Though Mr Ashdown and I live some of the year in the same part of France, we don’t live on the same planet. Paddy’s choice of residence shows he’s a man of impeccable taste (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?). Alas, his choice of arguments in the recent Times article proves that taste doesn’t always spring from intelligence. Unless the intelligence on offer is of the extraterrestrial kind.
Mr Ashdown indulges in an odd sort of I-told-you-so rhetoric. We should, according to him, have joined the euro 15 years ago, when he pushed for it, even though he magnanimously allows that at this moment the idea isn’t all that attractive. Had we joined then we’d be in clover, rather than, well, the sort of stuff we’re in now. We wouldn’t have followed the bad example of those irresponsible southerners, borrowing themselves into the poor house. (Are the Irish southern? — my geography is weak). Instead we’d rely on our well-established fiscal probity and powerful manufacturing base to emulate Germany. Had we been subject ‘to the euro disciplines’ we wouldn’t have been ‘free to repeat our old indisciplines’. That takes us into the notoriously barren past-subjunctive territory ruled by King Whatif. It must be close to the planet Mr Ashdown is from. Normally this isn’t my favourite destination, but I’m willing to go there just this once.
Germany is the second-largest exporter in the world, behind only the rather more populous China. Britain is a very distant eighth on that list, closer to Mexico than to Germany. We are behind not only the Calvinist Netherlands (with about a quarter of our population) but also the fiscally irresponsible Italy and the would-be German France. The Germans drive mostly German cars, the Italians mostly Italian ones, the French mostly French ones. We drive mostly German, French and Italian ones. Has Mr Ashdown seen a lot of TVRs in his part of North Burgundy? Is that what made him decide Britain still has a strong manufacturing base? In fact, as proportion of GDP, our property business has outstripped all our manufacturing combined — an astounding achievement in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Presumably we can move up the ladder by exporting our houses and tower blocks to China, and then — watch out, all those Merc, Fiat and Braun makers.
Mr Ashdown suggests we wouldn’t have acted like those who are so different from us (all those garlic eaters) by reaching for the cheap euro loans. We’d be more like those similar to us, say the Germans and Dutch. I dare say, on purely empirical evidence, the Irish are rather closer to us than the Germans are — and even the latter, along with the French, went well over the debt limit they themselves had set. In other words, ‘euro disciplines’ are a figment of Mr Ashdown’s imagination.
We should still join the euro, pontificates Mr Ashdown, when it’s ‘in Britain’s interests’ to do so. How about never? Is that a precise enough time frame? The euro, along with the EU in general, isn’t an economic project but a political one, which the likes of Paddy know but choose to ignore for our benefit. Economically the project is as illiterate as it’s unrestrained ideologically. As soon as we realise this, Britain’s position vis-à-vis the euro will appear to be roughly the same as it was in 1940 vis-à-vis all those German bombers flying from French bases. Except that now they try to buy, rather than bomb, Britain into submission. Mr Ashdown would go along with that, provided the price is right. So money is what he means by ‘Britain’s interests’, as if there were no other. Such crass materialism — even if it weren’t grossly misplaced — seems odd in a devout socialist, but then only on this earth. On Mr Ashdown’s home planet this must be par for the course.