iangunn Jun 6th, 2022
“Think tank forecasts ‘anaemic’ growth in UK economy after Brexit”

The Independent, 17th July 2016.

“UK economy to return to anaemic growth as cost of living crisis spikes Brits”

City A.M., 30th November 2021.

Headlines like these are not uncommon. Obviously, the writer or editor does not literally mean there is insufficient iron circulating in the economy; perhaps, he or she wishes to convey the impression of weakness in a way that sounds a little more pseudo-scientific than just using the word ‘weak’. Or, perhaps it is more insulting than that.

After all, there is a long tradition of using medical terms in a derogatory manner to describe enemies, to show weakness.

During the run up to the Crimean war (1853-56) John Russell, who went on to become British Prime Minister (twice), reported Tsar Nicholas 1st of Russia having described the Ottoman Empire as variously; “a sick man”, “a man who has fallen into a state of decrepitude”, and “a sick man who has fallen into a state of decrepitude”.

The first recorded written use of ‘sick man of Europe’ appeared in The New York Times on 12 May 1860:

“The condition of Austria at the present moment is not less threatening in itself, though less alarming for the peace of the world, than was the condition of Turkey when the Tsar Nicholas invited England to draw up with him the last will and testament of the 'sick man of Europe.' It is, indeed, hardly within the range of probability that another twelvemonth should pass over the House of Habsburg without bringing upon the Austrian Empire a catastrophe unmatched in modern history since the downfall of Poland”

In 1917, again in the New York Times, the expression was used to describe the Russian Empire with added medical oomph:

“Suffering From Overdose of Exaggerated Modernism in Socialist Reform Ideas" ...
"the danger for the patient lay in the fact that too many quacks and ignorant specialists were contending for the right to be admitted to the bedside and administer nostrums."

Since then, ‘sick man of Europe’ has been commonly used as an indicator of widespread economic misery, amongst other ailments.

The UK took ‘sick man of Europe’ honours during periods of industrial unrest and poor economic performance in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Then the disease was freely transmitted around Europe, with Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy and Greece all taking the title ‘sick man of Europe’ at one time or another. Indeed, all members of the Euro single currency area got the title during the Eurozone crisis of 2011.

Bringing us right up to date, and full circle back to Russia, I am awarding the ‘sick man’ title jointly, to the two men named in this headline:

“Trump Calls Putin’s Ukraine Moves “Genius” Because He’s a Sick Man Who Hates Democracy”

(Vanity Fair 22nd February 2022). Trump’s comments on a radio show were quoted as follows:

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine—of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force. We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy, I know him very well. Very, very well.”

Truly breathtaking.

As to whether the ‘anaemic’ label on economic growth is deserved, a deeper look into history will perhaps reveal more about what the future may hold, and that will be the subject of my next blog.