As a rule, one should not bother to criticise famous people for the thoughts contained in articles under their name
He or she almost certainly didn’t write it — and perhaps didn’t even think about it, either.
Nevertheless, it is hard to resist when a piece entitled “I was a fool to talk about admiring Hitler” appears under the name of Bernie Ecclestone, the British billionaire boss of Formula One racing. This was a commentary in The Times on Tuesday, attempting to quieten the furore that followed his remarks to the newspaper three days previously, to the effect that the Führer was his favourite dictator because: “Apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done.”
You will gather from this that Bernie is better with numbers than with words. Still, the pint-sized potentate (Ecclestone, I mean, not Hitler) had a point: it is the case that if you win a referendum, as the Nazi leader did in 1934, making you not just the unchallengeable head of the only legal party but also head of state, government and the armed forces, you can indeed “get things done”.
In the subsequent article attempting to pacify those upset by his scarcely intelligible remarks, Ecclestone’s public relations man (or whoever he employs for such ghostwriting) set out what his client really intended: “Not that I support Hitler’s atrocities; during the 1930s Germany was facing an economic crisis, but Hitler was able to rebuild the economy, building the autobahns and German industry. That was all I meant when I referred to him getting things done . . . The downside of democracy is the belief that everyone should have a say in how things are run.”
This simply makes clear what was opaque in the original interview: Ecclestone adopts the standard view of the modern Hitler apologist — that the Nazi leader was not demonstrably the driving force behind the attempted extermination of the Jews, and that he was an excellent peacetime leader before becoming most unfortunately sidetracked by the second world war.
How sad that it is still necessary to point out that the German economic recovery of the 1930s was based on the spending of billions upon billions of marks on a rearmament programme specifically designed for a planned war — the resources of the captured territories would then fund the colossal debts incurred; and that it does wonders for employment if you have a 15-fold increase in the size of your armed forces, which is what Hitler managed between 1933 and 1939.
Yet if Ecclestone’s opinions are notable only because of his prominence, admiration for dictatorships rather than democracies does seem to have become fashionable of late. The increasing contempt for elected politicians, and not just in this country, is one cause. The economic rise of totalitarian China is another.
Thus Martin Jacques’s new book When China Rules the World has been given many favourable reviews — though happily not in this newspaper: as Ian Buruma noted, the idea “that China is not ready for democratic institutions because it is too big, too complex or too Confucian . . . is what many Chinese officials and businessmen will tell the foreign observer, and Jacques faithfully repeats their clichés”.
Those who continue to see communist one-party rule as an elegant demonstration of Confucian harmony should have been given pause by the outbreak of mass violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs in the so-called “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. This follows barely a year on from similar disturbances in the “Tibet autonomous region”. Democracies may lack outward “harmony”, but they are able to accommodate internal political disagreements — and changes of government — without bloodshed.
In common with other governments in one-party states, the Chinese Communist party defines itself principally by appeals to nationalism; such regimes denounce the idea of rival political factions as not just wrong, but inevitably controlled by foreign powers that wish to destroy the country. If such alien powers are not actually plotting within the country, that is no problem: such plots will be invented.
It is in the same spirit that the theocratic government of Iran produces freshly tortured student demonstrators to confess that they have been masterminded by “Little Satan”, otherwise known as the United Kingdom. Since we were indeed implicated in the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, this has a satisfying verisimilitude for the regime; the truth that nobody dares say publicly in Iran is that a number of leading ayatollahs were in on the CIA plot that imposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, since they regarded him as much less dangerously secular than Mossadegh.
It is true that there is no such thing as a perfect political system, and therefore there is no form of democracy that is beyond reproach. In common with many successful businessmen, Ecclestone is frustrated by the apparent cowardice of modern democratically elected politicians, who nervously check every policy with a battery of focus groups. He had a soft spot for Tony Blair, though. After the Labour party’s receipt of £1m of Ecclestone’s money and within days of a private meeting at No 10 with the tycoon, Blair demanded that the public health minister argue in Brussels for Formula One to be exempt from a Europe-wide ban on tobacco advertising. Now that’s what Bernie calls strong leadership, cheap at the price.
Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, there is no reason we can’t have a strong and decisive democratically elected government — with a reasonable Commons majority a prime minister can do pretty much what he wants in this country, if only he (or indeed she) has the confidence and vision. If anything, prime ministers have too much power, combining as they do control of both the executive and the legislature. In practice, it is only the courts that act as a constitutional check on capricious power.
This, it seems to me, is the most credible argument against untrammelled democracy — that election by universal franchise is never sufficient on its own for good governance: it is above all vital to have the rule of law, impartially exercised. That is why modern Russia is no model for anyone to copy: its rulers are democratically elected, but they control the courts and thus can destroy all political opponents absolutely and pre-emptively. It is because we had an independent judiciary that the British people on the whole enjoyed good governance before the adoption of the universal franchise.
It is democracy, however, that is now said to be the inalienable right of all peoples. That may be an article of faith rather than of
reason, but two observable facts argue for its unique power: the first is that humans almost always try to emigrate from dictatorships to democracies rather than the other way around; the second is that while democratic leaders never pretend to be dictators, dictatorships pretend to be democracies — why else would so many of them bother to hold elections, which are then fixed?
In the middle of this country’s six-year fight against Hitler, CS Lewis observed that the best argument for democracy was not that mankind was so wise and good that all of us deserved a share in government: “The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true . . . The real reason for democracy is mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.” Think about it, Bernie.
– Dominic Lawson