Robert Key was the UK’s MP for Salisbury between 1983 and 2010, and member of cabinet during Margaret Thatcher and John Major’s administration. He was responsible for bringing the Maldives to the attention of both the British parliament and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He has supported the country’s path to democracy ever since current President Mohamed Nasheed walked into his constituency office and made his case.
Minivan News spoke to Key during his first visit to the Maldives.
JJ Robinson: Was it difficult to visit the Maldives while a serving MP, given its image as a holiday destination?
Robert Key: No it’s not difficult, because there are organisations that do it such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association – they all do organised visits, with a political purpose.
But to be completely free of politics and party and able to take a more academic interest in it – I was a teacher for 16 years before I was a politician – has been a great privilege.
In five days I have had a political reeducation. Because a lot of the aspirations I have taken for granted as a British politician do not necessarily apply in the culture of the Maldives.
JJ: What sort of aspirations?
RK: Aspirations towards human rights, for example. In my political life in the UK, human rights have always been an important issue on the political agenda, have has always been seen as virtuous and necessary, and have always been pressed for by the electorate.
I have to realise this is not the case for all people in the Maldives, who have come across human rights only in the last year or two. It’s a new and challenging idea for them, and they are not quite sure what it means. I’ve had to understand that. Even though I’ve been a British politician for 27 years, I certainly don’t have all the answers.
JJ: How did you originally become aware of the Maldives?
RK: Of course I have been aware of the Maldives for many years as a desirable holiday destination – islands in the sun. But it was really the arrival of President Mohamed Nasheed in my constituency office in Salisbury with an agenda of issues for which he needed the assistance of the local member of parliament.
He walked in through the door with his school-friend David Hardingham (Nasheed attended Dauntsey’s school with the founder of the Salisbury-based Friends of Maldives NGO), and said “I have problems. I have problems with visas, I have problems with police, I need some advice from police about how to protect my little office in Salisbury” – all these sorts of issues.
There were bigger problems: such as how to engage the British government ministers and the Commonwealth with what was happening in the Maldives. He quite rightly, as a good democrat, used the democratic system in the UK to pursue answers to his problems.
JJ: This was before the founding of [Nasheed’s] Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)?
RK: Absolutely. It was when he was setting up the party in a room above a shop in Millford street in Salisbury. That is where he was writing for Minivan News, that is where he was broadcasting on the Internet to Germany, and uplifting the shortwave to the Maldives.
JJ: Can you describe that first meeting?
RK: It was quite an extraordinary meeting. Over my many years I’ve realised you never knew what was going to hit you next as an issue. You never knew who was going to walk through your office door with what sort of problem. It might be a regular sort of problem – housing or taxation – but just sometimes there was an issue that really gripped me as really important. This was one of those.
I saw a young man with great vision and enormous energy and determination, who wanted to change his country. I’d had only one or two similar experiences in Salisbury, with other people who had equally great ambitions, interests and determination, but I recognised this particular young man as someone who I could not ignore, indeed who I wished to promote, because I believed he had all the right instincts as a democrat.
It was an extraordinary impression he made at first. He was very nervous, and very apprehensive. He didn’t know if he could trust me. Trust is the big issue in democratic politics, and I think he had one or two rebuffs from other politicians.
I took it at face value, and we took it from there. I met him a number of times in Salisbury, and I never ceased to believe in his own vision and his motives, and his motives appeared to me to be all correct.
I know nothing about all the party politics of the Maldives, but I do understand a good democrat when I see one.
JJ: What motivated you turn that meeting into a push for democracy in the Maldives? Wasn’t it a far-reaching project for the member for Salisbury?
RK: Not really, because I’d always believed in the Commonwealth and international development issues. I had worked for Chris Patten when he was Secretary of State for International Development, both as his parliamentary secretary and later as a minister, and I understood his view of the world. He left politics to become governor of Hong Kong where he oversaw the hand-over of Hong Kong back to the Chinese government, and I was close to that process.
So I always believed that British politicians had a duty to other Commonwealth countries. And that was why I believed it was more than worthwhile – it was my duty – to assist in this process.
At that stage I knew nothing about the politics of the Maldives – I had no reason to. But if what [Mohamed Nasheed] said was true, he had a strong case.
