I don’t normally take much notice about Russian comments on democracy. It’s like asking an Eskimo to describe sunbathing – they know it exists but don’t really have much experience of it themselves!
However, for the past few days I have been looking at international matters. I have just finished a meeting with a representative of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and the European LGA looking at a range of issues. The meeting took place in London because the UK matters and for many the way that the UK does things and crucially has done things for many years is an important part of their search for democracy governance.
In the early part of this year I held meetings with two Ambassadors whose countries had never been part of the British Empire or Commonwealth – indeed one was a former soviet bloc country. They both used very similar words to me when we met, “You see Richard in our Country we understand democracy here (pointing to their head) but in your country you understand democracy here pointing to their heart)”.
That is, of course, true. Whether you start the journey with Magna Carta or even before with the democratic influences of the Vikings when they invaded us we do democracy. It’s not perfect, we don’t always have the best voting system for example but implicit in the way we run our Country and our Councils there is a basic common thread about transparency about accountability, about democracy, about relationships between governed and governing which just does not exist in many parts of the World.
Let’s take corruption. The press worked themselves up into a froth at the misuse of MPs expenses – and rightly so. But in many parts of the World that I was visiting at the time there was amazement at how little MPs earn, that corruption and bribery is very, very low and that MPs are not above the law except in the very limited sense of parliamentary privilege.
In one Country I will not mention a new MP gets a free house a new top of range BMW and a gun! That is a Country where almost one third of the population is starving. Look at the kleptocracies of Africa where vast amounts of money from aid or oil end up in a Swiss bank account. Nor is local government t exempt from this. Bribery is very common in so many Countries that it is almost a part of the official system. In this Country almost every elected representative at local, regional or national level comes into office determined to be a ‘servant’ of the people they represent. The concept of an elected official being a servant is alien to thinking in many parts of the World.
I have been privileged for the past 6 years to represent the UK on a range of international local government bodies particularly United Cities & Local Government, the World LGA. I know what people think and say about my Country. I go from the developing world to the developed world and still see in places like the US a respect for our systems and traditions.
I know the approaches that the UK gets for help with democracy and governance. If countries just want aid they will go anywhere for it but if they want institutional help they come to places like the UK, Spain and France where such traditions are deep rooted.
So I am not upset about what may or may not have been said by a Russian uncivil servant. But I say now they are wrong. We still have a place in the World. Without adopting a jingoist view point I am proud of my Country, I am convinced it still can be and still should be a world leader.
So no more little Englanders. No more people who think civilisation ends on the South Coast and everywhere else there are foreigners and dragons. The World needs the UK to engage and all the experience is that when we do engage with ‘Johnny Foreigner’ there are tremendous diplomatic and financial benefits to us as well as those whose seek to ally with us!