To Say No?
nature of Conservative opposition to the Euro
Does it matter if you win an important political battle with bad arguments? The natural Tory reaction, honing straight in on that evasive little word, 'bad', is to reply: not a bit, winning's the thing. After all, who's to say what being bad in this context amounts to? And as a guide to happy, or at least moderately content political life, it's a reasonable enough approach. After all, being a weary old cynic is so much more socially acceptable than being a bleary eyed ideologue, continuously feeling the need to argue out every position on (and feel free to stifle the yawn here) the basis of 'first principles'. Why, that's the sort of thing libertarians get up to, and as we all know, they're no better than Marxists – mentally ill most of them, as I think Russell Kirk once pointed out. A small corner of the Tory universe, though, likes arguments, and that's why we're going to have a look at the arguments that Tories advance against the Euro.
Whether or not Britain should adopt the single European currency is the sine qua non of the Tory right, and being so, it ought to tickle all our most old fashioned impulses, but chiefly that: some things are just so right, or wrong, that custom and unthought-out wisdom – and all those other things liberals think so damningly encapsulated as 'prejudice' – alone can determine the issue for you. In the instance of putting the case against the idea of Britain giving up Sterling in favour of the Euro, the Conservative Party, and those non-conservative forces likewise inclined, have rested upon this, whether consciously or otherwise. Given the hideous and unrelieved unpopularity of the Tory party, since the 1997 general election the main political vehicle for resisting the Euro, has been a pressure group called Business for Sterling. They, as explicitly as they dare admit, are impressively zen in their approach, in that they 'want to win by not fighting'. In other words, in everything they do, they aim to convince the cowardly Mr Blair that holding a referendum on the Euro would be such a foregone victory for the No lobby that he's much better off sparing himself this humiliation.
This, then, would seem an immanently Tory approach, resting, as it does, upon the proposition that, since preventing the adoption of the Euro is the end, the means are as irrelevant as ever. However, as I said, although this has fair claim to being the way most Tories ought to go about most things, the matter of the Euro deserves a closer and more rhetorical treatment for two reasons. The first is to do with its place in the canon of the right, that is to say, you're, in Britain, on the right only if you're opposed to the Euro. Given this potential scope for factional excommunication, it's at least worth examining (if you happen to be party to that faction), whether the theology is up to scratch.
Much more important, though, is the second reason why, for once, we should be bothered about the 'hows' and 'whys' of an argument: the Euro will only be adopted in Britain after merely the second national referendum in our history. This vile, unparliamentary device (which intellectually rigorous British Conservatives ought to, and in all other circumstances, do, detest) stands between us and the abolition of the Pound by majoritarian parliamentary fiat, simply because the late Sir James Goldsmith, by advocating it through a one-issue party in the 1997 election, was able to intimidate the hapless John Major into pledging one prior to any adoption of the Euro. Tony Blair saw fit to match this pledge, and hence we are where we are today. Hence, for once, a solitary political argument will stand starkly over the run of normal politics. This, at least, is the theory. In truth, as with any political act, it will, within it, subsume a myriad of political motivations and consequences, but we'll stick to the imagery of the thing: any referendum campaign on the Euro is going to come over as being a honking great argument, so are our arguments fighting fit, and Tory as can be?
Happily, the side supposedly in control of the Tory party at the moment, is just that small tendency I alluded to above, the one that things arguments are useful in and of themselves, because, by 'winning' an argument, you don't just score just one more goal in what is, in effect, an endless soccer match. Or as the ancients would have seen it: these Tories, the 'hard men of the Eurosceptic right', hold themselves to be practical in their advocacy of the primacy of argument as, by winning a political argument thus, you knock down your opponent's city and plough salt into the furrows. This, they further contend, has explicit practical application to the European issue, where an argument, if not settled conclusively (the 'how' in this theory is always vague, and of the moment), invariably comes back to bite you on the bottom as firmly as it can. I'm unconvinced. To take an obvious example, the case Europhiles disingenuously make about our membership of the European Union itself, is that this was settled, once and forever, by that first, and to date, unique national referendum on membership in 1975. Yet, as I'd hope my Sceptic confreres would acknowledge after a moment's reflection, this doesn't appear to have shut us up. We're still arguing, as ineffectually as ever we've done, for either 'reforming' the EU (i.e. staying in, but advocating change the rest are never going to agree to), or, as fringe loons like myself favour, withdrawing from an irredeemably rotten outfit.
