Facing the Grexit

Could Greece actually leave the Eurozone?

A big switch appears to have been flipped in the last week: talk of Greece exiting the Eurozone has moved from wild blue-sky thinking to the sort of thing Very Serious People write about. The Financial Times is running a series on how such an exit would happen, beginning today with a piece quoting several Eurozone central bankers saying things like:

I guess an amicable divorce – if that was ever needed – would be possible. (Luc Coene, central bank governor of Belgium)


Technically, it [a Greek exit] can be managed… It is not necessarily fatal, but it is not attractive. (Patrick Honohan, Irish central bank governor)

Bloomberg echoed the statements, while Der Spiegel is running a cover that doesn't really need translating:

The macroeconomic issues with a Greek exit – a Grexit – would be immense. Paul Krugman lays out a convincing four-step guide as to how the whole thing could result in the end of the Eurozone, "and we’re talking about months, not years, for this to play out."

Krugman sees a Grexit leading to massive capital flight from Spain and Italy as savers race to move their deposits to Germany. That leads to either capital controls to prevent the exit, or massive (even in the context of those which have already happened) European Central Bank loans to stop the banking systems of those countries failing. Germany then has a choice. Either it becomes a guarantor for Spanish debt indefinitely, while also tolerating a higher level of Eurozone inflation than it has ever been willing to accept before; or the Eurozone breaks up.

Even the smaller issues with a Greek exit are hugely difficult to overcome, though. Currency swaps are normally done with huge levels of planning, and a long period of both currencies running in tandem to enable things like vending machines and electronic systems to switch over. But because the devaluing of a new Drachma would be so strong so quickly, Greece has no real chance to do this. If it decides to leave the Euro, it needs to get it over and done with in very little time.

Last September, Josh Hempton, a hedge fund manager, looked at the closest historical precedent for this high-speed currency swap: the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

What they did was put troops on all the borders and made it illegal to take cash (or wire cash!) across borders. Then all Austro-Marks in each country was stamped - converted to Drachma for Greece, Marks for Germany, Peseta for Spain or whatever the currencies of the day were [If someone remembers the 1918 border splits better than me they are welcome to say...]

In this conception all Spanish debts become Peseta debts. All German debts become Mark debts. All Greek debts become Drachma debts. Unstamped currency goes worthless.

If you are going to split the currency I see no alternative to a big bang - and if you do that I see no alternative to troops at the border stopping transfers (and wire transfers) because shifting cash North looks so profitable against a sudden devaluation. Suddenly – and against all historic hope – its time again to guard the French-German (and every other European border) with troops for a week whilst the money is stamped.

Despite the fact that at every stage, the story of how the Eurozone will collapse is credible, there is a peculiar sense of optimism. As Joe Weisenthal writes, though, the thinking seems to be:

A crisis will be averted because to not avert it would be such a disaster. We'll see if that actually holds up.

The world looks to Greece right now Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.