Dangers of economic collapse could actually mean more than what meets the eye.

Should we be worried about the disasters which many countries, including our own, are facing? Should the gloomy forecasts and the depressing analyses of what is wrong give us great cause for concern?

Certainly we can hardly escape the bad news. In the past two days, for example, we have been reading of the departure from office of Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy, a departure celebrated by jeering crowds. Similarly, the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, has left office as his country tries to avert financial collapse.

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron warns us of serious threats to our economy as a result of further turmoil in the Eurozone (of which the UK is not part). There were indeed fears that the Eurozone was going to collapse. That has not happened, but many commentators do not look at it with great confidence. The economic problems include such things as high levels of unemployment. With such an outlook, it is inevitable that political disaffection is high.

There are, of course, informed and balanced analysts and commentators who remind us that the collapse of the Eurozone — however much it might be welcomed by the Europhobes — would bring even more disaster, not avert it. InThe Observer, for example, the distinguished columnist Will Hutton tackles the Europhobe approach head on. While accepting the gravity of the state of UK and European economies, he refers to the jingoistic Euro-scepticism of much British commentary — and asserts unequivocally that Britain's interest lies unambiguously in the survival of the euro.

To return to the question that I posed at the beginning of this article: Should we be worried?

Worst ahead

Undoubtedly we should, and we are right to find the analyses and forecasts depressing. The signs are that we have not yet seen the worst of the problems, and that the financial experts and commentators do not really have any precise idea about what horrors are to come.

That comment does not reflect any great insight on my part. It is simply a reflection of my interpretation of what the experts are saying and writing, and of course I am manifestly not alone.

One fact that strikes me, as I read, and listen to, the vast quantities of information and commentary on the present crisis, is that very little attempt is made to put it into a wider context. Yes, the problems are serious, and the implications are grave, but how do they compare with other, historical, situations?

The explanation for that is not hard to find; those who are currently in charge, politically and financially, in the UK and the other countries — and those journalists and others who are scrutinising and evaluating the issues — do not have personal historical experience against which to measure the present crisis.

An obvious point of comparison is the second world war. Those of us who lived through it (in my case as a child) were conscious all the time that the dangers that we faced were not dangers of economic collapse (though these were also present) but dangers of life and death. If Hitler had won, Europe in anything like the form in which it did, and still does, exist would have been obliterated.

This was brought home to me this weekend when I, like thousands of others, attended the annual Remembrance Sunday service, to pay tribute to those killed throughout the world (in both world wars). Most of those attending, obviously, were young. For them, the second world war was just a historical event.

In context

Those of us with direct experience and personal memory of what we were marking are able to see later crises, like the current ones, in a much wider perspective. We can put them in context.

This does not of course mean that they are not serious. They most certainly are. The problems facing the Eurozone, and individual countries, including the UK, are huge. The spill-out from them will be great, and will not be limited to Europe. We have every reason for deep concern and anxiety, exacerbated by uncertainty.

Looking at present problems in the wider context, and making comparisons with the dangers which threatened us in the world war, is not an encouragement to underestimate the seriousness of the economic and political turmoil that we face now. It does, however, help us to recognise that there are different orders of danger. That must be a help as we try to reach a balanced judgment.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com