Every school child should know about the Magna Carta, a document forced upon King John by his feudal barons in 1215 to limit the king's power. But the full majesty of how the march toward constitutional government began in England deep in the Middle Ages is conveyed by Dan Jones, a Cambridge-educated historian, in The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, published in 2012. (Jones continues the saga in the recently published The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors.) The story of how British democracy developed is an exceedingly slow and cumbersome one. The first meeting of parliament did not happen until 1264, nearly a half-century after the signing of the Magna Carta. And women's suffrage was not instituted until 1918, more than 700 years after the Magna Carta. In short, what we in the West define as a healthy democracy took England the better part of a millennium to achieve. And in reading both of Jones' books, what screams out loud and clear is the political wealth, cultural density and utter formidability of the English tradition achieved as much in war as in peace — without which the magnificent debates and rhetoric that are on display in parliament in London today would simply not exist.
A functioning democracy is not a product that can be easily exported, in other words, but an expression of culture and historical development that must be constantly nursed and maintained. Britain's democracy did not come from civil society programs taught by human rights workers; it was the offshoot of bloody dynastic politics and uprisings in the medieval and early modern eras.
The United States also has a democracy that is the envy of the world. But as the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington notes, that is because America was born with "political institutions and practices imported from seventeenth-century England." That, too, in one way or another, has been the case with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the other countries of the Anglosphere that also, not coincidentally, have enviable democracies. To say that democracy and the Anglo-Saxon tradition are not inherently related is to deny the record of history; it is also to say that culture, merely because it cannot be quantified and otherwise measured on an academic's chart, does not matter.
Germany and Japan also have well-functioning and stable democracies. But that is only because they were completely destroyed by the United States and Britain in World War II and had their political systems rebuilt and developed from scratch by American occupation forces who then stayed on for many years.
Europe — from Portugal to Poland and from Norway to Greece — has many stable democracies that work, if not always as well over the decades as those in the Anglosphere. But these countries are generally heir to what we call Western civilization and bourgeoisie traditions in various forms — traditions interrupted in cases, rather than erased from memory, by World War II and the Cold War.
India has had a more or less stable, functioning democracy for almost two-thirds of a century. But would that have been the case without British rule under the East India Company and the Raj from the late 18th century to the mid-20th? Of course, British dominance was often cruel and racist. But it also united India through a railway system and provided the building blocks of stable government through its civil service and parliamentary tradition. To say that the success of India's democracy has indigenous causes is reasonable; to say that it has had nothing at all to do with the British tradition is not.
Then there are South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore — successful and stable democracies all. Singapore's system, as its founder Lee Kuan Yew writes in his memoirs, is inseparable from the British tradition. All three countries are the beneficiaries of Confucian ethical practices that reach back to antiquity. And all three were initially stabilized as functioning modern states by enlightened authoritarians: Lee, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and Park Chung Hee in South Korea. Again, democracy did not naturally spring from any of them in full flower but was the product of decades and centuries of political, cultural and social development and conditions.
Elsewhere the situation is murky, though not impossible. The countries of South America have only experienced democracy and the rule of law in recent years and decades, and this discounts the virtual one-man rule that is the case in places such as Ecuador and Bolivia. Venezuela is in semi-chaos. Nobody can argue that Argentina is even remotely well governed. In a number of other Latin American countries, democracy functions on paper while the system is rife with corruption and the rule of law is weak.
Africa often has democracies in name only, since strongmen rule behind a facade of legality. Many places in Africa have had elections but are nowhere near stable. Outside the capital cities there is often nothing resembling civil society or any governing structure whatsoever. Holding elections is easy; building institutions is hard and can take decades or longer.
The Middle East is a disaster zone, save for Israel, Turkey and, to a limited degree, Iran. Morocco, Oman and some of the Gulf countries are stable and civil, but in almost all cases that is because of enlightened authoritarianism, not democracy. Tunisia is democratic but barely stable. Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are in varying states of war and chaos. Reading the news about these places and then switching to the pages of Jones' books about medieval English dynastic struggles, it is sometimes hard to see how large parts of the early 21st century Middle East are more politically advanced than Plantagenet and Tudor England. The notion that countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan can accomplish in short order what it took England many hundreds of years to do seems like policy malpractice.
Yes, it might be that Western liberal democracy is the best system for governance that has so far appeared in history; it is quite another thing to say that many places in the world are up to the task at this moment. Or rather, perhaps the better way to phrase it is to say that Western liberal democracy will have to adapt to cultural and historical realities on the ground in areas such as the Middle East. Of course, many places might be defined on paper as democracies, but it is the power relationships behind the scenes that provide the truth about how countries are actually run.
Democracy cannot simply be exported (except in extreme cases such as in the American occupations of Germany and Japan) any more than theoretical reasoning can replace hundreds of years of cultural and historical tradition. In that spirit, books such as The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses provide deeper, more arresting insights into the modern condition than many of the policy papers emanating from Western capitals.