The slow motion evisceration of Greece is the horror show we have not been able to tear our eyes from. While the Teutonic train hurtles towards the Hellenic maiden we may curse the bankers spared the consequences of their own recklessness.
Or we may rage at the power of unaccountable bureaucrats. Or we may fear the flames of nationalism sparking into life across the continent. But above all we are left powerless by Europe’s inability to alter its tragic momentum: this great unravelling with its echoes of one hundred years ago.
We are witnessing politics at its most brutal and Hobbesian. Though we may cry out for pity it feels like there is precious little room for it in the committee rooms of Berlin and Brussels, where narrow, short-term national interests continue to dominate decision-making.
What lessons can we learn from this? Perhaps none that is likely to be of much help in the short-term, but some that it would be useful to pay attention to in the difficult years ahead.
One is the enduring power of a bad idea. As many people grasped from the beginning, the Euro, at least as currently constructed, always was and still remains a terrible idea. No amount of wishful thinking could change the contradictions at its core whose consequences are wrecking Europe today. Economics might be boring compared to grand visions, but it matters. This was the mantra of Alistair Darling during the Scottish referendum.
We may wish to build a better society that is not at the mercy of neoliberal financial markets, but that will only be possible if our alternative is based on sound economics. We need to deal with reality as it is, not with the version our hopes or ideals tell us it should be like.
Another lesson is the power of power. It is better to be strong than weak. Realpolitik cares little for the romance of the weak – it cares even less for small nations that challenge its interests. If Greece were bigger or had bigger friends it would not be being bullied. The benign internationalist European ideal that seduced so many of us for so long has been revealed as a cruel, vindictive paymaster. Should therefore, heaven forfend, Scotland ever find itself on its financial uppers, how confident would we feel going into Europe’s negotiation chambers alone? When the chips are down, perhaps a Cameron or Osborne would be better friends to us than a Schäuble or Juncker?
A third lesson is the continued struggle for relevance of the soft middle. In dangerous times the nuanced voice of liberalism is easily drowned out. Its subtlety at odds with our needs for conviction and clarity. This was one of the lessons of the General Election. With the existential threats facing us, Miliband, quite simply, was not someone we believed in. ‘Hell no,’ we voted, ‘One, you’re not tough enough. And two, we don’t understand what you’re talking about.’
The unionist left of centre is likely to re-emerge as a political force because of the depth of its local and national power bases; and because its sensibility instinctively chimes with the British love of fair-mindedness. But not until it finds leaders who can articulate their messages powerfully and clearly.
The most important and depressing lesson, however, is the inability of Europe to reform itself. This is about more than the failures of individual leaders: it is about the failure of our culture and institutions to provide an environment from which transformational leadership can emerge. At a deeper level it is about a civilisation that no longer believes in itself. As the Brazilian politician and political scientist Roberto Unger observed in an interview in The European Magazine in 2011:
The stage before death is what Europe seems determined to present, other than when there are these atavistic conservative reactions to the political pieties of the day.
The problem within European society is we have not created institutions that internalize the impulse to change. With the way things are organized, transformation continues to depend on crisis. Throughout the 20th century the only way Europeans have been able to change is by slaughtering one another. When they’re at peace they go to sleep and drown their sorrows in consumption, in a depressive materialism. Sleepy democracies in which no one wants to sacrifice anything, no one believes very much in anything except for extremists on the left and the right. This is a disaster. The centrist technocrats, the cold calculators, all like Europe. Everyone who is young, restless, and rebellious is opposed to the European project.
From this perspective the attraction of Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalism-lite makes a great deal of sense. It explains why so many people who do not support independence voted for the SNP at the general election. Here at last, people sensed, is a party that is able to articulate our need for change in a way that is both comprehensible and appeals to our better selves. If the SNP is now able to develop the ability to reform itself, so that its policies are based on an honest acknowledgment of reality as it is – rather than the version painted by historical myths or tribal interests – then we will really have a party to reckon with.