A Point of View: Why it can be good to give in to your enemies

Left: Protesters against coalition government cuts. Right: A protester's hand against a poster reading "Blair must go!"

In a democracy, leaders and the opposition must accept each other's legitimacy, says Roger Scruton.

Last week I examined some of the institutions that form part of democracy as we in the West understand it. But I have yet to consider the fundamental point, which is that in a democracy we consent to be governed by people we dislike.

In Egypt today many people refuse to accept the result of the recent elections. The army has stepped in, ostensibly to maintain order, but in fact to impose the kind of disorder with which armies are equipped to deal - the disorder of the battlefield. Just why this has happened is a topic to which I will return next week. But we should not assume that the Egyptian people are any different from the rest of us when it comes to the hard discipline of being governed by people you dislike.

I know from my own experience just how hard this discipline can be. My father was a staunch Labour supporter. He believed that Tory politicians were all corrupt representatives of an oppressive ruling class, and that the entire English establishment - the Church of England, the House of Lords, the Monarchy, the "squire-archy", the old universities, the industrialists and financiers, you name it - was a system of exploitation, erected to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

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Roger Scruton
  • Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST

I think that was a common view among Labour supporters in those days, and the Labour Party itself did not take a great deal of trouble to refute it.

As a result my father actually hated the Tory Party and all those who sat in Parliament as members of it. We could do nothing to pacify his rage when the Tory party made the mistake of winning an election, or when a Tory government passed some law that seemed to him to damage the interests of the trade unions or the working class. For several days in the wake of such events he would be unapproachable. But he accepted the result, accepted its legitimacy, accepted that he had no recourse other than to campaign for the repeal of the laws that offended him.

I experienced a version of my father's habitual rage when the government of Tony Blair decided, in the face of massive opposition from ordinary people living in the countryside, to ban our traditional forms of hunting.

This seemed to me to be a new kind of legislation, aimed at a minority and fired by sentiments that ought to have no place in parliament. It affected me since hunting is part of my life, and the life of my rural neighbours. But I had to swallow my disappointment, and to acknowledge that the law is legitimate. I can campaign for a repeal, but I am duty bound as a citizen to obey it. Accepting it is one part of the burden that I and other Tories have suffered under 13 years of Labour government - the burden of being ruled by people we disagree with, some of whom we actively dislike.

Protesters from the Countryside Alliance holding banners

I think people are not as aware as they should be of how contrary to human nature it is, to accept orders from those with whom you do not agree. Many have seen the events of the Arab Spring as involving a popular movement for democracy against autocratic government, and to some extent this is true. But one thing that has been very noticeable, especially in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, has been the emergence of democratically elected governments that have no time for opinions other than their own.

Egypt: Key facts

Protester holding Egypt flag
  • Population: 83.9 million (UN, 2012)
  • Capital: Cairo
  • Area: 1 million sq km (386,874 sq miles)
  • Major language: Arabic
  • Major religions: Islam, Christianity

In Western democracies our governments are aware that many people, perhaps even a majority, did not vote for them, and that they must therefore make themselves acceptable to their opponents.

Look at the pronouncements of the recently elected and recently deposed President Morsi of Egypt, however, and you will find little or nothing to suggest that he is aware that there are Egyptians who disagree with him and whose consent must be constantly solicited. It is impossible to discern from his speeches that there is a substantial minority of Egyptian citizens who are Christians, others who are atheists, others who, while following the Muslim way of life, would rather it did not make a show of itself as the state religion.

His view of elections is that they grant an absolute right to impose the ruling party's agenda, and that opponents have lost all right to an agenda of their own. And the response of the army is to say, not so - the only ones with a right to impose their agenda are we, who represent the interests of all Egyptians and not just those of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that we have to kill quite a few Egyptians to prove that we represent them is just one of those things.

Protesters in gather in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morshi

In our own system the opposition is a legitimate part of the legislative process. Laws are seldom steam-rollered through Parliament without regard for disagreement, and the general assumption is that the final result will be a compromise, an attempt to reconcile the many conflicting interests. This idea of legislation as a compromise is an unusual one. The natural order is that described in the Old Testament, in which kings rule by decree, taking advice perhaps, but not allowing a voice to interests other than their own.

