Sunday, 15 January 2012

That Sinking Feeling

If a vast enterprise worth trillions of dollars, namely the European Union's eurozone, is capable of capsizing, why should anyone be surprised by the fate of the Costa Concordia?

This high-rise cruise ship costing a reported $300m, with all its electronic safety and fail-safe devices, was no match for a few rocks, some of which can be seen sticking through the keel.

The accident on Friday (the 13th incidentally), occurred on the day that the credit rating of la belle France and other EU members went tits up. The fate of the ship and the fate of the eurozone symbolise the propensity for hubris in overblown human enterprises. There is an obvious parallel with the unsinkable Titanic which went down on its maiden voyage.

Inadequate bulkheads and too few lifeboats made April 14, 1912, a night to forget for the P & O line. Design faults, faulty assumptions and presumptuousness made Titanic an accident waiting to happen. The mighty ship's unimaginable doom was a precursor of human error and faulty political alliances that resulted in the 9/11 implosion of the European house of cards in 1914, although I came to think of Titanic as symbolic of the fate of Ireland - broken in two in unfathomable depths (see Raising the Titanic in The Dog's Not Laughing).

However, a more apposite analogy for the fate of the Costa Concordia is the Herald of Free Enterprise, the Townsend Thorensen roll on roll off ferry which capsized just outside Zeebrugge on another Friday evening 35 years ago, killing 193 people.

Comparisons are only as odious as the glibness with which they are made, but in the spring of March 1987 what struck me most forcibly was the coincidence of the ship's name with the spirit of the times in England, when free enterprise was highly favoured by Margaret Thatcher, months away from winning her third consecutive general election.

The capsizing of the ship, due to human error rather than an act of God or nature, heralded the collapse of the spirit of free enterprise in Britain at the end of the 1980s, which was also the end of the Iron Lady. Confidence collapsed and we had to abandon the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Then, as now, recesssion rolled in like the ride at Dover beach. Then, as now, Brussels was busily building its monstrous ship of state which was to be launched at Maastricht. Now water is seeping in and the officers on the bridge are fighting among themselves. By all accounts the ship is rolling over like the Herald of Free Enterprise.

But unlike that disaster, there won't be any medals given out for selfless acts of bravery.