Either Britain will bail out the euro, or it won't. There's no middle way

David Cameron wants to fudge the issue with a technical argument about the IMF. It won't work.

Domestic debate around the euro crisis has taken yet another awkward turn for the prime minister. An essential aspect of the government's political strategy is to draw a clear distinctions between, on one side, a failing single currency project, ill-starred from the outset, and, on the other side, a wise Britain that chose to remain free to set its own interest rates and is blessed with a flexible exchange rate.

By extension, UK taxpayers should not be expected to contribute to a eurozone rescue fund. Greece's solvency woes are not, according to that argument, our problem. Except, of course, plainly they are, for at least two reasons. First, crisis in the eurozone is continuing to depress confidence and demand in the global economy, which is the main reason why growth is so sluggish in the UK. Second, if the Greek crisis is not contained, it will spread to larger European economies - Italy is next in the firing line - and a solvency crisis there would drag down those banks, including those in the UK, that hold European sovereign debt. A prolonged eurozone crisis will eventually become another banking crisis.

So it is in the UK's interests that a bailout works and if UK capital - whether administered through the IMF or bilaterally - is required for that outcome, well, then that surely is the national interest too. Downing Street is trying to delineate different kinds of contributions, attributing different moral weights depending on how "European" they look. If I understand it right, the ethical judgement maps out roughly as follows: If the IMF helps a struggling nation directly, that is a "good" bailout - and so UK taxpayer's money can be used. Britain might increase its IMF contributions on that basis. If the IMF joins forces with the ECB and eurozone governments to create a collective mechanism to support the euro that is a "bad" bailout - the UK would not increase its contributions on such a basis.

The obvious question is how the government plans to enforce the distinction before agreeing to pay more. The UK is already wading into deep diplomatic water by hinting it would hold any proposed EU treaty changes hostage, demanding repatriation of powers in exchange for cooperation. Now is it hinting it will withhold support for the IMF unless it gets guarantees that the Fund will not ally itself too closely with any European political project to save the euro?

Meanwhile, UK government policy - confirmed by Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in an emergency parliamentary debate today - is to impress on eurozone governments the "remorseless logic" of further fiscal integration.

So, just to be clear: The government (or at least its Conservative side) think it is a terrible idea for sovereign nations to bind themselves into a single currency and yet supports the urgent acceleration of that process. It rejects the contribution of British taxpayers' money to a bailout that might explicitly support a euro stabilisation process but would be happy to contribute to one that helped eurozone countries independently, thereby supporting euro stabilisation indirectly. This is not a sustainable position.

The ultimate problem for David Cameron remains the same as it has been for weeks. He has to choose between being a European statesman akin to his peers in Cannes and being an authentic Tory sceptic. Either he thinks the euro must succeed and that Britain, as a major EU player, must play a constructive role in working out a technical solution to the crisis. Or he thinks that Britain should step back from the whole disaster and, out of parsimony or moral horror at the idea of a Euro superstate, keep Treasury money away from the entire business. Or, to put it bluntly, either he is signing us up to a bailout or he isn't. He can try laundering the argument through technical IMF questions for a while. (And Labour seem for the time being to play along with the distinction.) But it won't work for long and it will be exposed by the sceptics as dishonest as soon as any debate on UK contributions comes to parliament.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Martin Whitfield
Show Hide image

Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496