Omens For Democracy

Will democracy survive? That’s a bold question. It would be equally bold to assert that Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett gives a clue to the answer.

First, a little history. Democracy is a fragile device that only functions in certain social conditions. A community needs to be sufficiently integrated and stable for one group of people to accept the ascendency of another group, at least until the next general election. When there are fierce divisions, religious, political, cultural, then this arrangement is ill advised and even dangerous. After the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito in 1980, for example, the introduction of democracy in that part of the world went horribly wrong. Groups of people who very much did not get on were given the chance to jostle for power via elections. Tragedy ensued. The UK was in a similar position up until the 1830s, when acts of Parliament finally ended centuries of discrimination against Catholics. In a country where huge numbers of people were violently divided along religious lines, it was very difficult to have democracy. It is no accident that the 1832 Reform Act laying the foundations of modern government followed on from parliamentary acts of Catholic emancipation. Britain was beginning to become a more integrated, secular society, capable of having people walk along to polling stations on a bright May morning, exchanging cheery greetings with candidates wearing variously coloured rosettes, before casting votes for parties that may or may not win. This wasn’t a smooth process, however. We are still waiting in some parts of the UK for circumstances suitable for democracy. The religious and cultural conflicts of Northern Ireland meant that at the height of The Troubles in 1972, local government there had to be suspended in favour of direct rule from Westminster, which has continued in a sporadic fashion ever since.

Local complications aside, democracy by and large appeared to work well in Western Europe and America through the 20th Century and into the early 21st; until, all of a sudden, things started to go backwards. The present day sees an unfortunate polarisation of attitudes. In America, Democrats and Republicans seem in many cases to truly hate each other, driven on by a president whose only understanding of “winning” is the demonising and crushing of the other side. In the UK we don’t see quite such a dramatic situation, but we do have main parties that have become more extreme, with divisions between them growing wider. It makes you wistful for the 1990s, when political commentators bemoaned the lack of “clear blue water” between moderate Labour and Conservative parties. The fact is, democracy needs a situation where there isn’t much choice. The choice between leaving and staying in the EU, for example, was not suitable for a process that works less well in proportion to the starkness of the choice on offer. If polls tap into totally different outlooks on life, or make decisions where there is no opportunity for reversal in the foreseeable future, then serious divisions can open up, even making it possible that a referee, a Josip Tito, will have to take control and impose rules in the best interests of both sides. And you’ll be fortunate if they’re a relatively benign referee, like Tito.

Which, finally, brings me to Good Omens. Good Omens is a story about the battle between heaven and hell. This is a story about conflict, and there will never be a story that doesn’t involve some element of conflict in one form or another. People thinking you can have a conflict-free novel tend to bring up Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, but really this is clutching at straws. Even if, courtesy of Arthur C. Clarke, you are on an alien space ship where nothing much happens except for long descriptions of said space ship, the whole thing works because an Earth perspective is coming into contact and collision with a totally different perspective. Conflict always lurks, giving excitement, doubt, anticipation – all of the things that drive a reader to keep reading. But the thing is, if a fight scene is to become a narrative, then the combatants have to find a common ground in their struggle. That’s what keeps the story moving along. Without it, one side wins, the other loses and that’s that. The end. By contrast, a writer has to fill hundreds of pages, and to do that it’s a massive help if good guys are not as virtuous as they appear, and bad guys have hidden qualities. In effect, the needs of continuing the story lead to a situation where, to bring my thoughts full circle, democracy just might work.

So democracy is like a story. There are different sides. There is conflict. But there also has to be understanding and empathy, light and shade, if the story is to go anywhere beyond the first few pages. Think Good Omens where, through thousands of years of history, an angel and a demon head off the final battle between heaven and hell, and keep things muddling along, by staying friends.

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