There are aspects of human life in which compromise is either suspect or forbidden. In battle you don't compromise with the enemy. In religion you don't compromise with the devil. And it is when religion intrudes into politics that the political process is most at risk. This is the reason why, in the history of modern Egypt, successive presidents have tried to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. The Brotherhood believes that law and politics are not about compromise but about obedience to the will of God.

Glorious Revolution?

Battle of Boyne
  • Term refers to the overthrow of King James II of England by parliamentarians and William of Orange
  • King James had grown increasingly unpopular because of his close ties to France and Roman Catholic faith
  • Opponents were worried that the throne would pass to a Roman Catholic heir
  • William of Orange, who was married to King James II's Protestant daughter Mary, ascended throne of England in 1689
  • James II made another unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. He was defeated and fled

In the 17th Century our country was torn apart by civil war, and at the heart of that civil war was religion - the Puritan desire to impose godly rule on the people of Great Britain regardless of whether they wanted it, and the leaning of the Stuart Kings towards a Roman Catholic faith that had become deeply antipathetic to the majority and a vehicle for unwanted foreign interference. In a civil war both sides behave badly, precisely because the spirit of compromise has fled from the scene. The solution is not to impose a new set of decrees from on high, but to make room for opposition, and the politics of compromise. This was recognised at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Parliament was re-established as the supreme legislative institution, and the rights of the people against the sovereign power were reaffirmed the following year in a Bill of Rights.

This raises what for me is the most important question concerning the Middle East today, which is that of reconciling religious obedience and the secular rule of law. That question was debated by the early Church, and indeed raised by Jesus himself, in the parable of the tribute money. In that parable Jesus invites us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. In other words, to obey Caesar when dealing with the ordinary affairs of government, while remaining obedient in our personal life to the commands of religion. His assumption was that we could reconcile the one obedience with the other, since the commandments of religion are simple and obvious. Indeed, there are only two of them, namely to love God entirely and your neighbour as yourself. Jesus rightly assumed that those two commandments would never jeopardise the legitimate demands of government, and this assumption was built into its pronouncements by the early church.

Of course, there is a long history of conflict in Europe between Pope and Emperor, and between religious enthusiasm and the secular law. But it is fair to say that by the end of the 17th Century, as the Enlightenment spread its influence far and wide across our civilisation, it was beginning to be accepted that we manage our affairs in this world by passing our own laws, that these laws are man-made, secular, and if possible neutral when it comes to the various religions that compete within the state. In any apparent clash between secular law and religious obedience, it has become accepted in our society that secular law must prevail. The hope has been that the two spheres of duty, the sacred and the secular, are sufficiently separate, so that there would in any case be little or no overlap between them. To put it bluntly, religion, in our society, has become a private affair, which makes no demands of the public as a whole.

The privatisation of religion has not occurred everywhere in the modern world, and certainly not in the Muslim world. Today we see a Turkey led to the brink of civil unrest by an Islamic Prime Minister in rebellion against the secular state. We see an Egypt in which the army has stepped in to depose a President who wishes to govern Egypt by Islamic law. We see a region-wide conflict between the Sunni and Shi'ah versions of the faith, which is now tearing Syria apart. And all across the Middle East, freedom of speech, association and religion are under attack. Why is this, and what should we do about it? I shall address those questions next week.

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Here is a selection of your comments

Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Roger certainly hit the jackpot here regarding what's happening in the Middle East: "..democratically elected governments that have no time for opinions other than their own." However, it could easily be argued that we see the same exact behaviors coming from our own elected officials here in the US now with regard to numerous pieces of legislation both passed and proposed; and as evidenced by the election processes for certainly the last 16 years, yield results where a candidate wins based more so upon who they are not and what they do not represent, rather than who they actually are and what they represent. They have clearly forgotten that said "win" is not a carte blanche endorsement of their agenda. Maybe the old adage is true for all humans: Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely.

