Opinion: Democracy, the Rule of Law and New Labour

Back in the 1980s my employer, encouraged by some important orders I’d picked up in what we then called Eastern Europe, asked me to try to build up a distribution network in as many countries as I could. In creating this customer base, I made a number of good friends in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. It was good business, though never easy, and my sympathy with the many friends I made there led me to take more time over it than perhaps I should have.

I’m pleased to say that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was personally able to help a number of my old contacts with the small amounts of capital needed to start up their own businesses and keep up contact with many of them even now. Sad to say some of my Yugoslav friends disappeared into the tragedy of the Civil War, though I still keep in touch with Slovenes who escaped the worst of it.

In those dark days in the 1980s conversations often turned to politics. Once we had carefully sounded each other out, it was a topic that could not be easily avoided. It was obvious that the system had failed, though no one I ever spoke to thought it would go and certainly not in the manner it did. I felt it had 10 years; they were generally far less sanguine.

Amusingly, one ambitious though politically very cynical Czech colleague, a cadre in a state trade organisation, believing it was the only way to get the promotion he desired, worked assiduously to get his party membership card – finally receiving it two weeks before Havel and Dubcek stood on the balcony in Wenceslaus Square!

What did we talk about? They talked about Democracy. They felt that it was the right to vote in free and fair elections that would bring about the society they craved and give their children the opportunities they felt they had been denied.

I talked about the rule of law. I tried to explain that democracy had serious flaws (a current example then being Mrs Thatcher), and that voting once every five years was not the most important part of freedom. It was, I explained, the Rule of Law. That laws applied as much to the state as they did to me. The state could not arbitrarily incarcerate me. It could not seek to conduct show trials or try me again and again for offences it could not prove. That law was not about worthless documents, but about rights as much as obligations and vigorously protected by an independent judiciary. I found myself singing the praises of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus…

They were enchanted, if sometimes a little amused by my passion. Two went on to serve in their post-liberation parliaments.

But then 1997 and ‘New’ Labour came along.

Today, I fear, it would be me sitting in a dingy apartment talking about people being tried again and again. The possible abolition of trial by jury. Increasingly unlimited detention without trial. CCTV giving the state power to observe our very move. Powers the Stasi could only dream of. Rendition. ID cards with the frightening database being compiled by government behind them. And let’s not talk about the fraudulent electoral system. At least the old Communist governments pretended to get 98% of the vote. New Labour are happy to govern with no respect for dissent and opposition with the votes of a little over 20% of the people.

Now all we need is a failing economic system and I’d be right back in 1980s Eastern Europe!

* Martin Land is a Cambridgeshire Lib Dem activist and campaigner and blogs at New Model Army.

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  • Terry Gilbert 14th Sep '09 - 7:24pm

    I spent time in Poland in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Wall. My overwhelming impression was less about civil liberties than economic ones. They were advertising on ambulances, so keen were they on capitalism. I understand the enthusiasm has now moderated somewhat. Though there were some aspects of the command economy I found useful – you paid according to the distance travelled on the train, for example – a return cost twice as much as single.

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