The Spectator's Notes

Bring on the next Black Wednesday

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

At the Brexit-related cabinet last week — as revealed by James Forsyth in these pages — David Lidington made an intervention in support of the Prime Minister’s approach to the negotiations. He was, he said, the only person present who had been an MP at the time of ‘Black Wednesday’, when the pound fell out of the ERM on 16 September 1992. It had been so disastrous and divisive, he went on, that the government must at all costs avoid a repeat over Brexit. Many heads nodded sagely. Mr Lidington, a moderate and public-spirited man, was quite right about the pain caused to his party 26 years ago; but the interests of the Tories and of the nation are not necessarily the same thing. It was ERM entry and the attempt to defend a hopeless exchange rate for sterling which caused the anguish. Black Wednesday was the happy release. It was an almost unmitigated benefit to Britain. It exposed the folly of trying to have fixed (or, possibly even worse, semi-fixed) exchange rates. It ushered in a long period of prosperity which was not undermined until Gordon Brown became prime minister 15 years later. And it made it politically impossible for Britain to join the euro. Contrary to Mr Lidington, the real lesson of Black Wednesday is that we can never successfully pursue an economic, commercial or monetary policy shaped by the needs of European integration. Mrs May’s one-third Brexit known as ‘Chequers’ proposes to make the same mistake, and could well produce the same pain. A full Brexit would be a second Black Wednesday. Many senior Conservatives do not see it this way. They are on the wrong side of history.

A pendant to this point is the campaign called ‘Norway for Now’. The idea, promoted by Nick Boles, is that Britain, should join the European Economic Area and EFTA, until such time as we can move further out of the EU, for example with a Canada-style free-trade deal. This is what Norway and Iceland and Liechtenstein do. The idea sounds nice as a friendly and temporary compromise. But in fact the psychology is wrong. Such arrangements were devised more as an entry chamber to full membership (which is what Norwegian elites still want) than as part of an exit strategy. The Norwegian Prime Minister is now making this point. The point of Leave is to escape the gravitational pull of Brussels. Why make self-contradictory efforts to stay in the orbit and leave it at the same time?


All through Tuesday, the BBC led with the news that the Institute for Fiscal Studies — ‘expert’, ‘independent’, ‘respected’ etc etc — thought Philip Hammond’s Budget was ‘a bit of a gamble’. One has nothing much against the IFS, but why is this news? Why is it not treated the same way as the Institute of Economic Affairs on the free-market right or of the Institute for Public Policy Research on the Blairite left — as a body whose views are probably worth hearing, but only as one among many? Behind the IFS’s exaggerated prominence is a false idea that it is objective and the others are biased. They are all biased — or rather, coming from a particular political point of view — and there is nothing wrong with that, so long as it is stated. The IFS is a centrist, anti-Brexit outfit of the usual Whitehall-ish goody-goodies. It is not the court of final appeal as to whether this is a good or bad Budget.

Obviously it is wrong to attack NHS staff. But does the government’s new ‘zero tolerance’ policy consider why such attacks take place? There are eternal reasons, such as the inherent nastiness of some people, and wider social ones, such as drug abuse. Are there also specific NHS-related ones too, though? The worst aspects of the NHS are not usually medical: they are to do with a bureaucracy which puts patients last. It is utterly extraordinary, for example, that a waiting time of four hours in A&E is now the norm or even, it would seem, the (often missed) target. Often have I sat there wondering not at the aggression of patients, but at their quiet acceptance of such ill treatment. It is wrong when patients attack, but not surprising.

Four years ago, in these Notes, I mentioned a man who attended the Prince of Wales when visiting an unfamiliar hunt. The Prince’s horse refused at a fence and HRH’s guide blamed the man, not the horse. ‘Get off that horse,’ he said, deciding to ride it over the fence himself. ‘You’re the heir to the throne. If you sit on the throne like you sit on that horse, you’ll not stay there long.’ I can now reveal — because he has, sadly, just died — that this fearless man was David Barker, who was, as one might guess from the story, a Yorkshireman. He was a legendary show-jumper — many of my generation will remember his horse Mister Softee, later ridden by David Broome. Barker and Mr Softee won the puissance class at Madison Square Gardens, clearing a 7ft 2in wall. Later, he was the equally legendary huntsman of the Meynell Hunt. It is said that no huntsman of the modern age has been a more stylish, collected rider or better at crossing the biggest country in front of a hard-riding field. It is the more remarkable that he could do this, since the huntsman must concentrate absolutely on his hounds, yet Baker was also in charge of Prince Charles on his frequent visits. To avoid press attention, the Prince would not attend the meet, but would emerge from hiding just before the first draw. Baker and his whipper-in would then dismount, bare-headed, to greet the Prince in courtly fashion, and then remount and lead him on. If only Stubbs had been alive to paint it. Prince Charles was, despite Barker’s occasional strictures, famously brave and loved the whole thing, including the chance to mix quietly with the Derbyshire dairy farmers in the pub at the end of the day. He would thank them by having them over to Highgrove once a year. This happy relationship was accomplished through David Barker. The Prince joined the mourners at his funeral in Ellastone last week. Sad that such a relationship is now, in effect, banned.

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