Tyranny in the modern world

Lord Soley

I have read the comments on my colleague Baroness D’Souza post concerning Zimbabwe (See her post 22.12.08 below) carefully. I agree with Baroness D’Souza that international politics does not attract much interest on this blog – a pity because it is one of my main interests! I also agree that organisations like the Westminster Foundation can be very helpful.

I would like to put some of the comments on her post in a context that would have made a lot of sense to Greek political philosophers of old. There were attempts by Greek thinkers at that time to categorise governments. So there were democracies, oligarchies, autocracies and so on. I would not suggest that we try and categorise in quite the same way but there is an interesting parallel with dictatorships today.

Although we cannot define an absolute dictatorship most of us recognise them when we see them. They are very hard to change without violence. They are rarely controlled entirely by one man. In the efficient dictatorships there is a structure that maintains his power base. Zimbabwe is in that category. One of the reasons is that the key units of the Zimbabwean army were trained by the North Koreans. The North Korean dictatorship is one of the most brutal in the world and the army is particularly important in maintaining the dictatorship. Key people in the Mugabe’s administration control the army,party and state structure. That is why the South African attempt to get power sharing was almost certain to fail.

There are other recent examples of this problem. Both Iraq and Syria were ruled by the Ba’ath Party which in its very earliest stages had help from the Waffen SS in setting up its organisation. At that time Hitler was trying to cause problems for the British in the middle East. Later Saddam Hussein remodelled some of the party’s structures on those used by his hero Joseph Stalin.

The modern world does face an acutely difficult dilemma in cases like this. We can try and use persuasion or even ‘soft power’ as the EU likes to call it. We can use force and sometimes it will work and sometimes it will not. We can use sanctions which are rarely effective. Or we can say ‘leave it to the people who live under the tyranny’. Leaving aside any moral judgements  about our duty to others suffering under a tyranny the modern situation is complicated by the nature of modern weapons. An extreme tyranny that develops nuclear or other similarly powerful weapons is a threat to all which is why the UN has been developing policies and agreements in this area.

I hope this post hasn’t caused even more of you to ‘switch off’ when it comes to international relations!  It is a crucial area of policy that will shape all our futures and one of the most difficult to get right.

19 comments for “Tyranny in the modern world

  1. 05/01/2009 at 2:01 pm

    I hope you by now realise that, while we may disagree, foreign policy is indeed an area of interest to me.

    Emery Reves said (approximately, I don’t have the exact quote in front of me) that foreign policy is necessarily reactive, our options narrowly constricted by the choices other countries make, and MacMillan famously worried about “events, dear boy, events.” Given our status in the world seems to have settled, presently, as Senior Middle Managers between the young upstarts and the current Imperial juggernauts, where would you say our influence lies in foreign policy terms, and what would you say our goals as a nation should be for those outside our borders?

    I live in anxious trepidation that my government will decide that We Must Do Something! “Something” is a dangerous thing to have to do.

  2. Senex
    05/01/2009 at 3:19 pm

    This is your second post on the subject of tyranny and you depict them as entirely evil and give no allowance to the fact that they may exist to serve a greater good within the nation that they operate. The perception of good lies with the people of such nations and may differ considerably to that of a third party such as a democracy.

    Effective diplomacy depends upon an understanding of this notion.

    Plato’s pupils left his classroom to run their own countries and largely resorted to tyranny. I suspect this happened because the sheer effort of creating an intellectual city-state like Athens was impossible for them. History records whether these tyrannies were good or bad.

    When you say we recognise an absolute dictatorship when we see one then I would say perhaps. What you might say is that most of us recognise an Ochlocracy when we see one. In ancient Greek political thought Ochlocracy was considered as one of the three “bad” forms of government (Tyranny, Oligarchy and Ochlocracy) as opposed to the three “good” forms of government (Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy).

    Subjectively, New Labour government after its recent interaction with the Commons Speaker and coincidently its treatment of current national issues might now be regarded as an Ochlocracy at work. What democracies should address is how do they stop themselves becoming an Ochlocracy. This is particularly relevant to America and the election of President elect Obama. With both houses of Congress dominated by democrats how should we define what has happened to their ‘Parliament’?

    Then there is your ‘favourite’ country Russia. Stalin would not allow elections because his view was that the Russian people were simple and naïve. In other words he felt they were idiote. Stalin was a brutal tyrant and Russia has recognised this in part by making public documents from his time.

    The Russian people in large numbers still perceive him as a hero.

    What you have not addressed is the role that the Ottoman Empire played in all of our present problems. Was it Monarchy, Tyranny or something else? What we do have is the exploded fragments of its dominion in the Balkans and the Middle East. Only a brutal reign kept it all in place.

    One thing is for sure. Ordinary people have no control over such events. Its down to governments to deal with them. Knowing this, people are bound to become idiote when it comes to foreign policy and our recent history of elected governments has amply demonstrated this.

    Whilst many books are written on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire what is missing are similar works on the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. When we can understand the problems they had in containing their empire it might shed light on how to move forward with its former territories. It might require a Tyranny?

    Ref: Terminology
    Law; Dissolution (1908-1922)

  3. 05/01/2009 at 3:57 pm

    Although we cannot define an absolute dictatorship most of us recognise them when we see them. They are very hard to change without violence. They are rarely controlled entirely by one man. In the efficient dictatorships there is a structure that maintains his power base.”

    Some of us can recognise one in formation.

    1. Attempts to increase in time in detention without charge. (The 42 day detention Bill)
    2. Shipping citizens off to foreign countries without examining evidence before hand, to face prosecution under an alien legal system (The European Arrest Warrant)
    3. Accepting Treaties for which prior promises were made to the electorate for a referendum (The Lisbon treaty)
    4. Using anti-terrorist legislation against ordinary citizens and against tiny democracies (Iceland)
    5. Introducing electronic eavesdropping on ordinary citizens without warrant.
    6. Spiking the power of parliament by moving decision making to “independent” but government funded organisations (1,162 Quangos)

    and on and on.

  4. ladytizzy
    05/01/2009 at 6:16 pm

    Clive, it has been a long time since I last read the (then) textbooks of Barrington Moore (Political Power and Social Theory, 1965, and Theda Skocpol (States & Social Revolutions), 1979.

    Do you have suggestions for more recent publications of their ilk?

  5. Adrian Kidney
    05/01/2009 at 6:19 pm

    Alfred, are those a set of scholarly-accepted and defined hallmarks of a tyranny, or are they just made up by yourself to fit round your attacks on the government?

  6. Noodles
    06/01/2009 at 2:04 pm

    Adding to the dissent!

    I enjoy reading many comments on this blog and add my thoughts occassionally (if I feel they have any worth!). Foreign Policy is a very big priority, having lived in Ghana (briefly) I followed with anticipation the peaceful elections in December, twice having nail-biting days hoping for media coverage of Africa doing politics properly, fearing an all to common reaction to power changes in Africa.

    I enjoy many of the posts, especally those on foreign affairs and hope for more of them. I think they are problematic for generating comment and mostly we agree on principles of foreign affairs, but do not agree on specific details and plans.

    One academic paper I was lucky enough to hear presented argued that while AIDS was dealt with under a Health/Foreign Aid agenda it would never gain the priority it needed. Only by combining AIDS with ethnic previlence rates and economic factors, making it national security and economically driven, can the profile of this incredibly important issue be raised. My main concern with this perspective was that if it is correct, the real issues are often forgotten if not considered part of a larger popular (with stakeholders) agenda


  7. 06/01/2009 at 3:34 pm

    Adrian, the latter. Written more in sorrow than in anger as I watch the destruction of freedoms, with no power to intervene but once in 5 years.

  8. Adrian Kidney
    07/01/2009 at 12:24 am

    I really don’t understand this constant griping about the inability to intervene but once every 5 years. There has to be a check on the electorate as well as those the people elect to power. Frequent actions to intervene and force government one way or another is incredibly dangerous, unstable, and prone to collapse. There’s small wonder that such an idea is not a popular one.

  9. 07/01/2009 at 9:10 am

    I don’t think there is a disinterest in foreign affairs. I assume most
    people who read this blog are perfectly cogent of how connected we all
    are in this globalised world. I suspect a lot of the hesitation to act
    is a hangover from the Iraq debacle. The political force of the UN was
    weakened by the whole episode and while it provides essential
    humanitarian support no one seems interested in resurrecting it’s
    stature as an arbiter of world security. This leaves countries like
    Britain shouting across continents about the horrors of Zimbabwe while
    the countries directly affected in Africa dither about their approach.

    In the absence of the UN it does seem getting Zimbabwe’s neighbours to
    act it the best course of action. I think Britain has lost it’s taste
    for unilateral action which is probably a good thing in the long run.

  10. 07/01/2009 at 9:02 pm

    Alex Bennee

    Were the UN ever the arbiters of world security people wistfully remember? During the Cold War they were a debating society used to put a polish of respectability on the brutalities of the imperial superpowers. After the collapse of the USSR it dithered around as a PR organ for the United States for a bit, but since it’s constitutionally incapable of providing any kind of reasonable legal structure as it lacks all but the crudest and basest of enforcement mechanisms I’m not sure why people are ever surprised when it doesn’t do very well at something it’s designed to be bad at.


