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The importance of open societies to the UK’s ‘force for good’ ambition – A politician’s perspective

Article by Rt Hon Alistair Burt

October 19, 2021

The importance of open societies to the UK’s ‘force for good’ ambition – A politician’s perspective

If all politics is local, then it is also personal. I did not become a politician because of some abstract theory. I became a politician because I was free to do so, free to champion what I wanted to see in the world in which I was growing up, and free to complain about what I did not like and wanted to change. The world was not closed to me. When I was young, I had trusted news available which enabled me from my country to watch, with wide, wet eyes, tanks roll over my continent, in the Czechoslovakia where Alexander Dubcek was not as free as I was. Above all, as one born just a decade after the end of the Second World War, I was able to appreciate from an early age that my freedom had been dearly bought, and that the grotesque abuses of power during my century were within the memory of those around me, who still wondered how on earth it had been allowed to happen.


The UK does not support open societies because the Government tells it to do so. The people of the UK support open societies in practice through almost everything they do in their daily lives, where millions have a life in which the principles of association, information gathering, discussion, challenge, and political activity are geared not to defending some treatise, but to making their lives, and those of others around them, better. And they demand that their government takes heed, and commits itself also to building that world, and being a ‘global force for good.’


Let me set out why it is important to those in politics and Government to hear that call and offer conceptual and practical support to open societies; to demonstrate the approach I have seen the UK take to do so; to suggest what needs to change and be better done, and why it is important to be doing this now.


Why are open societies important to the UK?

In 2020, Anne Applebaum’s work ‘Twilight of democracy- the failure of politics and the parting of friends’ encapsulated in a very personal way the sense of modern-day fragility of democracy, and the closing down of the democratic mind.[1] She focused attention on not just the growing confidence and assertion of existing authoritarian states, but on how both fledgling and established democracies were lapsing from the democratic ideals which had been so hard won. A combination of a perversion of nationalism, the abuse of faith, a re-invention of the ‘strong man’, and the undermining of critics as traitorous were all combining to dim the opportunity of openness which history had delivered. Her challenge was stark. “It is possible we are living through the twilight of democracy; that our civilisation may already be heading for anarchy or tyranny, as the ancient philosophers and America’s founders once feared; that a new generation of advocates of illiberal or authoritarian ideas will come to power in the 21st Century, as they did in the twentieth; that their visions of the world born of resentment, anger or deep, messianic dreams could triumph.”[2]


I do not believe such a warning is far-fetched. If what Applebaum, and others, fear is not to come to pass, then the underlying causes of those fears must be addressed, partly by reaffirming what it is we believe and stand for, and partly by action to promote what it is we say we believe. The UK’s historical experience is that the basic buildings blocks of freedom and open societies combine to match the aspirations of human society and confer a degree of security and stability to allow individuals and communities to prosper. In a world now facing many challenges unknown to those who framed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the UK Government believes that open societies are best placed to meet them, from climate change to the digital revolution, and to possess the resources to be harnessed in combatting them.


For developing societies, who may be faced with choices of partners with whom to stand to tackle these challenges, we need to be unequivocal in asserting that open societies provide the best opportunity of success. That partnering with the UK and other leading democracies – from both the global North and South – is more beneficial than collaborating with China and Russia. A research paper for Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) concluded: “In practice, the evidence also seems to support this theory. Stable, transparent governments built on respect for human rights and the rule of law tend to foster environments that are conducive to open and inclusive economic growth.”[3]


Faced with this reality, that open societies and democracy are truly under threat, it was important to see the recent G7 statement of support for the principles of Open Societies at the June 2021 Summit in the UK. After a preamble setting out the basics of such societies, from the fundamentals of democracy to freedom of expression and the rule of law, the Statement concluded with commitments to, inter alia, “strengthen open societies globally by protecting civic space and media freedom, promoting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief, and by tackling all forms of discrimination, including racism.”[4] Having seen what it is we are about, how do we fare in doing it?


