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Right but Repulsive

The trashing of Britain’s euroskeptics

Oct 31, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 07 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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A doctor ignored by a smoker won’t celebrate if lung cancer strikes. Britain’s euroskeptics are generally too worried about the consequences of the Eurozone’s thoroughly predictable crisis to submit to the temptations of I told you so. Well, most of them are. The United Kingdom may be outside the Eurozone, but some British Banquos have managed to crash its beggar’s banquet nonetheless. One, Foreign Secretary William Hague, has compared the currency union to “a burning building with no exits.” He can be forgiven his bluntness. As Tory leader, he had said the same and much more besides when that ill-fated building was still under construction. The reward for his prescience was to have his words used against him as part of a vicious and deceptive campaign that failed in its specific objective, yet succeeded in a wider task: contributing to a political and cultural climate that doomed Hague to vilification and defeat in the 2001 general election, and Britain to years more of Tony Blair. 

Photo of British Parliament

That campaign—to persuade Britons to adopt the euro—has now been retrieved from the memory hole and made the subject of Guilty Men (Centre for Policy Studies), a brutal, brilliant new pamphlet by Frances Weaver, a freelance writer and researcher, and Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator. The title is provocation and insult. Published in 1940, the original Guilty Men was a savage, if not always accurate, attack on British politicians of the appeasement era. To revive its name was to hurl down a gauntlet.

Guilty Men should be seen as the third in an Oborne trilogy that began with The Rise of Political Lying (2005). That volume and The Triumph of the Political Class (2007) are two of the finest books on British politics in recent years. Their titles speak for themselves, and their message ought to resonate far beyond Britain. The same is true of Guilty Men. Within its covers you will find the description of an elite unimpressed by its homeland, enthralled by transnationalism, seduced by the main chance, and buttressed by a mistaken conventional wisdom that it chose to defend by any means possible. None of this, of course, could ever happen here.

Like all the best thrillers, Guilty Men begins with a dastardly foreign plot. In its introduction, Peter Jay, a distinguished journalist and a former British ambassador to the United States, describes a lunch in Paris he attended as a 15-year-old in 1952. The guest of honor was the French diplomat Jean Monnet, the man who launched what eventually became the European Union. Dismayed by the spectacle of a France now eclipsed by the United States and Soviet Union, Monnet apparently explained that the only way that la gloire could return to France was within a Greater Europe. But this would have to be a superpower created gradually and by indirection, “by zig and by zag,” until, as Jay puts it, “the walls of old-fashioned national sentiment collapsed in favor of a new focus of national unity, Europe itself.” 

In the nearly 60 years that have followed, there has been plenty of zig, and plenty of zag, and rather too much European Union, but the United States of Europe has yet to emerge. And as for “the dimension of empire” that EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso claimed to detect within Brussels’s realm back in 2007, well. . . . 

Critically, there is, to borrow the unkind observation of Václav Klaus, the Czech Republic’s splendidly Thatcherite president, “no European demos—and no European nation.” There are, of course, the institutions—the parliament, the Commission, and so on—and the pretensions and the massive regulatory overreach. There’s a pretty flag and, via Beethoven and Rhodesia, a nice enough anthem, but that’s about it. To the extent that there is any European patriotism beyond the expensively furnished lairs of the upscale and, let’s concede the point, some genuine enthusiasm for Europe’s Ryder Cup golf team, it finds its most powerful expression in, significantly, something negative—distaste for the United States. These are too-flimsy foundations on which to build a challenge to the world’s colossi.

Thus it was not some atavistic dream of empire that persuaded so many of Britain’s best and brightest to rally behind the campaign to sign their country up for a shoddily constructed currency that was, whatever Paul Volcker (oh yes) might have said, clearly ill-suited to the U.K. economy. For some, career was the motive, and not only in an obvious way. Brussels can pay well, directly and indirectly, but, more than that, opposition to the euro had been cleverly smeared as a badge of the bizarre, an ornament to no résumé worth having.

The sharply told tale of how the opponents of the Eurozone’s madhouse money came to be regarded as nuts takes up some of the most interesting sections of Guilty Men, but it’s worth pausing to note how the structure of Britain’s politics and media makes it easier to manipulate public opinion there than in the United States. Power is much more centralized. There are fewer movers and shakers who need to be convinced. There are no awkward states to cajole. The press is ideologically diverse, but television and radio matter far more, and in broadcast the loudest voice is that of the officially nonpartisan, taxpayer-funded BBC, a megaphone for the pieties and prejudices of the soft left. There is no meaningful equivalent to Fox News or America’s gung-ho Genghis talk radio to bite back. And at the time when the euro wars were at their most intense, the blogosphere was still being born, and Twitter had yet to hatch.

The BBC had therefore an immense advantage, and it abused it. In the course of one nine-week period in 2000 on BBC Radio 4’s influential Today program, Oborne and Weaver record, “the case for the euro was represented by twice as many [speakers], interviews, and soundbites [as] the case against.” That’s not the end of it. A controversy can be defined by the way that it is framed by the media. When euroskeptics were heard on the BBC, it was often in the context of hugely exaggerated reports of splits within Conservative ranks over the single currency. A divided party is electoral poison, and the splits became the story. The argument against abandoning the pound was shelved for another day. 

Word games of a type all too familiar from America’s mainstream media were deployed (it was euroskeptics who were the “hardliners”). Scare stories of the terrible fate that awaited Britain outside the Eurozone made headlines, inconvenient statistics that cast doubt upon them were buried. If you think that sounds a lot like much of the American media’s treatment of the global warming debate, you’re correct.

The BBC was not the only prominent media institution to play these tricks. The Financial Times is widely perceived as authoritative, serious, informed, the voice of British business, the house journal of the City. It is meant to be something more than a mere newspaper. Oborne and Weaver demonstrate how, when it came to the euro, it was very much less. Not all its writers played along, but too often the Financial Times resorted to a camouflaged advocacy journalism that may even, ironically, have contributed to the Eurozone’s present mess. How many bankers will have read the paper’s ecstatic accounts of the euro’s progress and felt just that much better about lending to Greece, Ireland, or Portugal? What could go wrong? On May 26, 2008, the FT ran a leading article with a headline that included these words: “Europe’s currency union has been a remarkable success.” Remarkable indeed. Less than two years later the first Greek bailout was under way.

With such purportedly fair-minded grandees lending weight to the cause of the euro, and the Tories burdened by the irrational popular loathing that had swept them out of office, the vitriol of more openly partisan journalists came to be treated by many as something approaching gospel. In its viciousness their work anticipated the high-minded nastiness seen in the coverage of the Tea Party a decade or so later. Weaver and Oborne have plenty of examples showing just how low reputedly respectable detractors of “euroskeptic pus” could stoop. The euroskeptics were a “menagerie of has-beens, never-have-beens, and loony tunes.” They were “a sect” of “intellectual violence . . . [stoking] the phobic fire.” They were keen on “Hun-bashing,” yet had something to do with the Latvian SS. They were liars, they were hatemongers. They were a “paradigm of menace and defeat,” “extremist,” “dogmatic,” and “hysterical.” Surely someone somewhere must have said that they were “bitter.” They were “maniacs.” Their opponents were “sane,” a loaded adjective frequently abused in American polemics too. 

This dark mood music was deftly conducted by Prime Minister Blair and an entourage skilled in the blackest arts of politics. What was there to lose? An economic illiterate, Blair didn’t grasp how destructive dumping the pound could be, but as an iconoclast he appreciated the break with the past. And campaigning for the euro could bring its own rewards. The Conservatives’ opposition to a change supported by some of the country’s smartest could be used to reinforce the image of the know-nothing Tories, out of touch and not even “sane.” The assault was relentless: Addressing the Labour party conference in 1999, Blair launched into an attack upon the “forces of conservatism,” a faintly totalitarian diatribe that implicitly linked the jailers of Nelson Mandela to the euroskeptic threat. The idea was to push the electorate’s perception of the Tories to a point where the Conservatives would be viewed as oddballs who deserved to be driven out of parliament and, indeed, polite society altogether: Under former Conservative prime minister John Major, explained Blair, “it was weak, weak, weak. Under William Hague, it’s weird, weird, weird. Far right, far out. . . . The more useless they get, the more extreme they get.” 

Naturally, a place in the respectability room would be found for those “sane” Conservatives who would sign up for the “cross-party” crusade for the euro. Quite a few did just that.

Polite society paid attention. Conventional wisdom builds upon itself, especially when self-interest is greasing the way. It wasn’t just individuals on the make who discovered their faith in currency union; it was companies too, dancing the corporatist waltz. Obama’s GE would understand. Firmly in the pocket of big business interests confident of their ability to play the EU game, the influential Confederation of British Industry (CBI) threw itself behind the campaign, lending it further credibility and then, less helpfully, incredibility. The CBI’s polling data showed that 84 percent of British business supported the euro. Once this distinctly Soviet result was revealed (thanks to the work of yet another determined euroskeptic “crank”) to have been arrived at by distinctly Soviet math, the pushback slowly began. Within a few years the CBI found itself (in the words of one well-known journalist) “tugged towards the new extremism and euro-phobia.” In other words, it adopted a neutral stance on the euro. 

But don’t see this saga as evidence of some giant conspiracy. There were a few plotters to be sure, notably in the Labour party and, doubtless, Brussels, but for the most part the surge of support for the euro among the U.K.’s chattering classes was the result of something more insidious and less planned: This was a scheme they simply felt to be right. For many British intellectuals, the cultured Europe of their vacations and their imaginations has long been a finer place than their grubby, greedy, and in all senses insular homeland. The weather is nicer, the food is better, and the ambience is both pleasingly picturesque and refreshingly sophisticated. Most alluring of all, Continentals treat the intelligentsia with a respect rarely to be found in unruly, ill-read Blighty.

To such folk, confident in the inadequacies of what they prefer to describe as their midsized nation (then perhaps the fifth-largest economy in the world, with nukes to boot, but let that pass), the EU was a safe haven that only the mad or the bad would disdain. The fact that it had evolved, not into the superpower of Peter Jay’s fears but into the vaguely utopian, proudly progressive post-national technocracy that was Monnet’s greater vision, only added to its appeal. If signing up for the euro was the price of admission to the EU’s inner circle, why would any civilized, “sane” individual want to object? And who knew anyone who had? 

There was a lady called Pauline Kael who once asked a question much like that. 

In the end, the thin red line held, maintained by politicians of integrity (and, yes, sometimes eccentricity), the caution of British voters, and, crucially, the venom of Gordon Brown, the finance minister, too jealous of the upstart Blair to allow him to take the U.K. into the Eurozone. Britannia stayed out, and has weathered the current economic storms far better than she could have done with the euro around her neck. Signing up for the single currency will be off the agenda for quite a while.

A happy ending then? No, it’s more a “to be continued.” As Weaver and Oborne understand, the opprobrium heaped on the Conservative party for being, as it turned out, right about the euro helped derail the careers of three Tory leaders and paved the way for “modernizers” such as Prime Minister David Cameron, determined to avoid “banging on about Europe” at a time when that’s just what he needs to be doing. The increasingly desperate attempts to resolve the Eurozone crisis are likely to include proposals to change the EU’s legal framework in ways that will require the approval of all member-states. That will be a good moment (if Cameron can be persuaded to seize it) for the U.K. to finally play hardball with its European partners over the repatriation of powers that should never have been transferred to Brussels in the first place. Britain’s euro-claque will noisily object. A reminder to the rest of the country of just how hard that still largely unapologetic claque worked to shove Britain into the Eurozone’s abyss is just what such a debate could use. And that’s what Guilty Men is designed to provide.

Oborne and Weaver give plenty of indications of how much it will be needed. One of the guilty, former EU commissioner Lord Patten, chairs the BBC’s governing body. His vice chairwoman, Diane Coyle, is a lady once deeply concerned about the “gut anti-Europeanism and Little Englandism” of the pound’s “elderly” defenders. This dismal duo will find little in the Beeb’s current EU coverage to disturb them. The Financial Times is now edited by its former Brussels chief, another cheerleader for currency union. He is in charge of a newspaper that appears sadder these days, if not much wiser. Waiting, perhaps, for a fresh euro-dawn, former CBI boss Adair Turner is currently using another collective mania to hobble the British economy. He’s chairman of Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, a perch from which he can admire similar efforts by Britain’s destructively green energy minister, Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, a europhile who has lost none of his vim. And then there’s Tony Blair, continuing to pontificate to anyone who will pay attention or, at least, pay. He’s not the only member of the Labour party who still believes that Britain should sign up for the single currency—when the time is right, of course.

Zig and zag.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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