Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Camarillas and democracy

Having finished Valentine Williams’ World of Action, I am now half way through Edmond Taylor’s The fall of the Dynasties, the collapse of the old order 1905-1922. Both deal with overlapping periods and common subjects, but are otherwise very different.

Published in 1938, Williams writes of the period in Europe before and after the First World War as a journalist who observed events. Published in 1968, Taylor’s book provides a sometimes gripping historical account of much of the same period. Between them, they have introduced me to a new word, camarilla, a group of courtiers or favourites which surround a king or ruler.

Mad, bad and sometimes just plain sordid, the camarillas played a critical role in the events leading up the destruction that was World War One. War was not inevitable, the camarillas helped make it so.

There is something quite frightening in watching events spin out of control. No one really wanted a major conflagration, not even the war parties in Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia. They wanted a more limited conflict. Yet step led to step and finally armageddon.

I will write a little about this later. For the moment, I want to make just two points.

The first is that one of the strengths of democracy as compared to autocracy is that it provides a structured way of getting rid of those in power. The European democracies - whether constitutional monarchies or republics - had their weaknesses, but were spared some of the power plays that took place in the autocratic states.

The second is the importance of transparency and due process. Camarillas can exist in democracies, we have seen examples in Australia, but their activities and influence are limited where they can be seen or exposed.

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