BBC News


Page last updated at 17:13 GMT, Friday, 7 November 2008

One vote for all?

Barrack Obama


What is an election? It depends which country you live in. But the true meaning of the word can only be realised where there is real democracy, says Clive James.

Hands up if you can remember the year in which Hu Jintao was elected. Don't worry, there are more than a billion Chinese whose hands aren't up either because Hu Jintao wasn't elected, or anyway he wasn't elected by them.

He just emerged, by a mysterious process taking place somewhere within the only Chinese political party that counts. Nevertheless, the fiction of elections is maintained, even when the reality doesn't exist. It's a kind of lip service, a tribute that unlimited power pays to justice, just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

Clive James

Democracy will always be democracy, as long as the leader who takes power knows that one day it must be given back.

As we begin the long process of absorbing the news that Barack Obama has just been elected to the presidency of the United States, we might reflect on the importance of the word "election" itself and what it signifies.

In China it signifies little. In the United States the word "election" signifies so much that President George W Bush had to serve out the whole of his first term under the shadow of the accusation that he might have won office only because the Supreme Court put a stop to a recount in Florida.

A great deal of what President Bush did, or didn't do, in office will eventually be forgotten. The world might even forget what he did or didn't do in Iraq, if, as now seems likely, that country turns into one that has regular elections of its own.

But few Americans will ever forget the hanging chads of Florida. They sound like weird flowers in the everglades, but they were in fact tiny bits of cardboard that might or might not have deprived Al Gore of the presidency and handed it to George W Bush. No American will ever forget the hanging chads. In the US, an election is as important as that.

Desired result

Much of the 20th Century was turned into a nightmare by countries where elections didn't exist, or were rigged if they did. In the old Soviet Union there were elections of a kind, but every member of the Politburo was always elected unanimously, after which those very same members unanimously elected Stalin, or any of his successors until the regime fell apart.

Queuing to vote in Angola's first election in 16 years
Queuing to vote in Angola's first election in 16 years

Hitler was democratically elected, but he made it his first business to ensure that the electorate could never choose again. If only all that was all over. But now take a country like Zimbabwe, where Mr Mugabe called an election only after attempting to terrorise everyone who might vote for someone else. A lot of brave people voted for someone else anyway, so he ignored the result and proposed another election. By maintaining the fiction, he was saying the fact was important.

Any election that can actually depose a government fulfils the minimum requirement of democracy, by which no oligarchy can count on maintaining itself in power because the electorate might decide otherwise.

Being replaceable won't automatically guarantee that a government will behave well. It might try to restrict freedom. But if it isn't replaceable it will always try to restrict freedom. A government should be certain that it has been elected, but never certain that it will be elected again. All kinds of benefits flow from that uncertainty. The next government might review the behaviour of its predecessor.


With a free press on the case, it is harder to act in secret. This relative openness might not seem much of an advantage until you remember what its absence is like. Since the clamorous defeat of its militarist regime in World War II, Japan has been a democracy, at least to the extent that its prime minister is no longer appointed by the armed forces. The armed forces, in fact, must now answer to the government.

Looking for hanging chads in 2000
Looking for hanging chads

Last week we saw an example of that, when the Air Force chief of staff got the sack after going public with his private opinion that Japan was tricked into WWII by the United States. The same opinion is held by the great American essayist Gore Vidal, to whom I defer for his prose style and general brilliance; but I have always thought that in this matter he was out to lunch.

More important here, the Japanese government also thinks that such an opinion is a dangerous denial of Japan's imperialist history. There have been several Japanese prime ministers, including the current one, who have been personally slow to condemn Japan's military adventure in Asia.

But not even a prime minister is free to say what the Air Force chief of staff said. There is an official policy which can't be unilaterally contravened by anyone. This official policy came about through democratic discussion, which sets a limit to how far people in office can impose their private opinions on everybody else.

The same is true in Israel, the only democracy in its region if you don't count Iraq. In 1995 a young right-wing zealot called Yigal Amir murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Many liberals, both inside and outside Israel, thought that Rabin was the most important Israeli alive, because he might have brought a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately that was exactly what Yigal Amir was afraid of.

