Dominic Lawson: It's no wonder the Tories blame Brown

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The Independent Online

If I didn't believe so much in the idea of coincidence, I'd say that there was significance in the timing of the run on the Northern Rock bank. It marked the 15th anniversary, almost to the day, of Britain's panic-stricken exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism – "Black Wednesday".

Gordon Brown will be only too aware of the perils in that parallel. On the day before that seismic political event, the Conservatives had a lead of 20 points over Labour in opinion polls measuring "economic competence" . Twenty-four hours later it was Labour who had a 20-point lead in this most crucial indicator of voting intentions – a lead which, with a few minor blips, it has not relinquished.

The events of that day not only changed for a generation the reputations of our main political parties – they also dramatically altered the relationship between the press and government. On the day that the then Conservative Chancellor stood before the cameras and conceded that the entire economic strategy of the government was in tatters , Gordon Brown – then shadow chancellor – thundered that "colossal errors of judgement by the Prime Minister and Chancellor have betrayed the British people".

Yet Gordon Brown had supported that "colossal error of judgement" – and so had the Liberal Democrats, the CBI and the TUC. The entire political establishment had backed the Conservatives' decision to join the ERM – and it continued to back the government's rigid insistence that there was "no alternative", even when it had become obvious to any dispassionate observer that the straitjacket imposed by the Bundesbank was squeezing the life out of the British economy.

The media, too, almost without exception, had greeted with uncritical acclaim Britain's joining the ERM in October 1990; but as it became gradually clear that this demanded an exchange rate increasingly inappropriate to the recessionary state of the British domestic economy, the press gradually began to turn against the policy it had previously praised.

Oddly, the supposedly anti-European Daily Telegraph was the only newspaper which backed John Major's policy to the bitter end. In fact the Telegraph was not so Eurosceptic in those days – and nor, until it became terminally affronted by the consequences of ERM membership, had been the Daily Mail. The same could have been said of The Sun newspaper.

It was not just that these events created a vigorous Euroscepticism in the British press which only short memories would recall as perennial. Something more significant happened: a dramatic collapse of respect for the political class as a whole. It was not lost on editors across what used to be called Fleet Street that they had called it right and the entire political establishment had called it wrong. Their anger – on behalf of their readers, they would argue – turned to contempt. It was John Major and the Conservatives who took the full force of this.

Gordon Brown's unbending devotion to the now discredited policy was ignored by the public at large – but not by his own party. The shadow chancellor had rebuffed internal entreaties that he call for a devaluation of sterling. Brown argued with customary forcefulness that Labour's electoral nemesis had been the perception that it couldn't be trusted to maintain the value of the currency; it was vital never again to be seen as the party of a devalued pound. As late as the morning before Black Wednesday, Brown echoed Norman Lamont in arguing that devaluation might push interest rates up, rather than allow them to fall.

Robert Chote, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, records: "Brown's approach had infuriated several members of the Shadow Cabinet. They had reason to be still more annoyed, when interest rates did in fact fall and the economy picked up after sterling was finally forced out of the system. Brown had robbed Labour of the opportunity to say 'I told you so'."

Lingering resentment over this was one of the reasons why Gordon Brown found that he was no longer Labour's favourite son at the time of John Smith's death – and Tony Blair seized the leadership instead.

It might have delayed his leadership of the Labour Party for 10 years, but Gordon Brown's strategic political judgement was essentially correct. It was indeed vital for Labour to be seen as economically stern and unbending – and it would have been worse for the party if John Major had been able to blame sterling's exit from the ERM on "unpatriotic" attacks on the currency by the Opposition of the day. As for the inability to say "I told you so": well, politicians can always claim that, even when they didn't. In any case, Labour could hardly have gained more political advantage from the events of 16 September 1992 than they actually did.

Gordon Brown is still playing this game: in his speech to the TUC last week he ridiculed David Cameron as "the principal economic adviser to the Chancellor of Black Wednesday and he stood alongside Norman Lamont". As Matthew Parris observed, Brown must know that the then 26-year- old David Cameron was very far from being Lamont's principal economic adviser; but it's true that the boy David can be seen standing near to Lamont in the famous footage showing the then Chancellor declaring that the game was up. We can be sure that this will be shown on continuous loop by Labour during the next general election campaign.

In the circumstances, it's unsurprising that the Conservatives are attempting to portray the run on Northern Rock as a government economic fiasco of the same scale as the run on sterling 15 years ago – and there is no doubt that the pictures of desperate depositors queuing to withdraw their funds creates a national sense of economic insecurity.

On Sunday, David Cameron did his best to attribute this to the Government's economic policies, by castigating high levels of personal debt and effortlessly linking that to the fact that "Gordon Brown is borrowing £35bn a year ...this cannot continue." No it can't, but last week the Conservatives insisted they would replicate Brown's taxation and spending policies if they were elected: it's hard to see how they could do that without an identical level of borrowing.

I can't condemn David Cameron for trying this on, though. Having for 15 years suffered Labour insults for an economic policy which Gordon Brown himself had advocated and supported, it's hard to expect the Conservatives to refrain from blaming Brown for a banking crisis which their own policies would have done nothing to prevent.