That was why I needed to take the case to Ministers in the British government, to seek their involvement.
JJ: What was the reaction from British ministers when you presented this story to them?
RK: I think it was always positive, always open-minded, waiting for the evidence to emerge. I think the British government never sought to interfere with political processes, but it did wish to ensure democratic processes were possible in the Maldives.
That was why the Westminster Foundation for Democracy – which is an all-party Foundation – was willing to supply funds and people to advise.
JJ: When did the Westminster Foundation become involved and what support did they provide?
RK: In the year or so before the 2008 presidential election a number of people came out to the Maldives to give advice based on their experience from other parts of the world – the Commonwealth in particular – on what was going on and what was possible. It was completely even-handed and fair-minded, and it was not taking up a party political stance.
JJ: A version of the story told here is that Westminster Foundation funded and trained the MDP.
RK: No no, the Westminster Foundation is completely non party-political. That is why the leaders of all parties are trustees of the Westminster Foundation. It is absolutely not party political. It operates in a whole range of countries, for example Macedonia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia. It acts exactly the same way in any given circumstance anywhere in the world.
JJ: It often stated here that the MDP was strongly supported by the UK Conservative Party. What was the extent of that relationship beyond yourself?
RK: It simply started with me because I was the local MP and happened to be a Conservative. It may equally be true that if it was a Labour Party constituency it might have been the Labour Party that took up the cause. But that wasn’t the issue.
At no stage did I ever discuss party politics with President Mohamed Nasheed. He never asked me anything party-political and I didn’t offer it, any more than I have [during this visit]. I’ve seen both political parties, both party headquarters.
JJ: One of the accusations the former administration threw at both yourself and David Hardingham was that you were Christian missionaries out to subvert Islam in the Maldives. How did you deal with that?
RK: Well I recognised it as a political ploy. But we had to take it seriously as a threat because that was how it was presented – that Salisbury Cathedral might become a target for some kind of activity. It was very specific.
The actual threat was that Salisbury and Salisbury Cathedral were trying to convert the Maldives to Christianity. Which was absolute nonsense but had to be taken seriously, because quite obviously in the Maldives that would be seen as a significant threat in a country that is 100 percent Islamic. I understood that straight away.
It was not true, and therefore we had to say “It is not true.” The Dean of Salisbury Cathedral understood the issue, she took it at face value, and we sought security advice as necessary. But it was never a serious threat. It was a juvenile political ploy.
JJ: Were there any difficulties you faced with the cultural differences of the Maldives? What has your experience been like?
RK: This is my first visit. I was always very keen that people would see my concern for the Maldives as completely impartial and in the interest of good government in the Maldives. That is why I am here, and that is the message I have given to the civil servants I met [on Monday].
The turnout included 14 permanent secretaries – not bad for a retired backbencher. If they are prepared to take me seriously as an impartial supporter of the Maldives, I hope everyone else will.
JJ: What was your reaction when you heard that Mohamed Nasheed had won the 2008 Presidential election?
RK: Astonishment. And delight – in that order. But then I should have recognised that the people are right. As a good democrat I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have been delighted that he has become President, for the right reasons, doing it the right way, playing it by the rulebook, to make sure his view of good government in the Maldives has prevailed.
He’s now finding out how difficult democracy really is. But that should not deflect him from his vision – of course its difficult, of course the issues are intractable. But, as long as his motives remain completely clear, then I think he will stand again as president, with honour. He clearly has the backing of his party and I wish him well. It’s up to the people of the Maldives.
JJ: Are you aware that when the cabinet resigned Nasheed came under a lot of international pressure for detaining one of the MPs, People’s Alliance (PA) leader Abdulla Yameen, allegedly outside what the constitution permitted?
RK: I’m not aware of that at all. I had just retired [in July 2010], I was away on holiday.
JJ: Have you followed the Maldives since Nasheed’s election? What is your assessment now you’ve seen it first-hand?
RK: I haven’t seen everything, I’ve seen a sample. It’s extremely interesting. I have an agenda of things to go back and do in the UK and contacts to make. I compared notes with the new High commissioner to the Maldives (John Rankin).