In a non-democratic country he would have been quickly dealt with, but in democratic Israel he is still alive. Last week some enthusiasts from a couple of the Israeli television companies tried to fix it so that Yigal Amir could broadcast from his cell.

The mere attempt drew a predictably mixed reaction from the Israeli public. Whatever you think of his right to be heard, you have to concede that there is something to be said for a system in which such a controversy can take place. Only a democracy would put up with the embarrassment.

In the long view of history, the outgoing US administration will have to answer for what it did to hide the embarrassments that might have been better examined in the open. I speak as one who would like to see if Dick Cheney, who said that waterboarding might occasionally have something to be said for it as a form of persuasion, could have stood the treatment any longer than my friend Christopher Hitchens, who at least volunteered for it.

But that's a personal dislike on my part. On a public scale, among Americans, there is a wide preference for plain dealing, where all that matters can be seen happening. Only democracy can even begin to provide this.

Colour blind

Let's take, finally, the story of the Three Men of Colour, a title I just made up. But I didn't make up the characters. In my own country, Australia, an aboriginal leader called Noel Pearson has emerged as one of our most acute political commentators, whose opinions on how justice can best be delivered for Aboriginal people are required reading in Canberra. It could only have happened in a democracy.

Lewis Hamilton
Also a triumph for democracy

Born and raised in Britain, Lewis Hamilton last weekend became the Formula One motor-racing champion of the world, an achievement which will bring such financial rewards that he will probably decide to go on living in Switzerland. But his rise to supremacy against all odds could only have happened in a democracy.

And in the US, Barack Obama, long before his election, said that his story could have happened only in America. You might say that something like it could have happened in any free country where so gifted a man grew up with the chance to exercise his brains and charm, but he was right to remind us that black people in America had a long way to come since the days of slavery. Without democracy, it never would have happened.

President Truman routinely used the "n" word in private, but he struck the biggest blow for black emancipation since Lincoln. Truman was told about the black soldiers who had come back from WWII only to face violence from white thugs, and Truman felt compelled to say that it could not go on. And so the long process towards justice took a further step.

Precisely how justice can be achieved in a democracy is a big issue. But we can be certain that there is never much justice without democracy. It gives the people a chance to tell the government what to do, as well as vice versa.

After Truman, the much mocked, drawling cracker Lyndon Johnson did a good deal more than JFK for black voter registration in the South. But what really counted was what the black heroes did. And in the week of Obama's triumph we should remember, as he has always remembered, not only Martin Luther King but the black women who moved out of the back seats on the bus, the seats that were reserved for second class citizens, and took their seats in the front of the bus, the seats that had been traditionally reserved for the white folks.

John McCain
Dignified in defeat

It was only a few short yards from the back of the bus to the front, but there were white people who wanted to kill those women for travelling the distance. Their courage was boundless, but now the new reality they created seems so normal that their names are not much remembered.

Yet their spirit was there in Obama's speech of acceptance. And what was almost equally inspiring, it was also there in John McCain's speech of concession. McCain is a man with a sense of history. He would have been a worthy successor to a man who spoke as if he didn't know that history had ever happened. But perhaps President Bush could think what he couldn't say.

McCain, however, knew how to say it. He quit the stage not just with personal dignity, but in a style that gave dignity back again to the democratic process, which is the true wealth of America, and much more important than the economic wealth that will undoubtedly return. When the speeches of the winner and the loser equal each other in their magnificent generosity, you can only bless the moment.

The euphoria won't last. If it could, it wouldn't be euphoria. But democracy will always be democracy, as long as the leader who takes power knows that one day it must be given back.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The name you are looking for that you say is "not much remembered" is Rosa Parks & I assure you that she is very much remembered, along with Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo.
Daran, Cape Town

Just a minor point - Texas doesn't have "crackers". Those are reserved for the Old South. Texas has rednecks, but LBJ wasn't one. He was a Good Ole Boy.
Ginny Lavender, Fort Worth, TX, USA

James is rather stretching a point in asserting that "Hitler was democratically elected". Hitler was appointed to the chancellorship by the president, who agreed to suppress the German Communist Party prior to an election. Only with these acts accomplished was the Nazi Party able to secure the electoral majority in 1933 that had eluded it in 1932.
Gabriel Egan, Stratford-upon-Avon

