A Very British Marathon


Peace campaigners might be forgiven for a degree of pessimism, and some may even conclude that Britain today has become a force for evil in the world.  Without British support the Iraq war, and all the consequences that have come and are yet to come from it – other pre-emptive wars, perhaps, and the legitimising of war as a way of projecting foreign policy - without British active support this disaster may not have happened.  The pro-democracy uprising in Nepal illustrates another situation where British influence has not been on the side of the angels, though in this case a good outcome has been achieved in spite of outside pressure.

Politically, Nepal has come a long way in a very short time.  Despotic shahs have ruled since 1769, and just 15 years ago King Gyanendra handed power to an elected parliament.  Nepal at the time was suffering, with Maoists having killed an estimated 13,000 in a protracted decade-long civil war.  But last year Gyanendra dismissed parliament, resuming absolute rule, backed by the military.  Hence the general uprising, demanding democracy – proper democracy this time, with all kingly power abolished.  This people-power democracy so appealed to the Maoists that they have promised to renounce violence and fight via the ballot box. They could hardly do less, in view of the aspiration and bravery of the people, expressed on the dangerous streets of Kathmandu, where police bullets and batons have killed a dozen protestors. 

A true democracy, inspired and driven by people power, is the sort of democracy that you would expect to be welcomed by the other great democracies.  But no!  When it seemed that power was slipping out of his hands, Gyanendra offered a partial ceding of power.  He was to keep his military, and he was not offering to hand over power to a proper parliament, but only some power to a prime minister and a council of ministers.  His ability to seize power again at some time in the future was unimpaired.  Yet this flawed offer appealed to other democracies, and US, British, and Indian diplomats were sent to advise acceptance.  We must believe that this advice was offered because the great democracies did not want too much democracy in Nepal.  They did not like the idea of power-sharing with communists, even elected communists.  They advised a military solution, with the prospect of continuing civil war – just as you might expect from today’s democracies with their modern track record.  But the Nepalese turned down the advice, and it now seems likely that they have achieved a full-fledged democracy unmarred by civil strife, with the king debarred from power. According to a Guardian report (30/5/06) the new government and the rebels have conjointly asked for the UN to monitor the peace.

Why describe all this to the KNP audience, which is primarily interested in peace matters?  Because the spread of democracy, proper democracy pared of autocratic power, means peace in the world.  Nepal is an example to which the partial democracies of the United States and Britain can aspire.  Here and in the US, as recent history has shown, the leaders and their executives rule the country in practice, and can drag their country to war. How they have done this is complex - a story of executive power and deception well-known to readers.  The new democracy of Nepal, inspired by the people and with the warning example of the other partial democracies before them, is well placed to be a beacon to the world.

But this article started out with a different intent.  For a change, a feel-good comment was intended, inspired by the London marathon. Around 40,000 runners took part in what has become, amongst other things, a charity fundraising event.  Yes, it is a high-class event, with Olympic runners competing for first prize, but the great mass of runners were there for the challenge, for the fun, and to raise money for charities they selected. 

It is an international event, of course, and one German runner has set up a website to explain to his countrymen what it is all about, and how to go about getting an official number so you can run.  ‘Almost the whole event is sort of a carnival,’ he explains.  ‘Last year, with my finishing time of 3.43 I was still in the first fifth of the 35,201 finishers, but was overtaken by a huge parrot and a woman talking on a mobile phone.’

A vast crowd of spectators lines the route, and gets bigger every year.  The runners love the encouragement they give.  Back in the field there is no great sense of urgency – the runners are just trying to do their personal best, and the crowd is enthusiastic and generous with praise for everyone.  They clap the real contenders politely, but reserve their enthusiasm for those lower down the order, the tryers and those labouring under fantastic costumes for the sake of charity.  It is still a marathon, but has become a very British one.  Taking part is the thing.  £35 million was raised for worthy charities.  I imagine that marathons run in other parts of the world are much more focussed, more competitive, more earnest.  I also imagine that marathons in Sydney and New York will take something from the British model, and become more fun, both to watch and to run.

It has often been said that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve.  But that is rather harsh, when applied to Britain.  In practice, the politicians play with loaded dice, and what with the royal prerogative, no written constitution to constrain politicians and top-heavy executive power, our democracy runs more like an elected oligarchy.  The British deserve better.  Further, the people could be trusted with more power.  A quote from Tom Paine comes to mind.  ‘What incentive has the farmer, while following the plough, to go to war with the farmer of another country?’  More devolved power would work well in a mature nation such as Britain, and have a benign effect on foreign policy. *


*I can say all this, as I have an Australian passport.