Vice Chancellor, I thank you and the University for the honour of being asked to deliver this year’s Romanes Lecture. Over the past 130 years, many political leaders have spoken here. They’ve taken very different approaches to choosing a topic; ranging from the highly specific to the profoundly abstract.
When Gladstone delivered the first of these lectures he was in his 83rd year and was long established as one of the great men of his time. He was just beginning a final tumultuous period as prime minister and within a few months of publishing the Second Irish Home Rule Bill.
It was a moment of great power competition, party realignment, ideological tumult, national revivals and radical cultural innovation. With all of this happening it may seem surprising that Gladstone chose as his theme for this lecture a very personal consideration of Oxford itself and the place of a university in intellectual and public life.
This was an attempt to step away from the loud debates of the moment and bring some public attention back to what he believed to have been one of the foundations required to enable progress through recorded history. In doing this he was making a point which is perhaps more relevant today than ever before – the need to find wider perspectives within which to discuss public issues.
It is the reality of modern government and politics that it involves an ever more rapid news cycle and little time for reflection. There is no day without new headlines, and public commentary mostly equates discussion with delay.
We are the poorer for this.
In an age where assertions of certainty appear to be the dominant priority in an ever-growing public sphere, we need more reflection and engagement.
We need a deeper understanding of values which can both unite a broad-range of people and genuinely respect diversity of opinion.
We need to be able to look at a large body of public issues and distinguish those which are ultimately fundamental to the type of societies we wish to be.
It is in this context that I want to speak today about what I believe to be a widespread threat to core principles of liberal democracy.
In Europe, which is my main concern, we are facing aggression from outside and social division within. A new age of uncertainty has often seemed to have become an age of instability and regression. The question has emerged of whether or not moderate politics can survive in the face of an angry public discourse which has become more populist and divisive.
This inevitably brings to mind the words of William Butler Yeats and his most famous poem The Second Coming;
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
This is very much not an original reference by me. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem has in fact become so frequently cited that Fintan O’Toole has suggested that we acknowledge what he terms ‘The Yeats Test’. According to this test “the more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are.”
Few will be surprised to learn that June 2016 saw a surge in the use of Yeats’ poem in articles and speeches.
We should not let this distract us from the fact that Yeats’ poem continues to be so widely quoted specifically because it remains relevant, though not always in the ways that we commonly understand it.
He powerfully evoked a period of violence and change during which many lost faith that democracy and the liberalism they linked it to could survive.
For an Irish person, the poem is especially evocative because of the events in our country in 1919, during which it was first drafted.
Yeats had been a major national figure for two decades and his international renown was such that he would soon be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He represented a particular form of cultural nationalism which was non-sectarian and more outward-looking than much contemporary nationalism in Europe. Perhaps not quite to the extent that he imagined, Yeats nonetheless helped to reinforce the separatist sentiment of the Irish revolution which began its most widespread phase exactly as he wrote his poem.
Over recent years, and especially in this centenary year of the independent Irish state which was secured by our revolution, we have held a broad national programme of commemoration.
A particular emphasis has been to engage a new generation of scholars in the events of those times and to examine their enduring role in our identity.
As Taoiseach, and as leader of a party founded by men and women who were crucial figures in our revolution, I have used my role in these commemorations to explore the republican and democratic tradition which was reflected in and emerged from those times. A recurring theme I have addressed is how we lose essential perspective when we look at national histories and politics without considering the international context.
There is no doubt that after a century of independence, having risen from being amongst the poorest countries in Europe, it is necessary to renew our national narrative.
We are now one of the longest continuous democracies in the world. We have the first constitution ever adopted in a free referendum. We are one of the few countries in Europe to have avoided the ideological extremes of the last century and which were the cause of such historic destruction. A country which was then little more than a generation after a catastrophic famine and which was defined internationally by its poverty, became a prosperous country known for global leadership in advanced technology.
And where once Ireland was relatively closed and conservative it has embraced diversity and became the first country in the world to embed marriage equality in its constitution through a public vote.
