The Tribes of Brexit Part 2 – The Bruised Pride Chancellors

Last month, John Walker began his series looking at some of the origins of Brexit by examining those who traced their Brexit roots back to their animosity towards Europeans.

In this next instalment, he considers the smallest, but maybe one of the most overlooked groups, Tory Chancellors of the Exchequer who were closely engaged with events in the EU over the years. These are the bruised-pride Chancellors.

Gladstone’s Red Box (The National Archives)

Prominent in the growth of the Eurosceptic MP cabal within the ranks of the Conservative Party, were the events of Black Wednesday, when the UK was ejected from the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism). The event itself was a humiliation, but not one from which the UK, as a country, could not recover.

The final cost was calculated by the government at £3.5billion, less than a tenth of the monetary value of the PPE scandal, and less than 2% of the real cost of dealing with Coronavirus (so far). Indeed, this ejection was the excuse that enabled the UK to remain outside the single currency.

It should be noted that the future Brexit would have been significantly harder to achieve from within the Eurozone. As a country, the UK recovered from that humiliation; the Tory Party did not. It was a significant element in the catalogue of personal and Conservative Party failures that lead to the 1997 Labour general-election victory.

In truth, ERM ejection was only one element in that election campaign, but one which particularly worried the Conservatives. Many of the sleaze allegations laid at their feet could be dismissed as temporary and rejected, as the individual miscreants themselves were ejected and deselected. But the ERM debacle was an error made by the Conservative government when it decided to enter the ERM at the “wrong” rate.

The Black Wednesday event was a catastrophic error of judgement and therefore a severe dent in the carefully crafted reputation of the Conservatives for fiscal management. Prior to this, a plethora of political wrongs were forgiven by a messianic belief in Conservative fiscal rectitude. Once lost, the good reputation would be very hard to regain.

Whilst John Major accepted the mistakes of the ERM debacle, it was not so with Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont. Lamont was chancellor at the time and was seen as primarily responsible. However, the UK joined the ERM two years before his chancellorship and even before that, the UK was shadowing the Deutschmark thanks to Lawson. The culpability of all three was involved, but their reactions to the event differed.

Lamont and Lawson blamed the EU in an attempt to shift culpability from themselves. Major did not do this, perhaps out of greater honesty, or perhaps, as Prime Minister, he had to deal with realities and could not enjoy the privilege of sniping from the side-lines.

Lamont and Lawson would form part of a growing tide of Euroscepticism within their party, and were joined by others, mostly (at the time) back-benchers like Bill Cash. However, Lamont and Lawson would use their Euroscepticism to try to exorcise their feelings of personal culpability in the disaster and try to recover their bruised pride.

It is, perhaps, one of the great ironies of Brexit that Chancellors who had worked for so long to link the UK economy closer to the European powers should eventually become those who fought so hard to tear it apart.

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