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…on an unanticipated ill of the EU

I apologise in advance for what will no doubt be rather jumbled thoughts. Andrew & I have been watching the second season of Downton Abbey, which takes place during the First World War. At the same time, I’ve been reading a lot about the current moves to dismantle or diminish various public services in the UK, and the shifting landscape of the American electorate. In the background, of course, is the ongoing failure of the European Union to face up to the havoc that member states’ fiscal failures are wreaking on the Euro, and the resultant political brouhaha in Westminster.

All this has got me thinking. I should begin by acknowledging that I’m a hearty Eurosceptic. I believe the initial goals of institutions like the Council of Europe and the European Economic Community were laudable, and that the common market is a fundamentally good thing. The European bureaucracy, along with being fundamentally anti-democratic, is dysfunctional at the best of times. There is something deeply worrying about the fact that in good times the European institutions work to tie their members closer together in closer union, and that in bad times (even in bad times made worse by the resultant union), their response is to tie things together more quickly.

All that said, my reading and watching habits have of late led me to wonder about the effects armed conflict on society. Don’t get me wrong: war is, by and large, a bad thing. It does, however, have some positive side-effects. There has long been discussion of whether war drives economic growth. Looking at 20th century Anglo-American history, there also seems to be a link between war and  social progress. I don’t count revolutions: any number of them have rallied behind cries for social justice; more often than not, though, new forms of tyranny take hold alongside whatever social progress manages to eek through.

The participation of women in WWI, both on the home front and in the Red Cross, made calls for women’s suffrage harder to resist in both the US & the UK. WWII led to further breakdown of social barriers. In the UK, the post-war settlement led to the foundation of the NHS and other elements of the welfare state that have been under attack from both sides of the political divide since the 1980s. In the US, the second world war was followed by the desegregation of the military in 1948 and, eventually the civil rights movement (which hit its stride during the Vietnam War). In both countries, access to higher education expanded significantly in the aftermath of WWII (as did the general standard of living).

My question, then, is whether the last 65 years of peace in Western Europe, fostered and encouraged by a variety of international institutions, have the pernicious side effect of undermining social democracy.

It may well be that the socio-economic circumstances that tied war to social progress were unique to the early 20th century. In nineteenth-century Britain, Catholic emancipation and the reform acts were not a price the ruling classes had to pay for war. It’s possible that social advancement is contingent on total war, and an acknowledgement that parts of the social contract are open to revision after such a conflict. It’s also possible that the decline in noblesse oblige–or whatever sense of duty used to encourage the ruling classes to participate fully in the armed services–has changed the expectations at all levels of society. Today, the poor are expected to bear the human cost of war almost entirely, while the economic benefits seem to flow primarily to a small subset of the rich.

Finally, was anyone else thoroughly freaked out by Angela Merkel’s warning this week that “nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe”?

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