The Master of Ideology

December 30th, 2009   Uncategorized

”I love to speak to young people. Older politicians are often already fixed in their ways. Young people are much more open-minded and ready to change their opinions, when faced with good arguments.” says Nigel Ashford, the author of “Principles for a Free Society”, a study guide on ideology.

Nigel Ashford passionately tells about all the young participants in the JHF courses on his book “Principles for a Free Society”, a study guide to twelve principles needed to build a free and democratic society. Translated from English into several languages including Spanish, Russian, Serbian, Azeri, Lithuanian, Turkish and, soon, Albanian, the book is frequently used as study material for the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation’s seminars on ideology and political principles. Several times a year, Nigel Ashford himself crosses the Atlantic Ocean to chair seminars in Sweden. While the participants in the Swedish seminars primarily come from the Balkans or the former Soviet Union, the book is also used in Turkey, Latin America and Africa. Over the years, around 2500 young people have participated in this JHF programme.

Originally a university professor from Great Britain, Nigel Ashford now lives in Washington DC and is well informed on Swedish politics. When Carl Bildt ended his period as Chairman of European Democrat Students (EDS), , Nigel first visited Sweden in 1974 as the new Secretary General to move the offices to London, and he has followed Swedish politics ever since.


Why, I wondered, did he write the book ‘Principles for a Free Society.’ ”When the Berlin wall fell, people formerly behind the Iron Curtain did not know what kind of society to create, only that they rejected totalitarian communism. Then Eva Gustavsson [the managing director of the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation] came up with the idea to publish a book encouraging debate on freedom and democracy. And as the former communist countries once again wanted to become a part of Europe, they needed to know its implications”, Nigel Ashford explains.

The first edition of ‘Principles for a Free Society’ consisted of ten principles.  “The book was a great success. Due to topics raised in the seminars, we later added another two principles: the Rule of Law and Toleration,” Ashford comments.

What causes the most argument when the twelve principles are debated?  “That would be the concept of democracy”, Ashford claims. “I tell the participants that democracy is a ‘hurrah’ word, that is, the word has positive connotations. However, the Ancient Greeks considered it a ‘boo’ word, a bad system of government. Why? They identified three problems with democracy:  the tyranny of the majority over the minority; the power of emotion instead of reason; and the threat of special interests at the expense of the public interest.  Liberal representative democracy found in the West is designed to overcome these problems.”

He believes that some young politically active individuals from former non-democratic societies tend to idealize democracy and are disappointed that people are not more involved in politics. “I tell them that ‘we are the odd ones’,” Ashford laughs. “Only a minority of people are interested in politics and we cannot force people to get involved. Democracy exists for the people. The people do not exist for democracy. ”

Nigel Ashford claims the goals of his study guide are to raise questions and encourage debate rather than endorse his own opinions. (He calls himself a classical liberal.) The participants should learn to give and take – to have their views examined by others, while at the same time challenging others constructively.

“At the conferences, we try to create an environment which encourages reflection and debate,” he explains and continues. “For half an hour I explain the principle. Then, the participants discuss it in groups, which are normally mixed in nationality. Once the group discussion is over, they have the opportunity to tell the rest of the group about their views and debate follows.”

Nigel Ashford finds it useful for participants from former communist countries to come to Sweden (often a role model for them) to learn from Swedes that democracy has both positive and negative elements. Debating these pros and cons contribute to a dynamic discussion which is, in itself, essential for developing a democratic society even further.

In Ashford’s view, the most substantial threat in Eastern Europe comes from nostalgia for the old communist society: “Either, they have forgotten how it was or are just too young to remember.”  Frowning, he adds that the group with bad memories even seems to include some Swedish politicians, such as Social Democrats who favour cooperation with the Left party, the former communists.  He believes that his book, and the work of the JHF, contributes to sustaining freedom and democracy in those countries.

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