Posted: 2019-07-01

Putin's malicious travesty of liberalism should be seen for what it is




ON the eve of the recent G20 summit, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that liberal democracy has ‘outlived its purpose’ and that liberalism as an ideology has ‘come into conflict with the overwhelming majority of the population”.


There is nothing new in Russia’s contempt for western liberalism. Lenin declared that parliaments were “historically obsolete” and that it was just a matter of time before they disappeared. In 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously told western ambassadors that the Soviet Union was winning and the West was dying. He then uttered the notorious words: “We will bury you.”


It also has to be said that Putin’s understanding of liberalism is bizarre. According to him, the liberal idea means that migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights have to be protected and that children can play five or six gender roles.


Certainly, rights and tolerance are fundamental to liberalism, which is still the dominant ideology of the West. Its origins lie in 17th and 18th century European thinkers such as Bayle and Voltaire in France, Locke and Adam Smith in Britain and Spinoza in the Netherlands, all of whom stressed the freedom of the individual and oppressed minorities in societies that were largely controlled by powerful religious and secular elites.


They laid the foundation of the principles of freedom of speech, the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and toleration of individuals and minorities  – principles which are now enshrined in most constitutions in the western world.


As democracy developed, however, a compromise was established in these countries that these basic principles could not be overruled by peoples’ votes. Hence we have liberal democracy, an amalgam of individual and minorities rights on some issues and ‘majority’ rights on others. As Ortega y Gasset put it in The Revolt of the Masses, it is the “supreme form of generosity; it is the right by which the majority concedes to minorities and hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded on this planet”.


It is true that liberal democracy is being challenged by populism, in which the very ideas that gave rise to liberal democracy are seen as elitist and out of touch with the people. Yet we in Northern Ireland should be well aware of how populist democracy rides roughshod over the rights of individuals and minorities because it happened for 50 years under Stormont rule, as every inquiry has established.


Ironically, there are clear signs  – in for example, the rise of the Greens and the Alliance Party  – that we have had enough of populism at the very moment England and other countries in Europe have developed an obsession with ‘majorities’.


Two important points should be made. First, populism is often a precursor of fascism in which ‘the people’ put their full trust in someone who claims to represent them rather than the elites, only to discover that this person becomes a dictator even more totally detached from ‘the people’ than the so-called elites he replaced.


Secondly, ‘democracy’ means ‘people rule’ and not ‘majority rule’. That is why many countries and organisations demand supermajorities for any major decision. We hear much talk of the ‘will of the people’ being ignored in regard to the EU referendum, forgetting that only 37% of the voters chose Brexit, while 16.1 million and a clear majority in Northern Ireland and Scotland opposed it.


Clearly, ‘the people’ did not speak with one voice but were seriously divided on this issue, and it is wrong to pretend otherwise. In repeating the lie that ‘the people’ have spoken, we are merely echoing the malicious words of Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin.


Brian McClinton, 2nd July 2019