'Military Occupation Is Not the Road to Democracy': Democracies Are Not Made by Written Laws Which Can Be Exported as a Package. They Depend on Unwritten Rules and Understandings: That Civil Servants Don't Take Bribes and Generals Stay out of Politics, for Example

By Cooper, Robert | New Statesman (1996), May 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

'Military Occupation Is Not the Road to Democracy': Democracies Are Not Made by Written Laws Which Can Be Exported as a Package. They Depend on Unwritten Rules and Understandings: That Civil Servants Don't Take Bribes and Generals Stay out of Politics, for Example


Cooper, Robert, New Statesman (1996)


Democracy is not the natural condition of the world. The ambiguous examples of Athens and Rome still shine dimly from the past; but democracy as a sustained, widespread phenomenon is something new.

A hundred years ago, no more than a handful of states were democratic. By today's standards, most of these were highly imperfect. Women did not vote anywhere; property qualifications still existed; in the United States, black Americans were not fully enfranchised until late in the 20th century. As we embark on projects to spread democracy more widely, a cause that is important for the welfare of many people abroad--as it is, in the long run, for our security at home--we ought to be aware how shallow are the roots of democracy and how difficult the conditions for it may be.

One way to understand the conditions for democracy is to try thinking how it might be lost. In Britain, our last successful coup was in 1688. Today, it would be less easy to organise a military takeover in the classical manner. The army could seize the cabinet and the opposition, but thereafter the problems would begin. Once, it would have been enough to capture a few newspaper editors and trade unionists. But potential focuses for opposition are now more various: presenters from TV and radio, prominent businessmen, pop stars, models and other celebrities would all be capable of rallying dissent. And whereas, a hundred years ago, the army could target a few major railway stations and the main broadcasters, there are now too many airports, motorways, satellite channels, cellphone operators, internet service providers. At home, the complexity of society is itself a defence against a military takeover; abroad, it would lead to isolation and to extra costs as membership of the EU and Nato were suspended or cancelled.

But the biggest reason why we do not have military coups in Britain is much simpler: the army would not do it and no one would dare suggest that it should even think of such a thing.

The critical moment in a country's evolution towards democracy comes exactly at the point when the army decides that intervening in politics is no longer one of the things it does. Sometimes you can even see the moment. In Moscow, in 1991, it came (perhaps) when the soldiers decided not to shoot the women who surrounded their tanks. In Georgia, only a few months ago, soldiers who had been ordered to shoot demonstrators chose instead to fire over their heads. Whether this represents a permanent choice depends on Georgia's acquiring a state that is accepted as legitimate--it was in the hope that such a state might be achieved that the soldiers acted as they did. In Thailand in 1999, an attempted coup was laughed off, suggesting a permanent change. In Spain, it was the king who ended the nonsense. Or at least it was the decision of the king to reject the attempted coup, which made it afterwards seem to have been nonsense. It is at this moment--when the idea of a coup becomes a joke--that you know that democracy has won. Democracy has then entered the canon of the unwritten rules which govern our lives at the deepest level.

That is a state greatly to be wished for, where the unwritten rule is stronger than the written. Written laws can be changed, abused or torn up--"constitutions are made of paper; bayonets are made of steel", as they say in Haiti (and they ought to know)--but unwritten laws cannot be torn up. They live inside each member of a community. Indeed, acceptance of the unwritten rules is one mark of belonging to the community.

The danger to an established democracy such as Britain comes not from a classical military coup, but from a legal coup where the letter of the law is preserved but the spirit of the law, the unwritten part, is violated. This is how Hitler came to power: all the constitutional forms were followed--and Weimar was by no means a bad constitution--but the result was a tyranny. Arguably, the same thing happened with Mussolini and the military governments of Japan in the 1930s. …

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