see, democracy doesn’t work.’ This raises the stakes for the British response – itself faltering in various vital ways – even higher than they already are.
Whatever our personal political affiliation, we need the Government to lead with clarity, consistency, honesty and success. We need it to take the best ideas, whatever their source, and fashion them into a winning strategy.
We need it to use facts to explain difficulties, not pivot from difficulties by evading facts. And where things don’t work, we need it to show the real strength of democratic societies: the openness that allows government to admit and learn from mistakes.
That means proper independent inquiries into what happened during the crisis, both at home and on the international front.
Then we need to learn a fundamental truth about Britain’s place in the world. With Brexit, we have withdrawn – whether I like it or not, and I don’t – from an alliance that originated in geography. We therefore need to gain strength from relationships sustained by shared democratic ideology. This has four parts.
First, we need to strengthen and defend our own democracy. We had a near-miss last year. The suspension of Parliament, dragging the Queen and the Royal Prerogative into politics, was rash and unwise. It took the Supreme Court to enable Parliament to do its job. It also demonstrates that a system based on norms not laws is vulnerable. We need a written constitution, not least to guarantee the independence of the Monarch.
Think about that: 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy is in retreat around the world. From China to the Middle East and across important parts of Africa, autocrats are in the ascendancy – and democrats are on the back foot
It would put the conduct of referendums on an appropriate footing. It would entrench the independence of the judiciary from politics. And it would allow serious discussion about how to combat fake news.
Second, we need to strengthen the international institutions of which we are still a part that have democratic values at their core.
Nato and the Commonwealth fit into this category. So does the G7 – Group of Seven – leading industrialised economies.
It is the worst possible encouragement to the autocrats that unity and action in the G7 over the Covid-19 virus was impossible because of a ridiculous argument about naming the disease the ‘Wuhan virus’.
This unnecessary stand-off was destructive and dangerous. Leading democracies need to stick together. When they are divided, they are weaker, and the autocracies are stronger.
Third, we need to build new relationships with other democratic nations. This includes those in the EU. There is no ‘oven-ready’ model of political and foreign policy co-operation between the UK and EU, but we need to build one.
From development funding to cyber defence to relations with Russia, European nations – including the UK – need to work together. An aversion to the EU, which has its own internal challenges from countries such as Hungary, is no basis for thinking about Britain’s foreign policy in the future.
Although we are not in the EU, we should be embracing political and policy cooperation with the EU.
Fourth, and most important, we need to understand that the point of building this democratic strength is not to cut ourselves off from the undemocratic world.
It is, instead, to put ourselves in a position to negotiate, compete and co-operate effectively with countries, led by China, which have different political systems.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is an arch-realist when it comes to international relations. But he has rightly written recently that the idea of nations building their future around the concept of the nation as a ‘walled city’ is an anachronism.
It would be madness to try to rerun the Cold War in a world more tightly integrated and interdependent than it has ever been.
Covid-19 shows we need international co-operation more than ever before. We need stronger international institutions, with members across the democratic/authoritarian divide, more than ever.
Not just on health but on climate change and security policy. But we will only get the co-operation we desire if we have the individual and collective strength we need.
The Government has a lot on its plate. There is a massive job to beat and then recover from Covid-19.
But this is not just an economic issue. It is a political and international issue of the highest order.