'How to best withdraw from the EU' is an essay in optimism in its own right, so I'll come back to that at some future date, and will now, at last, turn to those Tory Jericho trumpets, the 'No' case. Though . . . for what it's worth, and the sorry fate of Ulster Unionism, who may well have copyright protection on the word, tends to bear this out, lovely and sexy and cool as we on the right think the word 'No' is, wouldn't 'Yes' have been better? After all, the government hasn't dared draw up even the wording of a referendum question to date, so we've been free all this time to pre-emptively campaign under the slogan, 'Yes: say yes to keeping the Pound'. I'll come back to why I think that's the core of what a good Tory argument would have been, but now let's finally, honestly, truly turn to what Tory arguments are.
The first has been the assertion that surrendering the pound would threaten "the continued existence of our country as an independent nation state". This, as unhappy coincidence would have it, was also the argument of choice for those who opposed our entry into the original EEC, and our signing of the Single European Act, and our accession to the Treaty of Maastricht. By the time the Treaty of Amsterdam rolled around, we'd kinda given up on this line. Defeatist sceptics would, I suppose, tell you that this is due, plainly enough, to our having definitively lost our sovereignty. Sadly more plausible is that even Eurosceptics grow hoarse crying wolf all the time. Obviously, were there still 'national independence' to lose in 1986 (the SEA), it hadn't been lost in 1972, and if it happened to still be on the go come Maastricht (92/93), self-evidently it hadn't been extinguished in 1986. This can be regarded as, according to taste, either, sceptic lie no. 1, or sceptic delusion no. 1. Its fullest form, which really cannot be sustained for even an instant, is that we are not now an 'independent' state. If you accept that, well, there's not a lot to say to you. Our tragedy is that we are of course an independent state, but, in a sort of metaphor for the individual's Christian experience, we keep, freely, making all sorts of appalling choices.
To take the specifics of the 'we stop being an independent nation' case, as expressed through those arguments opposed to our membership of the Euro, how exactly does the British government, democratically mandated (i.e. under the sole circumstance in which this will happen), deciding to pool its currency in the Euro reduce, still less, abolish, British independence, since British independence doesn't depend on the existence of an autonomous currency?
History is littered with states that were fully sovereign, partially sovereign, co-sovereign, or as sovereign as they wanted to be, which lacked currencies exclusively their own. From the Latin monetary union of the nineteenth century, to the Sterling bloc of the last (where central banks in the old dominions were no more than issuing branches of the Bank of England) sovereignty and money are clearly quite different propositions. As one painfully close to hand example shows, it doesn't even take a mutual concurrence of aims, to wit the old empire, when it comes to this matter.
From her independence in 1922, as the Irish Free State, to her entry, as the Republic of Ireland, into the long dead European Monetary System, the Irish punt was little more than rebadged sterling, maintained at exact parity with the mother currency. This, therefore, meant that the Irish state not only lacked a true currency of her own, but that she was also located in the economic, cultural and military orbit of a far larger neighbour, whose currency she happened to be using. Did this, as every Eurosceptic says it would of Britain, who in their schema, would occupy exactly the same position vis-à-vis the EU were she to adopt the Euro, reduce Eire to British vassalage? Uh, no. And here's the reason: sovereignty is not located in some magic pixie dust to do with symbols or treaties or the disposition of your currency unit, but in what governments do with it. Dublin, out of reflexive Anglophobic bigotry, had no foreign policy goal, between 1922 and 1972, other than asserting her 'independence' from Britain, no matter how pointless, or even damaging this course was. She managed it, and it represents a characteristic lack of faith in Britain that Eurosceptics assume us to be incapable of a similar act today.
