Deborah Orr: The Big Event through a child's eyes

'For a brief while the impossible had happened. The euro had achieved some glamour, and we weren't at the party'
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The Independent Online

It was my nine-year-old stepdaughter who felt the most passionate longing. As the last day of 2001 wore on, she became increasingly animated by the idea of the euro. Shortly before midnight, as she gazed at BBC News 24 reports from Brussels and across Europe she declared wistfully, even a touch bitterly, that she wished we were joining.

As far as I'm aware, this wish was not prompted by overwhelming social democratic optimism about the egalitarian beauty of the European project, by suicidal fascistic obsession with building an aggressive superstate to rival the United States, or even by skillful reading of the runes we call the five economic indicators. No.

It was clear from the start exactly what was prompting this girl's musings on the economic future of our nation and our continent. As the celebratory firework display went off, she showed every sign of feeling simply, and seriously, left out. The Millennium, the Eclipse, The War on Terrorism ... of late we Brits have become accustomed to having a hand in the big events, no matter how overblown, tentative, or spurious that hand may be. But this time, astonishingly, the Big Event was going ahead without us.

And worse, for a brief while, the impossible had happened. The euro had actually achieved some glamour. The beginning of 2002 was its moment, and at the shiny new currency's big party, there was no hat with Britain's name on it. Here is the essence, indeed the entirety, of my step-daughter's chagrin.

Frankly, I think she's got every right to feel the way she does. I was nine years old when decimalisation hit these shores, and it was quite a thing. The build-up, of course, was mammoth, with the entire nation suddenly revealing itself either as shockingly innumerate or shockingly neurotic.

The first time I saw the coins-to-be was when Tom McLauglin brought them into school, in a little blue plastic display case, and graciously allowed the teacher to show them to the class. The first time I saw them in action, so to speak, was minutes after setting out on the walk to school in the lucky hands of fellow pupils. The first thing I personally bought with the new coins was a packet of Potato Puffs. Their minty-fresh shine was a wonder.

As for the old coins, well, they were really dirty. For some reason, probably a good one, old money was much, much dirtier, and much more worn, than the new currency would get in the same time-span. So Blue Peter taught us how to make the old coins just as shiny as the new (by soaking them in brown sauce, then buffing them), and advised us to stick them together into a pyramid to make our own commemorative paperweights.

I didn't do that, though. I just kept the oldest coins I could find. I still have them now – one shilling from 1874, with young Queen Victoria on it, and a couple of pennies from later on in that century, displaying old Queen Vic. There's a George V ha'penny from 1914, and a penny from 1918. He's still on the 1934 penny, but a decade later, it's George VI, the last Ind Imp.

The new coins have not seen any bloodily conceded sub-continent colonies, any changes of monarch, any world wars, as yet. So I can't relate to the much-touted idea of the loss of these 30-year-old tokens as somehow representing the end of our sovereignty. If such a thing can happen at all, it happened in 1971, when we stopped carrying the worn and dirty history of the British empire around in our pockets.

But that doesn't make me pro-euro. Instead, the whole business has become something I can't really relate to. My own feeling, nothing more than a cop-out, is that it's only a matter of time. I've taken this view for reasons no less spurious than my stepdaughter's. She likes to feel part of a party, while I like to watch governments preaching democracy from the platform while all the time fiddling clumsily with the knobs under the lectern. Observing exactly how the Government manages to get the euro into the nation's pocket is just as morbidly enjoyable a prospect as observing exactly how the Government is going to manage to get digital tellies into the nation's living rooms.

The latter is quite a business in itself. Already the BBC's digital channels have been given the go-ahead with this challenge in mind. The idea is that all the Beeb's best stuff can be premiered on digital, so that analogue-watching licence-fee payers don't get to see the programmes until their second run. And don't worry if this sounds like an outrage. The BBC has already been told not to overdo the withholding.

The euro, though, is going to be much, much trickier. For one thing, the great success that offsets so many of the government's failures is the ceding of the setting of interest rates to the Bank of England. That may not be the only reason for the continuing economic boom, but it's a major one. With entry into the euro, all that will be over.

Not only is the Government going to have to accept that, for various increasingly unfathomable reasons, it's going to have to surrender its precious economic boom on the European altar. Somehow, it's also going to have to rig a "yes" referendum among a population who can't be bothered to vote for actual governments, let alone the matters of economic policy they're supposed to decide for us. And this is all going to have to be done without any sign of support from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What's more, the centre is going to have to argue its case from both sides. The right has always been against Europe for the reasons it has been rehearsing at the top of the Conservative Party ever since Edward Heath got kicked out. Now the left is becoming increasingly hostile as well, seeing Europe as another big Western financial unit, dedicated to getting the best possible deal out of whatever nations it can exploit.

And to put the cherry on the cake, there's the inescapable feeling that while few people really understand the implications of the euro, full understanding by everyone would make no difference at all to the positions they instinctively take. After all, it's safe to assume that economists are drawing educated conclusions about the euro, and they're as divided over it as everyone else who has an opinion.

And what's it all for, anyway? When I was nine, it seemed clear that Britain wanted to join Europe for lifestyle reasons – to be more sophisticated, have tables outside, drink wine, and eat nicer food. When I was 19, Europe was good because it was concerned with human rights, liberalism and protecting ourselves from nutty nuclear Russia. Come 29, and Europe was good, well, because Thatcher hated it.

Now I'm 39, and Europe seems like an expensive and elaborate farce, designed to make politicians look silly and Syria look good. Is Europe now capable of being anything more than a staging post on the road to globalisation, with the eventual adoption of the US dollar as the actual worldwide currency, not just the currency everyone converts to when they want to know how much something is really worth?

My guess is as good as my nine-year-old's. But at least if we'd all followed her counsel, we'd have got the inevitable over with. Instead, we're stuck with another year of hoping with utter futility that the whole messy issue would simply go away.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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