This progress has been achieved in spite of an imposed partition and the profound limits which this placed on our ability to be a more diverse and self-confident country.
So, when I read Yeats’ premonition of disaster, the obvious point which arises is that his prediction of a looming apocalypse was flawed. “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born” was not the beast he feared. In the place he knew the best and which concerned him the most, it was in fact a democratic and successful state which emerged – a state which has shown the capacity to modernise and evolve.
And in this light, when we today see evidence of strengthening illiberal and anti-democratic forces, should we not step back from assuming that the worst is yet to come?
During this lecture I would like to argue that, while the threats it faces are very real and need to be understood in greater depth, liberal democracy remains on strong foundations. It will prevail.
Profound threats have been evident for at least a decade and half. They have on occasion faced setbacks, but they deserve to be seen as enduring. In light of this, our first challenge is to improve and extend a shared understanding of these threats. This includes acknowledging how a pervasive division in public discourse is directly undermining the ability to develop effective responses to complex problems.
However, while we must acknowledge the breadth and depth of the threats to liberal democracy, over the last five years there is increasingly substantial evidence of its inherent strength. The list of direct challenges which are being overcome is growing – and more importantly we have seen a powerful demonstration of the continuing effectiveness and appeal of the European model of democratic cooperation.
For Ireland, and I believe for all of the countries of Europe, the evidence is increasingly clear that the only way to retain meaningful sovereignty and build prosperity is a commitment to democratic values both within our states and within a strong, rules-based multinational framework.
Just as we cannot understand our history by limiting our perspective to purely national events, we cannot overcome most of the challenges of today without a broader international perspective.
When I look at the historic tasks facing my country – those of building a lasting peace and reconciliation, ensuring an inclusive prosperity, addressing the existential threat of climate change, protecting social cohesion – each of these is directly linked to the wider context of securing democratic values.
At this moment full of urgent threats, those of us who believe in the values of liberal democracy must move out of the defensive posture of the last decade and a half. I believe that we have available to us an agenda which will ensure that the centre holds.
A reasonable starting point is to consider what we still mean by liberal democracy in a world where basic concepts are increasingly in dispute.
It is important to make the point that the word ‘liberal’ should be reclaimed from the regressive and increasingly partisan debate into which it has been dragged in many countries. Liberalism as an idea is, in its original and most powerful sense, not an ideology being imposed on people, it is a set of values which inherently respect the legitimacy of diverse political and social views.
I will use ‘democracy’ and ‘liberal democracy’ interchangeably because, fundamentally, there is no such thing as ‘illiberal democracy’. Whether you are right, left or hold no particular position on an ideological spectrum, if you believe in democracy then you must also support core liberal values.
When we consider these core values we should acknowledge that the nature of our societies has changed dramatically since most of the great democratic thinkers of the past developed their ideas.
They were not in a position to consider factors such as the impact of technology which can simultaneously connect everyone while dividing them into increasingly non-communicating groups. The scale of global economic, cultural and social interconnectivity we take for granted was also unimaginable to them.
In the past the predominant concerns of the popular discourse on democracy were the mechanisms for enabling the choice of governments and the distribution of powers within government. The problem with this was that it helped breed complacency – and the most dangerous part of this has been allowing democracy to be defined by far too many as simply the holding of elections.
This has been directly exploited by illiberal and authoritarian governments which use the language of representation and the popular will while justifying their actions.
These emerging ‘Potemkin Democracies’, where the outward façade of democracy can conceal an authoritarian reality, demand that we be clearer in the values that we hold as essential to a democratic state.
As an aside, I must explain that with the exception of Russia, I am not going to address specific actions within other countries and their drift away from democratic values. I am doing this because I believe that the focus on individual cases can distract us from the overall picture and the fact that the challenge is much deeper than the behaviour of a specific set of leaders.
Obviously, I will also address a number of specific points relating to Ireland and Britain, but again the context I want to stress is that the issues involved and actions to address them are relevant well beyond these islands.