If the case has just been made – and I accept for most Eurosceptics, the above arguments are a series of tendentious tomfoolery – that the Euro does not mean 'the end of Britain', there is a further (Tory) point to be made about the economic consequences of Mr Duisenberg. And these have to do with whether, world without end, floating exchange rates are quite the panacea contemporary defenders of Sterling make them out to be. Britain's past economic success certainly didn't occur during a period of free and competitive currencies, but instead during a commodity based regime – that being the gold standard. Another argument is perhaps more allusive: many pro-Sterling types defend the idea of 'market forces' having their say on the pound. But market forces obviously have little to say on the pound within the UK – what we have is a state monopoly currency. If currency competition, as opposed to statist dirigisme, is what you want, then why not have genuinely private competing currencies within the UK, rather than the state-tender monopoly? What's so optimal about this particular scale of currency area? (But that's one to bait the libertarians, more than anything else.)
Though, if the cry is, 'popular economic government in a national context, now!', as our rationale for clinging on to the pound, then quite how does anyone think we are going to achieve that in a rigorously capitalist system? Or even the one we have at the moment, in which decisions on our beloved currency are set not by elected politicians, but by the entirely unelected governor of the Bank of England?
A notable difficulty to this debate is that, the, as it were, mainstream right wing Tory mantra, or to put that marginally less pretentiously, official Conservative party policy, is 'No to the Euro, but Yes to membership of the EU'. In the tricky context of opposing the Euro (habitually, the 'engine of integration', which is held to be a Bad Thing), but not membership itself, cleverness, a most unTory vice, is required. Thus: "Britain needs to stay out of the Euro, but firmly within the EU as a precondition of offering other nations, especially the applicant countries of central Europe, hope of an alternative model built on the principle of freely co-operating states". Er, what? We have to stay in so that we can offer 'hope'? Gosh, talk about brute realism and the hard stuff of realpolitik – hope, I mean, did you ever? The only thing that big, tough, proud Britain does to the ex-Warsaw Pact satellites by herself remaining in the EU is say, 'no, you can't make it on your own, in a world of freely cooperating states (you know, much like the one you're in at the moment), instead you have to join a cartel with constantly centralising impulses. Sorry'. We could do better for them than that, and we could do it by getting out.
If we transcend the petty confines of the continent, as a free and proud nation presumably must, many sceptics soar in their exegesis of the pro-Sterling case: "Britain's capacity to make the case for a better Europe, and stronger West, relies on retaining the freedom which the euro would remove". Ignoring the dubious mission specs (if that's what the point of Sterling based 'British independence' is, then quick, flush the pound down the loo), how does joining the Euro do any of that? Even if being a member of it did retard all those wonderful things, how do the vile federastes keep us in after we decide that, actually, we want out? It is a peculiar form of fanaticism and fantasy that concludes that our joining the euro would be irrevocable. It might well be meant to be, but like so much else in life, that's a good fight talked at the weigh-in, and less than an adequate guide to in-the-ring performance. It is, to repeat myself, yet again a demonstration that so much of Euroscepticism stems not from confidence in Britain, but of fear in what she might do, were she not protected by all these comforts.
One always, to me, surprising line of defence for Sterling, often put forward by the more Manchesterist of my Conservative brethren, is their total conviction that we can determine the issue on the grounds of, 'would this be economically good or bad for Britain?' This bulwark depends totally on the answer always being that membership would be a bad thing. This is an interesting assumption for Thatcherites to make, though, as one would have assumed, given how lean and efficient our economy is, and how flabby and sclerotic and welfarist all the others are, a Britain-in-the-Euro would wreck merry havoc with continental markets; but then I don't understand economics, so I'll move on.
For a final argumentative fallacy, it is surely seriously mistaken to say that what is at stake (in the 'Euro: yeah or nay' debate) are 'eternal principles'. This is quite the reverse of why we should argue against the Euro. I.e., our case should be the eminently Conservative one that, 'we're against this great disruption to the status quo simply because the case for doing it has not yet been made'.
Another issue that needs to be considered is this: if we frame all our arguments against the Euro in such apocalyptic terms – 'the end of the nation state as we know it' & etcetera – and then, after we stayed out for several more years, it turns out that, after all, the other European nation states (the ones within the Eurozone) haven't withered on the vine, then we're going to look rather silly. There are plenty of good, economically literate arguments against the Euro, and here are some, but this, before all else, is a political matter.
We should be opposed to the euro not because of, in the imagination of Eurosceptics, what it will do, but because, despite the promises of europhiles, what it won't do. This is the negative way, this is the Tory way, and believe me, this, pace 1975, is by far the safest way to go about our task.
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