By Julian Lewis
European Journal – May/June 1999
Opinion polls are drastically underestimating popular opposition to replacing the pound with the euro. The process parallels one in the early 1980s, when Labour's unilateral nuclear disarmers were claiming majority support. That claim was found, on inspection, to be based on partial or incomplete poll questions, such as:
"Do you think that Britain should accept US cruise missiles and/or purchase the American Trident nuclear missile system?"
To counter such tactics a group of us commissioned Gallup to ask the basic question every few months:
"Do you think that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons as long as other countries have them?"
With remarkable consistency (and irrespective of fluctuations in the Cold War), the same results were repeatedly obtained – two-thirds replied "Yes", one quarter said "No" and a small minority were undecided.
At first our opponents denounced the terms of our question. They claimed that we should not have made any reference to what other countries did or did not do. Yet, everyone knew that when election campaigns were fought the question of Labour's "unilateralism" or "one-sidedness" would be central. Consequently, after a few years of such systematic polling, even the CND conceded that two-thirds of the population were opposed to unilateralism.
The time has now come to give EMU a dose of this treatment – and all the signs are that the outcome will be the same. I first commissioned ICM last October to ask the question:
"Do you think that Britain should replace the pound with the single European currency?"
32 per cent answered "Yes", 56 per cent said "No" – a margin of 24 percent.
Was this the right question to ask – unlike those polls on EMU which refuse to refer to the pound? In fact, there is a strong parallel between polls in the 1990s which ask about joining EMU without mentioning the pound, and polls in the 1980s which asked about British nuclear disarmament without mentioning nuclear disarmament (or the lack of it) by others.
In any referendum campaign on EMU, the issue of keeping or replacing the pound will undoubtedly be paramount. It follows from this that polls which ignore the loss of the pound will underestimate the likely level of opposition to EMU if and when the campaign occurs.
Thus, on February 11, the Guardian led with the banner headline: "UK WARMS TO THE EURO". Its report claimed that -
"Support in Britain to join the euro has surged to its highest-ever level, according to the first major opinion poll to be taken since the rest of the European Union celebrated the single currency's new year birth."
This poll (coincidentally also carried out by ICM) claimed that 36 percent supported EMU and only 52 percent opposed it – a margin of only 16 percent. Yet, it made no reference to the pound – even though abolition of all national currencies is inseparable from the definition of EMU.
I immediately asked ICM to repeat the question they had polled for me the previous October. The fieldwork was carried out in the first week of March, before the resignation of the Commission.
This time 30 percent answered "Yes" and 60 percent said "No" to replacing the pound with the single European currency – a margin even greater than that six months earlier. The result strongly suggests either that February's alleged "surge in support" for British membership of EMU, trumpeted by the Guardian, had evaporated in just four weeks or (more probably) that it had never existed in the first place.
If opposition to the euro actually increased between October 1998 and March 1999, what is there for opponents of EMU to fear? The answer is "fear itself" – in Roosevelt's memorable phrase. A systematic propaganda campaign is under way in the pro-euro press to convince the "silent majority" of EMU opponents that they are heading for defeat.
It is not enough to obtain the data showing two-to-one opposition to the euro. The exercise must be carried out time and again, and the anti-EMU media should report their poll results as prominently as do their pro-EMU counterparts.
Continental politicians seldom conceal their political agenda for Europe and the crucial role to be played by EMU. Hans Eichel – the "moderate" successor to Oskar Lafontaine as German Finance Minister – stated in July 1997:
"European unification is an absolute must ... The euro is not European unification, but it is one important step towards this end."
Romano Prodi, incoming President of the European Commission, declared in June 1996:
"Economic and Monetary Union and political union are two sides of the same coin."
As recently as March 1998, he added that Europe
"was born of a political project. The economic successes ... should be seen as part of a design that has always had as its ultimate objective political integration."
Such candour cannot be expected from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who boast that EMU entry will depend on economic criteria alone. Yet, they dare not proceed in defiance of a two-to-one majority against replacing the pound with the euro. For once, opinion polls are protecting rather than undermining parliamentary democracy.