There are many ways of defining liberal democracy beyond the holding of elections. There is no clarity in this in our public discourse and this has been one of the problems as we have sought to counter illiberal practices, particularly within the European Union. Slogans about protecting democracy can have no impact if people do not understand what you’re talking about.
For me it requires that all sections of society have access to meaningful and ongoing debate on public issues.
It requires not just a diversity of representation but also a diversity of opinions.
It requires that no uniform or unchanging ideology direct public affairs.
It requires a tolerance and respect for cultural diversity.
It requires the protection of the rights of all, and especially those who do not have political power.
And liberal democracy requires that there be a clear separation of powers within the state, with laws being equally applied to all.
While these points may appear uncontroversial to all or most of us here, the fact is that they are increasingly contested. They are also being contested in ways which have continued to evolve over the last decade. I believe we have failed to translate a deep and urgent debate in academic and professional circles on this issue into practical action.
A narrative has developed both within our societies and from external forces, that democracies, particularly those in what is termed ‘the West’, are exhausted, divided and incapable of facing down supposedly stronger forms of government. As we heard once again last week from Vladimir Putin, western democracies are being accused of being decadent, weak and a danger to the rest of the world.
The Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974 began a period of thirty years during which the reach of democracy spread to its highest recorded level. From 46 democracies in 1974, by 2007 the number expanded by between two and three times depending on the definitions used. Just as importantly, established democracies did more to embed liberal values in their states, including seeking close, rule-based cooperation with other states.
This trajectory has dramatically reversed.
From 2007 onwards, challenges emerged which have increasingly questioned previously settled values. This period, now often referred to as a ‘recession in democracy’, has seen not just the growth of authoritarian government, but an equally serious backsliding on basic values within established democracies.
The efforts by autocratic governments to undermine democracies is a relatively recent development in terms of its scale and ambition. What is different from the practice of former times is that this work is not being done in the service of any form of systematic alternative or ideology. Rather, as a recent book puts it, the objective is to “make the world safe for dictatorship”.
Russia’s escalation of its eight-year war against Ukraine draws on a vision of restored imperial grandeur, but it is ultimately more about the desire to prevent liberal democracy succeeding in a former imperial domain. This is also seen in the fury directed by the Putin regime and its apologists against the success of the Baltic democracies.
They have used their restored sovereignty to secure democracy, become core participants in European political and security cooperation, and to build states which are prospering to the benefit of their societies as a whole.
This fury against the power of democracy to inspire change is also seen in the sustained investment by Russia in ‘anti-system’ movements within democracies. This has undoubtedly had some impact, though the scale of this is difficult to isolate.
When you look at the funding given to anti-EU and illiberal causes during the last decade it is certainly possible to dispute whether it has been decisive in different votes – but it is not possible to dispute the intent behind the funding.
Separate to this, the most corrosive factor within our democracies has undoubtedly been the growing dominance of the populist framing of issues.
Populism is not a coherent ideology. It lacks core theoretical texts or a consistent set of policy prescriptions. It is based on promoting division, group loyalty and fear of the other. Most of all, it is flexible and adaptable – it finds no virtue in consistency or accuracy. It is, to use one recent summary “rather a discourse about governance that can be adopted by actors across the entire ideological spectrum.”
The virulence of anti-E.U. sentiment is a very good example of this. It is the extremes of the right and the left that are always the loudest in attacking the E.U. as an elite conspiracy. The left claim it is an anti-worker conspiracy while the right claim that it is an anti-capitalism conspiracy. The overlap in much of their language and tactics is striking.
Populism actively encourages distrust of government as well as the idea that ordinary citizens are suffering because of the neglect and venality of the elite. It directly challenges the idea of trust in the good intentions and competence of not just individuals but also political systems.
