AFTER a refreshing three and bit hours' sleep, it was back to the non-stop BBC coverage of Britain's astonishing election this morning. Understandably, seen from Britain the talk was all of domestic politics, and how a country known for majority rule ended up in such a strange pickle: the ruling Labour party lost, the opposition Conservatives did not really win, and the third party Liberal Democrats' clarion call for change was not really heeded.
Sitting here in Brussels, with the first of many coffees, at the start of a day that will end tonight with a summit of eurozone heads of government in Brussels, I have a hunch. We will all look back at this British election and see it as part of a moment in history that extends far beyond the British Isles. Take the parliamentary expenses scandal, which has played a huge role in the British election: to many people there it feels like a purely domestic story, based on leaked expenses files from their parliament in Westminster. But look at the crowds storming the Greek parliament, shouting "thieves". Look at the Tea Party movement in America.
I think this is all linked. We are seeing the politics of a horrible recession, in which ordinary taxpayers and workers have been asked to foot the bill for bank bailouts, austerity plans and the like: ie, to pay the price for the proceeding economic bubble in so many parts of the west. While bankers and politicians are seen as having escaped scot-free (though with 152 MPs standing down at this British general election, and several Labour ministers accused of dodgy expenses losing their seats, some at least probably feel they have paid quite a price).
What does this mean for the European Union? I am gloomy, I confess. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, zoomed briefly in the polls after British voters got their first look at him in a televised leaders' debate. But once the press started to report that he was in favour of things like joining the euro, giving up Britain's seat on the UN Security Council in favour of a single EU seat, scrapping prison terms for less serious offences, and an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants, his support melted away.
I am not saying all of Mr Clegg's ideas were sound: joining the euro right now would be a bold move for a start, and some of his tax plans were foolish. But he was often making a liberal case for policies based on enlightened self-interest. Voters do not seem to be in a mood to reward enlightened self-interest.
It is arguably the same with the big idea David Cameron's modernising inner circle came up with for this election: a Big Society based on ordinary people volunteering and taking more control of local affairs, allowing the centralised state to shrink and step back. Britons appeared to be too busy, too cross and too mistrusting to heed that message.
True, the far right has not polled strongly. The overtly racist British National Party polled 1.9% of the vote, on current counting. But some of their themes have bled into mainstream politics. Some of the more depressing moments of the three televised leaders' debates in Britain followed questions about immigration. Each time, Mr Clegg, Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown launched into a bidding war, competing to sound as tough and restrictive as possible, boasting about just how many workers they would keep out, or prevent from moving freely round the country. Mr Cameron vowed to block labour market access for any new members of the EU: repudiating the previous British policy of opening labour markets to workers from east and central Europe when their countries joined in 2004. Mr Brown vowed to block access for any chefs and cooks from outside the EU (there goes Chinatown, I remember thinking).
I have been trying to think of a recent election in which voters appeared enthusiastic, at least in the developed world. I had to go back to Barack Obama's election. That now feels like a last blast of optimism before the crisis really sunk in.
A final European thought. I have been writing a lot about democratic preferences and North-South tensions in the EU. One of the biggest divides, which plays into the current eurozone crisis, is between countries with high degrees of trust (such as Nordic countries) and those with low degrees of trust, where life is seen as a zero sum game and advantages must be grabbed, held and shared with tight interest networks.
I fear the whole western world, but certainly the whole of the EU, is in a low trust moment. That imperils all sorts of grand bargains, such as the single market, the single currency and the four basic freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital. We are in for perilous times. Britain's election is another warning.
I know there's a lot of bolding, but this article is REALLY good and very much with the nodding along.