Ian Stewart – 1986 Speech on the Exchange Rate Mechanism

Below is the text of the speech made by Ian Stewart, the then Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in the House of Commons on 29 January 1986.

The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) has made, as is his custom, an elegant speech. He was a distinguished President of the European Commission. He has always been an eloquent advocate of the cause of Europeanism.

It is important to put the question of our membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system into its proper perspective. It is not a question of our being for or against the development of the European Community. The Government’s commitment to constructive membership of the European Community is beyond dispute. The fact that we have remained outside the exchange rate mechanism of the EMS casts no doubt on our European commitment. On the other side of the coin, it is right to point out, too, that, contrary to the assertions from time to time of some of those on the Opposition Benches, membership of the exchange rate mechanism would not lock us into some irrevocable commitment to full economic and monetary union. The truth is more complex, yet more prosaic. The ERM is a fixed, but adjustable, exchange rate system on Bretton Woods lines intended to promote greater economic convergence between its participants, particularly on inflation.

The Government’s position on membership has been clear throughout. We would be ready to join the ERM as and when we judge the conditions are right for us to do so. ​ I recognise that the right hon. Member for Hillhead believes that those conditions are right today. That is his judgment. However, he will recognise that many factors affecting sterling need to be weighed carefully.

The Government have to take account of the fact that, unlike all other ERM currencies except the deutschmark, sterling is a widely held and internationally traded currency. It is, furthermore, a currency subject to different and often opposite strains from those that affect the other currencies currently in the system. We have seen evidence of these conflicting pressures in exchange market movements in recent weeks. The House does not need me to explain that conditions in the exchange markets have been, even by their standards, remarkably turbulent of late.

In recent weeks, the major influence on sterling has been the weakening of the oil price. To some extent, this is a problem of perception. Even before the latest movements in the market, oil accounted for only 5 per cent. or 6 per cent. of our national income and less than 8 per cent. of all our exports. It accounts for only 0·5 per cent. of all our employment and only 5 per cent. of capital investment, despite the massive capital investments required to develop the major fields in the North sea. Those who operate in the markets, as many commentators are increasingly coming to note, often have an exaggerated perception of the importance of oil to the United Kingdom. That is something with which we have to live. It came as no surprise that a fall in the price of oil on the scale we have seen in the past three or four weeks, when the price has fallen by around 30 per cent., should have had some impact on sterling. I would like to think that the markets have already begun to take a more balanced view, but these realities can take time to gain hold.

The other major factor in the exchange markets recently has, of course, been the decline of the dollar and its differential impact on other currencies. Since the Plaza agreement, the yen has appreciated by nearly 19 per cent. against the dollar, the deutschmark by about 16 per cent. and sterling by 22·5 per cent.; so the decline in the value of the dollar has given rise to substantial adjustments between the exchange rates of other currencies.

It is against this background that we must judge the question of membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the EMS. We must recognise in so doing that for sterling to join the ERM would bring about a significant change in the operation of the system itself. At present, the deutschmark plays a dominant and central role. The addition of sterling, another widely held and traded international currency, would undoubtedly introduce an element of bi-polarity into the system with which it has not yet had to cope. It may be that it could do so, but it is a question that must give us pause. We should note that the currencies of the other two major countries in the mechanism—the French franc and Italian lira—are both protected by a variety of exchange controls.

I need hardly say to the House that we have no intention whatsoever of restoring the exchange controls which my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary removed in 1979 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Such controls inevitably hinder the development of financial markets. Indeed, it is interesting to note, following a point made by the right hon. Member for Hillhead, that London is one of the ​ leaders in the ecu market even though the United Kingdom does not participate in the exchange rate mechanism of the EMS.

The question for the United Kingdom is, therefore, in a number of respects rather different from that which other member states have faced. The common element, which is insufficiently understood by many alliance Members, is that for our European partners the exchange rate mechanism is not seen as a soft option to be adopted as an alibi. There is no disputing the view of our partners that the ERM can be a helpful and effective anti-inflationary discipline. Indeed, it has by and large worked successfully for those countries participating, particularly since 1983.

The vital question is not so much membership itself as the resolve with which responsible financial policies are pursued. It is on this point that we must have doubts about the attitude of the right hon. Member for Hillhead and his party. They are very keen to join international organisations. They want us to join the exchange rate mechanism. Indeed, the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) was using language at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday that suggested they also wanted us to join OPEC.

In spite of that apparent enthusiasm for the exchange rate mechanism, it is clear that they would not be joining it in the same spirit as our other European partners. The other European countries have submitted to the discipline it imposed, and had significant success in reducing their inflation rates. Yet the Social Democratic party has revealed that this is not its intention at all. Its autumn statement published last year — a rare example of precision by a party that usually likes to leave its intentions as vague as possible—explained how it would manage the economy. It showed that the Social Democratic party expected, if its policies were implemented, inflation to rise to 7·5 per cent. in 1987. That makes it clear that the Social Democratic party regards the ERM not as a discipline against inflation but as a cover for its own inflationary public spending plans. As such a cover, of course, it would not work.

