Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968

Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968

hello thanks ever so much for joining us i’m ben tate from princeton university presses and it’s my pleasure to welcome martin conway of balial college oxford martin and i will talk about his new book western europe western europe’s democratic age from 1945 to 1968 martin you can see we’ve got to cover up uh before us now what what why don’t you tell us a little bit about the cover yeah well the cover as always is an image i happened upon which is from the italian elections in 1948 and it very much conveys what the book is about which is about people re-engaging with the political process after the war or in italy’s case as this is in italy you know after the whole mussolini dictatorship so the people are voting for the first time in a meaningful way for roughly um nearly 30 years and also for the first time women are voting so this is a moment of democratic outburst and it’s easy to think of this in really quite sort of heroic terms this is the moment when europe becomes democratic but i think the book tries to argue a slightly more subtle case that although there’s lots of engagement as you see here there’s also a distinct air of caution about where democracy can lead because previous experiences of democracy be it in italy or indeed anywhere else had not really ended very well and of course there’s a fear that the wrong people might also win elections and this poster that you see there voting depends it depends on you is a christian democrat poster where they fear that what they’re trying to do is to mobilize people against the communists martin what did you learn in writing the book i guess what i started off thinking i would discover was about the building of a particular democratic political culture in europe after the war in western europe because i was very conscious that it was a new departure for western europe to have democracy after the war but i think as i went along i probably discovered more about the sort of social and cultural aspects of democracy it’s easy to think of it as a political system but what very much struck me as i was writing the book was about this also rested on a on a sea change really in social attitudes people in some sense imbue um imbibe the notion of being democratic and wanted to take on board certain values of democracy like being polite when listening to others with whom they disagreed or about having the empowerment of democracy in daily life of being able to give their support to somebody or to withdraw it and i think those sort of slightly tacit forms of democracy really came to the fore in western europe after the war this doesn’t mean that it was a marvelously wonderful democratic culture i think in many respects it was really a very unequal democratic culture in which many people had much less power than some other people but i think that the idea that democracy stuck in western europe after the war because it became part of how people actually thought about themselves as well as about their political system is probably the biggest thing i took away from it all well i’d actually like to ask about that um um and specifically about what people thought or or felt um you quote no less than pius xii who in 1944 said this world war this universal upheaval must mark the inauguration of a radically new and completely rendered world and you quote other i suppose comparably hyperbolic pronouncements and you suggest that 1948 was for all the changes introduced was nevertheless not not 1789 or 1848. so to what extent was this period the period of the book marked by a new aspiration and to what extent was it marked by a combination of historically contingent factors laced with a sense of pragmatism oh certainly plenty of the latter plenty of pragmatism because other political systems had either ruled themselves out through their sort of authoritarianism during the war or in the case of communism were perceived to be the antithesis of what most people wanted um and also therefore people sort of back in a rather cautious way into democracy and hope that it will work out in the best way that’s certainly evident among people who are rulers and somebody like pius xii fears that democracy will somehow be a you know a heroic victory of all the free masonic atheist forces who he opposed so he’s very cautious about it but that sort of caution conditionality let’s see how it turns out is very evident in most people’s approach to democracy on left and right after the war but you know in the end of course what happened is that a sort of form of power sharing came into existence across most of western europe between different social classes between different political forces between different levels of government and that sort of inclusive democracy in which nobody wins but nobody utterly loses was i think a very important element of this new democracy and was in some respects a product of a learning experience people looked it back to things like the weimar republic and thought this is exactly what we do not want to do so let’s try and think about a democratic system that doesn’t have those costs and perils that people thought they had experienced in the interwar years so a sense of pragmatism then was rather important absolutely yeah and nobody’s really rushing into democracy with the enthusiasm of 1789 or 1848 as you say you know people have lived through too much it’s important to remember just how battered people the survivors in many ways i’m inclined to say were by the experiences of the war years there have been good moments have been bad moments but it was the more general tiring trauma of the whole experience you know a covid on a much larger scale perhaps i’m inclined to say which meant that actually people couldn’t have an excessive enthusiasm about the new politics that came into existence people had specific ambitions particularly of course we know about the enthusiasm for a greater security of life that came with welfare provision and they wanted plenty of new things out of governments in terms of a certain sort of economic prosperity and so on but they were also aware that actually governments couldn’t just deliver things off uh you know from one day to the next and there’s a certain patience and let’s see how it turns out and people become rather calculating about their political votes and that’s probably why people vote for the christian democrats in some cases because they decide rather cautiously that this is the best way of entering into a rather limited democracy after the war can you tell us something quickly about the christian democrats in the 1940s yeah well they come from almost nowhere in many ways although they like to claim that they are part of a catholic political tradition that can go back i don’t know hundreds of years really you know it’s a circumstantial product of a new sort of catholic secular elite coming to the fore who think that they can combine a certain sort of loose set of catholic social values defense of the catholic church with a more modern ideology of social and economic progress and indeed of participation in the democratic structure it could easily have fallen flat on its face and we wouldn’t be talking about it but in reality in countries such as italy the low countries germany austria and for the first 10 years in france christian democracy becomes a really major political force of course the christian democrats congratulate themselves and say this is all because we’ve got the best program and because the good people of europe always were catholic but um in reality you think it probably had more to do with the price of milk and to do with the provision of housing developments than it really had to do with specifically catholic values well you mentioned essentially sort of material conditions um you make the point that even