WE reporters, like everyone else, have our little prejudices, political or otherwise. And they show up sometimes, like it or not.
It’s been over six years since I revealed one of mine in, of all people, a sports complex in Grangemouth. This is where Scotland’s votes for the 2016 EU referendum were counted. And I was one of the reporters watching.
As late night turned into early morning, the outcome became clear. I realized that a prominent outgoing was smiling at me. This affable and magnanimous figure had a lot of fun. It turned out that I was humming the Ode to Joy, the anthem of European unity.
It was, I suppose, unprofessional, juvenile even. It was also unconscious, like the worst prejudice. Beethoven had unmasked me: I am, rather without origin, a Remainer. I don’t think I would have thought of myself that way until the wee hours of June 24, 2016. Because, fool that I was, I just took “Europe” and its freedoms for granted. Like too many of us.
My mood plummeted on that beautiful summer night in Grangemouth. British currency too. The pound, remember, suffered its biggest single-day collapse in history. Currency traders, it seemed, shared the feeling of dread that wafted through the air, like stale sweat, in that gymnasium in Grangemouth.
Exchange rates go up and down. But ours in recent years has done much more of the latter than the former. The pound sterling peaked at 1.72 euros in 2000. This week it has fluctuated around 1.15 euros. Our money is worth less, with all the consequences that entails, including more expensive food.
And yet – remarkably, given its recent instability – the crummy old pound still has real political gravity, even among Scottish nationalists. And the euro remains a political monster.
Why is it? What is it about the single currency that Scottish and British Remainers are so afraid of? So much so that for more than a quarter of a century they avoided even having a discussion of its pros and cons. As a Europhile humming Beethoven, I find this difficult to understand.
We have just had another series of reports saying that an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt the euro if it wanted to join the EU. And these stories were – as usual – followed by Brussels observers explaining that the reality is more complicated: that committing to the changeover is not the same as actually doing so.
Don’t worry: I’m not going to repeat or rehash those boring, unedifying old arguments. What interests me is the tacit, uncontested and underlying premise of the debate: that the euro is a bad thing.
Is it, however? Four out of five Europeans say it is good for the EU, according to a Eurobarometer poll published last year.
Hostility to the single currency has a real pedigree in British politics. There’s a reason the national chauvinists of UKIP have adopted the £ sign as their logo.
In the late 1990s, when Euroref was only glinting in Nigel Farage’s eyes, there was overwhelming public opposition to the then-talked about European Monetary Union, or EMU.
Polls suggested that even many of those content with the single market wanted to keep the pound. Why? Well, the polls suggested that a large bloc of voters were uncomfortable ceding sovereignty to a foreign central bank. Fair enough. But has anyone challenged this test of this perception, or challenged it in the heat of the debate? Not really.
Nobody – or at least nobody grown up – has ever had the courage to defend the euro in the UK. And that had consequences. We simply haven’t had a real debate on the currency while the rest of the EU has.
It is worth remembering a bit of history. There had been talk of a plebiscite on joining EMU. All British parties came to the 1997 election saying they would not give up the pound without asking the people first.
Labor, of course, won a landslide victory, but then fell back against the euro. Not, however, until the Eurosceptics, with significant support from the tabloid press, mobilized ahead of an expected vote that never materialized.
The populist right tweaked some of the nationalist messaging it would put out in 2016. One campaign hired a boy called Dominic Cummings. They then took to the battlefield without even needing to fight.
Chancellor Gordon Brown had set five economic tests for EMU. They were so vague that it was erroneously reported that he and his sidekick Ed Balls found them in the back of an American cab. Yet they weren’t unreasonable. The first, for example, asked whether British economic cycles, and therefore interest rates, could be permanently synchronized with those of the rest of Europe. But their effect – and, critics say, their intention – was to close the debate, not to inform it.
It was a shame. The issue under New Labor was political, not economic. I am oversimplifying, but Mr. Brown was asking if our economy could integrate into the euro zone. But the better question was whether we wanted to make the changes necessary for it to do so.
A quarter of a century ago there was a chance for a real and properly difficult national conversation about what joining the euro would, could or should mean for Britain. Timid Remainers failed to take it. Our leaders made a choice without us.
The SNP is often (far from being unfairly) equated with New Labour. The Independence Party, like Mr. Brown and his enemy, Tony Blair, in their time, can be very careful when it comes to appealing to public opinion. Over the years, Yesser’s currency positions have been as weak and volatile as, well, the pound itself. For some time, leading nationalists have been moving cautiously towards the euro. Will they have the nerve to participate in a proper discussion of the very real dilemmas this poses? We will see. I know a good tune to whistle while we wait.