This Government may not have joined the exchange rate mechanism, but we have remained firmly committed to the principles of financial discipline which underlie it. We have chosen a different route to success against inflation, but one which has been equally effective. The average rate of inflation during this Parliament has been just over 5 per cent., which compares with an average of over 15 per cent. for the Labour Government of the 1970s. The prospect this year is for continued falls. We expect inflation to be below 4 per cent. in 1986.

This inflation record has been accompanied by a remarkable turnround in our growth rate, especially when compared with that of our European partners. For a decade from 1973 to 1982 we were consistently at the bottom of the European growth league. In 1983 we grew faster than any of our major European partners, we would have done so again in 1984 were it not for Mr. Scargill’s strike, and every indication is that in 1985 we shall once again be the fastest growing major European nation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg

My hon. Friend has told us that the Government are not opposed in principle to joining the EMS and that we shall do so when the time is right. Will my hon. Friend tell us what the conjunction of circumstances will be which will suggest to him when the time is right?​

Mr. Stewart

I am not going to offer my hon. Friend or the House a check list of circumstances because, as we have seen in recent weeks and days, circumstances of many kinds can change unpredictably and at short notice. The balance of judgment has to be made in the conditions of the time.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The hon. Gentleman has said that we in the alliance have perhaps misunderstood certain consequences of joining the exchange rate mechanism. Can the hon. Gentleman say succinctly—he has not yet done so—what disadvantages would affect this country if we joined?

Mr. Stewart

Greater fluctuations in the market in relation to sterling, to which I have already alluded, do create difficulties in operating any financial or monetary system. That is a point to which the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead drew attention. One has to take these questions into account. There are arguments both ways on this matter and one must take a balanced judgment.

The record of success which this Government have had, without being a member of the ERM amply demonstrates that it is commitment to sound finance and lower inflation which is the key to economic prosperity, rather than the fact of holding a club membership card in the exchange rate mechanism.

The judgment the Government have to make in relation to the exchange rate mechanism is not, as I emphasised at the outset, one of being for or against Europe. Nor is it one of being for or against international co-operation on exchange rates. Our participation in the Plaza agreement along with other major European countries, as well as the United States and Japan, amply demonstrates such cooperation. It is rather whether, bearing in mind the practical problems, membership of the exchange rate mechanism would provide a more effective and safer means of achieving our economic objectives than the strategy the Government have followed for the last six years. Membership of the exchange rate mechanism is not a panacea, nor is it the only option. There are no magic guarantees that it would reduce inflation by itself. Membership would be successful only if monetary and fiscal policies were appropriately firm.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I agree with the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) that this is an interesting and important debate. We have talked about whether we should join the ERM or the EMS. However, one of the great problems that we face in this part of the western world is that interest rates are at such high levels — higher than any level in the history of western Europe. America should co-operate and should cease sucking in vast sums of money because it is unwilling to balance its books — there is a $200 billion deficit. Unless we get the co-operation of the United States, whether we join the EMS or any other system, we and Europe as a whole face problems never faced before. We are all pulled down because of the United States’ unwillingness to get its own books and ship in the right order.

Mr. Stewart

I do not think I should be drawn into a disquisition on the United States fiscal and monetary policy. I certainly accept the point that the large ​ imbalances in the domestic economy and trade account of the United States have created conditions which have caused turbulence to the rest of the world.

The United States Administration addressed themselves to these problems more realistically in 1985—the Plaza meeting was evidence of that. The new attitude of Secretary Baker at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund shows that there has been an important shift in American perception of its domestic economy and the international implications of its policies. However, this does not remove the need for each country to deal with its own financial circumstances according to its own policies.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

My hon. Friend has just mentioned that the United States now has a more international perspective on these matters. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason for this debate is that early in the 1970s the United States broke the gold exchange window and agreed with other western countries to move into an era of floating exchange rates? Membership of the EMS is not the critical issue but the restoration of fixed interest rates based on convertibility of at least one currency—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

It cannot be convertibility to gold.

Mr. Browne

It used to be the gold exchange standard. The EMS is founded on a floating base. If we choose a fixed exchange rate—which is much more important—it must be done with at least one currency that can be converted into gold at a price to be agreed. Can my hon. Friend persuade the Americans that this is an urgent problem? Would my hon. Friend urge this factor, given the Americans’ new international perspective?

Mr. Stewart

I am not sure that I follow my hon. Friend’s analysis and argument. However, the era of floating exchange rates was not a perverse decision taken out of the blue in the 1970s. It was the consequence of increasing instability between a number of major economies under which the old system, under any circumstances, could not be maintained. That is a different cause. Ten years or more later, we are still grappling with the consequences. The major changes in commodity prices —of which oil is the main one—were bound up with this.

The Government have always said that they recognised the advantages that the exchange rate mechanism could offer in the way of providing a framework of financial discipline. It is not the only possible framework, as we have fully demonstrated, but, combined with the appropriate political commitment, it can indeed provide a method of reducing inflation. The considerations which I have discussed this afternoon suggest that, at present, sterling’s participation in the mechanism would not, on balance, be of benefit, although it is a question which is kept under continuous review.