I suppose I must long ago have come across Ernest Hemingway’s line about the two ways of going bankrupt — “gradually, then suddenly” — because I read The Sun Also Rises about 40 years ago. But it didn’t stick with me until I read it again, quoted in a column by Mark Steyn in March of last year, in reference to the impending bankruptcy of the good old U.S.A. Others must also have been reading Hemingway or Steyn in the intervening year because I come across this quotation about every other day. (A Google search registers about 3,240,000 results.)
Usually it refers to the impending bankruptcy of the good old U.S.A., but as both Hemingway and Steyn would probably agree, it can reasonably refer to the collapse of any long-established but crumbling institution. Hemingway actually witnessed the collapse of many such institutions during and after the First World War. Steyn has written about the way in which seemingly impressive structures such as the Hohenzollern and Romanov dynasties more or less evaporated when the loyalties on which they rested were blown away by the same war. The status quo always looks impregnable until it looks doomed.
Is the European Union, or at least Britain’s membership of it, going from impregnable to doomed? And if so, is it going gradually or suddenly?
Until this week I should have said it was going gradually. As a notorious Europhobe, I have for many years had the experience of people sidling up to me, glancing nervously around, and, thinking themselves unobserved, whispering, “I think we should leave the EU too, old boy.” By this test we seem to be quite numerous. But we were still in “gradually” territory until this week. Most of these “better-off-outers,” as they are called, never admit their heresy in public speeches or articles. In the absence of a secret handshake, one has had to rely on “coded” speech to identify them — especially since Prime Minister David Cameron has let it be known that no overt better-off-outer will be given a job in his administration. And the status quo accordingly looked fairly impregnable.
Remember, however, the great Prussian general von Moltke, of whom it was said that he had smiled only twice in his life: once when his mother-in-law died, and a second time when told that a certain fortress was impregnable. For, suddenly, we seem to be in suddenly territory.
On Monday Lord Lawson of Blaby, who was Chancellor Nigel Lawson in Margaret Thatcher’s second and third administrations, announced in an article in the London Times (alas, behind a paywall here) that he favored Britain’s leaving the European Union on the grounds that the economic gains from doing so “substantially outweighed the costs.” Nor did he leave it at that. He added:
“The heart of the matter is that the very nature of the European Union, and of this country’s relationship with it, has fundamentally changed after the coming into being of the European monetary union and the creation of the eurozone, of which — quite rightly — we are not a part.
“Not only do our interests increasingly differ from those of the eurozone members but, while never ‘at the heart of Europe’ (as our political leaders have from time to time foolishly claimed), we are now becoming increasingly marginalised as we are doomed to being consistently outvoted by the eurozone bloc.
“So the case for exit is clear.”
Lawson’s intervention was crucial, and everyone realized the fact. He was a great reforming chancellor under Mrs. Thatcher; he is a first-class economist who could beat the “Treasury Knights” at their own technical game; and he is what people call a “Big Beast” in the jungle of British politics. If Lawson announced that the case for EU withdrawal was respectable, indeed compelling, then the usual establishment tactic of hinting that the heretic was mad, unbalanced, or dim simply wouldn’t work.
Nick Clegg, the Europhiliac deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition, made a game effort to employ it all the same. Like a young subaltern going over the top armed only with a swagger stick, he declared stoutly that leaving the EU would mean the loss of 3 million jobs. Lawson’s retort was devastating.
“Of course that’s poppycock,” he said genially. “But I don’t think Nick Clegg, who’s a charming young man, has ever purported to know anything at all about economics.” Such putdowns are risky. They work only if everyone privately knows them to be accurate. Alas for Clegg, this one worked.
If Lawson had nothing much to fear from opponents, within and outside the government, the crucial question was: Would he gain allies and supporters? If the debate over British withdrawal from the EU was to go from gradually to suddenly, then other figures of similar weight (or only slightly lesser weight) would have to join Lawson. Otherwise his intervention would be a brilliant rocket going up but a simple stick coming down. In early returns, three pretty big beasts seem to have come down on his side.