Long time no blog. Family, Christmas, weather, website upgrades, more weather. the usual.

Here I am in my most recent DIPLOMAT piece, on East v West and the benefits or otherwise of the Asian Model of Development:

For most of the past 100 years or so, it looked as if the modern ‘Western’ model of democracy was the best way ever invented to do things. The act of voting required public debate and participation by men and women equally. This required free media. The rule of law required honest judges and the separation of powers. Universal franchise incentivised the powerful to agree welfare arrangements for the less powerful. And all these things combined to allow people and businesses to keep and invest the results of their work. This unleashed innovation to create wealth at a staggering pace, including in Asia, where first Japan then South Korea showed how modern pluralism and market forces could achieve miraculous results.

Hence the struggle for ideas and influence that dominated the twentieth century, nowhere more than in Asia, where the world’s main population growth was occurring and European colonial rule was ending. Which model should prevail? Something drawing strongly on Western pluralism but with its own forms and priorities (as in India, by far the world’s largest democracy)? Or un-Western enforced collectivism with echoes of Soviet-style oppression adapted to local conditions (China)? Did either of these ways of organising society necessarily make more sense in Asian conditions? Did it make sense to talk of ‘Asian’ values shared across such a vast area?

Some Asian leaders thought that it did. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia claimed that Asian culture had distinct features: family ties, social harmony, collective welfare, and respect for authority. This (they argued) contrasted with the West’s weaker family ties, strong individualism, freedom of choice, less respect for authority or even open dissent. Asian cultural norms required strong state mechanisms stressing social consensus and the authority of firm leadership: the economic and welfare results for the mass of people could be no less impressive than anything achieved in the West…

Last year I visited Vietnam for the first time. It’s still run by a steely communist party that stands tough for Vietnam’s independence, but it’s a communist party that praises free enterprise and presides over feverish hard work and entrepreneurship. The bustling streets of Hanoi were as far as you can get from the smug, bureaucratic, doomed ‘European social model’. Vietnam appears to operate according to one precept that everyone understands: ‘No work? No food!’

Against all this, we Westerners might sniff that insofar as China and other Asian countries are surging ahead it is because they have abandoned the worst features of traditional Asian collectivism, and instead are adopting policies associated with historic Western freedoms: respect for private property, honest courts, rewards for individual effort, growing transparency and improved (or at least improving) human rights. And by the way, we Westerners have invented the Internet. Take that, Asian autocrats!

Conclusion? One familiar to readers here:

All in all, Asia is becoming more democratic, or at least notably more pluralist. But it’s a slow process with twists and turns. We Westerners pride ourselves in our political freedoms, forgetting just how many centuries it took to achieve them. Switzerland is usually seen as a country with top-end democratic traditions, yet it was only in 1971 that women won the right to vote in federal elections, while women could not vote in some local areas for a further 20 years after that.

As we in the UK see in our current battles over Scottish independence, privacy, freedom of the press, the UK’s European Union membership and ever-more intrusive state controls over everyday life, the nature of our own cherished democracy is changing fast – and not for the better.

Perhaps we all are being swept along in a vast new global trend driven by mass access to new technology. Perhaps some sort of messy global average pluralism is emerging, where the power of the state and the power of the masses reach an uneasy stalemate.

Perhaps people in the Western world are seeing their freedoms edge down, just as across Asia, Africa and the Middle East people are enjoying more power vis-à-vis the state?

Maybe not such a Happy New Year. Wait! At least the Guardian seems to agree with me. Sort of:

The truth is that the arrogant, centralised state is as much of a problem as the out-of-control market, and the dominion of one is symbiotically related to the tyranny of the other. From that, all else follows. The future politics of the left will either be pluralist, localist and libertarian, or it will shrivel.

One can but hope.