It seems common these days for George W Bush’s security cabal to disrupt masses of people. As I sat locked in Budapest’s Ferighey Airport in late June, while Air Force One bestrode the tarmac, it occurred to me that this was the second such disruption I’ve endured in less than three years..
Bush was in town, it was alleged, to celebrate 50 years since the ill-fated home-grown Hungarian revolution against the Soviets of 1956. As 34-year-old public servant, Tibor, explained to me while collective thumbs twiddled around us, ‘no one is really sure why he came. But our Foreign Minister said it was worth it because Budapest would get on CNN.’
Whatever the case, Bush certainly wasn’t celebrating American action per se no one in Budapest remembers President Eisenhower being of particular use in 1956. A quick trundle around Budapest’s stunning House of Terror museum without doubt the most innovative museum space in the world makes clear how irrelevant Americans were (and are) to Hungarian anti-Communism.
How an airport lockdown can constitute part of a ‘celebration’ is also unclear (even my no-frills airline, Easyjet, offered a refund and that never happens). It was, in the words of the Budapest Times, a ‘grotesque and bizarre spectacle.’ The following day, plastic tape replaced tickertape, reducing the city to a maze of temporary culs-de-sac engineered with the logic of a Jackson Pollock painting. Thousands watched from the sidelines. Unfortunately for Bush, they were irate office staff and tourists, not fans.
If Presidential safety was the name of that game, Democrat voter registration was the result. All four of my American, hostel roommates swore blind they would no longer vote for Bush.
To be fair, the Bush team was only following precedent that of their own over-protected Embassy. Its security blocks not only the surrounding streets but a park too dwarfing the protection afforded to the last remaining monument to the Soviets, which sits adjacent to it. It would be a bitter irony if they understood it.
By contrast, the British don’t do democracy by such twisted means. They do it with dignity and understatement instead. And it still works.
The first time Bush pincered me was in 2003, when he tried but failed to shut down the entire London Underground for the day, but left much of the city in gridlock. Not 15 minutes later, I literally walked into London’s ubiquitous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, who was on a community walkabout. It was an accident, but I suspect it was exactly the sort of accident Livingstone was hoping for. He was trying to make an anti-Bush point and ended up making a far more eloquent one: that democracy has to be seen to be open, as well as delivering for those it serves.
Any day of the year you can stroll right into the Palace of Westminster and its venerable Houses of Parliament, and walk unescorted almost everywhere a committee hearing here, a history lecture there. By comparison, you can’t even get past the apricot marble columns in the foyer of Canberra’s Parliament House.
This is not to say the UK Parliament is insecure. Before you walk through the halls where political leaders have been literally and verbally knifed, you and your bags are screened. If, as I did, you absent-mindedly leave a bag at your table after lunch in one of the cafes, you will have it thumped into your back within 30 seconds.
Thanks to Emo.
And be certain: there is enormous pressure on the British Government to provide the best possible security. The British Cabinet was bombed only 15 years ago and people do not forget easily, especially after the 2005 invasions of the House of Commons and the 7/7 suicide bombings.
But when prompted to up their game, the British took a holistic and open-minded view. There are limits if you wish to protest in the vicinity of Parliament and don’t apply for a permit you’ll be in trouble. But it’s not banned and you won’t be shot at. Literally millions stream through each year without problems. One long-standing vigil even seems to be allowed to block a footpath outside Parliament.
The permanent Whitehall population (we civil servants) has a similar experience. Whereas reactionaries would have burnt the ‘bomb curtains’ in my old office in Whitehall and replaced them with extra walls and mega-proof windows, the British did not. Not because the curtains made me feel comfortable (they definitely didn’t), but because they work.
The Parliamentary authorities also considered more than just physical access to spaces when assessing how best to take open democracy forward. There was modernisation of facilities, updating styles of debate, new hours of operation and so forth. No ‘Patriot Act’ for Britain.
Overall this attitude works as well as the bomb curtains do. It is a perfect demonstration of the British being alert but not alarmed.
And most of all, it brings into sharp relief the silliness and pretension of Bush’s display during the high summer in Hungary. Bush is no safer than Blair because of these expensive shenanigans, and was no more at risk in the first place. But we are all poorer for the illusion.
No one is suggesting Kennedy-style open-air motorcades for the President. But the man of the people can surely do better than impersonating a moving bunker.
It is the least we should expect of real men and real leaders in what we’re constantly told is the most real democracy of all.
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