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Has there ever been a better time to wallow in gloom? On one side of the Atlantic, Europe is trying and failing to deal with a refugee crisis and a broken single currency; on the other, a narcissist ignoramus is making a run for the White House.
Closer to home, Britain is still buffeted by David Cameron’s ruinous gamble on the European Union referendum. The brief summer respite from the news provided by a successful Olympics ended abruptly when Theresa May convened her Cabinet, and revealed that her sure-sounding slogan, “Brexit means Brexit,” had given way to “Brexit means brainstorm,” with wildly different visions being aired at her top table about what on Earth the UK does next. As Wolfgang Münchau (p38) sets out, the logical possibilities for Britain’s future relations with Europe stretch from Bremain to Siberia, by way of Liechtenstein. It is hard to see how all this haze can do anything other than damage the outlook for the economy, as foreign investors such as the Japanese were telling May at September’s G20.
The one racing certainty would seem to be that the alienation of all those who, as Joseph Stiglitz tells Prospect (p22), have been economically squeezed and neglected for so long, will intensify. After all, there is little sign of the promised Brexit bonus for the NHS, and May has recently admitted that she does not support the leavers’ other great pledge, for a points-based immigration system. Meanwhile on the continent, things are drifting, not only because of economic sclerosis but also because, as Adam Tomkins authoritatively sets out (p40), the EU’s traditional animating ideal, of federalism, is something that European voters seem to reject, whenever they are given a choice.
It would, then, be all too easy to conclude that this is a time for despair, plain and simple. Except, as Tomkins also explains, if we dig deep into history, we can find precious clues about how countries can work successfully across borders, and begin to imagine the kind of Europe that Britain could lead, rather than leave. If the nation state is moving back into the business of managing globalisation, then it is encouraging that it is now not only thinkers on the left (see Mariana Mazzucato, p66), but also the right (David Willetts, p62) who are grappling afresh with setting its power to work, in order to spread prosperity.
For in the end, at least if you buy the account of Deirdre McCloskey (p73), it has been, more than anything else, hard thinking about how to do things differently that has slowly transformed the nasty, brutish and short life that used to be humanity’s lot into a better tomorrow. That fits with Joanne Paul’s stout defence of Thomas More (p46), against the likes of Hilary Mantel who have styled his Utopian thinking as the product of a troubled mind. It is only, Paul reasons, by daring to dream of another world that we can figure out how to fix our own.
That sounds right to me, and it should surely encourage us all to transcend the gloom of the hour. It is also, I hope, a thought to give special heart to the readers of a magazine which prides itself on thinking different.