George Pitcher: Do the Government’s five tests reveal our stupidity?

The euro has provided fun for journalists, but the Government is relying on our short attention spans to allow it to take us in without a fuss, says George Pitcher

Luckily for the print and broadcast media, which might otherwise have struggled over a thin holiday news period, there was the launch of the single European currency to fill space and airtime. I half expected to hear of one of the big retail chains opening a special counter for journalists trying to buy things in euros.

Thanks to a bombardment of pointless live-links to earnest reporters saying banal things like “There’s no doubt, John, that the euro is here and it’ll take some getting used to”, we’re bored rigid with it already.

Conventional wisdom has it that this is Government policy. Once the euro becomes as boring as the public-sector borrowing requirement, the argument goes, then the Government can do what it wants with it. Britain will be allowed to join the euro, just so long as no one goes on about it too much.

At one level, I hope that this theory is right. But then I’m a supporter of an integrated European economy with a single currency. Actually, I’m a federalist, but that sounds less boring and is likely to set Little Englanders off on one of their rants, so best to stick to the dull phraseology of what is now known as “eurocreep”, or entry to the single currency by stealth.

The trouble with a strategy that depends on boredom – obvious though it is to state – is that it’s boring. But I would guess that, since the Government has undertaken to make a decision on the five economic tests for entry within the first two years of this Parliament, there isn’t a more important issue for British companies that do business across Europe this year.

The softening-up process – a form of obfuscation of the political and economic borders of the euro issues – is already well underway. Leader of the Commons Robin Cook and Labour Party chairman Charles Clarke have concentrated lately on the political imperative for joining the euro, while last week Treasury official Gus O’Donnell undermined the Government’s assertion that economics alone would drive its actions, indicating it would be a political decision.

Well, you could have knocked me down with a E20 note. The Treasury has always maintained – with a straight face – that the five economic tests have to be satisfied in a “clear and unambiguous” manner before entry can be recommended in a referendum.

But the five tests themselves are about as unclear and ambiguous as it is possible to be without actually being Liberal Democrats. It is worth stating them, because they are declared so seldom – another triumph for the policy of boredom.

They are: sustainable convergence between Britain and the economies of a single currency; sufficient flexibility to cope with the economic change; the effect on investment; the impact on our financial services; whether it would be good for employment.

Nowhere here, you may note, is there anything measurable, such as a commitment not to recommend entry unless we have one of the top three most attractive balance of payments deficits in the eurozone, or the lowest level of unemployment.

You could simply say you believe the five tests are satisfied and no one could contradict you. It’s subjective. Indeed, you could read in an entirely negative and passive interpretation in some cases – you could argue, for example, that there are greater dangers for our financial services industry in being left out of the eurozone.

So what are we to make of last weekend’s opinion polls, showing the UK implacably opposed to euro entry? An ICM poll for the News of the World showed that fewer than one in three would vote to scrap the pound; the reincarnated The Business newspaper said that 73 per cent favoured keeping the pound for the foreseeable future and The Sunday Telegraph had a similar proportion opposing the euro.

One might expect a few doltish greengrocers to mount a last-ditch stand for sterling, but these figures are harder to explain. Perhaps there really is a widespread intellectual resistance to economic union. My own view is simpler, if perhaps controversial – the British people are stupid.

By this, I don’t mean to set myself above my peers, nor to suggest that anyone should be disfranchised from the democratic process. But – as any professional marketer knows – if advertising rules on tobacco and alcohol were relaxed, there would be an increased incidence of lung cancer and liver disease.

Similarly, were it left to the British people to decide these things, capital punishment would be reintroduced and the Royal family would be given greater constitutional powers. In short: people don’t know what’s good for them.

You don’t have to be an advocate of the nanny state to argue that the people need protecting from themselves, because we’re insufficiently informed, because we don’t have time and because we don’t plan ahead. Because, in short, we’re stupid.

As it happens, the Conservatives fundamentally disagree with this view, which may be why the 19th-century economist John Stuart Mill called them “by the law of their existence, the stupidest party”.

But, by the end of summer, when Britons of all political persuasions have returned from their holidays with fistfuls of euros that they should be able to spend and invest at home, the current of opinion will change. It would be stupid to believe otherwise.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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