If the Maastricht programme were to go ahead, Europe would suffer a prolonged and confusing collapse that would last for another five years or more. Fortunately, the French referendum, a remarkable miscalculation by President Mitterrand, now seems more likely than not to reject it. Out will go Maastricht and the idea of a single European currency.
The exchange rate mechanism (ERM) will go into crisis; Italy and Britain will certainly have to devalue or withdraw, and will be free to do so because of the French decision. The date of the French referendum, 20 September, is therefore a crucial one in British politics. Of course, it will be difficult to reach 20 September without the disaster of raising interest rates, and we face three weeks of sterling crisis.
Yet Mr Major also has to think about 6 October, the first day of the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. He will then confront an audience most of whom have strong personal reasons for resenting the consequences of his policy, the high interest rates, the two years of depression and all the economic anxieties that follow joining the ERM. In previous recessions, the shells have tended to fall on Labour supporters; that is one of the reasons they voted Labour. In this depression, the shells have been falling on the most central of Conservative supporters: home owners, businessmen, the middle class, the South.
Active Conservatives go to the party conference. They are not, on the whole, rich - the middle class does not have great reserves of investment. They own their own houses. They often own their own businesses. Some of them are builders or estate agents, others run shops. Since Mr Major became Leader of the Conservative Party, they have seen the value of their houses fall by a quarter or a third; they have seen the profits of their businesses fall. They are heavily concentrated in those property-related businesses that have been most damaged by the depression.
These people are - or were - the enterprise culture. They borrowed to buy larger houses; they borrowed to expand their businesses; they provided much of the growth of jobs in the Eighties. Now they are trying to pay back the mortgages and the business loans, and they find that they have no one to sell their shops or houses to, because almost all their friends are in the same boat. This is the painful reality behind the facade of personal confidence that is maintained in the social life of provincial business.
Nor can Mr Major forget the unemployed. There will not be many of them at the Brighton conference; they may have been to previous Conservative conferences, but they cannot afford to go this year. Most of the delegates will be the walking wounded and not those killed in action on the business battlefield. But those with children will be particularly worried about unemployment, possible redundancies themselves, the threat of repossession, the inability to pay school fees, and about jobs for their children when they leave school or university. We all know young men and women who left university in the summer of 1991 and are now either unemployed or working on check-out counters. Many of the graduates who cannot get graduate jobs have Tory parents.
Falling asset values, lower profits, heavy debt, high interest rates, threats of insolvency, threats of redundancy, unemployment, unemployed children, these are not the occasional backgrounds of the people who going to the Conservative Party Conference, but now the normal backgrounds. These are people who wake up at 3am worrying about money. That is probably true of the majority of them, except for the retired, who have paid off their mortgages and are glad of high interest rates. These anxieties have become steadily worse since Mr Major became the Prime Minister. They may like him, but they know he has not brought them good fortune. Many blame him for their misfortune; whom else can they blame but themselves?
What answer can he give them? He can tell them that there is a world recession. They already know that, and they also know that Britain has had a longer and deeper depression than any other European country, worse than the United States or Japan. He can offer the great prize of zero inflation. They suspect they may have to pay the price of zero income, zero assets and zero employment. He can tell them that he has taken Britain to the heart of Europe. That makes things no better. The association of Europe with depression, as a result of high interest rates in the ERM, has made Europe more unpopular than it has been for 30 years or more. He will be challenged - if Maastricht is still alive - to hold a referendum. He will not dare accept the challenge because he knows what the answer of a British referendum would be.
John Major has to remember this: half the Conservative Party Conference consists of larger or smaller asset owners, most of whom have house or business assets balanced against debts. In the two years of Mr Major's leadership, the lucky ones have lost a quarter to a third of their net assets, the unlucky ones have lost everything. Perhaps a few are as well off as when he took office. His chief supporters are the chief victims of his economic policy. Conservative members of Parliament, many of whom are similar asset owners, know what the pressures on their constituents are. The ERM is extremely unpopular on the backbenches, and none too popular on the frontbench. In public, Cabinet ministers have to be loyal. In private, they express the same anxieties as their constituents. When will the recession end? How many local businesses will survive? This is the new Conservative conversation, and it call comes back to our having British interest rates fixed by the Bundesbank to suit German conditions but not ours.
Those who have the most experience are the most worried. They do not take the nave view that a year of recovery in 1995 will make everyone forget what they have been through in time for the next election. They worry about the loss of the enterprise and home owning culture that was the major economic and political success of Mrs Thatcher's years. What is the Conservative Party for, if it destroys the enterprising class? That is the question they ask. They still like John Major, but they think he has gone native in Europe, and is governing us from the point of view of an international civil servant, indifferent to the real life interests of the people who elected him last April.
So it is up to the French to save the Prime Minister. If they say 'No' to Maastricht, that creates a new opening. There will then be no single currency, and the European currency will have to adjust to competitive reality, to the fact that we have all become 30 per cent overvalued relative to the dollar and the yen. Britain needs lower interest rates, and we will then be ale to decide our own. Of course, there will be a crisis, but only a Maastricht crisis can save the Prime Minister from a bigger crisis of confidence in Brighton in October.Reuse content