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Democracy is on the brink of a sea change

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Obama looked to the discredited past; Cameron to an impossible future By Janet Daley9:00PM GMT 26 Jan 2013416 CommentsAs the football commentators might put it, it was a week of two speeches. I’m not generally one of those people who believe that a political speech is an actual event in the world: it’s only somebody talking, after all. A political leader can say pretty much anything, and however moving or courageous it sounds, the saying of it does not change the furniture of the universe. As W H Auden wrote, “poetry makes nothing happen”. But the two contributions last week were unusually significant, not just in terms of political rhetoric, but as real historical moves on the field of play.

To put it at its most portentous, they were both steps into what may turn out to be a quite new stage of development in the life of the Western world. Barack Obama’s second inaugural address and David Cameron’s public challenge to Europe were both about the nature of government, and what it means to be a democratic nation in the 21st century.

Mr Obama’s oration got remarkably little analysis in the British press – perhaps because second presidential inaugurals are something of a dramatic let-down. Or maybe because what he said sounded so tired and familiar to British ears. Indeed, the words that created a storm of partisan recrimination in the United States because they were so contentious in domestic terms – an aggressively uncompromising new stand in the war of attrition between the Democratic White House and a Republican Congress – came across here as recycled New Labour-speak: “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges: that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” (Note the New Labour trick of claiming that something can only be safeguarded by embracing its opposite: individual freedom requires submitting to the collective will.)

There were some quite surreal moments when Mr Obama seemed to be channelling Gordon Brown at his most self-congratulatory. Specifically rejecting the notion that America “must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future” (that is, we can afford to support both the old and the young), he said: “For we… understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Ah, yes – remember that refrain: we will govern for the many, not the few? Which turned out to be a euphemism for high tax, high-spend economics, galloping entitlements and an epidemic of welfare dependency? Warning to America: it didn’t work out.

Mr Obama made no attempt to explain how support at both these ends of the age range was going to be afforded. Or what effect his insistence that the most expensive entitlement programmes – social security, Medicare and Medicaid – were untouchable would have on the US deficit. Hard economic fact could be countered by ideological passion: “[These entitlements] do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.” Well, maybe. But they have to be paid for with hard cash – by somebody. Presumably that problem will have to wait for the coming stand-off with Congress over the debt ceiling.

The core message was pounded home relentlessly: American government is now in the redistribution and welfare-provision business, and this is not (contrary to appearances) at variance with the founding fathers’ conception of a nation that is inherently opposed to state interference and domination over the individual. This is the new credo of American nationhood: the government, not the community or the household, will be the moral arbiter of social virtue. The traditional suspicion of the overweening power of the state is now a thing of the past. Democracy is about electing a government that will be there to protect you from hardship, shelter you from the storm and absolve you from sin. Well, no, maybe not that last one – but the concept of the state as moral saviour is not so remote from this, is it?

Then we got Mr Cameron’s offering, which, by comparison with the Obama message, seemed to be coming from a future world: from those who had learnt the lesson of overly powerful centralised political institutions that have spent money like there was no tomorrow on programmes that were steeped in benign rhetoric about “social fairness”. Mr Cameron had a dream of the European Union as an open, flexible, freely diverse fellowship of nation states, each of them democratically accountable to its own electorate, and all of them able to cooperate in whatever ways suited their individual needs at any given time. The speech was everything everybody said it was: eloquently argued, irresistibly persuasive to British ears, and logically faultless.

But does he not appreciate that this is the very antithesis of the founding principle of the EU? That its deliberate object was to curtail the power of its separate member states and the dangerous impulses of their volatile electorates, whose inclinations had a tendency to end in mass murder? It is not a travesty of the European project to say that it was a conspiracy of the European elites against their own peoples: it is the literal truth. Of course, the EU, with its unelected centralised governing bodies, overrides the democratic wishes of the nation states. That’s the whole point. This was a post-war French and German idea, devised to prevent any possibility of the hideous conflicts that devastated the continent during the last century. Its imperatives – the irreversible political integration of member states, a guarantee that national governments could never again go rogue, and the disempowering of electorates – arose directly from the 20th-century experience of criminal national leaders. The nation state, driven by the will of its own people, had been the demonic enemy of peace and the EU would put an end to it, once and for all.

So was Mr Cameron making the EU an offer he knew it could not accept? Or was he trying to appeal to the restive, disempowered peoples of Europe over the heads of their leaders? Mr Obama was speaking from what is, for us, a discredited past in which the will of government is always seen as just and merciful. And Mr Cameron seemed to be offering an impossibly perfect future, in which the power of distant governing institutions is once more made to answer to the people. Between them, they drew the outlines of a discussion that will certainly dominate our politics for a generation. What does it mean to be a democratic country? Does economic equality, or international stability, trump everything? Maybe this debate suggests that Western democracy is entering a new, more mature phase. Then again, perhaps it means that it is finished.

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