It is important to note that these sentiments are not new. Cynicism about politics is as old as democracy itself. In 1847 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about a visit to his parliamentary seat in Normandy, saying:
“people’s minds are…. given over to a deep, unaggressive contempt for all ministers and administrators, and infested with the unshakeable conviction that everything is for sale or may be got by favour and that political immorality is the general, habitual atmosphere in which the political world moves.”
While this sentiment has always been around it is today more significant than before. It has come to dominate not just informal talk but much of the basic framing of how politics is talked about. The ability for this to make extreme change less threatening is evident in many countries, and at the core of this is how modern communications have delivered a discourse often incapable of engaging with challenging issues.
I believe we have hardly begun to appreciate the impact on political discourse of the new communications technologies developed over the past three decades.
Throughout history each new advance in communications has had a substantial and often revolutionary impact on politics. For example, the development of the printing press and popular pamphlets provided the essential spark and fuel for the Reformation.
Every time there has been an increase in access to information the nature of the political discourse has changed.
What is different with recent developments is the extraordinary speed with which we are seeing the near dissolution of the shared public square. We are seeing sharper divisions, a more negative tone and a shrinking space for informed discussion – the type of discussion which is essential for democracy to thrive.
It is by now very well established that the distribution of information online is highly biased towards extreme and emotive material. By the latest estimates, information which is presented with an aggressive tone is three times more likely to be shared than neutral or positive information – and it is more successful in extending networks to new people.
This ‘virality of hate’ is intimately linked to the spread of disinformation and the undermining of the once axiomatic idea that there were facts which could be accepted by all.
Once a position has been taken in a public space the likelihood of changing your position declines radically and the likelihood that you will become part of a self-reinforcing group increases equally fast. This division of public opinion into groups who feed information to peers and exclude neutral or challenging information is evident in most democracies.
When I look back at how the historic Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and the slow, respectful and largely confidential nature of the discussion, it’s difficult to see how it could have been agreed in the current atmosphere where strident comments and inflexibility are so dominant in public forums.
Where the defining challenges of a society is, such as in Ireland, building respect across historic sectarian divides, this growing lack of a shared public square is directly undermining anticipated progress.
It had been assumed in the past that what we were seeing was simply a speeding up of networking between people who were already of the same views, however very recent work suggests that online media are extending polarization in very new ways.
Most importantly, people are effectively ‘sorted’ into partisan groups where they share more identities and beliefs than before – driving what has been called “an alignment of conflicts”. It appears that the new social space has become a place for displaying group solidarity and differences from outgroups.
It is not hard to see how this has developed as a place where populist discourse can thrive and extend itself far beyond the fringe.
What is less appreciated is how this has impacted what we often refer to as the ‘traditional media’. Very recent research has confirmed the extent to which even professional journalism is becoming more emotional and negative in its focus. As Steven Pinker has put it, it is increasingly possible to see news as a non-random selection of the most negative things happening in the world. It is still distinct from the online chatter, but steadily less so.
This can directly feed a very modern development, a growing difference between the perception of progress and the verifiable evidence of progress.
In terms of basic concerns such as incomes, life expectancy and education, the scale of progress over the last century is beyond anything which was predicted, yet this is largely absent from the public discourse. Of course it is both natural and reasonable that we prefer to look at problems to be fixed rather than challenges overcome. What is however damaging is the populist tendency to suggest that for every problem there is an easy answer and there are no hard choices to be made.
One of the great liberal thinkers of the last century, Isaiah Berlin, speaking in this place in 1958 pointed to exactly similar factors as being central to challenging the protection of liberty within society. The fundamental danger to liberal democracy posed by those with certainty in their own cause and a refusal to believe that compromise is desirable or possible was clear to him. It should be even clearer to us.
If we take together all of the factors which I have been talking about it is absolutely reasonable to look on this as a moment of very direct threat to liberal democracy. When we look at the rise of anti-system populism, the efforts from outside to undermine democracies, the work of parties and governments to undermine key values and institutions, the increasing division and negativity of public discourse and the loss of anything which resembles the public square on which self-sustaining democracy relies – there is no doubt of the historic nature of the threat.
