You don’t need tanks on the streets to experience a coup…

Democracy is a fragile flower. Throughout history it has struggled to survive for long periods. Especially when the military is looking on, poised to take over if the democratically elected politicians go too far off piste.

Military coups are easy to spot. They tend to happen at night, they take control of the news media, arrest political leaders and insist they are doing it ‘for the good of the people’. It happened in Greece as recently as 1967, and almost happened in France in 1961 when the granting of Algerian independence led to a rebellion by officers in De Gaulle’s own army. He took over the media to urge all patriotic Frenchmen to rise up against the Algerian threat and disobey any orders from the rebels. It worked, and the Fifth Republic continues to this day.

But what we’re seeing in Western democracies is more insidious. The world is falling under the spell of strong man leaders like Trump, Erdogan, Xi, Putin and, err, Johnson? We can’t call China or Russia democracies, and it’s a stretch to apply that label to modern day Turkey. I’m no fan of Erdogan, but a brief look at Turkish history reminds us that there have been military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. As recently as 1997 there was a bloodless coup when the army demanded, and received, the resignation of the democratically elected prime minister without a shot being fired. Then, in July 2016, it happened again. Erdogan followed De Gaulle’s lead and used the media in the early hours to denounce the coup and blame it on his main opponent Fethullah Gullen. Since that night Erdogan has arrested thousands and greatly enhanced his own powers through executive aggrandisement.

In his excellent book How Democracy Ends, David Runciman points out two of the most subtle forms of coup that can happen while we the electorate remain blissfully unaware. One is the executive coup, where those in power shut down the institutions of democracy. Like Mr Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament that starts today. The other is Executive Aggrandisement, where the democratically elected leadership gradually chips away at democratic institutions without overturning them. Donald Trump’s placement of political allies in the Supreme Court could be seen as an example of this.

Runciman sees this latter tactic as the biggest threat to democracy in the twenty first century. These are incremental coups that happen over a period of years. It’s hard to be sure that they are happening and even harder to know how to respond. The biggest threat to democracy is our own passivity. The leaders trying to pervert democracy will pay lip service to it and reassure us that we can always vote them out at the next election. This reduces us to the role of spectators, an audience watching events unfold with no opportunity to participate. All we can do is applaud or boo at the ballot box in five years’ time. With some justification, Runciman calls this ‘zombie democracy’.

He even extends this notion to the vehicle that many see as the most democratic of all tools of government – the referendum. It is simply bringing us, the audience, on stage to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something we have had no part in devising and will take no part in implementing. The Brexit referendum was sold on the idea of taking back control, yet the last three years have shown that all we did was give more control to the executive to sort out the mess from an ill-informed campaign. The prime minister who called the referendum resigned and his successor lost her job, so it’s hard to imagine their successors rushing to use the referendum process again.

With an unpredictable and divisive president in the White House, it’s easy to imagine we’ll see more executive aggrandisement and maybe even a reluctance to accept next year’s election result if it goes against him. But did you know there’s a recent precedent in US political history? In 1974, as the Watergate enquiry closed in on him, Richard Nixon became depressed and started drinking heavily. His behaviour became so erratic that Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger ordered the military not to accept orders from Nixon, especially with regard to nuclear weapons, unless verified by himself or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He even made plans to deploy troops to Washington if the incumbent president refused to allow a peaceful transition to the new leader.

Perhaps those plans could be dusted off for 2020?

Until next time.