I listened to the young woman from the Daily Mail trying to recruit a group of reporters to join forces and charter a plane to fly back to Brussels. She received an enthusiastic response from another British colleague, who was hailed for lavishly spending his employer’s funds.
he addiction to spending money was to end rather catastrophically a few years later. But the least said about it, the better at this point in life.
It was Wednesday 16 September 1992 – soon to be dubbed ‘Black Wednesday’ – and the EU’s ‘hack pack’ was in the wrong place on the wrong day.
We were at the September plenary session of the European Parliament in the beautiful French city of Strasbourg – more than 700 km from the EU capital of Brussels – which was playing out the next episode of the UK’s economic meltdown.
Hence the crazy talk about chartering private planes on what can only be described as very crazy day.
I sat in the European Parliament’s newly designed press center where no expense was spared in providing facilities.
In those days before cell phones and the internet, this new swanky facility had two phones on each desk and a television monitor that beamed Sky News to all of us, among other things.
My best friend, who worked for Glasgow’s The Herald, amused us by holding both phones up and taking turns shouting, “Sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy.”
But the real implications of what was happening became clear to me when I met an English colleague in the coffee bar. He told me that he had recently bought a house in Greater London and was watching his mortgage payments exceed his ability to pay as interest rates rose at a crazy rate on that bleak day. The situation will look pretty familiar to people over the past few weeks.
In summary, what happened on that “Black Wednesday” in 1992 was that the British government was forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the EU’s currency valuation grid, the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Attempts to keep sterling above the ERM participation floor had failed miserably.
A controversial UK monetary policy move in an already heavily Eurosceptic Britain was rapidly sinking economically and politically. It was a milestone on the UK’s path to joining the single EU currency. Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, the rather sympathetic John Major – a good friend of the late Prime Minister Albert Reynolds – was suddenly and epically unpopular.
That evening I avoided rental planes. I drove four and a half hours back to Brussels with a few other, more frugal colleagues packed into my old van.
But the craziness of the occasion continued. The meeting of the so-called European Monetary Committee – the forerunner of the European Central Bank – took place at the Borschette Center on Rue Froissart in Brussels, right next to the best chopper in Europe, the “Maison Antoine”.
I was fortunate to land in Brussels just before then Treasury Secretary Bertie Ahern arrived along with the late Maurice O’Connell of the Treasury and a future Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland. Mr. Ahern spoke to me in general terms, which helped me submit an interim story for the phone Irish Independent.
The later crazy part happened when the meeting dragged on past midnight and several truckloads of Belgian riot police suddenly arrived. They were responding to residents’ complaints about loud noise caused by hundreds of international journalists standing in the street.
After some negotiations, all journalists were admitted to the ground floor of the conference building. Luckily, the Belgian authorities also forced some catering staff out of bed and the bar was opened. But that meeting dragged back and forth with the inevitable result of the UK exiting the currency grid in the early hours of the morning.
The British chaos of autumn 1992 pales in comparison to what is happening. The British Conservative Party is set to elect its fourth leader and prime minister in just over six years.
It gets worse when you look at the finance ministers, the so-called chancellors of the exchequer, of which they had six in three years – and four this year alone.
A curious footnote on history: Kwasi Kwarteng’s 38 days as Treasury Secretary were not the shortest in UK history. As early as 1970, a former incumbent, Ian Macleod, died of a heart attack after just 30 days in office. But recently there has been serious competition for this dubious award.
Lest Irish complacency set in here, we should also remember that the events of 1992 triggered a spate of currency chaos that directly impacted Ireland, a founding member of the EU monetary network since 1979. Albert Reynolds and his lieutenant, Bertie Ahern, campaigned for “no devaluation of the Irish currency” in an ill-fated November 1992 election campaign. That changed in January 1993 with a record 10 percent devaluation of the Irish punt.
The last time Britain’s Tories came so close to an economic disaster, in September 1992, it took them another 18 years to win a general election. Given the overlapping of interests and London’s influence over this island’s affairs, it’s tempting to ask: could we be so lucky this time?
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/last-time-the-tories-diced-with-economic-disaster-it-took-them-another-18-years-to-win-an-election-42074118.html The last time the Tories grappled with an economic disaster, it took them another 18 years to win an election