Bernard Ingham: Euro vision of doom if UK industry doesn’t see light

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IT is payback time. After five years of Liberal Democrat blockades, David Cameron’s job now is to start recovering Tory credibility. With his integrity at stake, he is set today to provide in the Queen’s Speech for a resident Brits-only EU referendum by 2017.

The issue will tax his ingenuity, patience and temper. After all, no sooner has he opened negotiations on the UK’s relationship with Europe in Riga and we learn that the Bank of England is examining the implications of our quitting than the CBI and the Engineering Employers’ Federation come out in full pro-Europe cry.

Even the National Grid thinks we would be better off in rather than out, although it has connived with Brussels and Westminster to leave us with an energy policy that puts UK power supplies at risk.

Incidentally, I do not expect the new Tory Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd, with her carbon phobia, to be much of an improvement on that Lib Dem disaster area Ed Davey.

But to return to Europe. I am fired up about it because I have just found among my papers my speech about it to the London Metal Exchange in 1993. Twenty-two years later, things are worse than ever.

I first pointed out how divisive the then EC was. It had split the Labour Party and caused Margaret Thatcher to fall out with her Defence and Foreign Secretaries and her Chancellor – to wit, Michael Heseltine, Sir Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson. It was the issue that finally brought her down.

From my experience of 31 consecutive EU summits it was, I said, better than making war – “but only just”. And don’t forget, I voted like Thatcher to confirm our membership in 1975.

I recognised that joining institutions like the EC inevitably diluted sovereignty and acknowledged the need for a strong, central body to police a single market and root out protectionism. “But there are limits,” I said. “And the concepts of a single currency (with all that means for economic sovereignty), a common defence policy (bearing in mind Europe’s inability to determine a coherent approach to any international crisis), and a common foreign policy (bearing in mind its shameful performance in the Gulf and Bosnia) go too far. The EC is not exactly an organisation you would back as a future winner.”

So, I asked whether it would survive. I said institutions, however dubiously democratic, did not easily fail. There was too much commitment behind them. But what would constitute EC failure? In my book it lay in welding itself into a flawed, fractious, fissiparous federal state. Success would come only by recognising that a federal United States of Europe was not on in 1993 any more than was a single currency or a common defence and foreign policy.

I added: “Anyone who has taken the slightest interest in Euro-politics knows that its ability to recognise reality – to break free of the herd instinct – is limited. There is enormous pressure to conform in the prevailing idiocy such as the ERM, which far too many businessmen clutched to their bosoms like a new toy.

“Anyone who is familiar with the EC knows that, notwithstanding the reality I have described, there is a momentum behind a single state with a single currency. The federalists are unshaken.”

And so, coming back to today, it seems British industry remains unshaken, too, even though, thanks to the euro, the level of unemployment in southern Europe is politically and socially dangerous.

This raises serious questions about British bosses. Why are they so determined to stick with a failed enterprise, especially when they have wittered on about EU regulation? Did nationalisation “do” for go-getters? I thought Margaret Thatcher had liberated their entrepreneurial flair.

Victorians could not have built a dominant industrial Britain with their manifestly limited horizons.

British management is not exactly underpaid. Yet it has taken foreigners to turn round the motor industry. Witness, for example, Japanese Nissan and Indian-run Jaguar LandRover.

Why should the top industrial brass be worried about Britain’s trading position outside the EU when inside it we command only a measly eight per cent of the vote?

Surely Europe, bound by wider international regulation, will be careful about retribution when they sell more to us than we do to them.

My tip, as Cameron negotiates, is critically to examine every EU enthusiast. Why are they in its pocket? Laziness, timidity, limited ambition, a refusal to face reality, an EU grant or an EU pension?

We are entitled to be cynical.