Yet, for all of this, I believe that the enduring strength of democracy is revealing itself. This can be seen in events of the last three years. The response of democracies to the enormous challenges of a pandemic, war against a European state, the strength of the European Union post-Brexit, migration and other factors show that core liberal sentiment remains strong. We should start seeing this as a moment to regain confidence and be more assertive in defending our values.
Yeats’ apocalyptic mood in 1919 was reinforced by the impact of the influenza pandemic of the previous two years. He had seen his young wife nearly die and was shocked by the pandemic’s cruel impact in Ireland and elsewhere. He had no experience and few words to help him understand this.
In Ireland, the pandemic contributed to the growing radicalism of politics. People felt that they had been left helpless by a government which offered little support or guidance. The scale of the mandate won by separatist republicanism in the General Election of late 1918 was certainly influenced in part by the pandemic. The same impact was found in countries throughout the world, marking a general loss of trust in government and institutions at that time.
Just over a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic presented just as serious a threat to governments and institutions. Unquestionably there has been a radicalisation of some sections of democratic societies because of the actions which were undertaken. Equally, there have been widespread attempts to question core public health advice and to spread doubt about the efficacy of vaccines and the intent behind them.
However, the evidence is that, on average, public trust in democratic government increased – and what made the difference was not the strong hand always desired by the populists but the helping hand of expert and responsive institutions and leaders. The ability to seek new answers to complex new challenges was central to the response.
Public health interventions limited the spread of the virus at the most deadly moment – before vaccines or effective treatments were available. The vaccines, developed here in Oxford and elsewhere, are a triumph for investment in basic science and in strong, independent and international research systems. If research had been confined to national research systems, to national applied research agendas or to single-nationality research teams there would have been no vaccines.
Critically, in many countries, fiscal interventions were implemented at an unprecedented scale to limit the damage of the fastest moving recession ever recorded outside of wartime.
I believe that Covid-19 showed the unmatched value of European cooperation. Even though public health is not a major competence of the European Union, States were able to systematically engage with others with whom they had already built relations of trust. We quickly agreed a range of economic responses, helping to retain confidence.
And Europe became a vaccine powerhouse.
There were certainly early problems, but these were quickly overcome through coordination and the impact of joint contracts. During the critical phase of the vaccination programme Europe exported two billion doses to 167 countries – becoming by far the biggest supplier and donor of vaccines to countries with no capacity of their own.
Ultimately the measure of the response of democratic societies to the pandemic can be seen in millions of saved lives and livelihoods. In comparison to the pandemic of 1917-19, the difference is quite staggering. While there are many deaths which were avoidable and many extra actions which should have been taken, adjusted for population growth, the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic saw remarkably fewer deaths.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is, as I have said, fundamentally about an autocratic regime being fearful of the growing strength of democratic values on its borders. Putin fears democracy far more than he fears the non-existent military threat against Russia.
Just as they did in 2014, the people of Ukraine have been willing to sacrifice everything because they want to secure a free and prosperous future for their country. For them, the only way of securing that future is not only to be a liberal democracy but to be a European liberal democracy.
When the populist backlash against Europe began, the idea developed that Europe was no longer an ideal that nations aspired to – that its focus on the rule of law, transparency and fair competition had become symbols of the past.
What we have seen in Ukraine disproves this – as does the reaction of a large majority of the people of Europe in unequivocally siding with Ukraine.
Our societies are facing substantial economic costs, but there is no doubt where we stand in the fight for a free, democratic Ukraine.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 was seen as a turning point for the European Union. Above all, the majority which delivered the referendum was rejecting the idea of membership of a multinational body which not only adopts rules, but also has legal mechanisms to enforce them.
At the time there were many predictions that we were about to see the Union unravel – that Brexit’s lead would eagerly be followed by nations desperate to be free from the yoke of Brussels. Of course this not only didn’t happen, in many ways we are seeing a European Union which is stronger and more assertive. Decision-making is as slow as can be expected with anybody with such a diverse membership, but it is far more active and ambitious than in the past.
