Mr Hague must not turn our party into an irrelevance

The youthful coterie around the Tory party leadership needs to brush up on its history
I READ with great alarm the reports suggesting that William Hague is considering a shift towards greater scepticism in the Conservative Party's manifesto for the forthcoming European elections. This folly should be resisted. Nobody - least of all the voters who deserted us at the last general election - wants a return to the deplorable "diet of Brussels" campaign of 1989.

Personally, I regret the fact that many pro-European Conservatives are considering running against the official party lists. But they must not be ignored. The system of proportional representation breathes oxygen into minority parties and Mr Hague would be ill-advised to strike a stance which drives swathes of moderate Conservative voters away from our party, reducing our support still further. Such an approach would turn the Conservatives into an irrelevance and keep us out of power for longer than anyone has yet contemplated.

Still we hear voices in this country questioning both the logic of European integration and Britain's role within the Union. Predictably, Eurosceptics have seized on the revelations of fraud and the recent mass resignation of the European Commission as propaganda for their campaign.

I do not seek to defend those commissioners who were individually criticised by the Committee of Independent Experts. I wish neither to make light of the recent report nor to disguise the fact that there are more salutary lessons to be taken from this episode. But the Commission has long been a favourite target for those who disapprove of the entire European enterprise. Unlike those critics, however, the report did not challenge the fact that any enterprise of this sort requires a central body to work out draft proposals to put to the Council of Ministers, and to effect them once they have been democratically endorsed.

The protracted failure among the media and the public to understand what Europe is about has been one of the most dismal features of British foreign policy in the post-war era. Again and again some of our politicians and opinion-formers have convinced themselves that the European project can be diluted or dismantled. On each occasion Britain has had to face the fact that it has not been and cannot be.

In 1950 the Labour government said that the European Coal and Steel Community would not work and refused to join. How I still wish we had been in from the very beginning, but in 1950 I entered a House of Commons populated by those who saw no role for the UK in the momentous events taking place on the mainland of Europe.

In 1957 the Six signed the Treaty of Rome, to establish the European Economic Community. The Conservative government said it would not work, but once again it did.

In May 1960, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) was set up after a British initiative. We said that it would work so well that the Six would want to join us. We were wrong. Yet still we hear the pernicious myth spread by Eurosceptics that it was the European Community that was originally "only about free trade". For the record, Britain left EFTA in 1973 and EFTA was dissolved, with little publicity and a noteworthy absence of mourning, on 1 January 1995.

What do these mistakes tell us about the British approach to Europe since the war? Jean Monnet always thought that the British would join Europe when we saw that it was successful. He was quite right. In each of the cases above, the British began by saying that the project is utopian, that it will never come to fruition. Then we say that we will see how it works before we join. This always puts us in the position of joining a club when the rules have already been agreed without our participation. Even worse, we then spend our years as a member consumed with paranoia and self-doubt.

Without question, our accession to the European Community in 1973 was the lasting achievement of the government that I led in 1970-74. Whilst the Conservative Party should be very happy at this year's European elections to take the credit for that, I also think that more attention should be given to the policies pursued once accession was agreed.

Facing up to the challenges of dealing with industrial change and structural unemployment, for example, was first recognised as a Community responsibility during this period. We need to have a full range of positive policies to put before the electorate in June. No single-issue party has ever succeeded: the experience of the Referendum Party in May 1997 was the most recent proof of that.

It is too soon to judge whether the Blair government is sincere in its pledge to set a new course for Britain in Europe, although I recognise that the language and, to some extent, the substance, has improved. It haunts me that we still look set to repeat the same old mistakes over the single currency and I deeply regret that we did not adopt the euro on 1 January this year.

As the EU approaches the next century, the steady evolution towards greater integration will undoubtedly continue. The institutions and procedures of the Union need to be developed to accommodate a larger number of members. But the events in Kosovo reveal an even greater priority for the EU. The dominance of the US in the campaign against Slobodan Milosevic show the urgency for European leaders to influence the United States as one community, through an agreed foreign and defence policy. The comments by Romano Prodi on Sunday about a possible European army "years and years away" may have been controversial but this is an area that requires open discussion.

The current fighting in Kosovo at least shows how far the European Union has come since 1950. The process of European integration has survived many setbacks - the crisis of the empty chair in 1965, the oil crisis of 1973 and the resignation of the Commission in 1999. It has survived because of its sound political principles, which are still as relevant today as they were when Churchill was delivering his epoch-making speeches about European unity in the late 1940s.

They are principles which today's Tory leadership would be wise to adopt. No doubt, if Churchill were alive today, he too would be dismissed as one of "yesterday's men". But the decent Conservative values that he propounded, both domestically and internationally, are a priceless inheritance for our party and our country. The youthful coterie around the party leadership needs to brush up on its history.

This article is based on the 1999 Lasok Lecture delivered at Essex University last Friday