I had a fascinating meeting about the importance of statistics to good government. I pointed out that even the British government has only for one year had an independent office of national statistics that everyone can trust – journalists, taxpayers and politicians. And no-one can say “You’re massaging the figures minister” because they are independent.
JJ: Why did this meeting jump out at you?
RK: Because of their anxiety to maintain independence, and their sense of the collective wisdom of the government of the Maldives. In other words, the mark of any good civil service. That was hugely encouraging – their desire not to be party political, or be seen to be party political. All of these are virtuous aspirations on behalf of a civil service determined to serve the people well.
They were asking questions like ‘How do you educate ministers?’ A very important question.
I explained how it worked for me, and how influential civil servants ulitimately are in shaping a government and having limits beyond which they will not go – at which point the cabinet secretary has to see the prime minister to talk about it.
JJ: One of the major economic issues here is that the Maldivian civil service employs a substantial percentage of the population. How do you pare down a civil service while maintaining its integrity and keeping it clear of party politics?
RK: I was asked directly what happens when a government comes in committed to cutting the size of the civil service, and what difference did that make.
I pointed out that is exactly what I had to do during Margaret Thatcher’s government, when as Local Government Minister I was charged with introducing policy that took delivery of public service out of the hands of political and civil servants, and put it in the hands of agencies and contractors, while maintaining services to the public.
It was a painful process – and by and large it worked – but sometimes you had to admit you were wrong. To be able to say, “No, this has failed, stop it and don’t waste any more money. Change the policy.” And that was the advice I gave.
JJ: What reaction did you get whenever you did that?
RK: Huge relief, not least from the Treasury. Because if a policy is not working, it’s wasting money. For example the [UK] poll tax – it was generally recognised politically, but it didn’t work. It was massively expensive, and every time there was another protest, the government had to spend more money to get themselves out of a hole. The only sensible thing to do was put your hands up and say “It hasn’t worked”, and change it. We abolished the poll tax and introduced the council tax in the UK, which is still going strong. Now I can say, “Hey, I got it right.”
JJ: There’s a sense in the Maldives that while everyone agrees on the constitution, not everyone is working in the spirit of it. If you have a situation where the international community is piling on pressure to respect the constitution, how, as a leader and a President, can you work within the boundaries of the constitution when you are dealing with people who may not have its best interests at heart?
RK: I don’t know, because Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. Which is why Britain works!
I have read the Maldivian constitution online, and I recognise some very, very very difficult issues in the constitution which are at loggerheads with the expressed policy of the government over, for example, human rights. Which is very difficult to handle. I don’t know the answer and I’m certainly not going to tell the government how to do it.
But I recognise, and I’m sure they do, that if you have a written constitution, you ought to either abide by it, or change it. But you shouldn’t try to do either too quickly. As I said today, don’t do too much too quickly. Some things you have to do quickly – you have to tell the truth – you have to tell the electorate what your intentions are. But you can’t do it all at once.
It took Margaret Thatcher 11 years to get anywhere near where she wanted to be, before she resigned – or was forced to resign, to be honest.
JJ: In your reading of the Maldivian constitution, what were some of the things that jumped out at you as contradictory to government policy?
RK: I think the clash between human rights and 100 percent Islam is a really difficult issue. I’m a religious person – I therefore respect the Islamic tradition very much, and I’m certainly not trying to convert anyone in the Maldives to Christianity.
But that would be difficult for any government when they are signing up to the UN declarations, which are all about religious freedom and liberty, while at the same time trying to respect a constitution which says “Absolutely not. 100 percent Islam.”
There is a difference in my mind, in my understanding as a Western democrat, that there’s a difference between saying that as a citizen of a country you must belong to a particular faith and, as in Britain, saying: “This is a broadly Christian country, but any other religion is tolerated.”
How you square that circle politically is going to be really difficult to carry out by any government of any complexion, and it’s more likely to take 50 years than five.
JJ: A recurrent observation from the liberal side of debate here is there is a conflict between human rights and Islam. Do you think this then is more a conflict between human rights and the constitution?
RK: No – I think the Maldives will find that it goes through an age of Enlightenment, just as Europe did in the 18th century, when the certainty of a particular interpretation of a particular faith is questioned.