Bill Cooman, Hilton, NY, USA

I agree almost entirely with Roger Scruton (so far). On one point, however, I would go further and question his statement that in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt there were democratically elected governments, except in the very narrowest sense of the fact that those elected obtained a majority of the votes cast. In my view one can only properly call it a democratic election if both candidates (assuming the reasonable procedure of a run off between the two candidates who obtained most votes in the first round of an election) set out in a manifesto their policy and what they hope to achieve if elected, so that the voters can actually be said to prefer one candidate's policy over another. Morsi did not set out his programme, or at any rate the programme he adopted once he was in power, in any such manifesto - indeed he said he was going to seek a government in which all parties could take part; and I don't think Shafik said anything much at all about his policies, though I may have missed it if he did. That was not a democratic election in the sense that democracy is understood in the USA or the EU; and Egypt was certainly not a democracy during the year of Morsi's Presidency, as Roger Scruton in effect points out.

Edward Nugee, London, England

"Religion, in our society, has become a private affair." If only this were true. The Established Church of England still influences our daily lives such as in schools, and so provides a rationale for other denominations and religions to establish their own schools. The result is a nation divided within itself in the way children are indoctrinated during their formative years rather than being a one nation under the secular law with religion in the realm of the private citizen.

Iain Farrell, Harrow, Middlesex

Scruton is fundamentally wrong on the Muslim brotherhood. Firstly, Morsi did try and include all representative groups in his cabinet but they refused. So the Muslim brotherhood perfectly well understands compromise and an agreed position, because that is how it has survived and indeed, it is the Islamic way of doing things through a Shura, or consultation of all parties. Given the circumstances, Morsi would not have been expected to, nor should he have, capitulated in the face of threats. Winston Churchill and Mrs Thatcher are renowned for not capitulating, and they are widely respected for it. So I would argue that Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood behaved completely in a way that the British would understand and even admire and Scruton has got his facts fundamentally wrong and his theory falls apart.

Bilal Patel, London, UK

I would take issue with you when you characterise Turkey as a secular state. Whilst it is so portrayed and its constitution claims to be secular, in reality Turkey is not a truly secular state because religion is under the control of the state. Islam falls under the jurisdiction of a state body, the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Dinayet), funded by the state. The Turkish state has also favoured the rise of an unrecognised Autocephalous Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate.

Pierre, Montreal, Canada

I see Mr Scruton felt the need to bring up the hunting with dogs ban, the fact was, there was overwhelming support to ban it, comparing that act of law with what is happening in Egypt is absolutely disgusting.....

James Booker, Cambridge

I am an Episcopal priest and a hospital chaplain in the United States. As a priest at the altar and in the pulpit, I represent the Christianity of the Anglican communion as well as I can. As a chaplain, it is my calling to have a vital personal faith lived for the persons in my care -- which means honoring their spirituality and needs. This requires living in the tension and even paradox of my faith and the faith of another. Faith as more than dogma, but the lived relationship with God in community with others, means that it never will be merely a private matter. Violence between those who cannot accept the tension is as old as humanity; what is new is our capacity to harm others on a vast scale more efficiently than ever. This calls for new ways of being. I look forward to reading Mr. Scruton's suggestions!

Robert Morris, Zanesville, Ohio, United States

Ultimately, the problem is caused by our form of "democracy" or the notion that voting for and getting a four/five year king is democracy. Our democracy is based on a five year single vote cycle, with one choice; "ok stay" or "no, go". Until we individualise issues and offer them to the public to decide (real or direct democracy) then the issue of overlords, people who know best, overly powerful individuals, disconnection to public opinion and corruption will always prevail.

Ben Collins, Vasteras, Sweden

Are you implying that a people's inability to reach compromise is rooted in the incompatibility between religious and secular law? If that were the case please explain to me why we see the same lack of compromise in places like Argentina or Venezuela, where religion has virtually no place in the political arena.

Leandro Palacios, Toronto, Canada

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