John Kampfner: Greece may be the epicentre – but this is a European crisis

Which politician will be brave enough to tell voters the days of abundance are over?


Elections grip the imagination because they combine drama with the rare moment of public participation in politics. Few elections are as significant as yesterday's in Greece, amid dire warnings from Europe's elite that voters must continue to embrace German-imposed austerity to stave off financial collapse.

The outcome will, in the short term, have a considerable impact on the livelihoods of millions of people, not just in Greece but far beyond. Last night's early indications of an inconclusive result, with the centre-right pro-bailout New Democracy party running neck-and-neck with the radical-left anti-austerity Syriza, will only sharpen the mood of emergency. The result appeared merely to confirm the previously messy elections in May, which were seen as adding to the atmosphere of instability and fear. It is now likely to take days, if not weeks, for a new government to be formed, amid worries of a run on the banks and the need for the ECB and others to step in. As world leaders were gathering in Mexico for a G20 summit, the markets will look to them for instant reassurance, otherwise known as rhetorical sticking-plaster.

But for all the doom-laden predictions, the verdict of Greece's despondent and angry voters will not influence the longer-term historical cycle: for what we are watching is the inexorable, albeit now-accelerated, decline of a political bloc wedded to two competing economic orthodoxies, each as self-indulgent as the other. While both models appear to be at loggerheads, they are each jointly and separately responsible for the mayhem that took hold in 2008 and continues to this day.

In one corner are the disciples of unbridled free markets. With their simplistic notions of the profit motive as a driver of growth, their selective disdain for state intervention (abhorrent except when it comes to propping up casino banks), and their dogged refusal to factor in broad consequences for their actions, they have propelled Europe and the US not just to the brink of financial ruin but to social strife.

In the other corner are the myopic advocates of the high-tax, high-subsidy model, based around 20th-century notions of a bloated public sector and unsustainable welfare. In Britain, low productivity remains endemic. In France, a laughably short working week requires industrious employees to take large chunks of time off in order not to get their bosses in trouble. In Spain, over-manning was long seen as a means of guaranteeing employment.

What unites these two approaches is a sense of entitlement, particularly among the post-war, baby-boom older generation. Just as CEOs of the most powerful private-sector corporations are intensely relaxed – to coin a Mandelsonian phrase – with exponential salary rises, so public authorities have felt little remorse in awarding ludicrous bonuses and pay-offs to their friends. Doctors in the UK complain about broken promises on pensions, but did they, or anyone else in a similar position for that matter, ever wonder about the sustainability of paying people large sums lasting decades?

Underpinning both flawed practices was a consumerist feeding frenzy that took hold in the 1990s, the era of post-Communist Western political and economic hegemony, the so-called "End of History". Governments behaved recklessly, encouraging banks to encourage individuals to copy them.

In Greece, profligacy was boosted further by corruption. It was hard to resist the temptation to screw the system because pretty much everyone was doing it, led by the political and financial elite. Now that the music has stopped, as ever, the people being punished are not the ones who caused the problems to begin with.

With the recession in Greece now into its fifth year, the suffering for many is real and intense. It seems likely that the Greeks will be allowed to renegotiate parts of the bailout, but probably only at the fringes of the deal. It seems hard to imagine a time when the country will get back on its feet and when, or if, they do, it seems harder still to see the private sector producing the necessary impetus to growth. Under the straitjacket imposed by the ECB, IMF and the German government, the public sector will have nothing to offer.

Even if their medicine is far too severe, driving unemployment higher and choking growth, the German diagnosis of the original ailment is beyond dispute. The conspicuous consumption produced by the easy money of globalisation was never going to last. The more productive and less spendthrift Teutonic approach has, for all its sombreness, the merit of sustainability.


Austerity was always going to be hard sell, even if we were all going to be in it together. As we saw pretty much from the outset, that was not going to happen. The culprits – the bankers and their many associates – have emerged almost completely unscathed. The then Labour government in Britain had the opportunity, back in 2008-09, to punish them. Instead, ministers rolled over. The Coalition has since produced a series of reforms that are so lightweight as to be virtually meaningless.

Across Europe, the sense of dislocation is tangible. In Greece, this will be exacerbated among many by resentment at having been bullied into voting the "right way". If, after years of misery, the Greeks, and not just the Greeks, feel that ordinary people have borne the pain, while the global super-rich have got even richer, playing the currency, equities and property markets, then nobody will be surprised if political extremism takes hold.

Greece may be the epicentre of the crisis, but this is a European crisis – of greed and irresponsibility. It will take far more than bailouts and exhortations to voters to solve. What is needed is a new economic paradigm that does not depend on public- and private-sector excess. But which politician anywhere in Europe will be brave enough to tell voters that the days of super-abundance are over and that societies will have to find less materially exuberant ways of determining success? In short, this is a matter of managing decline, as fairly as possible. But that is an election slogan that nobody, whatever their views on the bailout, the euro or the Germans, wishes to hear.

John Kampfner is author of 'Blair's Wars' and 'Freedom For Sale' Twitter: @johnkampfner

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game