What the UK has sought to do

As a Parliamentarian for over 30 years, and as a Minister, I have taken part in, and helped evolve approaches to, building open societies around the world. The UK’s commitment has been developed in a variety of ways. Institution building, the creation and sustaining of the independent building blocks of authority, has been a key staple of it. The UK created programmes to transfer technical expertise of administration, or justice, or similar at all levels of Government, local and national, as well as supported democratic institutions such as political parties and elected legislatures. As well as delivering practical outcomes, the personal relationships created through this engagement have also added immeasurably to the UK’s soft power.


There is much discussion on the efficacy of the work, which will vary depending on the climate it is reaching into. It is not unnatural that I would support the work of party-to-party exchanges, and Parliamentary engagement, through those like WFD or Global Partners Governance (GPG), with whom I travelled and worked recently. Some argue that dealing with parties, and indeed Parliaments, can risk unwise political involvement or be wasted time compared with working with governments directly to ‘get things done’. But, as GPG explain in their Guide ‘Why work with Parliaments’, “a country in which government is not required to account for its actions or justify its decisions risks bad policy and poor administration. Put crudely, while support to the Executive is likely to produce some quick wins, working with parliaments offers far greater opportunities for long-term institutional, cultural and behavioural change”.[5]


Parliamentary exchange has been enhanced through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA UK) and through the Inter Parliamentary Union, of which the UK and France were the originator in 1889. The British Group of the IPU takes a leading role in its work, which not only drives mutual exchanges, but also in raising the protection of MPs within states to support them in pursuing accountability. In not all states is it comfortable or safe to be an MP, and the UK’s participation in the IPU should also be seen as a vital element in our commitment to representative democracy.


There is a further element to the UK’s work. Former Secretary of State DFID Penny Mordaunt, in her introduction to the Feb 2018 UK Government paper ‘Open Aid, Open Societies’ spelled out the importance of scrutiny in the democratic process, in explaining that a deliberate purpose of the UK’s work was to “allow oversight agencies, citizens and the media to scrutinise how money is spent, and enable people everywhere to hold their governments to account”. Justifying this further in a development context under financial pressure back in the UK, she explained that “open and inclusive societies have stronger growth” and that such openness crucially “close the opportunities that allow unscrupulous individuals to get away with corruption”.[6]


That phrase ‘hold to account’ is important; both a light to some, and a threat to others. Effective Civil Society Organisations constitute a vital element in open societies. WFD has made a concerted effort in recent years to act as an honest broker, building more constructive relationships between civil society, parliaments, and political parties; this is particularly useful when it comes to protecting civic and political space from overbearing CSO legislation.


The importance of promoting inclusive politics in this field cannot be overestimated. The commitment that the UK has made, through successive Governments, to champion women’s rights, has been a powerful example followed through with equal determination in respect of other vulnerable or disempowered groups. No society is truly open if these are ignored. Examples such as the campaign to prevent sexual violence against women in conflict, the appointment of the UK’s first special envoy for gender equality, and the UK’s co-chairing of the International Equal Rights Coalition driving a comprehensive strategy to increase international action to defend the rights of LGBT people around the world have all added to the UK’s expertise and ambitions for others.


What needs to change, and why now?

A recognition of why open societies are important to the UK and other like-minded, only takes us so far, in answer to Applebaum’s warning of approaching twilight. What we must confront is that in many emerging democracies, institutions are struggling to survive and become influential. And in some formerly strong democracies, from India to Brazil, openness is being closed down overtly and covertly. Authoritarian regimes have gained sufficient strength from the problems of others to offer an historic challenge to those who believed that the sweep and arc of history would bend towards openness, democracy, and human rights.


In other words, what we have tried to do has not been good enough, and we need to re-engineer and re-invest. The concept of ‘long-term and enduring’ need recalibration. Whilst trying to deliver and support openness and democracy in states after a military intervention is now different in character today than it was in 1945, we need to recognise that even in those places where this has been the case there are those locally who share aspirations which are not ‘western’ but universal. To help them build a society which ‘holds to account’ the powerful, long term must be closer to ‘forever’ and sustained more than a maximum of 20 years. It is not an event, but a process, so funding, project building and working locally must be at the heart of permanent partnerships, not time constrained impositions.


