This week the Tories continued to turn themselves inside out to avoid meltdown over the issue of a single European currency. As Kenneth Clarke tries to hedge the country's bets, it would take more than a crystal ball to predict where the economy will be by next May, never mind in 1999. Watching this ping-pong match of rival arguments, I am surprised anyone can claim to be baffled that belief in astrology survived over so many centuries. Indeed I find one of the most helpful ways to understand this discredited pre-modern mentality is to look at the discipline of economics.
Economists rarely seem capable of accurate prediction: Black Wednesday, when we ejected from the ERM, was only their most recent catastrophic prophetic failure. The Chancellor and Eddie George remain hopelessly at odds over the ups and downs of inflation vs interest rates. Like rival schools of economists, European astrologers warred constantly over the correct course for a country, a war, a king or a pope. Yet universities granted degrees in the subject, and few heads of state made a move without them.
When proven wrong, astrologers simply claimed - like economists - that their methods were not yet perfected or that certain crucial factors had been withheld from them. And like economics, their art was consistently subjected to satire, ridicule, and scorn. Yet astrologers hobnobbed with the great and good, clients swarmed to them, and they earned large fees for their opinions through books and journalism. Long after the so-called Scientific Revolution, some of whose heroes were themselves card-carrying astrologers, practitioners continued to receive vast sums of money from a public who remained in thrall despite all contrary evidence.
The historian Michael Hunter recently outed Samuel Jeake, a Nonconformist merchant in Rye and one of the first subscribers to the Bank of England, as an astrologer. In 1694 Jeake was careful to draw up a horoscope for 26 June at 6:30pm, the time he first bought stock in the Bank. He made similar calculations for his investments in the East India Company, predicting accurately that its stock value would slide further. Jeake's investments prospered, and he died a wealthy man. Would we really be willing to take an oath that Lloyd's Gooda Walker syndicate investors had the advantage by living in our rational modern age?
When Jeake made his calculations, Saturn was thought to be the outermost planet, since William Herschel spotted Uranus only in 1781 (originally naming it quite appropriately after the mad King George III). Years ago in New York, someone showed me a chart purporting to be that of the US Stock Exchange, struck for the time of its first trading. They pointed out that at the mid-heaven - the top point of the circle dominating everything - sat the unpredictable planet Uranus, credited by astrologers with bringing swift, violent and unexpected events. This, they contended, accounted for the 1929 stock market crash and crashes still to come.
At that time America was wondering whether the Dow Jones average would ever reach 2,000. As the Dow smashes the 6,000 mark, I occasionally think of this planet hovering up there like a capricious hawk waiting to strike. If theology is queen of the sciences, then economics is their knave and astrology surely the joker.