No signs as yet of the kinds of apocalyptic events that are meant to accompany the dawn of a new millennium. We might expect predictions that plagiarise the Revelation of St John the Divine, such as whirling winds, flamed crowns numbered in seven and animals with eyes in their bottoms.
So far, the approach of the millennium has been marked by rather more prosaic manifestations. There’s a Millennium Bug, which may or may not have eyes in its bottom, and a Millennium Dome that will contain a huge androgynous figure, which may or may not have sponsors in its bottom.
That said, there is a millennial psychology about. Equity markets worldwide are febrile and volatile in the wake of the crises in the Asian and Russian economies; a bunch of Wall Street derivatives academics have bet more money than there is in the world with the banks’ blessing and Goldman Sachs has cancelled its plans for flotation. When Goldman Sachs gets its timing wrong, it’s time to wonder whether we’ve all got the timing of the millennium wrong.
Against this economic background, we have the leaders of some of the most powerful nations on Earth talking of a “Third Way” with a degree of consistency that makes it sound original. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have just been joined in this regard by Gerhard Schrder. With marching songs being sung in Russia, a re-emergence of nationalism and a German economy strained by reunification, I would suggest we remember what gave rise to the Third Reich and endorse the Third Way with undiluted enthusiasm.
If all this sounds a little startling, let’s bring matters back to a question rather more within this week’s terms of reference: What do we want from international markets as we approach the millennium and what role should business play in delivering it?
The question is important because the Government is congratulating itself and providing its own vision for the future in Blackpool and we should be holding it to account. Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson, for one, spoke on Monday of the importance of the digital economy and promised to promote electronic commerce and Internet use.
Let’s just examine what that might mean for business in the context of international trade. There can be little doubt that the most important millennial issue facing British industry is whether to adopt a single European currency. With impeccable timing for Blackpool, the Financial Times on Monday produced a comprehensive poll of British industry on the subject.
One of the most important results of this poll was not that two-thirds of British business people want an early entry to the European single currency, but that so many remain ignorant of the issue. Only 22 per cent of companies have taken any action to prepare for a single currency and 40 per cent believe that they are ill-informed about membership.
I have some sympathy for that 40 per cent. The Government’s TV ad campaign, supposedly educational, has been widely ridiculed. It’s not so much that it is thoroughly lousy – though it is – as the frightening view of British business that it portrays. This is mindless, Thatcherite, Eighties’ business, which was artificial then and looks sad now.
Our brassy, entrepreneurial hero, throwing paper balls at his inattentive staff, is the sort of cardboard cut-out that Audi employed as the figure of yuppie ridicule who wouldn’t buy its cars and who has no place in advertising any message more complex than the one currently devised for John Smith’s Bitter.
Our only hope is that it is meant to be a deeply ironic teaser, in the style of the Campaign for Racial Equality’s recent effort, and the real message is as yet undelivered. If not, then the Government might know no better, but its advertising agents, whom I will give no oxygen of publicity here, should in spades.
What British business needs from a single currency is stability (the guy in the ads looks about as stable as a chimp on crack). Because of this need for stability and because business right across Europe wants it, the euro will become a fact of life, whatever the politicians may think.
If economic stability is the aspiration, then business must also play a part in forcing the financial services industry to provide it. Banks have always found ways to blow industry’s cash, from the Third World to property bets. These days, the derivatives markets are their favoured drain.
But business and the banks still desperately need politicians to lead them into a single currency. So it appears politicians are going to have to find a way to regulate the derivatives markets on an international scale.
Now, that really would be a practical achievement for world leaders pursuing a Third Way. Mandelson has this week claimed to be a millennial pioneer for the digital age. I’m afraid that might mean that he’s just learned how to log on. But if he and his colleagues can genuinely usher in a technological age in which international trade, properly regulated, can prosper – and that must include a single currency – that would be real statesmanship.