Nor should we fall into the trap of accepting that a state is simply its authorities, who, if failing or turning against openness, should be judged as a no longer worth supporting. There are always people working in any society for the things we all hold dear and aspire to; we need to find ways to keep supporting them, whether it be parliaments, political parties, civil society, media, lawyers and judges, and human rights activists. The feeling of abandonment amongst women in Afghanistan is pertinent, as is the ongoing need to support those forced into exile, for example Myanmar and Belarus.


Institution building must continue its patient work, particularly in addressing poor governance, and, crucially, corruption. All over the world, wherever corruption is embedded into the systems of administration, efforts to build a more open society are already working on foundations of sand. Donors and supporters have too often failed to confront those most responsible – not least Ministers, who have to navigate conversations about corruption with those very leaders whose hands may be deeply immersed in it. Looking for the reasons why there was a vacuum of support for the Afghanistan government at a crucial time, the steady siphoning off of funds for development assistance by those in positions of authority will loom large. Whether or not the former President left Kabul with a helicopter stuffed with cash may or may not be true – the important point is that his people thought it might well be.


Bad governance and corruption allow other actors into the space of delivering services, and again worldwide, insurgent movements and criminal gangs from the Sahel to Latin America gain influence over local populations by becoming the authority figures, before turning those populations either to their own ideologies or simply a shield against those who seek to reassert the monopoly of authority a legitimate government must possess. Building health and housing services and running local government competently may not create the same headlines and pictures as visits to refugee camps, but we need to value these things more.


These opportunities play into new possibilities to drive open societies. In a recent paper, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace offered some useful suggestions to address current failings.[7] Firstly, by appealing to what they term ‘Middle Powers’ the paper addresses the elephant in the room, of the US current role in democracy assistance and wider international development. It would be a tragedy, and completely counterproductive, to lose the immense resource, financial and of goodwill, which has characterised the US commitment to open societies and democracies since 1945. The US is still the world’s largest donor and engine of change for good, but the damage to reputation recently is significant. Whilst no one’s government speaks for all, the Trump administration’s handling of international alliances and relationships, and the President’s obvious disdain for many developing parts of the world where US citizens and agencies were actively working to deliver openness and democracy, added significantly to a world view still disaffected by US military interventions, particularly in the Middle East.


This was compounded by the appalling events of January 6th in Washington. A prime tenet of an open society and democratic practice is the peaceful transition of power, where elections matter, and leaders depart. That the President of the United States was at the heart of attempts to frustrate the electoral process, or worse, at the Capitol, means that the US preaching to rulers who are getting tanks onto the streets to stay in office rings rather hollow. Couple that with the dismay over the new Administration’s handling of Afghanistan and it is a weakened US which now confronts the many challenges facing democracy, not least in its own backyard, where efforts to restrict voting rights in a number of US States combine with an extreme and continuing polarisation of the political and media space.


There are challenges closer to home also. The UK Government’s attempt to re-balance the powers of Parliament against the courts in relation to Judicial Review, or to ensure the integrity of the electoral process through the Elections Bill currently before Parliament rightly faces tough scrutiny from those who question these provisions. However well-intentioned measures may be to deal with a contemporary problem, or a potential one, a reading of proposed legislation in a more neutral context ought to be the test, and the UK Government must address such questions through a constitutional and not a political lens.


All this suggests that new and innovative ways are necessary to seek to roll back current challenges. The many ‘Middle Powers’ in the Carnegie paper, which they define as ‘countries which regardless of their geopolitical weight have made democracy support a sustained component of their foreign policy’, from Japan and Australia to the UK, can combine to lead initiatives whilst the US recovers. They can use a traditionally indirect approach, instead of direct confrontation, to support the essential infrastructure of openness, but they must work together. Media freedom, religious tolerance, youth engagement, gender inclusion, human rights, all working with the grain of those within states who want the same.


