Book review : Humphrey Hawksley's Democracy Kills

This review was published in the Financial Times

No vote. Democracy comes under fire

3 October 2009

Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having the Vote?
By Humphrey HawksleyMacmillan £12.99, 356 pages

In my adult life, democracy has done rather well. When I was at university, three nations of Europe – Spain, Portugal and Greece – were all undemocratic. So were South Korea, South Africa, Indonesia, Pakistan and much of Latin America and eastern Europe. Even in France, General de Gaulle dictated the nightly television news bulletins.

The springtime of democracy in the last quarter of the 20th century will be noted by historians as a moment of hope and advance without precedent in world history. Democracy is difficult, messy, uneven and contradictory. But it’s also about hope, and the liberation of the human spirit to write, speak and organise economic and social relations as intelligently as possible.

It was too good to last, of course. The doomsayers of democracy are now gaining ground. Among them is Humphrey Hawksley, a model of liberal BBC journalism. He has reported from all over the world. He has poured his worries and fears about global affairs into a series of fine thrillers. Now he moves from fiction to fact.

His book has a dramatic title, Democracy Kills. But its contents do not ultimately make that case. His thesis plays into the growing conservative realpolitik pessimism that wants to turn its back on the intractable areas of the world where the act of casting a vote does not usher in peace, prosperity and progress – parts of Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East or, increasingly, Russia.

Did it ever? Hitler, after all, won a majority of votes in Germany. Robert Mugabe was handsomely re-elected well before he began rigging ballots, as was Slobodan Milosevic even as he unleashed his killers to murder European Muslims at Srebrenica or in Kosovo.

So voting is a necessary but far from sufficient element in creating democracy. Hawksley’s book covers the many countries he has reported from. The BBC allows foreign correspondents just a few minutes to explain why, for example, despite the billions in development aid poured into Sierra Leone, the country has no paved roads or functioning hospitals.Television is good at doing the what and the who of world problems, but never the why.

Democracy Kills contains too much colour about how hot he felt or the office decor of people Hawksley has interviewed, however, and not enough explanation of why it’s so hard to move from the ballot box to the fullness of a fair democracy. In the late 19th century, Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury famously noted that he “would no more give the vote to the Irishman than to the Hottentot”. This pessimism, that some folk are just not able to handle democracy, informs too much of this book.

The biggest killer of Muslims worldwide, as well as his own people, was Saddam Hussein. To be sure, Iraqi democracy is imperfect but so was George W Bush’s election in November 2000. Pakistan’s imperfect democracy has seen the defeat of Islamist extremist parties. India’s 60 years of democracy is much feted – but there are still more poor people there than in sub-Saharan Africa and it has more illiterates than its neighbours, though it has more millionaires than Britain. Yet India’s democracy is preferable to any authoritarian alternative.

Better the mess, muddle and mistakes of democracy than the smooth, silky voices explaining why some people just aren’t fit for it. To be sure, promotion of democracy should also support free media, rule of law, non-protectionist economics, and, above all education, education, education – especially girls and young women.

But if the 21st century sees as much victory for democracy as the second half of the 20th century, the world will be better for all to live in.