As we come to the end of the year I’ve been catching up on a small mail-strike-induced backlog of the Economist. It’s very noticeable that, like other media, its recent editions have been full of stories about the impact of the change of direction in China over Covid. In an article in the 17 December edition the newspaper notes that officials there may be reluctant to reinstate some of the public health measures that have just been removed, even if it should: “reversing course may be hard for the government to justify without admitting that it had made a mistake”
Whether or not the Economist is right to imply that the Chinese administration might decide not to impose lockdowns and other restrictions even if they are required, this made me think about whether things would be any different here. After all, a democratically-elected government does not need to rely on being seen as largely infallible for its legitimacy; it has a right to govern that has been bestowed via the ballot box. But does that mean it can be much more fleet of foot, ready to own up to errors and correct them quickly, than is the case in more authoritarian regimes?
In fact, when it comes to Covid, might all of the ‘weaknesses’ of the Western system identified by China over the past three years, our indiscipline, lack of singlemindedness and tolerance of debate and dissent, turn out to be strengths after all?
It is clear that the UK Government made grievous mistakes several times in its response to the pandemic. We started from the wrong place, without sufficient stocks of PPE and with fewer than half of the number of intensive care beds compared to the OECD average. Ministers repeatedly made decisions at the wrong time (lockdowns) and which delivered the wrong things (Nightingale Hospitals). Some of the errors made were pointlessly expensive (Eat Out To Help Out), whilst others had truly horrifying consequences (the treatment of nursing homes). The hurried procurement of equipment is alleged, at times, to have been corrupt rather than just botched. And so on.
I’m not here to pass judgement on all of these points, whether mistakes were made at all and if they were born out of malice or from people trying to do the right thing under enormous pressure. But what I would say is that for better or worse, decision-makers at least had the ability to make their choices decisively and quickly; it never felt like they were, as the Economist suggests about today’s China, completely paralysed by an unwillingness to admit to a previous error. Because democracy conveys legitimacy in advance and allows for a reckoning afterwards (such as at a public inquiry or the next General Election), it would appear that our politicians don’t feel like they always have to be right and so are liberated to make decisions in the moment.
Another benefit of democracy, of course, is that decisions can be informed and influenced by different points of view too, rather than constrained by groupthink and an unwillingness to lose face by listening to others. At times this can be frustrating and even dangerous, such as when lockdowns were delayed mainly because of ideological opposition that defied ‘the science’ (and commonsense). But in the end we seemed to get to a broad consensus that was accepted by most people; and our rules were largely obeyed voluntarily, rather than being enforced. And without those different perspectives and ideas being allowed their voice, would we have progressed so quickly to find vaccines and better treatments?
In short, our untidy democracy has got us to a point that China might end up envying: high vaccination rates and good levels of herd immunity, and with most (not all) people having been able to lead pretty much normal lives for the past several months. And this amplifies the point that whether we like or despise the government of the day we should be glad to live in a place where politicians can make mistakes, (sometimes) own up to them, and improve. Not just for abstract reasons of liking ‘freedom’ but because unruly, undisciplined and ‘degenerate’ democracy is in practice actually better for us all.