During the late 1990s, when I was asked what I did by my neighbour at the twenty-something dinner parties which for a time seemed like an unavoidable component of my social life, my response was so toxic it sometimes hushed the table.
“Business for Sterling?”. Tony Blair was in Number Ten, and preparations to stage and win a referendum on the euro were rumbling into action, with Adair Turner’s CBI and an enthusiastic BBC providing vocal support. There was always some wag who would have heard of us (we were a campaign representing business people who opposed euro membership but supported UK membership of the EU), and who would begin to gently interrogate me with a delighted look on his face. Occasionally my day job would become the focus of the evening’s conversation, and I would find myself fielding questions while others looked on, listening intently.
The idea that I was spending my days campaigning to stop Britain joining the European Single Currency seemed to irritate many of my peer group. Hostility was most likely to come from men, supportive noises – much less forthcoming – mainly from women. The grander the education, the (seemingly) greater the hostility. Oxbridge graduates could be scathing. I never really understood why these people minded so much about what I thought was important. And I was surprised by the superficiality of their questions. Why was I wasting my time? Was I really anti-European? I didn’t look like a Little Englander. Did I honestly believe that Britain could afford to be left behind?
Although they had not given its merits much thought, these young, successful professionals regarded the UK’s adoption of the euro as inevitable, and therefore unstoppable. And they appeared to regard one’s views on the euro as an indicator of wider cultural preferences. Who, they asked, was for it and who was against it? Wasn’t opposition to the euro in fact code for withdrawal from the EU? This was exactly how Britain in Europe, Downing Street’s pro-euro lobby (and consistently lite on the economics) was trying to frame the debate. ‘Forward not back’ was already a fruitful New Labour narrative. And early on, opposition to the euro was monopolised by angry looking Tory politicians harrumphing about British sovereignty. A senior (and sympathetic) BBC journalist expressed it in startling terms over lunch one day “they (the pro euro lobby) have cappuccinos, and you have racists”.
After a while these nocturnal skirmishes with young bankers, lawyers and civil servants became wearying and I began to avoid their dinner parties. In 2000 we launched ‘Europe yes euro no’, a cross-party coalition to prepare for a referendum and I was soon working too hard to make any 8.30 dinner dates in Shepherd’s Bush or Pimlico.
These euro enthusiasts have no doubt moved on to better things by now. They may even have changed their view on the euro’s inevitability. But I won’t forget the complacency of these highly educated young elites, or their weakness for fashionable thinking. While Westminster and the national media debated Britain’s membership of the euro (intensely between 1998 and 2003), and Blair dithered about whether or not he might win a referendum, polls showed that around two thirds of voters wanted to stay in the EU while keeping control of Britain’s currency and de facto its economy. The strength of opposition never really changed – despite Britain in Europe’s scare tactics – and eventually Blair’s passion for further EU integration was overcome by his reluctance to call a referendum he thought he might lose.
Didn’t Tolstoy write in praise of the narod, and the profound, instinctive wisdom of ‘ordinary’ people? Literally, common sense. Well the scepticism with which most British voters read the euro’s prospectus kept us – to our advantage – in the slow lane of European integration. Lucky Britain. And no thanks to the foolish captains and panjandrums who fell for the grand projet to end all grand projets, and told the rest of us that we were too ignorant to understand.