    Possibly the griping and carping by us silly civil libertarians is the result of mindless devotion to “Democracy” as if it were some kind of end in itself rather than a kludge to try and bypass the sicknesses inherent in the leviathan.

    Indeed, you may find it over the top for someone to say that the actions of the Labour government are dictatorial and to compare them with the pro-cholera Mugabe lot, but do you not think it prudent to attend to our own eyes, no matter who has the mote or the plank? If we are so devoted to human rights and democracy abroad, why are those who look at the broadsides aimed at them on the domestic front not right to raise the issue? You may not agree that having a whole different system of justice set up for those accused of a particular, politically fashionable, ethnically fraught crime is something to be concerned about. But then, let’s ask Dr Mohammed Asha

    A jury at Woolwich crown court found him not guilty but he remains in Belmarsh top security prison. He is facing deportation back to his native Jordan and the British Government claims he is a threat to national security.

    Just to reiterate: accused of crime, prosecuted, defended, found not guilty in a court of law – and the government then decides it can ignore the law entirely. Or, as is more the case, write new laws to make things like this legal as long as the defendant is accused of something shocking and newsworthy like terrorism, rather than something mundane like rape or fraud.

    We are not a dictatorship, but increasingly we are demonstrating that you can abuse those you deem second class citizens perfectly adequately in a democracy. After all, what are we mugginses on the ground going to do – vote Tory?

    I’m sure you know what the Overton Window is. Both major political parties were responsible for cheerleading the creation of illiberal criminal justice measures when it was fashionable to do so, and the system by which we elect our representatives is biased towards keeping the powerful in power which means that accountability is difficult to reintroduce at the ballot box. If you take the principles of liberalism seriously, when democracy fails you are almost duty bound to seek out ways of shifting the window of acceptable action by non-electoral methods. We the public may well be a bunch of rubes, but at least nobody makes the government choose between Mail readers and Sun readers every five years as if those were the only viable options.

  11. Senex
    08/01/2009 at 12:37 pm

    McDuff: Well said!

    Democracy is as fragile as a girl’s first blush and just as fleeting in historical terms. The House of Lords if it is to achieve anything should act to protect our unique collaboration of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy. These are the classical forms of good government.

    This is not to say that anyone of the forms should dominate or be seen to be infallible. Political scenarios act to devalue any one of them at any given time. We are not Americans who through their own circumstances hold Democracy to be sacred and infallible. They maintain great armies not to protect us from the world but to protect them from themselves.

    What is particularly telling is New Labours appointment of a common man, a Justice Minister. A focal point of hatred should our democracy undergo a metamorphosis into one of the bad forms. It is a snub to the balance of our history. There should be no such focal point.

    Lord Norton posts on where the Parliament engine should relocate. Whilst the dead wood is eliminated? What he does not ask is how should the seating be arranged.

    The Commons is a reflection on our very violent adversarial past and its seating arrangement reflects this in the distance apart between the front benches. As a further restrained to curb inappropriate behaviour there is a red line in front of the benches that nobody should cross whilst in session.

    The Speaker ignores MPs who deliberately cross the line even by half a footfall, it is not important it seems nor is the principle. MPs no longer have swords as part of their personal dress code so maybe it does not matter. However, the house should have metal detectors at all entrances and exits to the chamber so that no MP is given the opportunity to throw pennies at a devalued government, hurt their pride or inflict physical punishment.

  12. 08/01/2009 at 8:13 pm


    I’m a pragmatist, not a romantic. I care not a whit for the traditional terms of good government nor whether someone in ancient Greece – before the automobile and the internet – would properly understand the concepts. I would happily live under the despotic rule of randomly selected genetically mutated orang-utans if said rule could be shown to work, which if pressed I would simply define as being better than an alternative.

    Democracy’s strength is that it allows us to replace our government with alternative ideas as often as we choose, but it is inherently limited inasmuch as we have to chose between the options available. No system of government can as of yet allow us to manufacture a system of government from scratch and on spec.

  13. 09/01/2009 at 9:46 am


    I take your point about the inadequacy of the UN as an international body. However it achieved some measure of international multilateral agreement with Iraq I and Afghanistan. I’m not sure what body could replace it at the moment and still achieve a semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Perhaps like the League of Nations it needs to be dissolved and reborn anew?

    I to am concerned about the illiberal tendencies this government has shown. However as the original post was about foreign affairs I restricted myself to the international dimension. It would be dangerous to take that we must get our own house in perfect order first before we can legitimatley question what is going on in the rest of the world.