I think that the real democracy is where people are given two choices from two parties - pick this or pick that - from a pair of candidates that only differ in the way they convey their message. In this scenario, one party always knows that if it lost this time, it will win the next time and the process will repeat forever without the possibility of a third party or a third candidate. Elected leader gets to appoint judges of his own choice, while the other party knows that their turn will come next. The K-Street of every democracy quickly employs lobbyists that are well connected to the elected party. This allows democracies to create a closed loop around the people and stops them from ever thinking about their political choices.
Amjad Wyne, Washington DC

I always enjoy Clive's thoughts, reminiscent of the thoughtful deliberation and delivery of Alistair Cook. However unlike Cooke, it's rather too intellectual and lacking in practical analysis - the "so what?" factor. Perhaps then too much self-congratulation, and not enough critique of western democracy in the easy comparisons with dictatorships. No-one seems to have mentioned, or made a big thing out of how many people didn't vote in the US elections, in their rush to make another election, with the choice between very similar philosophies, somehow historic. What will this event then change in the US and more importantly in the wider world? More peace? More equity of opportunity and its related determinant, less poverty? A settlement, in more ways than one, for the Palestinians and the wider Middle East?
And let us reflect on the coming failure of the UK's democratic process in Election 2010, where, with the continued dominance of business finance and the private and institutionalised public media conspire with the political elites, we are ask to choose between our own bland donkeys and elephants. But perhaps the epitome of democracy is indeed the bland leading the blind. The result, no real change, and no spare change, for those who remain uneducated, workless, homeless and sick - the real and continued face of western democratic success.
Amanda Ackroyd, Leeds, West Yorkshire

I'm simplifying, but hopefully not over-simplifying. Clive seems to be suggesting that with democracy and a "free" press we maintain a civilise society that can elected a person from a minority ethnic group as president. I can't speak for all of America - I know Fox was anti-Obama - but I can speak for the UK. We don't have a "free" press. All media organisations have an editorial policy and most media organisation base this policy upon making a profit so as to keep their owners/shareholders happy. Secondly, democracy allowed Hitler to be elected, as it did for other despots. The third ingredient that MUST be present for this to work is a liberal society, but a liberal society that is prepared to stand up for what it believes in. After all, it is a liberal society that stands up for our freedoms, including the right to elect our leaders.
Duncan Anderson, Immingham, UK

The form of democratic government which is most desirable is one in which citizens vote directly on laws through referenda. Why leave it to the politicians to decide?
Charlie Marks, London, England

Mr James does not mention the most recent great non-democracy - the EU. The EU is taking upon itself all the attributes of a state but has little democracy. There is a parliament, as there was in the USSR, but the government is not drawn from the parliament, there is no opposition and the government is not elected. The MEPs have little power and in any case are elected using a party list system which means that they are not answerable to the electorate but rather to whoever decides the order of the party list.
Michael Canton, South Petherton UK

Would that it were true. Democracy does not exist in the absence of a free and impartial media. Obama was elected by Oprah, Brian Williams, NBC, CBS, Saturday Night Live and the darlings of Hollywood, and others with the power to manipulate public opinion. With the incessant polls and the biased reporting, an Obama victory was assured. Seventy-five percent of Obama voters can't identify a single policy but quote the mantra "change". Well, we have change. Look at the stock market; smart money pulled out in advance of the inevitable Obama victory. A real vote of confidence.
Thomas Gould, Palmer, Massachusetts, US

In stating that Israel is the only democracy in the middle east bar Iraq, you have forgotten to mention that the Palestinian authority was elected in what independent election monitors described as a free, fair and very professional election, well in line with international standards. The election of Hamas was internationally criticised, but even at the time there was very little comment on the running of the election. Just because you dislike the result doesn't mean the democratic process was in any way corrupted.
William Wardley, sheffield

Brilliant. Shame you didn't mention democracy in Africa or lack of it, or how it was used by the western powers (shamelessly by Bush to invade Iraq) to further their interests where ever they see fit. One word used quite often in the west is "the international community". I wonder how that fits in your narration.
Issiaka Dofonnou, England, London

Print Sponsor



Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific