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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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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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