At the same time, challenges such as global warming, pandemics, and trade protectionism allow for interaction with authoritarian states, who will find it hard or impossible to meet not only international standards but the demands of their own peoples without the structure of an open society. Global health security, climate change – and in particular the environmental threats which bring climate change directly to the streets, such as drought or extreme weather – none of these can be sensibly handled without mechanisms of scrutiny, challenge, media freedom and resource which go hand in hand with open societies, not those that close things down. The work will need to be patient, but urgency born of necessity will be an ally.


Finally, despite all the soft talk, those with values have got to be prepared to enunciate them, stand up for them, and resource them. The forthcoming Summit for Democracy called by President Joe Biden in December this year takes place under shadows unforeseen when planned. Afghanistan has given a boost to those who believe that what they need to do is wait, even generationally, to see all that has been advanced in terms of freedom over centuries swept away. The will of all those, worldwide, who believe in democratic values is being tested as never before, challenged by those who believe that such will, appetite and endurance no longer match those with seemingly longer timescales than democracies seem to allow.


Clear reassertions of values must continue to be backed up where necessary by tough actions, individually and collectively, on human rights abuses and sanctions. These must be increasingly smart, and reprisals against them, such as imposed on Australia in a dispute with China, should be collectively resisted.


The United Kingdom also needs to match with resource the words of support contained in the G7 Statement, the Integrated Review, and no doubt what will be added by a UK Statement to the December Summit for Democracy. It’s worth remembering that this December is the first of two planned Summits; the second (in December 2022) will examine progress made over the past year, and the UK does not want to be seen as falling short.


The reductions to the Aid Budget this year affected all aspects of the work the UK is doing at Government level to tackle the crises facing democracy.[8] Whilst the overall contribution remains strong, as the Government is keen to explain, reductions at a critical time leave their mark, and again go to the heart of will and attitude. An up to 80 per cent reduction in support related to Conflict and Open Societies only gladdens those who believe that the tide for freedom is turning, and that despite efforts on sanctions and strong words from Dominic Raab on an issue for which he has a passion, he is ultimately undone by those with other motives elsewhere.[9]


The United Kingdom can neither escape its past, nor should it. The actions of yesterday have consequences today. But one of those consequences is the deep belief in the fundamentals of freedom and openness which have sustained us, and those who think like us, for centuries. The world is not irrevocably divided into those who are for and against such values. Hearts and minds must be won with some renewed urgency. The UK’s struggles in these fields, and the uneven, but certain path forward, is a decent guide, if presented with humility as well as pride, to encourage more down a path which only they can decide if it is for them.


Rt Hon Alistair Burt is Pro-Chancellor of Lancaster University, a Distinguished Fellow of RUSI, a Council Member of the European Council for Foreign Relations, and the UK’s Commissioner for the International Commission of Missing Persons. He was a Member of Parliament for thirty two years, and a Minister in three Conservative administrations, culminating in a role as Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa at both the FCO and DFID.


[1] Anne Applebaum (2020). Twilight of Democracy-the failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends. London: Allen Lane.

[2] Ibid page 185/6

[3] Dr Graeme Ramshaw, Doing Development Democratically, The Foundations of Open Societies and Open Economies, WFD, September 2020,; See also :Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, James Robinson and Pascual Restre, Democracy and Economic Growth: New Evidence, Promarket, February 2018,

[4] Cabinet Office, 2021 Open Societies Statement, G7 Summit in Cornwall UK, July 2021,

[5] Global Partners Governance, Guide To Parliaments series-Paper 1 Why Engage with Parliaments?, 2013,

[6] DFID and FCDO, Open Aid, open Societies: a vision for a transparent world,, February 2018,

[7] Rachel Kleinfield, Thomas Carothers, Steven Feldstein and Richard Younds, How Middle Power Democracies can help renovate global democracy Support, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2021,

[8] FCDO Statement April 21 2021.

[9] Peter Geoghegan, UK government plans 80% cuts to ‘world-leading anti-corruption work, Open Democracy, March 2021,

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