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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...