Greeks bearing debts

The euro was a bad idea in 1999, and it's a disaster now.

I have a long memory, and a thin skin, and often lie awake at night, grinding my teeth, reliving the insults born by Tories in our wilderness decades. I suppose it's too much to expect an apology from the politicians who were pro-Euro hysterics at our general elections, until quite recently? People like, ooh I don't know, Chris Huhne?

If we get rid of sterling and adopt the euro, we will also get rid of sterling crises and sterling overvaluations. This will give us a real control over our economic environment. (Chris Huhne, 2004).

Substitute "Greek drachma" for "Sterling", and that sentence reads really well now, doesn't it Chris? (Hat tip to Dan Hannan for a list of many similar, delicious-with-hindsight comments).

Setting Huhne's points aside, it's worth recalling the argument repeatedly made by those of us who didn't want to join the euro, because -- with respect to the Greek tragedy currently unfolding -- it was all so entirely predictable.

We said that a monetary union couldn't work, because a single interest rate for a continent of such disparate economies could not be suited to them all. Since the interest rate was likely to be set low to suit the productive Germans, it would spell inflationary doom for countries like Ireland and Greece.

No-one ever had an answer to the single interest rate dilemma. Part of the reason it was so compelling to most Conservatives (Ken Clarke, as ever, an honourable exception) was that we had lived through two examples where UK interest rates led to devastating domestic outcomes. The ERM fiasco of Black Wednesday is well-rehearsed. Less commented on is that we had all lived through what happened in the north of the UK in the 1980s, when an interest rate was necessarily set to control inflation in the south. If it's hard enough to make one rate suitable for a single state, it beggars belief that anyone imagined that a single rate could suit economies stretching from Dublin to Athens via Berlin.

As of course, it could not. The banking crises only exacerbated what was already evident: some countries had embarked on uncontrolled (by the ECB's central rate) inflationary bubbles of debt-funded spending. When the credit dried up, the crises set in. Now Greek government debt is worthless, and its people are rioting against the austerity measures imposed on them by the IMF, and the obvious route open to a country in such a terrible situation -- devalue your currency and hope for growth in exports -- is shut off from them, while they remain locked into the euro.

William Hague was derided in 2001 for likening the eurozone to being locked into a burning building with no exits. With apologies to the late, great Bob Monkhouse: they laughed when we said we didn't want to join the euro. They're not laughing now.

Not that being right in 2001 is any cause for cheer ten years later. In the morose phraseology of Douglas Carswell MP, we may have avoided the trap of monetary union, but we appear to have signed up for the accompanying debt union regardless. Still: leaving the euro must be Greece's least worst option. I know that exposure to Greek debt is worldwide, but (I'm sure an economist will tell me otherwise) would suffering that exposure be worse than throwing more good money after bad? Until which point?

Fans of the euro used to insist that it wouldn't, it couldn't be allowed to fail. I wonder how much of a soaraway success it feels to the people of Athens, today?

Graeme Archer is the 2011 Orwell Prize winner for blogging.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad