Matthew Norman: Blame the Greeks. They invented democracy

Levels of poverty and unemployment unseen since the 1930s pose a mortal threat to our political system

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This will come as small consolation to the Greeks, but when it comes to democracy, they can now empathise with how the English feel about football. Being the inventors of a game is no protection against incompetence at playing it, nor any defence against the cosmic law which dictates that, after all the huffing and puffing, the Germans will own you in the end.

Gazing at the election results from the Hellenic Republic, I am fighting the lure of hysteria as manfully as this epsilon male can manage. It would be foolish, after all, to see in one election in one small nation a portent of widespread democratic doom. The fact that the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn took 7 per cent of the vote to win a parliamentary presence is no cause to live in terror of renaissant fascism sweeping the continent.

One need not be Melanie Phillips, however, to fear Greeks casting votes if only for the wider implications of the collapse of the two mainstream parties which had swapped power in Athens since the fall of the Colonels. As it does whenever the eurozone crisis flares up and presents the spectre of anarchy ahead, as the cashpoints run dry and the supermarkets shut, the question of whether conventional democracy is up to this challenge begs itself once again.

The democratic fault line in Greece has been obvious for a while, with the will of its people diametrically opposed to the will of Brussels and Berlin, as imposed on its government. In Prescottian cliché, we have been watching the rubbing together of two tectonic plates – the Greeks' preference to eat, and Berlin's insistence that they starve – with inevitably seismic results.

To Greeks, "austerity" must seem as odiously sanitised a euphemism for "brutal poverty" as "collateral damage" strikes Iraqis for "clumsily slaughtering your innocents". You may have read of Athenian mothers leaving toddlers they can no longer feed at nursery schools, pinned to heartbreaking notes asking that they be entrusted to social services. Whether Frau Merkel's insistence on the fiscal disciplines currently unpicking the fabric of Greek civil society will come to be seen as an early 21st century Treaty of Versailles, sewing the seed of the Triffid that will strangle democracy itself, it is too early to guess. But if nothing else, the rise of Golden Dawn – led by one man with a firearms conviction and another who posed grinning outside Dachau – spotlights the weakness inherent in all democracies. The people, damn them, will have their say. Lovers of cheap dystopian thrills may shudder pleasurably at the reminder that in 1933, in his final election before tiring of such fripperies, Herr Hitler won a higher percentage than Mr Tony Blair ever did.

Greece was once regarded as a crucial bulwark between southern Europe and Soviet communism, and it might similarly be seen as a gatekeeper of extremism today. If Greece fell out of the eurozone, as the markets now deem far more likely than not, the contagion could swallow up Spain and Portugal, and then Italy. The ramifications of three states with fascistic recent histories suffering the privations that drove so many Greek voters to the more alarming ends of the political spectrum are unknowable. But one may guess that that the consequences of leaving the euro – the national humiliation as well as hardship and chaos – would unloose resentments powerful enough to rock the democratic system.

Here, ring-fenced from the worst ravages of the crisis by the quantitative easing denied eurozone countries, the democratic deficit is differently expressed. Here, the sullen acceptance that politicians are inadequate in the face of systemic problems leads to a surge in not extremism but indifference. In our shining beacon of apathy, we stay at home. After the risible local elections turnout, the lead story of the next general election may very well be that fewer than half the electorate bothered to vote. As with our relationship with Europe, we sit on the sidelines. In its diffident, comatose way, this is merely a more genteel expression of democracy's failure than the scramble to form a crazy coalition in Athens, the shock fall of the Dutch government, or Brussels's imposition of a technocratic administration on Italy.

Those of us up who grew up cosseted by the stability starkly dictated by the Cold War have always taken it for granted that democracy was impregnable in the Western powers. For the first time in our lifetimes, its fragility is visible, and it becomes at least possible to imagine it facing a mortal threat from levels of poverty and unemployment unseen since the 1930s.

The Greeks invented the concepts not only of chaos, anarchy and democracy, but of irony. The term has many definitions, most of them wrong, but situational irony is rightly defined as actions causing precisely the reverse outcome to the one intended. What is now the European Union was built not just as a free trade association, but upon the dream of forever shackling the forces of violent extremism from the ashes of which it arose. If the EU and its addiction to austerity is releasing those very forces, it will cheer Greece even less than its new-found empathy with English football to be playing such a central part in one of the ironies of all time.

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