It isn't, after all, about whose head should gleam on the coins, or what words are written on waxy notes. It is about national destiny, jobs, inflation and security. Nor is it a far-off decision, which can be put off for years ahead by the next government. It matters. It looms. And the strange thing is this: the more we agree with John Major's original instincts about the single currency, the harder it becomes to vote for his party.
Major has been proven right, first in negotiating the single-currency opt-out, and second in sticking by his official line of "negotiate, then decide". His wily and pragmatic attitude at Maastricht may go down as his most significant historic achievement, greater than his involvement in the Irish peace process. It put a brake on what would otherwise have been a clear process of British disengagement from the EU.
But the great problem he now has is that there is only one person left in British politics who is able to implement the Major plan. And that person isn't John Major. It is Tony Blair.
But Blair seems to resist the idea. Both he and Peter Mandelson insisted yesterday that the single currency should not be at issue, because the two main parties agreed on the wait-and-see approach: both thought it would be difficult to join early, and both promise a referendum before joining.
So, their argument ran, let us stop talking about the damn thing and concentrate on Tory divisions instead. Very convenient, no doubt, but wrong in logic. First, there is a still a real policy difference between the big parties: which is that the Conservatives see a constitutional problem with joining and Labour doesn't.
Labour would rather this wasn't highlighted. Yet the line under Blair has been clear: membership of the single currency is something to be decided on economic, not political, grounds. Will it be good for exporters, inward investment, jobs, inflation? If yes, join: if no, don't. The problem with this straightforward-seeming approach is that more and more of the serious analysis suggests that the strict economic assessment may take many years to judge, and that the case for membership cannot be disentangled from politics.
This may be causing Labour to flinch. The current formula is that Labour would make the judgement "in the national interest", which is bland to the point of being meaningless: so far as I am aware no one is suggesting that it should be based on the interests of the Poles, American Express or the Church of Rome.
And yesterday Blair said there was no "insuperable" constitutional barrier to joining, gently implying that there may be, after all, some kind of chest-high, prickly impediment. He also made much of the triple lock against an early decision - Cabinet, Parliament and referendum. These are small rhetorical points, perhaps, but the general impression was of an unwillingness to surrender the pound.
Yet, behind this, the essential difference remains. The Tories have a great phalanx of senior and junior politicians who would not join under any circumstances, because they believe it would mean the end of British sovereignty. Labour, despite its protestations of convergence, doesn't agree. One could let us enter.
And the other party, the Tories, couldn't. Major and the Conservative high command are chirpily enthusing about the democracy and freedom of their party in allowing candidates to state honestly their anti-EMU views in election manifestos. Since hundreds are queuing up to do so, this is useful opportunism, an understandable defensive manoeuvre which appears to be liberal and refreshing. But it is also hooey.
How would the Tory high command feel about its candidates taking opposing lines on the future of tax, on mortgage relief, on privatisation, law and order or the Union? It's a funny notion of party unity that demands adherence to the agreed policies, except on the most important question of all.
At every key moment in the political history of the past few years, it has been the Conservative anti-Europeans who have nudged the party. Now it is happening again. And the net effect of all these independent-minded manifestos chugging from the fax machines is that, if the Conservatives were re-elected, Britain couldn't join the single currency - whatever the costs of staying out. There will be a great majority of committed, implacable anti-EMU people on the Tory benches. No Tory premier could bypass them.
Let us dwell on the implications of that. What if - if - staying out meant considerably higher interest rates, and the failure of many firms as a result? What if the effect on inward investment was as bleak as the warnings from, for instance, Hiroshi Okuda of Toyota, Jurgen Gehrels of Siemens (which is building a big microchip factory here), Niall FitzGerald of Unilever, or the managers of New Holland, the world's biggest tractor manufacturer, which has a plant in Basildon? What if it became clear that EMU membership was becoming synonymous with membership of the EU itself - that staying out meant leaving the union and negotiating a new trading relationship with irritated and impatient ex-partners?
These are neither inconsiderable questions, nor inconceivable. They are arguments that any pragmatic, prosperity-minded Tory government would have to weigh against the alternative (and good) arguments against the single currency. Yet this Conservative Party, if it was returned to office, couldn't.
It means the much-vaunted referendum is, under a fifth Tory administration, a dead letter: we would never get that far. It means that our influence on other EU issues would swiftly decline. It is the ruination of the hopes of the moderate Tory pro-Europeans. What, I wonder, does Kenneth Clarke think? Labour isn't the only party inching its way through this campaign with the help of heroic silences.
There is a bit of problem here, surely. If Major is right about it being in the national interest to wait and see, then the Conservative rank and file, firmly refusing to do either, must be acting against the national interest. Or have I, perhaps, missed something?Reuse content