Anglosphere: Seismic shifts

By JAMES C. BENNETT   |   March 9, 2002 at 4:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 9 (UPI) -- California is known for its seismic instability, and England for its stability. In two weeks of travel to first Silicon Valley, and then London, I found that in terms of events and outlooks, the more momentous and less generally foreseen seismic shifts are being foreshadowed in England.

Not that Silicon Valley was boring, of course. Not only did the entrepreneurial circles with whom I was meeting share the spreading sense of economic recovery, they had direct evidence of a very recent return of venture capital for new company starts. Innovative projects that had been in hibernation since the great decline have been able to gain seed financing, albeit at far more realistic valuations than two years ago. Those who had gleefully predicted the end of the Information Economy because of the collapse of a transitory valuation bubble will be confounded over the next two years as a more mature and realistic entrepreneurial wave re-emerges.

It was in London, however, that I felt the evidence of shifts that were not merely cyclic, as is fundamentally the case in the swing of an investment cycle. These shifts were more in the nature of the passing of one era and the start of another. The situation of the Blair government, the European question, the attitudes of the upcoming generation, and of the perception of the world in general seem to be undergoing deep transitions.

I was in London primarily on business, but also had occasion to meet with a number of political figures. The hard-core Euroskeptics were still steadfastly critical of Britain's European adventure, and that was no surprise. What was more impressive was the marked erosion of the European position of people much closer to the center, including people in the financial community who had never had a visible position on European issues.

In conversation after conversation, we went back to certain basic facts, particularly the ongoing Continental demographic crisis that is driving an economic and structural crisis. Again and again the issue of the overpromised and underfunded Continental pension and benefits system arose.

Not only was everybody acutely aware of the problems, but many shared the feeling that the Continentals' attempts to fix them, particularly the European Union's "constitutional convention" now convening, was blindly reinforcing the sources of the problems, rather than facing them intelligently and fixing them. Even persons from famously Europhile institutions in the print and electronic media confirmed that doubts were more prevalent than appeared in articles or programs.

One political moderate figure told me: "I once believed in the idea of Britain in the European Union, and hoped they would fix their problems. I still say so in public. But when I wake up in the middle of the night, I know that we shall have to get out." His comments were echoed off the record by moderates within more than one party.

I am sure that the elderly Continental politicians and their eager staffers who are planning the next stages of integration are well-insulated from these currents. There are plenty of British sycophants in the media, academia, and government who will tell them only what they want to hear. But for many previously pro-European British, the next few years hold the European Union's last chance to become something of which they might still want to be part.

Other things are changing as well. Americans tend to see only the Tony Blair that stood forthrightly for needed actions after Sept. 11. Less visible is the government that is beginning to experience the inevitable second-term fatigue of scandals, mistakes and unkept promises, many of them unkept because they were always unkeepable. The feeling can best be described to an American as Clinton in the fifth year of his term, just before Monica. The tactic of blaming the record of the other party has begun to run out of steam as 1997 moves further and further in the past.

Now new strains loom. When the United States moves against Saddam, as seems inevitable, Blair must hope that it will indeed be the cakewalk that some predict. Any protracted war will bring the anti-Americans in his party out of the walls and challenge his fragile control of the party, which was always predicated on easy victories in good times.

Europe will come back again as an issue with a British electorate that I believe is growing more skeptical, rather than, as Blair expected, less. Poor health and transport services, drastically rising violent crime rates and a return of disruptive strikes for the first time since before Thatcher all feed a growing sense of discontent.

Although Blair's poll numbers are still high, and the Tories' still low, it is the sort of situation that could turn quickly with a precipitating event. Americans were astonished in 1945 when Churchill was turned out by a Labor landslide. They might be similarly surprised sooner than most think.

All these shifts seem to be underlain by a deeper mood shift. Britain finally seems to be shrugging off its post-Imperial cringe. Although Thatcher's reforms, and her firm action in the Falklands, turned Britain from the directions in which it had been heading since the loss of empire and the diminution of its great-power status, much of the psychological malaise and self-doubt still remained in many parts of society. The roots of this are changing.

The desire to apply a realistic scepticism to the European project, as well as a realistic appreciation of America, is part of this. Other instances are interesting as well. A number of people commented on my views of India published in last week's Anglosphere. They agreed that consensus opinion has been unrealistically bullish on China, while being insufficiently bullish on India.

One interesting theory was that Britain, having had no choice but to accede to China's demands on Hong Kong, had then tended to build China up. Now a more realistic picture of a China that has far to go in its reforms is replacing this excessive treatment. In balance, the appreciation India is once again swinging to the fore.

Such perceptions of change in opinion are often foreshadowings of coming seismic shifts in events. Some shifts, such as those driven by the continuing unresolved structural problems of Europe, seem hard to avoid. I have no crystal ball with which to foresee the outcomes. But to expect events to merely chug along on the same course as in recent years seems the most foolish of all positions.

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