Unless Britain joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, they once said, it would face economic instability.
So we duly joined the ERM. But instead of stability, pegging our currency to those of our neighbours meant we endured an economic boom-bust cycle, with interest rates raised to an eye-watering 15 percent.
A decade later, we were told that unless the UK adopted the Euro, we would be left behind. In hindsight, not joining the single currency ensured that we continued to prosper while much of the rest of Europe has faced spiralling debt and a decade and a half of stagnation.
Now we are being told that without some sort of withdrawal agreement in place with the EU when we leave, our country faces catastrophe. Really?
The downsides of leaving the EU without a comprehensive agreement have been exaggerated in much the same way that the upsides of being in the ERM or the Euro were oversold two decades ago.
There may well be some disruption if the UK were to leave the EU without an agreement. But the extent to which this happens largely depend on the degree to which our neighbours choose to be difficult. When we leave the EU, we will, by definition, start from position of total alignment. If at one minute past midnight on the day we depart barriers come into existence, it will be because they have been put there.
Indeed, it was precisely to try to guarantee that any such obstructionism was kept to a minimum that Theresa May negotiated her doomed deal. In return for open access, Britain was supposed to agree not to diverge very much from the ‘European’ model.
Ever since the referendum, the EU’s overarching objective has been to try to minimise the result. If they could not find a UK administration prepared to hold a second vote to overturn the first, they would at least work with British civil servants on an arrangement that would render leaving the EU largely meaningless. Which is precisely what they did.
Their failure has thus been every bit as great as Mrs May’s.
Ever since the referendum result, political journalists in Britain have been so utterly obsessed at focusing their fire on UK politicians they appear to have give remarkably little thought to what it is that the EU side might be seeking to achieve, and why. If they did they would recognise that rather than minimise the effect of the referendum, the actions of the EU make complete rupture – and a restless neighbour – a growing certainty.
Inevitably, much of the coverage of the Tory leadership contest has been about the personal preferences of the two candidates. But whether its Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt that takes over from Theresa May in just a few weeks time, each are likely to aim for something very similar.
They will both want an agreement on improved terms – which means at a bare minimum a time limit on the Irish backstop. S
EU intransigence means that any such concessions are unlikely. But both Hunt and Johnson – unlike Mrs May – recognise that EU intransigence is a choice. And like all choices, it comes with conseqeunces. One of those consequences could be to set the UK on a very different trajectory after our departure.
This is why both Boris and Jeremy have committed to doing what Theresa May never seemed serious about doing, and preparing the ground for leaving the EU without a comprehensive agreement in place. Both candidates have indicated that they will commit billions to ensuring the right preparations are in place.
Over the past 40 years, every time Britain was being urged to sign up to more European integration, many of those that did so did not merely happen to believe that we would be better off if we joined the ERM or the Euro or whatever. They came to believe that we should participate in such projects because for them Euro integration was about the adoption of the ‘European’ model itself, with its high rates of taxation and extensive system of state regulation.