Given Ireland’s respect for its traditions, the fatalism with which it is giving up so powerful symbol of nationhood as its currency is an impressive sign of its political will. The Irish coinage, first struck in 1928, was one of the first creations of the Free State.
Yet from the table-talk this Christmas, with euro ‘starter packs’ already available, the topic was largely missing and the country seems extraordinarily relaxed about the switch. There are tales of second-hand car dealers trying to unload punts from their hip pockets without attracting the attention of tax inspectors or money laundering regulators. Criminals, so goes the myth, are offering interest-free loans in punts to those willing to pay back in euros. Cash sales of luxury cars and other goods are said to be soaring, and ‘mattress money’, say some estimates, accounted for 14 per cent of the Christmas retail boom.
In Scotland, there is a sotto voce counterpoint. We are standing aside from the euro, of course, but we are celebrating, if that is the word, a new right conceded by the authorities: next year motorists will be able to embellish their number plates with the Saltire or, if they are English or Welsh, the St George’s Cross or the Dragon. And in the meantime those who fail to display the regulation plate, with the European flag and GB below it, will not be prosecuted.
This is a sensible sop to nationalism and europhobia, all at once. The European Union, while a powerful idea and already a substantial historical achievement, remains politically at best a weak confederation, with sovereignty vested in the Council of Ministers representing states still gripped by powerful national emotions. If the Government is to lead us into the euro within the next two years, as appears increasingly certain, then it seems shrewd to remove petty irritations which give fodder to the Europhobe press. The idea that the European Union is a rigid centralist superstate, or in immediate danger of becoming one, is as absurd as believing that the heart of European culture is to be found in a Dieppe urinal.
But those who support the European project, as I do, must confront a worrying paradox: we have never had so many elections to so many parliaments. Yet our parliamentarians are held in lower esteem than I can remember and the public votes for them in ever declining numbers. H.L. Mencken found nothing so abject and pathetic as a politician who had lost his job, ‘save only a retired stud-horse’, but now the public would spread its contempt to those who still practise the black arts.
Part of the explanation, perhaps, is the growing enfeeblement of parliaments as institutions. The Strasbourg parliament has a great power – to reject the commission’s budget – which is about as practically useful as the nuclear deterrent, and many minor powers which are of little account. The commission proposes, the council of ministers determines, and the national parliaments rubber-stamp.
Westminster, too, is suffering from a loss of public esteem, perhaps because Tony Blair has, if anything, intensified Thatcher’s presidential style. It has done nothing for the standing of MPs that the most resolute opponents of illiberal legislation, first by Jack Straw and now by David Blunkett, should have been found in the non-elected upper chamber. What John Mortimer calls the golden thread of English justice – the presumption of innocence – is under threat as never before.
In Scotland, the parliament remains largely unpopular, or at least among the people I’ve bumped into lately. Some, particularly West of Scotland Tories, never wanted it in the first place and are irritated by what they perceive as its provincialism. And we have to admit that in some respects the new parliament has not broken resolutely enough from the bad habits of Westminster. The leader of the Opposition, John Swinney, has adopted a strident approach in the chamber which sits ill with his rational, courteous private character. David McLetchie, perhaps, has more shrewdly made use of this new area to rescue his party from oblivion.
Enlargement will raise the constitutional debate in Europe more keenly. It is unrealistic to dream, with the Germans and the Dutch, of a fully federal arrangement, of a European parliament with teeth holding the commission to account. Indeed, even in a mature federation, like the US, tensions between the centre and the states continue to be a dynamic part of the political process.
Another paradox of our politics is that we hold our politicians to account with increasing energy while despising them more. Once MPs took prostitutes into the Commons, from which the press was excluded. Lloyd George made a pass at anything in a skirt while remaining a political giant. The private lives of many other leading figures did not bear examination – and, generally, did not receive it.
Europe must grow. It will probably do so, as it has always done, through crises and their mediation. The euro’s introduction will not be without dangers and complications, and stresses will undoubtedly emerge, particularly at a time of world recession. Yet it is another giant step on the road to European political maturity.