I begin with a necessary word of caution. Electorates can do things we profoundly disagree with. Democracies can yield results which fill us with dismay. None of that describes an existential menace to democracy.
For democracy to be under threat the democratic norms, institutional and constitutional, must themselves be under threat.
That is a high bar.
Tested in that way, is democracy today threatened?
In certain instances, the answer is yes; but more broadly, there is a mood of alienation and discord which if unaddressed, threatens the spirit of cohesion essential to the functioning of democracy. This is serious.
The challenge is internal and external.
Internally, Western Democracy has a new dynamic. Politics is being pulled to the far right and far left, whose support has doubled or more in the past few years.
The public discourse is uglier. Fact based dialogue gives way to a culture of alternative assertions of truth. Institutions vital to the functioning of democracy such as an independent judiciary and media are now routinely called into question and made the subject of partisan debate.
As the electorate fractures into two groups who increasingly neither listen to each other nor like each other, so the conventional media, with its commercial model threatened, takes refuge in adopting one or other constituency and keeping them in a permanent state of grievance.
Social media – itself a revolutionary phenomenon – hugely amplifies this lurch to partisanship, fuelling discussion which is often more a trading of abuse than a rational exchange of opinion.
Put all of this together and whilst the form of democracy might remain intact, the spirit animating democracy corrodes. That spirit shows itself in acceptance of defeat, the idea that you fight and lose but live politically to fight another day, of the fundamental right of your political opponents to govern, and the belief they are opponents not enemies.
It rests on an unspoken recognition that despite difference we are all part of the same society with common interests not least a shared respect for the democratic process.
This hasn't gone. But it is weakening.
Then externally, we face two challenges. The first is from countries authoritarian in nature who are prepared to interfere in our politics using all the tools of modern technology improperly to influence the outcome of our elections and the shaping of our public opinion.
The scale is unclear, but that itself is a warning. We should know exactly who is doing what and by what means. In an excellent paper published today by my Institute, Shashank Joshi details the threats and the different ways Western Democracy should be protecting itself by building systems of resilience, political, economic and ideological, against interference with our democratic process.
We can maintain necessary relationships with these countries and value them. There are many problems which require the involvement of Russia. We should not seek to contain China but rather develop a strong partnership.
But they should always know we will defend our system.
The second challenge requires us to be self-critical.
There is more than a mild flirtation in the West with what we can loosely call rule by the ‘Strongman’ i.e. the Leader who has supreme control over the levers of Government, sets a direction and dismisses all opposition to it with varying portions of disdain or repression.
We must understand the attraction of this model since its footprint is growing. Someone in China said to me a few weeks back: we have examined your system, we see its results, we look at the state of your media, we analyse the nature of your decision-making and we conclude it doesn't work at least not for us. It’s too short term in its thinking, your leadership is buffeted by any passing squall of public opinion, scandal real or imagined substitutes for policy debate, and the consequence is you can't take the necessary decisions for the long term health of the nation.
This critique is mirrored in our own population. It is why President Putin inspires admiration in parts of Western opinion; why the Prime Minister of Hungary can talk openly of ‘illiberal democracy’; why populist parties gain traction offering solutions which may not work but which have a visceral appeal.
This is an insidious and dangerous challenge. The challenge of efficacy: that traditional democracy isn't delivering, that it is complacent for sure, but more, that it is impotent; unable to secure the change the people want to see.
So, of course, we must defend democracy, explain it, advocate it, insist upon its place in our way of life, but the weakening will continue unless we also show it works.
If the normal political class is failing, incapable of sorting out the things people want sorting, and every time it sees a wall it retreats, then eventually people turn to someone who will drive through the wall, who is prepared to pull the house down to rebuild it, whose very riskiness becomes the very attraction.
The financial crisis and the ensuing years of cutbacks in public spending have left many feeling pessimistic about their future. Accelerating disruption through globalisation and technology cause insecurity and anxiety that the world is changing beyond our control. We shouldn't exaggerate it – economies have grown steadily recently, unemployment is falling and not everyone feels this way. But enough do and with enough reason.
People look at the authoritarian system and say: ‘you know what, at least he gets things done and doesn’t give a damn what ‘they say’.
Suddenly, the divisiveness which would have been a political handicap in times gone by, transforms into a successful political strategy. The Leader polarises still further, de-legitimises not only opposition but independent institutions and when the solutions don't work, doubles down, with a ‘winner takes all mentality’. That is when the substance of democracy not just its spirit is in danger.
The response must be hard-headed, not only garlanded with lofty sentiment about democracy’s virtues.
First, if we want the anger driving populism to abate, we need answers, ones which rekindle our society’s optimism that the future can work for them. This needs big decisions, a radical but sensible new policy agenda, probably a redesign of Government and leadership which is willing to take on the populism with unrelenting vigour, but in pursuit of a plan for change.
It means responding to genuine concerns around migration, the unaccountability of powerful interests in business or public sector, and an engagement with the coming technological revolution which can overcome its snares and embrace its opportunities.
Immigration, overlain with worries about security and integration, from countries outside Europe’s borders, is upending politics all over Europe. It was central to Brexit. In the two summits next week, Europe must show it has heard the message, will act on it, with a comprehensive plan which while true to Europe’s values, demonstrates that democratic leaders have both the will and the power to be effective.
But to put it in blunt contemporary terms: there will be no release from Brexit unless we understand and deal with why people voted for it; no end to European turmoil without tackling its causes, economic and cultural, and if I were an American Democrat, I would spend as much time figuring out Trump’s appeal as to denouncing him.
Second, we need to reinvigorate the politics of building bridges to those disaffected from our democratic process, pulling people back towards the centre, celebrating the practical not the partisan. It’s about solving people’s problems not exploiting them. But we can only do that if we accept the problems are legitimate.
Third, most obviously, we must re-make the case for democracy not assume its acceptance. We can do this with confidence. There is a reason why first world economies are democracies and why no two democracies have ever declared war on each other. The Rule of Law matters. Try living without it. Dictatorships may begin as benign but they seldom end that way.
There are countries which at a certain stage of development or with a certain history are not yet suited to our system. But, ultimately, power residing in ‘the people’, with institutions of integrity which survive different Governments intact, is the way most people would choose to be governed if they had the choice.
But we need to make the democratic case anew from first principles.
That is why this conference is important.
It has another significance.
We must revitalise the Transatlantic Alliance in defence of Liberal Democracy.
Alliances can be based on temporary associations of interest. But our Alliance has always derived from profound shared values as well as interests. The context for it may have changed just as the context for the European Union has changed from one of peace in the aftermath of World War 2 to one of power in the 21st C, as the globe becomes dominated by three giants – the USA, China and India – and several countries all with populations double or treble the size of the largest European nation. But the underlying rationale is as strong as ever.
The Transatlantic Alliance for years existed in a uni-polar world; today it is a multi-polar one. But precisely for that reason since emergent and resurgent powers do not share our system and indeed for the first time since the Soviet Union in the 1950s, appear to offer an alternative model of Government, we must stand together in defence of it.
We need to engage the minds and hearts of the people. They need to hear the arguments from a leadership willing to step out and not step back. Democracy needs to revive its spirit. But it also needs to be muscular. Those who would weaken our democracy from within, should know they will face an adversary determined enough to wage this fight and smart enough to win it. Those who would undermine it from without should understand that there is no realpolitik which will allow such interference to go unchallenged.
This is the right time. And the right cause. And the urgency is manifest.