Andrew Roberts: The Greek Crisis ... Europe's 'Proud Empire' is Entering a Cul de Sac of History

The writer’s books include The Storm of War and A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900.

Nothing is inevitable. It was the first truth I was taught as a Cambridge undergraduate in the 1980s, and it has been italicised and underlined for me by everything I have learnt since. (I even use spellcheck to excise the word “inevitable” from my books, lest it’s crept in at a lazy moment.) The whole of human history is testament to the fact that vast sections of mankind can seem to be progressing towards what looks like an established goal, only to get sidetracked into cul-de-sacs, sometimes for decades, occasionally for centuries. So why do we still assume that an eventual return to any significant economic growth in the European Union is inevitable?
The news that Greece’s economy shrank by 7 per cent last quarter, and that for all his valiant efforts even George Osborne,the UK chancellor has been slapped with a downgrading threat by Moody’s, ought to focus us upon the thoughts of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci. For it was the leading thinkers of the Whig and Marxist historical determinist school who infected mankind with the concept that we were “progressing” somewhere, moving towards a fixed, positive future point. In economics, that idea is encapsulated in the assumption of economic growth as a kind of manifest destiny, almost the birthright of the species. All too often we see growth as something to be taken for granted as a natural part of the human condition; the rule rather than the exception. If Thomas Macaulay, Friedrich Engels and the other historical determinists had been right, and mankind was on a train track towards either the inevitability of universal liberty or a workers’ paradise, would we have wound up with a 20th century as scourged as it was?
The past two-thirds of a century have been atypical for the globe, and peculiarly conducive for growth. Never before had there been so prolonged a period when no two great powers went to war, if one counts Korea as a UN operation and discounts the Indochinese border incidents of the 1960s and 1970s. America was a powerhouse of innovation and leadership, in competition with a resurgent, confident Japan. Exchange rates went largely unmassaged. China was quiescent and unable to price European economies out of raw materials. Food and energy were cheap by historical standards. Trade and markets were generally freer (in the west) than ever before. Populations were rising, but controllably so. Interest rates encouraged lending, and competition between and within European countries was producing what Adam Smith had promised it would.
Today we still have Great Power peace – the Iraq and Afghan wars were small by any historical standards, and only rate about 20th in the list of the bloodiest postwar conflicts – but none of those other prerequisites for growth still exist in the same form. So why do politicians, chief executives, editors and other decision-makers still take it for granted that the holy grail of growth is there to be grasped? Why are we still in the grip of this irrational Whiggish optimism?..

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