In the political sphere, there has been a noted reduction in the willingness of populist parties to campaign promising to leave the Euro and the Union. They have obviously decided that Brexit is not a vote winner for them and that they will suffer if they maintain the extreme anti-E.U. agenda of the past.
From the point when David Cameron announced a referendum to quell internal disputes in the Conservative Party there has been no topic I have addressed more often in speeches, articles and in parliament. There is no useful purpose to be served in going over the reasons why I have always felt Brexit to be a tragic error. I have also sought to lower the heat of exchanges by limiting the use of public forums to make negotiating points. This has been a source of frustration for many journalists but it is, I believe, the most constructive approach.
However, there is much that can and should be said about moving on to close, constructive relations between the UK and the European Union.
Ireland and the other members of the European Union continue to see the United Kingdom as a key ally. Our shared interests are undeniable and more obvious than ever. The cooperation over our mutual support for Ukraine, and the UK’s vital role in this, shows how strong the values we share are and what we can still achieve together.
Personally, I was especially pleased that the UK participated so openly and actively in the new European Political Community launched in Prague last month. This initiative has the potential to be a forum where we work together to strengthen democratic values in all parts of Europe and on its borders.
But we do need to finish our discussions about the Northern Ireland Protocol and to restore the closeness of the Irish/British relationship which achieved so much in the past.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was an unequivocal triumph for democracy. It not only brought to an end a bloody and illegitimate campaign of violence, it is assertive in the liberal and democratic values which are the only lasting foundations for peace. In the formal inter-governmental treaty which enacted the Agreement, the two governments committed themselves to:
“develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.”
Every time I see those words I am reminded that for decades Europe was for Northern Ireland a context for contact, for shared objectives and for widening horizons. Without questioning the outcome of the referendum, I believe we have an obligation to try to return to this spirit which delivered such historic progress.
The respect of the countries of Europe for the Irish peace settlement is clearly evident in their support for a special arrangement on the island of Ireland. The Protocol which the British government and the European Union agreed is a demonstration of a shared concern and I believe that Europe continues to show good faith in looking for ways to improve the operation of the Protocol.
To those who have pointed to problems in the operation of the Protocol, I want to say that we are listening and Europe is determined to find a solution. I was very encouraged by my conversations on this with Prime Minister Sunak. I am persuaded that he understands that we urgently need to find a way back to an agenda defined by growth and cooperation.
Too much time has been wasted in the last quarter century in failing to meet the full potential of the peace agreement, especially in terms of tackling entrenched sectarianism and disadvantage. We have done too little to understand where we differ and the many opportunities where deep cross-border connections can benefit all.
We have a settled blueprint for how we will decide on any future constitutional changes. This is a unique achievement which gives security and legitimacy to the aspirations of different traditions. Those of us who believe in the potential of unity to benefit and respect all on our island have a duty to show this in our words and deeds.
And before we can fulfil the potential of peace we have to do more to understand each other and to build new connections across the many barriers which grew both in the distant past and during the more recent sectarian conflict imposed on the Irish people by a small minority.
That is why I have established the Shared Island Initiative. It is the first time there has been any systematic effort to study links across the border and to invest in shared infrastructure and areas critical for our future, such as building our research capacities.
I think this is a very practical way of showing how we can create a new, positive agenda to overcome division.
In looking for signs of the resilience of liberal democracy in Europe in particular I think we should also consider how we have coped with the post 2015 migration to Europe from Syria in particular.
Migration has been part of the history of all of Europe throughout recorded time. These migrations have occurred regularly over the past century.
What was different with this particular increase in migration was that it was met with an at times almost overwhelming populist backlash. It led to extreme predictions of the end of European civilization and a war of competing cultural and religious visions.
There is no doubt that there were some good faith concerns about what might happen and that there are examples of problems which cannot just be ignored. However, the evidence is that, to borrow a phrase, we did cope.
