PARIS -- Nicholas Ridley let a large and ravenous cat out of the bag by speaking of British fears of a Fourth Reich rising in Germany. The beast devoured poor Ridley, who resigned as Margaret Thatcher's minister of trade and industry over the weekend, and now stalks the Iron Lady herself.
Ridley had to go not because he contradicted his close friend Thatcher on Germany but because he disclosed her real views accurately and in great detail. She would not have used the lurid language of Ridley, but her own disdain for the new Germans and the power they amass was manifest in his words.
At one level, Ridley and Thatcher miss the point with their outdated views of the Germans. Europe is no longer military target or economic hinterland for the new Germans. Europe is a giant amusement park that exists for their pleasure.
Why jackboot your way down the Champs Elysees when you can afford to sit at Fouquet's and sip Chateau d'Yquem 1945 every night of the week? With the wealth and time needed to pursue leisure relentlessly, Germans now live out their traditional fantasy of ultimate satisfaction, which they formulate as being "as happy as God in France."
Ridley would have understood the amusement park factor if he had watched the World Cup soccer final in Rome. Delirous German fans thrust wads of deutsche marks at eager Italian ticket scalpers and took over the Rome stadium to cheer their national team on to victory. Here was a political epiphany, in living color on Europe's television screens, as players and spectators acted out the new Germanism.
History's final West German soccer team played a repellingly defensive game, waiting for its mercurial Argentine opponents to make a mistake. When it came, the Germans hammered in a penalty goal and then blocked any further action. It is the same strategy Bonn uses in the six-power negotiations on unification, stripped of the fog of diplomacy.
Another case in point: West German banks are normally quick to ward off foreign investment in German companies. But they have turned a blind eye to the apparently successful bid by Bernard Tapie, a French businessman with strong backing from the French government, to take over Adidas, the West German-owned financially troubled athletic goods firms. "I guess the Deutsche Bank does not see a running shoe factory that is losing money as vital to German interests," said one banker here. "Better to let the French handle jogging while they build Mercedes."
Ridley's remarks to The Spectator, London's lively journal of opinion, tell us more about his and Thatcher's view of Europe than about German intentions toward the continent. So does the remarkably indiscreet memorandum leaked in the British and German press over the weekend describing a March 24 brainstorming session Thatcher held at Chequers with six U.S. and British experts on Germany.
Like Ridley, the experts (as recorded on paper by Thatcher's private secretary and uncontradicted by the prime minister during the session) return repeatedly to the concept of "balancing" Germany's new power. "We've always played the balance of power in Europe," says Ridley. "It has always been Britain's role to keep these various powers balanced, and never has it been more necessary than now, with Germany so uppity."
Britain wants "a continuing American military presence in Europe," the group at Chequers concluded, "as a balance to Germany's power." The group also expressed its hopes for a democratic and peaceful Soviet Union, which "would be the only European power capable of balancing Germany."
The serious context of Ridley's outburst has gone largely unreported, since it could not compete with his colorful comparison of Helmut Kohl's economic "takeover" of Europe to Adolf Hitler's military campaigns. What set off Thatcher's intellectual soulmate was a discussion of possible British membership in the European Monetary System (EMS), the fixed band of exchange rates that has made the French franc and other European currencies satellites of the deutsche mark.
"The deutsche mark is always going to be the strongest currency" in Europe "because of their habits," Ridley said in arguing against British entry. Kohl "will soon be coming here and trying to say that this is what we should do on the banking front and this is what our taxes should be. . . . There could be a bloody revolution."
This sounds like a man who, losing an argument, falls back on emotion and predictions of disaster. The fact is that Thatcher's success in her next election battle now depends on Britain's joining the EMS late this year. The maneuver will enable her to keep the value of the pound up on exchange markets while easing downward the double-digit interest and 9.8 percent inflation rates that now ravage the economy.
EMS entry is also the only way to ensure that London remains Europe's financial center after 1992. To calm the revolt taking shape in her Tory party, Thatcher will want to pacify The City, as London's financial district is known. The lady, to coin a paraphrase, is not for losing.
Did Ridley, seeing all this coming, commit political suicide in the pages of The Spectator and get a load off his chest about the Germans in the process? It would take Sherlock Holmes to answer that one. But the result of this continuing flap is elementary: Ridley's effective and strong opposition in the Cabinet to British entry into the EMS is no more. Thatcher's aggressive anti-European stance is seriously weakened. Come autumn, it will be EMS u ber alles, including the British pound.