It is not denigrated, it is not abandoned – it is simply talked about. People ask questions. That was the great break in European civilisation – the age of Enlightenment. When science became respectable, when creationism was abandoned, by all but a few.
It didn’t shake the faith, it didn’t abandon the faith, it learned how to question it, and live with the consequences of being a mature democracy. I think the Maldives will go through a similar process.
It will take a long time – if you have a culture which has not been questioning, for hundreds of years, hasn’t seen the need to, and then suddenly the world moves on, that is a big challenge for any government.
JJ: If many of the issues in an emerging democracy will take time to resolve, is there a risk of losing perspective when you are dealing with five year political terms?
RK: Some of the consequential policy changes are going to be difficult if they are done too quickly. But one of the most interesting features of my visit to the Maldives this week has been what is going on in the Middle East and North Africa – and the sense that if the Maldives hadn’t come as far and as fast as it has since the last presidential elections, they may well have found themselves in the situation of one of the North African or Middle Eastern states. Where younger people in particular decided that enough is enough of a particular regime.
The Maldives can hold its head high, and say “We have led the way. We have blazed a trail here in promoting democracy and empowerment of the citizen, with all the difficulties that presents.”
There will be leaders in North Africa who will be wishing they had listened to the Maldives, had done what the Maldives chose to do in 2008.
JJ: What role do think international community can continue to play to ensure the Maldives does see the benefits of democracy?
RK: There is an enormous international role and responsbility. For example in strategic defense planning. The head of military told me about the reorganisation of the military into different heads and commands, and that was an important strategic review that needed to be carried out. It does need to be said that the Maldives’ neighbours, not only India – which is currently providing a helicopter, but the wider international community – should take some responsibility. For example: over this issue of the 37 Somali pirates currently in the Maldives, presenting a huge legal problem for such a small country.
The UN should take the lead in this, and I think there’s a way through this to resolve it internationally. There are other issues of security in the Indian Ocean in terms of everyone’s safety – surveillance of the seas, but also in terms of environmental conservation. I would also like to see the Maldives one day able to lead other emerging democracies down the path of democracy.
JJ: One of the problems civil society organisations have faced here is that because the MDP campaigned strongly on a platform of democracy, freedom of speech, independent media and so forth, suddenly these values and organsiations promoting them have been politicised by association. How does a country separate these values from politics?
RK: It’s not easy, and it takes time, and it’s not the first time this issue has arisen. 10 years ago the Labour Defence Minister asked me to go with him and stand with him in Slovenia in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, to convince them that democracy needs an opposition as well as a government – because they were inclined to shoot the opposition.
The Minister took me with him to Slovenia and I sat beside him in a meeting with the group that had obtained the greatest number of votes, and said “Don’t shoot the opposition. You need them to work with you in a democracy.”
Here it is not as extreme. There is not a war in the Malidves. But having talked to both parties I have noticed that there is a very young shoot of democracy here, and it’s going to need time to mature. The political parties are going to both have to see the best in each other and their leaders as well as the worst.
There is no love lost between the political parties here, and in my judgement things that should not be politicised are being politicised. That is the mark of the new democracy. It is a strange idea, it is difficult to handle. But as political thought matures, as the electors get used to democracy, they will encourage their leaders to be more constructive over policy differences. I am not dispirited by this – I think it is competely normal and natural, and part of growing up in a democracy.
We have been at it for a thousand years in England – we take too much for granted. We have politicians slagging each other off, and we yawn. I’m quite sure that is a position people will reach in the Maldives when they want their politicians to get serious about policy issues, and not keep blaming each other for what has happened in the past – and above all, not to seek revenge.
JJ: There is an almost post-apartheid dichotomy between revenge and reconciliation in the Maldives, and a ‘head in the sand’ approach in the hope it will go away. Do you think that is a reasonable position to take, or do old wounds fester and contaminate this discourse you are encouraging?
RK: I think the Maldives should probably seek the advice of Nelson Mandela, who post-apartheid set up the truth commission as a way of learning and forgiving, rather than seeking political revenge. But that is a decision for the Maldivian people – not for me.