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Democracy is under threat – we cannot afford any more backsliding

Democracy exhibition installation (Credit: Westminster Foundation for Democracy)

4 min read

As parliamentarians, we see every day that democracy is essential to tackling the challenges society faces and helps solve real-world problems.

From the climate emergency to violent conflict, a strong democracy is the best structure to hold governments to account, nurture good ideas, address the needs of those we represent, and encourage co-operation with global allies. 

This Friday (15 September) is the International Day of Democracy, which presents a moment to reflect on the health of our democracy at home and of those abroad. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, democratic governance – and the freedoms it offers – has to remain central to the international policy agenda.

However, global levels of democracy have declined for 17 years in a row. According to a recent report by Freedom House, just 20 per cent of the world’s population currently live in a country rated as “free”. Democracy is under direct assault, exacerbated by an ever-growing risk from disinformation, entrenched inequality, and extremism. 

As legislators, we must have an eye to ensuring our actions can never be used to strengthen autocrats

This should worry us. Democracy underpins our shared security and prosperity: we know democracies tend to prioritise the things that most matter to a secure family life – from lower infant mortality rates to higher participation in secondary education, from helping to reduce the risk of conflict to supporting greater gender equality. The major threats to our security are rooted in, or exacerbated by, authoritarian regimes or weak democracies.

The combination of democratic backsliding and authoritarian advance is a global challenge that the international community must address together to strengthen both emerging and established democracies. 

Part of this involves protecting our existing global alliances where shared values can help enhance an enduring bond. Also, building new alliances where we can play our part in promoting democratic values. Creating a united front with other nations through security alliances and economic partnerships strengthens our position to challenge those who work through authoritarian rule. The United Kingdom’s long history of addressing democratic challenges at home, coupled with our diverse society and politics, means we have valuable experience to share with democracies everywhere, just as we can, in turn, learn from their experiences.

With our historic commitment to democratic freedom comes responsibility and, as legislators, we must have an eye to ensuring our actions can never be used to strengthen autocrats. A recent Westminster Foundation for Democracy report by Professor Nic Cheeseman and Dr Marie-Eve Desrosiers titled How (not) to engage with authoritarian states explores just that. It urges not to simply disengage from authoritarian states but that we can, and should, “demonstrate belief in and the benefits of democracy” and make bolstering global democracy a “central aim” driving our foreign policy. 

The need to strengthen democracy has never been more urgent. Whether it’s economic recovery, energy security, preparing for future pandemics, stopping the conflicts that drive illegal migration, protecting the rights of women and girls, of people with disabilities and of LGBTQ+ communities, or the governance of artificial intelligence systems, we need the rights and accountability that democracy brings. Around the world, too many people can’t challenge their leaders, are unable to access impartial news or use the internet freely, can’t rely on the police or courts, and don’t trust their election process.

In the UK, we must always be prepared to defend our own democracy, but also support reformers around the globe by sharing our own experiences and learning from each other. We must make it a priority to have a positive impact on democracy. The people we represent and people around the world deserve no less. 

Maria Miller and Liz Saville Roberts are on the board of governors at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, whose Garden of Democracy exhibition is being held in Portcullis House until 13 October 

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