IN his 1938 work Murphy, Samuel Beckett assured us that “the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”.
Very little has changed to suggest that Beckett might have to consider new options for the source of our planet’s light and heat.
The sun still rises and shines, it still sets and warms. It is as close to a certainty — apart from death — that we have.
We have come to see democracy in the same unwavering, confident way.
We indulge the same certainty Beckett felt when he wrote those memorable lines when we consider our democracy. We seem to believe it has permanence and that it will never be usurped.
That is something pretty close to how Mikhail Gorbachev and his apparatchiks felt about communism 30 years ago as the Soviet Union imploded.
It is certainly what one of Gorbachev’s predecessors, Tsar Nicholas II, would have thought when reports of the 1917 Petrograd revolution reached him.
The sun was setting on his monarchy and a deeply inequitable society, because Russians had little enough to lose by challenging structures that kept them in serfdom, a state of subservience close enough to slavery.
Even allowing for the exaggerated sense of victimhood so indulged today, we have not reached that point, but it would be foolish to pretend our democratic institutions enjoy the trust they once did — or at least appeared to.
We seem to be losing faith in the capacity of democracy to make our world a better place, to lift all boats; we seem uncertain that elected representatives have our best interests at heart or that they can secure them.
The sense of community, the sense of common purpose, essential to democracy seems on the wane.
This drift shaped the recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London that considered the health of democracy in our world.
Its most provocative conclusion was the downgrading of America, putting the superpower in the “flawed democracy” category.
This had nothing to do with President Donald Trump’s revolution but rather reflected the persistent disengagement and the weakening trust in politicians and democratic institutions.
This EIU index has been published each year for a decade and records a drip-drip recognition that more and more countries realise lower ratings for the efficacy of their democracy, a trend that has been described as a “democratic recession”.
The report records that the decline is sharpest in Europe and north America, our international habitat.
The EU, Britain, and America are in flux and we will endure the consequences.
Any diminution of democracy in EU states will have a negative impact on the internationalism that has so benefited this society.
There are already instances of this swing to the right in Europe and it is too early, though tempting, to judge Mr Trump.
Today one of the great international festivals — the Six Nations — begins. It is a perfect example of the collegiality and unity that thrives under democracy.
Maybe it’s time we did more to promote and protect democracy.
Maybe it’s time we advocated it in our schools with the same vigour we use to teach other belief-based systems, because as Beckett warned, challenge and change are inevitable. Let’s prepare for them.
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