  14. Senex
    09/01/2009 at 6:12 pm

    McDuff: You say “I would happily live under the despotic rule of randomly selected genetically mutated orang-utans if said rule could be shown to work, which if pressed I would simply define as being better than an alternative.”

    Is being a political ‘agnostic’ pragmatist a shorter version of what you said? If so then you define political anarchy. This makes you very vulnerable to the influence of bad people or genetically mutated orang-utans as you would have it.

  15. 10/01/2009 at 5:40 pm


    Why would that be a dangerous thing to suggest? Foreign policy is domestic policy, after all, and most commonly electoral policy. The illiberal tendencies of the current government are part and parcel of the US-led “Global Struggle Against Religious Extremism” or whatever they’ve renamed their latest expansionary venture this week.

    I think it’s necessary to say that if we are so keen on liberal democracy abroad we really should get our houses in order. Indeed, I think it’s dangerous to let ourselves be distracted by the things happening in Zimbabwe that we really can’t do anything about at the expense of things happening in the UK that we, presumably, can.

  16. Clive Soley
    11/01/2009 at 11:30 pm

    Fascinating responses! I think Baroness D’Souza and I will have to reconsider our statement about the lack of interest in foreign policy!

    I will try and answer the main points. The broad policy aims of the government are to use our influence in such bodies as the UN, the EU etc to advance development, peace and security as well as protect British interests. It is in our interests to advance the cause of democracy, the rule of law and the promotion of human rights because without them it is difficult to resolve disputes without conflict
    I believe the influence of ordinary citizens in the UK is greater than some of you seem to think. It is no accident that despite strong disagreements around the world about our foreign policy Britain is one of the most popular destinations for foreign students and our institutions are widely admired and frequently serve as role models.
    Previous empires in the Middle East were unpopular. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire were in the eyes of many Arabs very brutal. Some of our recent problems stem from them just as they also stem from the British/French/US involvement.
    Lady Tizzy. I haven’t read much theory for a long time now tending to stick to current issues but Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of Great Powers is very well worth reading. More recently David Hannay’s (Lord Hannay) book New World Disorder is very helpful in understanding why the international institutions need reform and why it is so difficult to achieve that. Losing Iraq by David L Phillips and Bad Days in Basra by Hilary Synott help explain why Iraq went so badly wrong. There are however, many others.
    Noodles. Look at the recent Intergovernmental Organisations Select Committee report on contagious diseases. Alas the committee is now disbanded but I hope to get it resurrected.
    I think Alfred has never lived under or probably even visited a real dictatorship. Anyone who has knows what it means and Adrian Kidney gives good advice on this – Unless you don’t believe in democracy you have a duty to participate if you think it isn’t working as it should. That is how I got involved.
    I think I will have to address civil liberties in a new post. I am all in favour of constant vigilance by citizens but don’t paint the picture blacker than it is. I shall say why on another post but you have better protection under terrorism Acts than you had in the 1970’s/80’s and 90’s and far more people were held under terrorism legislation that is the case now.

  17. 16/01/2009 at 3:01 pm

    Lord Soley

    I await your post on why we aren’t any less free now eagerly. I hope, however, that you will address not just the legal niceties but also the technological tools available to government in enforcing those laws.

  18. 16/01/2009 at 3:19 pm

    I apparently missed a direct comment to me (what fun! The harum-scarum of debate!)

    Senex, I am no anarchist, but nor do I feel particularly bound to respect institutions that do not work very well. I am not advocating replacing the Palace of Westminster with the primate house at London Zoo, but this is because there are reasons and arguments that this would be, on balance, a bad idea and marginally worse than sticking with what we’ve got. It is not, absolutely and categorically not, because of any fetishisation of the Westminster model of democracy, or of democracy in general, or indeed of monarchy, despotism or of any other system of government. Favouring the particular grab-bag of institutions you have because of ideology rather than function means that you become rather soft towards damn fool notions like marching off to the Holy Land to bring Christianity democracy to the heathens.

    Being a pragmatist doesn’t mean you don’t believe in anything, it just means you can explain why you believe in something. I prefer British democracy to most of the alternatives, but this is because I have considered and in some cases lived under the alternatives – and believe me, they’re not all bad. I have friends who return to Zimbabwe every year, feeling that Britain is a nice place to visit but they wouldn’t want to live here. Preferring democracy because of a pithy Churchill quote, which seems to be as far as most people ever get, isn’t really thinking about it.

  19. 16/01/2009 at 3:23 pm

    (dear comment moderator, apparently the strikeout tag gets filtered by the blogging software. Could you perhaps edit the above post to make it clear that “Christianity” should be regarded as struck through, or alternatively delete the word for clarity? This comment can likewise be deleted. Many thanks.)

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