In Britain, public sector strikes always bring with them the whiff of national decline.
They are a reminder of a time when the country was becoming less and less competitive and the civil service regarded its job as the management of decline, a mindset only broken by the Thatcher
But today Britain faces a choice almost as acute as the one it faced in the late 1970s. Is this country content with declining slightly less quickly than the continent of Europe as a whole, or does
it want to equip itself for a new world in which economic power is moving east?
It is in this context that the debate about the EU needs to be seen. There are, as I say in the political column this week, far too many people in Whitehall who take false comfort from the fact
that Britain is the best in Europe at this or that. But this doesn’t mean much. Europe is a continent in decline. Research by the Prime Minister’s own office shows that Europe will go
from having four of the ten largest economies in the world to none by the second half of this century on present trends; being the best in Europe at something is rapidly becoming the economic
equivalent of being the tallest mountain in Holland.
But the problem is that the EU is piling on more and more growth-restricting, job-destroying regulations. It is this dynamic which is making Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin think that the best thing
to do might be to leave the EU.
To be fair to the coalition, there are areas where they have raised their sights beyond Europe to the wider world. Michael Gove’s education reforms are informed by a need to produce children
able to compete with those who have gone through the best education systems in the world.
But if the coalition is to fulfil its potential, this frame of reference needs to be applied to every area of policy. Just being the best in Europe is no longer enough.