right-wing political parties were willing to countenance the managerial state up until the economic slump which which was eventually made manifest in the 1970s um so to what extent it’s a certain level of wealth um you know underpin uh the the the the period that that you’ve addressed in this book yeah it’s one of those conditions isn’t it i think we’re all used to writing the history of post 1945 western europe as if it was a product of cold war and economic prosperity i tried to make it a bit more complicated in the book i don’t think it’s economic prosperity as a certain sort of economic predictability which matters to people it takes a great deal of time for real prosperity to kind of enter into people’s lives and for them essentially to feel that they are better off than they used to be you know i suppose i’d roughly stick a pin in at the end of the 1950s for that realization to dawn upon people but what had happened in the intervening 10 years is that they had a greater confidence the governments knew how to manage the economy as indeed in many ways they did they got lucky in some ways but in other respects they were just more competent and therefore most sections of the population not everybody but most sections of the population felt that they were actually in a predictable economic regime as i stress in the book many of the best many of the biggest winners out of this new era of prosperity are actually the middle class and commercial farmers and people like that it’s not a redistributive prosperity it’s not really prosperity being taken away from elite groups and given to the working class they are in many ways the last people to benefit from economic prosperity but economic predictability a sense that actually there’s a way of actually running the economy and there’s annual negotiations about paying conditions all of that embeds itself quite quickly in people’s lives and of course they’ve lived through so many traumas and the most notably the economic depression of the 1920s that at the end of the 20s that um they don’t that they like the predictability but as your question rightly emphasizes you know once uh sort of a politics what’s an economic crisis of inflation and mass unemployment begins to reassert itself in the 1970s then many of the elements of that decline and my book of course ends with the feeling that actually western europe’s democratic age in some ways comes to a close at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s can we see it for the war something like a new conception of citizenship yeah i think so um and it’s a citizenship that um enters into people’s minds as being a rather less ideological partisan form of citizenship citizenship becomes i’m tempted to say slightly neutral it’s what you do as a good citizen you participate in elections and to some extent in paying your taxes and that sort of thing in return for which you get the benefits of government and that’s perhaps a rather self-interested concept of citizenship but it’s also a karma form of citizenship and let’s remember the gender of all of this there’s a demobilization of men out of uniforms out of armies out of political movements into a civilian life after the war in their millions and at the same time there’s an invitation i suppose to women to participate as citizens in the political process in social life more actively than had formerly been the case this in absolutely no way means that there was gendered equality well i’m describing there are probably two slightly separate gendered paths into citizenship but they were ones that on the whole worked and particularly the female one women actually found in democratic politics after the war a political process that was attentive to their interests and their rather gendered identities be it as mothers be it as employees be it as uh housewives and so on and that sort of politics again perhaps associated most obviously with christian democracy was an important element of how democracy stabilized itself it had the women on its side how exceptional was the period that you chronicle in your book i think now we can see how exceptional it was this is probably the only period in modern european history when there are very similar political regimes across the whole of western europe a certain model of multi-party parliamentary democracy establishes itself throughout western europe if you exclude spain and portugal and of course spain portugal and greece come into this world in the 1970s as well so it is exceptional it’s exceptional in its uniformity it’s exceptional in its um sense of a kind of common denominator form of democracy but it also seems exceptional to us because it’s also a period of relative calm europeans stop killing each other which was really quite an um you know a unique development for the period since the french revolution the number of people who die in wars within europe in this period is minimal but also the number of people who die in political violence in europe in this period is relatively limited and of course now that we see the more contested to some extent violent or at least confrontational politics in the 1980s and 90s thinking of yugoslavia you end up with a you end up with a sense of closure at the end of this period when are some of europe’s old conflicts very much come back and you know the democracy of the present is certainly not uh as uniform or as stable as the democracy of that past you don’t in the book present yourself as an oracle or a sous-sayer but i might ask you to make a prediction in any case i think towards the end of the book you highlight that in in the 90s and with the the onset of the the crisis in the balkans that that europe was no longer the center of its own story i think that’s the phrase you may have used um can you see can you foresee a future in in which europe will again be the center of its own story i very much doubt it um you know i think the the democratic politics of the present are very much more volatile and unpredictable uh of course we’ve seen that in north america with the trump presidency but one sees it also in europe with the emergence of new populist political forces which doesn’t mean that europe is about to go back to the fascism of the 1930s far from it i think it within the sort of populism of the present um there is quite a lot of democratic content it just isn’t the democracy that we like or the democracy we’re inclined to vote for but i think what we are what we are confronted by is the sense of a much more uh volatile unpredictable less party structured form of democracy and of course lurking around the corner is always a sense that actually europe is a very much declined corner of the world in terms of its own sovereignty european union and european integration for a while gave a sense of europe making itself sovereign but of course since the last economic crisis i think there’s been a certain modest realism about the ability of europe to do that and also a very strong sense of how europe depends on shadows cast from other places be that america russia or most tangibly at present in european minds china martin thanks ever so much this has been great great fun the book again is western europe’s democratic age 1945 to 1968. it’s it’s a richly interesting book um it was a a pleasure for me to work on the book of course um and martin as i said before in other contexts i really appreciated how how you wrote historically um with an awareness of of of of contingency and and the complexities really of any period um so i think it’s a it’s it’s it’s the book has a real contribution um i would urge everyone to to to to to to to read it and and find it um and martin again thanks ever so much for for the chat thank you very much indeed ben
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Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968

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