The Novelty of Democracy

Howard Croft

Post World War II order and stability in Europe, made possible through a peace guaranteed by the United States, does not have deep roots.

In my lifetime alone, Germany and Italy were run by fascist dictators, turning to democracy in 1946. In my children’s lifetimes, we’ve seen the following: in Greece, a military junta (the Regime of Colonels) until 1974; in Portugal, the right wing dictatorship of Salazar, also until 1974; in Spain a fascist dictatorship until Franco died in 1975, with democracy established in 1978. These are recent events comfortably within living memory—taking place several years after the Kennedy administration, the first manned landing on the moon, and a quarter of a century after Queen Elizabeth succeeded to the British throne. Of the remaining twenty-seven EU members, nine lived under a totalitarian regime until the collapse of the Soviet Union and have only a brief experience of representative government. It cannot be taken for granted that democratic stability will be robust enough to withstand the economic turmoil.

We have seen some evidence of undemocratic behaviour. Even before the euro crisis, Ireland held a referendum on whether or not it should ratify the Lisbon Treaty (essentially, giving more power to the unelected European Commission). The Irish people, by a narrow majority, voted against ratification, much to the fury of France and Germany. The Irish government was effectively forced to re-run the referendum by a combination of threats and inducements, and in the second ballot the vote was in favour of ratification. There had been no suggestion that the first election had been incompetently or improperly run, or that corruption had played a part. It was re-run simply because the Euro-zealots didn’t like the result the first time round. That’s the trouble with democratic elections, as Stalin pointed out: you can never be sure of the outcome before the voting takes place.

More recently, we have seen the astonishing spectacle of unelected leaders being appointed, effectively by Germany, in Greece and Italy. During the recent elections in France and Greece both the German Chancellor and her Finance Minister directly addressed the electors of those countries, not only urging them which way to vote but making ominous noises about the consequences of the “wrong” result. There is no doubt that President Sarkosy was unpopular when his people went to the polls, but I doubt if his cause was helped by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, offering to go on the stump with him on French soil. It is true that the political choices made by the people of some countries (it is especially true of America) have implications for those living elsewhere. But for politicians to campaign actively on behalf of candidates abroad, especially in the case of allies, I think is at best bad manners and at worst a hostile act. In every American Presidential election since Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 I have had a preference, but it would never have occurred to me to lecture my American friends to vote for “my” candidates on these occasions; it would have been an impertinence, and when nations so behave it is interference in the affairs of a sovereign state.

Whatever happens to the euro, things will no longer be the same. The behaviour of Germany is making sure of that. In the 1930’s Germany used its military might to bully weaker nations, now it is using its economic might, and people have long memories. It remains to be seen what their ambition is; to be a European Germany, or to control a Germanic Europe. With Mrs. Merkel exercising a veto across the continent and adopting an increasingly presidential attitude, there are legitimate concerns.

We shall see how robust our European democracies are in the face of economic stress, right wing resurgence, increasing popular resentment of central control, and loss of sovereignty. I suspect that the older democracies, with all the checks and balances that can lead to the near-paralysis so familiar to Americans and Britons, will weather it OK. Some of these newer guys I don’t feel sure about, but other people’s systems are hard to evaluate from outside.

A good example of this can be found in a booklet issued by the United States War Department in 1942 for distribution to American servicemen who were going to Britain to prepare for the invasion of Europe. Its aim was to prepare these young GIs, who for the most part had never before visited, much less stayed in a foreign country. It is a fascinating document. In a section on Britain’s role in the development of democracy it states, “Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly a thousand years.” I was surprised to read this, as would be the many people who had their heads chopped off by kings and queens a good deal more recently than that!