Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 July 2002

The maxim that all publicity is good publicity has long had its advocates on the fringes of politics: those who have no other means of making a mark – harmless radical provocateurs as well as murderous terrorists – often come to revel in notoriety.

What I’ve never seen until now is the principle taken up by a mainstream political campaign that is attempting not to shock or terrorise but to convince the public of the justice of its cause.

Yet what else can explain the extraordinary cinema ad by the campaign against British membership of the single European currency, in which the comedian Rik Mayall, humorously dressed as Adolf Hitler, rants “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” at the camera?

The no campaign and Mayall himself have rather half-heartedly claimed that the vignette is merely a joky way of highlighting the Nazis’ enthusiasm for a single European currency – and as such is a legitimate point to make in the debate on British membership of the euro.

If you believe that you’ll believe anything. It is true that Hitler imposed an economic union of sorts on occupied Europe during the 1940s – but that’s about it. The postwar European project, of which the euro is part, never had anything whatsoever to do with the Nazis’ dream of a German empire subjugating the peoples of Europe through genocide, terror and never-ending war.

Indeed, it was from the start explicitly framed as a means of preventing anything like Nazi Germany ever happening again.

The big idea of Jean Monnet and the other forefathers of what is now the European Union was that if the states of Europe pooled their sovereignty, slowly building common institutions and a common political culture, it would become impossible for an expansionist militarist Germany ever to rise again. And – so far at least – it seems to have worked rather well.

These anti-Nazi roots of the EU are so well documented that it almost beggars belief that the no campaign could even suggest that the euro was originally Hitler’s idea. Almost – but not quite.

Ignorance about the history and institutions of the EU is endemic in Britain. Postwar continental European history is taught in few schools, and continental European politics is covered superficially by the British media.

Add the national obsession with the second world war, the constant drip of anti-EU propaganda in the press and the endurance of xenophobic stereotyping of continental Europeans in the popular imagination – also consistently reinforced by the media – and it’s just about possible to credit that some cretin in the no campaign decided that a little bit of historical falsification might make the headlines without putting off the punters.

The no campaign’s crass appeal to stupidity and prejudice deserves to fail miserably, and if “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro!” is the best it can come up with, it will undoubtedly do so. The near-universal condemnation of the Mayall ad in the past week has left the no campaign looking very silly indeed.

But it would be a mistake to bank on it continuing to score spectacular own goals. A vigorous and intelligent yes campaign is still needed to see it off – and as yet there is no sign of any such thing. The yes campaign has barely raised its head, and when it has it has appeared unconfident and timid.

It has advanced no populist argument for the euro apart from saying that lots of jobs will disappear if we don’t join – and that if we do we won’t have to pay to change money when we go on continental holidays.

What’s almost entirely missing from the yes campaign’s case is the strongest argument for joining the euro – that it locks Britain into a European model of welfare capitalism that is far more egalitarian, more socially responsible and more tightly environmentally regulated than the free-market capitalism of the United States.

Of course, Britain would have to go into the euro at the right exchange rate to reap the benefits, and there is a strong case for reforming the way that the European Central Bank operates, in particular by making employment creation one of its objectives.

In the longer term, there is also a need for co-ordinated Europe-wide redistributive fiscal policies to counter the effects of a “one-size-fits-all” interest rate.

But none of this invalidates the fundamental social democratic case for joining up. When is the Government going to make it?

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