By Daniel Hannan
When I was four years old, a mob attacked our family farm. A crowd of men lit tyres and set them against our front gates, intending to burn their way in.
My mother took me by hand to the back entrance, a footpath leading into the hills. “We’re going to play a game,” she told me. “If we have to come this way again, we must do it without making a sound.”
My father was having none of it. He had an obligation to the farm workers, he said, and he wasn’t going to be pushed off his land by hooligans bussed in from the city. He was suffering, I remember, from one of those diseases that chronically afflict white men in the tropics, and he sat in his dressing gown loading his revolver with paper-thin hands. In the end, security guards managed to disperse the crowd with shots and, for us at least, the danger passed. Others were not so lucky: there were land invasions and confiscations all over the country.
This was Peru in the early 1970s, a country reduced to chaos and penury by the military government of General Juan Velasco, whose putsch, inevitably, ended up exacerbating all the problems that had justified it in the first place.
There is no such thing as a good coup, only bad coups and worse coups. All military regimes, in time, become tawdry and self-serving. Whatever intentions the army officers begin with, they end up as petty tyrants. An elected ruler is kept in check by the knowledge that he can be fired. Take that knowledge away and, however pure his motives, he will end up arranging the affairs of state around his personal convenience.
Ah, you say, but what if the alternative is even worse? Such is the justification used by every military regime in history, going back to Bonaparte, to Cromwell, to Sulla. It is being trotted out now to justify the dictatorship in Egypt, both by Western sophists and by local liberals who, having spent the Mubarak years demanding democracy, suddenly fear it.
It’s certainly true that the Morsi regime was making a disastrous hash of things. But Egyptians could see that for themselves. A free election would have broken the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, the Brothers have been given all the things that sustained them during eight decades of repression: a sense of persecution, a pantheon of martyrs, a grievance against America and the generals presumed to be its local stooges. The world view of the most paranoid Islamists has been spectacularly vindicated.
“But the Islamists wouldn’t have allowed free elections,” protest coup apologists. Even if this were true, how could it conceivably justify overthrowing representative government? At a stroke, Morsi and his dolts have been put in the right – with potentially disastrous consequences for the region.
One reason that Islamists win support is that secular dictators keep assuring their peoples that they alone stand in the way of theocratic oppression. Eventually, their claim becomes self-fulfilling, because some people turn to the extremists as (so they have been repeatedly assured) the only alternative.
Why do soldier-run regimes fail? Samuel Huntington, the Clash of Civilisations theorist, thought it had to do with the inapplicability of military thinking to civil government. Army officers, he argued, tended to believe that politics was simply a question of issuing the right orders. In fact no regime, civil or military, can succeed by micro-management. Governments succeed by devolving power and allowing decisions to be taken as closely as possible to the people they affect. Armies obviously can’t function on this basis, and find it hard to adapt their mentality to the complexity of modern administration.
Without active opposition, even a saintly ruler will become complacent, venal and repressive. We are exceptionally lucky to live in a country and in an era where the people with guns (or swords or stone axes) don’t get to boss everyone else about. Oppression by organised force has been the usual lot of our species for 6,000 years.
We think of dictators with their sashes and sunglasses as a modern phenomenon. In fact, a mediaeval European monarchy was not so very different, politically, from a contemporary African kleptocracy or a Bronze Age slave state. When some people have the power to enforce their will on others, they tend to become rapacious and repressive, and then rig the system so that their children will enjoy the same privileges. Most of human history has been characterised by servitude and serfdom, by caste and inherited rank, by arbitrary power. Seizing someone else’s crops is more rewarding than growing your own, and organising that seizure systematically through tithes, taxes and feudal dues is more rewarding still.
But in one place, people stumbled upon a way to make production more rewarding than predation, to elevate the law above the government, and thus to make possible modern, contract-based capitalist democracy. The sociologist Ernest Gellner, who saw Britain with the appreciative eyes of an immigrant, wondered at “the circuitous and near-miraculous routes by which agrarian mankind has, only once, hit on this path” [his italics].
It happened in these damp islands of ours, in a series of struggles beginning with Magna Carta and culminating in the Glorious Revolution, after which rulers were in some sense accountable to the civilian population. Our ancestors well understood that control of the armed forces was the key. The English Civil War was triggered by Charles I’s attempt to control the militia – a struggle which the Crown eventually lost, which is why, to this day, we have a Royal Navy and a Royal Air Force but a British Army.
Winston Churchill expressed it as well as anyone: “Civilisation means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained.”
Constitutional liberty is our greatest export, our supreme contribution to the happiness of mankind. We, of all nations, should have no time for the notion that a coup may be the least-bad option, the only way to restore order (how’s that working out in Egypt, by the way?). We, of all people, should understand that you encourage voters to behave responsibly when you give them responsibility. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen puts it: “A country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy, it has to become fit through democracy.” Amen.