A good demonstration of this is to be found in an important European research project which was completed this year. The research, called FOCUS, was undertaken in parallel with refugees and the longer-term residents of the communities where they now live. It shows very high levels of respect for the rights and values of both communities. Similarly, there is near-full support for the idea that refugees should be able to retain their culture while also adapting to their new home.
There are serious challenges for us, but what I find very hopeful in the face of the still very populist public debate on immigration, is that the more communities interact with each other the higher their mutual-acceptance is.
This year we are experiencing another very dramatic increase in refugees seeking shelter. It is putting undeniable pressures on many countries, but public support remains strong.
I can think of few more powerful rejections of the prediction of the collapse of democracy in Europe than the fact that our communities are showing such a welcome and such generosity towards others.
As I have said, while the threats to democracy are deep, the growing evidence is that the values of democracy retain an enduring strength and this strength should give us greater confidence than we have acknowledged. This is not enough. It falls to us to use this moment to become far more active and systematic in our efforts to reinforce democracy.
This is not something which falls neatly into the daily concerns of governments. But we need this to change and we need to broaden the range of policies and actions which we use to protect and promote our values.
In the European Union the reality of managing now 27 members and their priorities is that compromise is essential, but compromise must have its limits.
Over the last two years, leaders meeting at European summits have steadily accepted the need to end the idea that we will compromise on core values. The democratic values which we all agreed to when we joined are not negotiable and we cannot accept the idea of the lowest common denominator defining policy.
In this new spirit we have begun to be more assertive in overcoming barriers to agreements. I believe leaders are willing to build on this and insist on core values playing a decisive role in strategic decisions.
It is also the duty of political leaders to be practical and to address the challenges to democracy in our day to day work. In this spirit, and perhaps more than a bit influenced by Timothy Snyder’s wonderful work in linking historical insight to contemporary action, I would like to offer a series of quite specific actions which I believe we should bring to the fore in both our politics and our public policies.
I would divide these into two broad groups – changes to how we engage in political discourse and measures we can take to promote the diversity and intellectual innovation fundamental to democratic societies.
To take the issue of the practice of politics first, we must begin by reclaiming nationalism for liberalism. I am very proud of the Irish nationalist and republican tradition to which I belong because of the core democratic and international spirit which created it and has maintained it for just over two centuries. The flag which it adopted is a tricolour which is based on a rejection of the idea of a single tradition or set of beliefs defining the nation.
Ireland’s great revolutionary generation of a century ago gave us a constitution in 1937, ratified by a free referendum, which explicitly guaranteed citizenship and protection to minority religions, reinforced the separation of powers and committed the state to international cooperation based on the rule of law.
As the final public act of that generation, then Taoiseach Seán Lemass, who as a young boy had fought against the British state in 1916, not only signed cooperation treaties with the United Kingdom, he set us on our path to membership of the now European Union.
For him, the purest expression of nationalism was having the confidence to share sovereignty with others and to work for common progress. A nationalism based on cooperation and learning from others is a powerful idea.
Centrist democrats have been too tolerant of those who try to claim nationalism for their intolerant visions – and the co-option of our national flags for manifestations of intolerance and closed societies has been unchallenged for too long.
Linked to this we have to challenge the false premise of liberal democracy as weak. It takes strength to fight fair elections, to respect independent courts, to submit yourself to a challenging media, to abide by the laws no matter how powerful you are. That is real strength.
Words matter and those who pursue illiberal or autocratic paths should be referred to as exactly what they are – weak leaders who are scared of allowing their people a free debate and a free decision on how they will be governed.
We have also seen the damage which a corrosive Euroscepticism can cause to perceptions of the strongest and most successful multinational organisation yet created. We must be far more direct in confronting Eurosceptics with the failure of what is increasingly more a faith than an alternative.
Each member state of the European Union is more prosperous than they would be had they not joined. Every membership decision had full democratic legitimacy. And the ability of each member state to influence critical economic and political issues is significantly enhanced by membership.
