Euro-demons issue a rude reminder

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The Independent Online
OH, YES, thanks, a super holiday - a few days spent with beloved friends in beloved Cornwall. It was marred only by the mournful groans of the foghorn, by weather tolerable only to those, like me, who don't mind soft rain on faces and knees.

Oh, yes, and there were the newspapers, too, filled as always with miseries and disorder. No good news, save of our lady cricketers. Of the genuine miseries of Bosnia I say nothing. Vying for attention were, on a less tragic plane, the nefarious tricks of those knavish speculators. Mr Heath has denounced them - which might suggest to the cynical that they, the speculators, can't be all bad. According to him, they can 'wipe us out, one by one. No individual national currency can stand up to them.' No, indeed, nor any international fixed mechanism either, it seems.

Speculators have been dubbed demons. They have 'battered' and 'humiliated' the dying ERM, will 'kill it off', have perhaps already done so. Their sabotage has brought about 'the end of the European dream'. They have 'savaged' the ERM, now 'celebrate victory'. Their hapless victim is often portrayed as if it were an ancient, precious and benign institution, conferred on us by God, Lord Keynes or providence, hallowed by time, beyond criticism. Actions and sentiments calculated or likely to harm it can thus spurt only from benighted, selfish and perverse Europhobes.

The current picture of the predatory speculators irresistibly recalled to me Hitler's odious anti-Semitic propaganda film, in which the Jews were portrayed as rats teeming out of drains and gutters and gnawing at grain sacks, thus robbing and polluting the food of das Volk. The notion that speculators might perform some legitimate functions with salutary effects has not been exactly emphasised. They appear customarily as termites and locusts, scavengers and vultures. Ah, but at this point the pejorative imagery starts to tear and crack. For the vulture, despite his grim appearance and habits, does have for us a benign purpose. By clearing the streets of noxious garbage, he fights cholera and other horrible diseases. He is an environmental health official of the best sort.

If I venture a word or two in favour of speculation, I am certainly not moved by professional pride or personal profit. Far from it: I have never made a billion in a crisis, and might be less credible if I had; I am also one who for 50 years has warmly favoured a Europe united, if not in this way then in that, to guard against perils that disappear only to delude us and are forever reborn in forms more vast, monstrous and menacing. No, history is not over]

Nor am I any enemy of a common European currency, provided it comes about slowly and naturally, by general acceptance for the convenience of all. The common currency should surely come last, like the cart, not first like the horse. It should not be misused to enforce harmony, still less uniformity. It should rather be the late fruit of a harmony already achieved by free trade and prosperity. If the speculators rudely bid us to hasten slowly, they deserve thanks, not insults.

Even the dread F-word (federation, of course) does not in itself affright me. At the mere mention of it, the British turn pale and drop their teacups. To me, it all depends on what sort of federation. It can and should be, by its constitution, severely limited and limiting. Mr Delors' redistributive and regulatory fantasies and excesses should be ruled unconstitutional, out of order. The great Lord Acton is often quoted (often against Delors) about absolute power corrupting absolutely. Less often cited is his commendation of the F-word. He found federation 'most efficacious and congenial'. It restrains sovereign power 'by dividing it, by assigning to government only certain defined rights. It is the only method of curbing not only the majority but the power of the whole people.' Note his implied suspicion of 'the more democratic Europe' that left- wingers now howl for.

My sort of federation would be one in which people such as Acton, Burke, Benjamin Constant, de Tocqueville and founding father Jean Monnet, even Mrs Thatcher, would be happy. My federation would not admit socialism through the back door but push it out through the front. The European dream now ending was for many of us a nightmare. If speculators woke us up from this, again they deserve thanks.

When G K Chesterton was a child, he was convinced that great gales were produced by the frantic agitation of the trees. About speculators we, too, have our causes and effects mixed up. We blame the speculator for causing financial convulsions which in fact he is trying to predict, observe and measure, to react sensibly to, thus to weather or even profit from. Even the words 'profit from' do not do full justice to many speculators. Think of them for a moment not as men driven by supernatural greed, but as responsible agents charged to look after other people's money as well as their own, thus conscientiously concerned to ensure that it is not stored in currencies that are manifestly about to lose their value. The speculator accordingly moves it about, as is his duty. By doing so, he does not cause crises, though he may exacerbate them or make them more obvious to all. He is primarily an observer, trying to cut through all the wishful thinking, false hopes and lies of politicians and others to the underlying reality, to the real value of currencies.

He is not the thief who stole the ERM emperor's clothes. He is the candid child who blurted out that the emperor is naked. He is a lie detector, the best in his field we have. None will despise him, save those who wish to be deluded.

I devoured with fascination Gitta Sereny's account in the Independent last week of the trial of the so-called 'Ivan the Terrible'. Whenever I read of the trials or proposed trials of such dotards, I think back on a passage from Primo Levi.

On Auschwitz and such horror camps, Levi has been upheld and honoured as an incomparably truthful witness. Writing in 1960, he affirms of the commander of Auschwitz, that he, Levi, 'would not even recognise his face . . . they were all identical, those faces, those voices, those attitudes: all of them distorted by the same hate and the same anger, and by the lust of omnipotence'.

Since then a further 33 years have passed. Would Levi, had he lived, have been more confident now of recognising them?

I have myself recently met at reunions officers I once knew well, served with in the army 50 years ago, but have not seen since. Some were recognisable, others emphatically not. Asked by the late Kaiser whether he remembered Napoleon at Borodino, an ancient Russian soldier said, yes, vividly - a tall man with a long white beard.

Confronted with old, old men who, long ago in a distant land, may or may not have yielded to temptations we can hardly imagine, could we not in all humility call it a day?