‘It’s very easy to be wise with hindsight,’ Nick Clegg this week told a BBC interviewer who had tasked the Deputy Prime Minister with his long-held view that the euro is a wonderful currency which Britain was crazy not to join. A cross-sounding Clegg went on to argue that ‘no one’ had envisaged that the eurozone might be in the plight it is today. This we can only describe as being foolish with hindsight.
Although it is true that no one forecast the exact circumstances of the crisis, one politician did set out with startling clarity the main reason why the currency was misconceived — and it cost him his job. I refer to Nicholas Ridley, who in July 1990 gave an interview to The Spectator warning of the explosive consequences of the loss of national economic sovereignty implicit in a single European currency. ‘There could be a bloody revolution,’ he warned those who bought the 14 July 1990 issue. Extreme as that might have sounded, the riots in Greece are an illustration of exactly what Ridley forecast if a population felt they were being told how they must suffer, by a power unelected by them (indeed, in the case of the European Commission, unelected by anyone).
The issue here is sovereignty, not economics (although the idea of Greece and Germany sharing the same currency was always an absurdity). Ridley himself had no problem with the idea of balancing budgets or privatising inefficient state enterprises — after all, he was one of Margaret Thatcher’s most faithful supporters in implementing exactly those policies. His point was that those imposing harsh measures have to be elected by the people on the receiving end. Or as he put it in his interview with me: ‘When I look at the institutions to which it is proposed that [our] sovereignty is to be handed over, I’m aghast… unelected reject politicians with no accountability to anybody, who are not responsible for raising taxes, just spending money, who are pandered to by a supine parliament which also is not responsible for raising taxes, already behaving with an arrogance I find breathtaking; the idea that one says “OK, we’ll give this lot our sovereignty” is unacceptable to me. I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.’
Without that last sentence, Ridley would probably have been able to continue in his job as trade and industry secretary. His unprovoked rhetorical use of Adolf Hitler to reinforce his argument amazed me at the time. I retorted by saying ‘Surely Herr Kohl [Helmut Kohl was then the German Chancellor] is preferable to Herr Hitler. He’s not going to bomb us, after all.’ I had thought that this would cause Ridley to backtrack, but he dug deeper. ‘I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather have the shelters and the chance to fight back than simply being taken over by… economics. He’ll soon be coming here and telling us that this is what we should do on the banking front and this is what our taxes should be. I mean, he’ll soon be trying to take over everything.’
It was doubly unfortunate for Ridley that the week after our interview was published the then head of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, was to visit Britain — a fact of which I was unaware at the time, but which greatly increased the pressure on Margaret Thatcher to ask Ridley to resign. She did so, and he quit, complaining that though he had not been misquoted by The Spectator, ‘I deeply resent the journal’s assertion that I associate present-day Germany with the aggression in the past. I do not hold that view.’ Yet, as the above makes clear, it was he who out of the blue drew a comparison between modern German economic expansionism (as he saw it) and the threat posed to us by the Nazis.
On the other hand, it is true that Nick Garland’s cover illustration, which showed Ridley painting a Hitler moustache on a poster of Helmut Kohl, was dynamite — and reproduced across Germany to howls of outrage. I had suggested to Nick that he should do a cover illustration showing Ridley as a landowner taking a shot with his Purdey at a German eagle. Nick, as usual, had a much better idea; but I have often wondered if Ridley might have survived had The Spectator employed a less gifted cover cartoonist.
Occasionally it has been suggested that the whole interview must have been off the record, so inflammatory were Ridley’s remarks. In fact it had been agreed — almost a month in advance — that the interview would be entirely on the record and tape-recorded. On the morning the interview was published — when all hell broke loose — I rang up the Department of Trade and Industry, offering to send them a copy of the full transcript. One of its press officers said: ‘You do realise that we are going to look for anything we can find in it to knock down your account.’ I replied that it was precisely to protect the reputation of The Spectator that I wanted them to see that it had all been as reported.
There was a reason, however, why Ridley felt able to say such things about the Germans. (‘The British people can be dared. They can be moved. But being bossed by a German — it would cause absolute mayhem in this country, and rightly, I think.’) The reason was that Margaret Thatcher held exactly the same view. That same summer I bumped into a Cabinet minister at the Wimbledon tennis championships, who said, only half in jest, ‘If Boris Becker wins again this year, Margaret will be hell in Cabinet the next day.’ (He did, and presumably she was.)
Unfortunately, the issue of anti-German prejudice on the part of British politicians old enough to remember the war completely occluded the real argument. As we wrote in our leading article in that 1990 Spectator issue: ‘A distinction must be made between the emotional colouring of an argument and the argument itself. The logic of Ridley’s argument cannot be dismissed as mere prejudice. It is an argument about political accountability.’ It still is; and the Eurocrats still don’t get it.