The end of the road for democracy

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The Independent Online
omething unexpected always happens. Governments trust us to go on behaving in the same way and we don't. Ten years ago an elderly East German government, facing a sea of suddenly impatient bright young faces, gave up and let them surge over to the West, to the land of market forces. No one expected it: Communism itself crumbled.

Last week the Kosovar refugees upped tents and surged back into their unsafe lands, instead of waiting for instructions from Nato. (What is not safe to governments is an acceptable risk to others, like beef on the bone.) No one expected it: result, glory to the KLA.

Two weeks ago "Europe", that enigmatic entity, widening the voting papers so they didn't fit the polling booths, told us all to vote for parties not people, and 77 per cent of us stayed at home. It was not expected: but thus democracy ends, not with a bang, not with the extremes of fascism or mob rule, but with the whimpering unforeseen. We just don't want to vote and that's the end of it. It has all got too complicated. We are over-governed, and we feel it, and don't want to be part of it.

Who knows what this new tier of government involves? What are its powers? What are its sanctions, how does it work? No one tells us. There's "a drift to the right" all over Europe, we're told, but what does that mean? Parties go on using the old misleading nomenclature - the Nazis described themselves as National Socialists - but these days compassion and higher taxes are on the right, and military might and lower benefits on the left. Is that the same all over Europe or only here? It's too much. We lose interest. Tony Blair shouldn't worry because New Labour lost ground. He should worry about democracy itself. By what legitimacy will he govern if the people won't vote?

Perhaps we just don't want to be "governed" any more. That too begins to feel old-fashioned. We pay vast amounts of tax into the common pool and what do we get for it? Hard work and anxiety, spin-doctored until we're dizzy, recorded and collated as never before, now Kosovo and Serbia to be rebuilt. We must surely be able to organise ourselves in some simpler and cheaper way. Government itself is top-heavy; it needs to be privatised. Marks & Spencer's or Sainsbury's (bad examples: try or Monsanto) could take over. This is a new world.

A NEW world indeed. The Daily Mail alarms us on its front page with a picture of the first cloned human embryo. That is to say, a cluster of 400 undifferentiated cells invisible to the naked eye, grown from a human skin cell (male) inserted into a cow's egg emptied of its nucleus. Hardly a story, since the embryo was destroyed after photography and besides, since the Roslin Institute in Scotland created Dolly the Sheep, such cell clusters are no big deal.

The problem solved so dramatically at Roslin in the summer of 1997 was how to use a differentiated cell (eg, an adult skin cell) to start the cloning process. They'd been cloning sheep for years, using a stem cell from a newly fertilised egg, but that way you never knew what the animal would turn out to be. With an adult cell you know exactly what you'll get - a replica of that adult.

Dr Graham Campbell at Roslin struck upon the idea of persuading a differentiated adult cell to undifferentiate by chilling it and starving it. To survive, it simplified. Place it back in a benign, pulsing environment, and it would copy its emptied egg-cell host, keep pace, and start differentiating, second time around. Such a simple, brilliant idea - until that summer gene scientists would always mollycoddle cells - and once one person knew it, everyone did.

We can't unlearn this kind of knowledge. We can't go back, so we have bravely to face a future, which indeed will include clones, which are no more than identical twins brought to birth in real time, in the maternal womb, though conceived a little strangely in a lab. As indeed a great many babies are these days, and no one thinks twice about it. As with Dolly the Sheep, you will have the child of choice, not chance. At least if you're rich you will: though no doubt prices will come down as the supply side strengthens. These clusters of cells, these potential human beings, do indeed fuel the moral debate, as the Mail proclaims, but moral debates do us no harm. It never seemed to me that nature made such a good job of humankind that we were unimprovable.

Though come to think of it, are we to grow human babies in cows? Ouch.

Joan Smith is away