Democracy by default?

Twaddle over the EU constitution misreads the continent's muddled history.

Jeremy Hazlehurst

Topics Politics

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One of the best weapons in the armoury of the dinner party debater is to invoke the name of a Great Personage in support of their point of view.

However wrong you might be, shrugging your shoulders and portentously telling your opponent, ‘well, Nietzsche thought the same’, adds some instant authority, some gravity. No doubt it was some similar motive that led Valery Giscard d’Estaing and the team of scribes who penned the preamble to the new constitution of the European Union (EU), to preface their effort with a quotation from Thucydides.

‘Our constitution is called a democracy’, booms the Father of History through the mouths of the Brussels bureaucrats, ‘because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people’. Impressive, no?

Maybe. The preamble suggests a somewhat monolithic view of European history and culture. It goes on to talk about the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, which, nourished first by the civilisations of Greece and Rome, characterised by spiritual impulse always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment’.

That might kindly be called a selective reading of the complex history of our continent. Can you really say that the Greeks and Romans stood for these humanistic ideals? Julius Caesar certainly wasn’t thinking about closer European harmony when he defeated the Gauls. Plato was no humanistic democrat: his Republic closely mirrors militaristic Sparta.

Is there really a direct link between the spirit of Rome and Greece and the ideas of the Enlightenment? And have the cosy, humanistic ideas been ‘always present’? What about the Crusades or the Inquisition? What about Romanticism? And where does Al-Andalus, arguably the greatest flourishing of culture to take place in Europe, fit in here?

You might say I’m taking it all a bit seriously, but there is an important idea buried in the Eurotwaddle. That is, the idea that democracy is a deeply special and dignified thing. Many people seem to believe that democracy is inherently superior to other systems of government, the victor in a quasi-Darwinian process of governmental selection. But it isn’t like that.

That democracy has survived is an accident. What would have happened if Napoleon or Hitler had not been stopped? Or the Muslims at Poitiers in 732? Or if the Greeks had not won at Thermopylae, for that matter? No more democracy, that’s what. The ‘humanist inheritance of Europe’ survived at least as much because of military might as the inherent strengths of the ideas.

All this matters now because we, the Brits and the Americans, are trying to spread democracy into Afghanistan and Iraq, countries where it has no history. These countries seem less than happy at the prospect. The warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rules a large portion of Afghanistan, and looks in no hurry to welcome the ballot box into his fiefdom. Nothing that resembles the democracy we have in Western Europe is likely to emerge in an Iraq that divides fairly consistently along ethnic lines.

This is unsurprising. If it has taken two-and-a-half millennia and countless wars for us, the heirs of the democratic ideal, to get democracy firmly embedded in Europe – why should people who have no affinity with these ideas accept it? The idea that fomenting democracy is the right thing to do is based on fantasies about its status: democracy is not a priori the best system of government.

Are we really trying to take democracy to these countries for altruistic reasons? Some of the creatures sloping about in darker corners of the Pentagon undoubtedly have their own agenda. If you want to understand what really goes on in the aftermath of war, you could do worse than dip into Thucydides again.

He tells how, in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sailed to the island of Melos and demanded that the Melians surrender. When they refused, Thucydides has the Athenian general say: ‘Men, by a natural law, always rule when they are stronger. We did not make that law, nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing and it will exist forever.’

They then put to death all the men in the town, and sold the woman and children into slavery, and colonised the island. You can bet your bottom Euro you won’t be reading about that in any constitutions soon.

Jeremy Hazlehurst is a freelance journalist.

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Topics Politics


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