Political succession, the old fashioned way

Can someone explain to me why Fidel Castro has been succeeded by his brother? Since when does communism equal hereditary monarchy? Ask Kim Jong-il. It’s instructive to contrast Cuba with Pakistan, where a lot of people are trying under very difficult circumstances to manage a legitimate transfer of political power. It is, unfortunately, far too late to do it peacefully this time. But if they can get the legitimacy right, the violence should subside. I wish Pakistan some of the luck we already had over many centuries.

Sorry, make that millennia. I am regarded in some circles as eccentric because on mild provocation I start explaining about King Alfred and the cakes, and how the descendants of Edmund Ironside married into first the Scottish then the post-Conquest English royal families. But that history is of compelling interest not only for its often ghastly details but because, in the end, the slaughter stopped. Britain basically solved the problem of political legitimacy, and passed that solution on to Anglosphere countries like Canada. Few others have been so fortunate.

The orderly transfers of power we enjoy, which tragically elude so much of the world, are a revealing test of such legitimacy. All rulers assert some sort of claim not just to hold but to deserve power, whether as sun god incarnate, vanguard of the proletariat or person whose budget measures command majority support in an elected legislature. But while the latter is easy to test, tyrants are obliged to maintain the illusion of consent through fear.

It usually works pretty well, at least for them, in the normal course of events. But when the leader is dead or dying and no potential heir emits visible light or the sound of history’s marching feet, when no one yet controls the machinery of repression, it invites swordplay in the temple or machine-gun fire in the cabinet room.

Passing on power to one’s relatives is a kind of desperate default position under such circumstances. That blood is thicker than water tends to make all sorts of families cling together in times of chaos. Besides, a political tyrant is liable also to be a domestic one, and expect his relatives to remain under his thumb from beyond the grave. As they well may; when a legacy of brutal injustice is your only claim to power, the slightest hint of scruples invites violent overthrow. If Fidel Castro’s claim to power was illegitimate, Raul’s is ludicrous. Thus while undemocratic regimes formally based on heredity tend to depart from that principle in times of crisis, more advanced tyrannies have the paradoxical opposite tendency, to revert to it, from Cromwell’s son to Mao’s widow to Saddam Hussein’s family.

Even in fragile democracies effective political power is often dynastic, from India to Kenya; if nothing else, when your political allies are also your relatives you have a good idea where trouble will come from. Of course mature democracies also have families in which political interest and talent run strongly. But you don’t see Robert Kennedy becoming president when JFK is assassinated. And even the British crown became reliably hereditary only once compliance with the will of Parliament replaced accident of birth as the measure of legitimacy.

It is not coincidence that no sane individual has the slightest expectation that Britain or North America will witness a violent transfer of power. Take the bitterly disputed 2000 American election: Did one person even get punched in the nose? And how likely is a coup in Ontario?

In public affairs, as in life generally, we should remember to count our blessings. I yield to no one when it comes to discontent with the inadequacies of governance in Canada. But I am so irascible on this point because I worry that we hold the precious gift of ordered liberty in too slight regard when, indeed, we bother to regard it at all.

The cultural habits of self-government, the ability to depend on your fellows to share your outrage at the right things in the right way at the right time in sufficient numbers, are hard-won and precious and it is no mere pedantry to recall how it happened. Nor is it culturally insensitive to balance sympathy for people seeking peaceful transitions of power outside the Anglosphere with a realistic appraisal of the enormous difficulties they face.

A statue of Alfred the Great on Parliament Hill would remind us that many good people died, often horribly, to give us decent government. And it would help us spare a thought for those people in Pakistan struggling against long odds to achieve what we inherited, and those in Cuba and North Korea still denied even the chance to try.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]