Crunch time approaches

Greece’s summer break is coming to a close, with its place in the Euro-zone still on a knife-edge. Those Greeks still with jobs are returning to work with a deep sense of insecurity.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras spent the whole of last week in shuttle diplomacy with European leaders pleading for more time to implement the 11.5bn euro cuts demanded by the Troika. He came back from Berlin and Paris empty-handed. Both Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande will wait for the Troika to complete its review next month.

The messages coming from both capitals are confused. Hollande expressed solidarity, but is leaving the final decision with the bankers. Merkel, who has been obdurate in insisting on the full cuts, with no relaxation of the timetable, has made some moves to soften rabid anti-Greek sentiment fuelled by the German press.

In Athens, the coalition government itself is paralysed. It has told the EU it will implement the austerity cuts and more, but to do so immediately means all three parties break their election promises and lose what little electoral support they have left.

 Here’s just an indication of what the full austerity package means:

  • Pensions, already cut by 25-50% nine months ago, down a further 15%.
  • Further pay cuts in the huge state sector, already slashed by up to 50%.
  • Hundreds of thousands more jobs to go.
  • Cuts in welfare payments to low-income families.

And this in an economy which has shrunk by 17% in four years, and where prices have already begun to rise.

The international banks, which have gambled away huge amounts of money, are now trying to recoup their losses from the living conditions of the mass of the people. This applies not only in Greece, but Greece is the test, and the Greek people won’t take it lying down. And that’s why there is a moment of hesitation throughout the capitals of the European Union.

Bushfires this summer have swept southern Europe. Autumn this year threatens social conflagration on a much greater scale, fuelled by recession across the continent. As German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle put it: “The situation in Europe is too important for one to play with fire, to set fires here and there… Social destabilisation, once it arises, knows no borders.”

There speaks the voice of history. In 1848, year of revolutions, Marx and Engels wrote that “a spectre is haunting Europe”. Today it’s the ghost that walks – again.


Two Christmases ago my son Scott came home carrying a volume of Byron’s poems and saying, “Do you know what a revolutionary this guy was?”

I didn’t. I’d had this image of him as a romantic, a hedonist, an outsider among the British aristocracy. I knew that he’d died in Greece, at Missalonghi. But I’d never read most of his poetry. Come to think of it, he wasn’t on the syllabus at all when I was at school.

The British establishment has a long and vengeful memory. He first outraged them not so much with his well-documented philandering as with his maiden speech in the House of Lords on February 27, 1812, when he made an impassioned defence of the Luddites, the impoverished weavers resisting industrialisation. He also dared to support Catholic emancipation.

After leaving England he made the cause of Greek independence his own. “Sons of Greece, arise!” he declaimed in the last section of his great work Childe Harold.

In the last two years of his life he devoted his time, energies and fortune to the war. Even in the last weeks before his death in April 1824, desperately ill, he dragged himself back onto his horse.


The late CM Woodhouse was a Greek-loving aristocrat and man of action in the Byronic tradition. In the Second World War he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and served in Crete along with Patrick Leigh Fermor, and from 1942 to 1945 he was in charge of the Allied mission in Greece, working with the communist-led partisans.

I picked up his 1977 book The Philhellenes in the Athens flea market and it’s fascinating reading. Apart from Byron, most of the British who fought for Greece in the wars of independence were Scots and Irish. But Woodhouse has no doubt that Byron was the greatest of them. “It has always seemed strange to the Greeks,” he writes, “that the English have mostly failed to recognise in Byron their greatest countryman of the 19th century.”

At Missalonghi Byron had little time to write poetry, but Woodhouse reproduces the poem written on January 22, 1824, his 36th birthday:

 “Awake! (not Greece – she is awake!) / Awake my spirit! Think through whom / Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake, / And then strike home!…

“If thou regret’st thy youth, why live? / The land of honourable death / Is here: – up to the field, and give / Away thy breath.

“Seek out – less often sought than found- / A soldier’s grave, for thee the best; / Then look around, and choose thy ground,- / And take thy rest.”

When Byron’s body was brought back to England, the funeral was shunned by most of the aristocracy. His hearse was followed by 47 carriages, most of them empty. Only in 1969 was a memorial placed in his name in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.

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