As the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, Western ideas looked set to dominate global politics for some time to come. Quickly, however, the West began to shrink and to become synonymous with the USA as Europe became increasingly preoccupied with the enlargement as well as deepening of the integrationist project. One interesting but not so paradoxical effect, has been that Europe has become, if not isolationist, at least inward-looking, seemingly unable to lift its head and see the view beyond its own (admittedly large) back garden. Look at any of the literature on the state of global politics and economics today and Europe is relegated more and more to the end parts of the text, sometimes even featuring as little more than a footnote. Research and discourse on the rising powers is in increasing abundance and the USA is not the only country pivoting to Asia. The Catholic Church has just elected a Latin American to its highest office to lead its people through a time of enormous challenge and threat. Meanwhile, Europe is mired in economic crisis and acutely aware of that, even while somnambulism presides in respect of its political crisis as extremism deepens its hold over so many Europeans.
Before ever we get to what is to be done, we have to ask, what is needed. Three things are needed: leadership, debate, a properly critical public. Each is currently in very short supply.
The crowds in St Peter’s Square this week were testament not just to the endurance of religious belief but also to the need that people have for leadership: a leadership which speaks to deeper human needs, for an identity that is rooted in a values and belief system. Discourse on identity is always as much about what we are not as much as it is about what we are but in the European context the balance increasingly seems to lie with what we are not with little regard for what that says about who we really are: scared, ignorant, intolerant, bigoted, racist. Not all of us are all or even any of these things but it does not help if we fail to recognise that some, even many, people are. The ignorance and arrogance of some of our political and economic classes is often breath-taking, as is clear not only from media reporting but from direct conversation with them. It is now all too easy to understand the rise of Nazism and Fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. Of course our economic health is vital but it is not the be all and end all and what we should have learned from history is the need to speak to values in society and to strengthen and reinforce our values system in times of crisis. But that takes strong leadership and courage, qualities that have been sorely lacking on the European continent for years, even decades, now.
What we also need is open debate. One of the great benefits of David Cameron’s decision to hold an eventual referendum on UK membership of the EU has been that new voices have been heard, a refreshing change from the usual sneering tones of the British press and other media. If only we could debate openly even more pressing issues that are not just about where our economic interests lie but which relate to who we are and what we want to be. I’m thinking about equality, race, immigration. You don’t have to be a supporter of Nick Clegg to agree with his comment that equality should always be a priority of any government. Europe is sleepwalking into another crisis and with all the focus on finding solutions to the economic problems, we are ignoring the fact that our previous years of prosperity saw only a thin veneer of value-commitments put in place. The solution for bigotry, nationalism and extremism does not lie with economists, it lies with the politicians, the philosophers and the historians – and in free and open debate.
And that brings me to the final component: education. I can’t think of a better place to begin than with the ideas and admonitions of John Stuart Mill. In response, governments across the continent will point us to the fact that we are better educated than we have ever been. That is quantitatively but not qualitatively true. Mill was right in his focus on what education needed to be about if people were to emerge as critical, courageous thinkers, capable of taking on their political leaders. As education becomes ever more commodified and instrumentalised, as league tables and” bums on seats” become our measures of success, the biggest casualty is critical thought. And without appropriately critical thought we cannot produce good leaders, we cannot see the flaws in the thinking of our political elites and we cannot debate vital issues properly.
We knew all this a very long time ago. I’m no expert on why previous great civilisations have come and gone but I do know that in respect of our own we can begin with our failure to learn and to remember the lessons of history.