These changes to how we address the core political discourse on democracy will never match the direct and emotional rhetoric of the populists – just as in Yeats’ time, the worst will always be full of “passionate intensity”. What they can do however is to prevent the populists from continuing to frame debate.
In terms of looking at changes to public policies, very little has been done in recent years beyond the inconsistent debate about enforcing democratic values within organisations. Ireland stands firmly with the majority of countries in insisting that we must do more to oppose backsliding on fundamental values.
However, we need a much wider agenda to address the factors which I have presented as representing an enduring threat to democratic values in our countries. By far the most important set of actions which we should take would directly challenge social division and would secure a shared space not just for debate but also the critical inquiry which defines healthy societies.
We need our citizens to know each other better, to meet outside of the particular groups which they identify with. The research on migration which I mentioned earlier has another fascinating dimension to it. It confirmed how contact between individuals and communities can help overcome what to some looked like profound cultural differences – yet the single biggest gap in integration policy is the lack a systematic approach to inter-communal engagement.
Most countries have a highly developed approach to support activist civil society, but few give priority to wider community engagement. Where local sports, culture and general clubs are active, the level of acceptance of others increases. When we stand on a terrace beside someone with different opinions, we don’t necessarily adopt their opinions, but we are certainly less likely to demonise them.
We can also do far more to identify policies which people can unite around. A critical one is the existential challenge of our time, climate change.
The non-governmental organisation More in Common has invested substantial resources in not just studying what divides us but also where there are points of contact which can help bridge the divide. An important finding from their research is how, even in extremely polarised contexts, environmental protection can be one of those points of contact if we have the ambition to make it so.
I have seen many practical examples where groups who initially see climate action as a threat from the elite can become active supporters for climate action. A just transition to a carbon neutral economy could become one of the great success stories of our time – and in particular we could show that the disruption of traditional industries does not always have to lead to division. It could be a space where we learn to overcome populist narratives.
I have no doubt that sustained investment in education and advanced research is essential to securing a prosperous future for our democracies. The economic case for the support of scientific research is well understood. Less well appreciated is the case for supporting research and education in all areas.
A diverse intellectual debate and a broad community of study in the humanities and social sciences are fundamental underpinnings for a society which is capable of evolving and understanding both its challenges and opportunities. A more systematic and ambitious approach to supporting this is required, including broadening access to the debates so that we have the sort of diversity of opinion which new ideas come from.
We must also act to rebuild a genuine public square within our societies. We need to recognise as a public good, activities which address issues in a rigorous way, exposing us to different views and empowering an informed discourse.
Support for professional and independent journalism has become an urgent need in our societies. We can see what happens when we no longer put value on journalism which takes time, involves expertise and operates to high ethical standards. The dominance of current affairs by partisan media or by a limited number of the wealthiest in our societies is always destructive.
A diverse, genuinely challenging and constructive debate is the greatest strength and competitive advantage which democratic societies have. Protecting and enhancing this debate must become a genuine priority for democratic governments.
As I have argued, I have no doubt that this is an extended period of significant threat to liberal democracy. We continue to have days where we wonder if countries are taking steps away from values we once thought secure. Part of this is a direct challenge by illiberal and authoritarian actors, but much also stems from the loss of important factors which underpin democratic values.
It is the natural response to periods of great turbulence to fear for what is ahead. As old certainties disappear and destructive forces threaten to take their place, many can fall for the fallacy of the inevitability of democracy’s weakness.
In a similar moment in history, Yeats and others gave voice to this fear, and did so in language which still resonates. Yet we should take their words and the events of our time as a warning rather than a prediction – a call to action rather than a statement of the inevitable.
In the past century, democratic societies have secured deep and sustained progress. Just as it is wrong to see this as unchanging, so too it is wrong to miss the enduring strength which crucial values continue to show.
The centre can hold and it will hold, because its values remain the only ones which respect our diverse humanity and the ties that bind us.
As we continue in our intense political age, we would do well to elevate this idea in all our work.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh.