Our party is a broad church. Let's keep it that way
How could everyone with free-market principles have the same view on the timing of entry into EMU?
Wednesday 09 June 1999
Nor could he have done otherwise. If a party has a central membership, it cannot be extended to those who actively campaign for the defeat of its official candidates. That, after all, is the example followed in local associations when Conservative membership was entirely local. If you stood against the Tory choice in a local election, you normally found your membership terminated.
Exactly the same principle has been applied to those who worked for the Referendum Party in the last election, and to those who stand for the Pro-Euro Conservative Party in these European elections. William Hague is establishing nothing new. He is properly applying the consequence of having a national party membership.
Indeed, it was the intended consequence. The Hamilton affair (disgraceful though the Parliamentary procedure was) highlighted the inability of the Tory Party to sack anyone, however embarrassing their conduct. Only the local Association could do that. National membership was therefore seen as a necessary part of any reform. Now that it is in place, it would be impossible not to apply the long-standing principle that, even in as broad a church as the Conservative Party, no member can properly campaign for any other political party.
In a real sense, this is a protection of that broad church. It ensures that we can have the widest possible debate and represent a necessarily broad spectrum of opinion. Nevertheless we must be at one in elections, in preferring a Conservative candidate above all others. Indeed, apart from particular incidents of moral or criminal delinquency, this is the only test of fitness which party membership entails. By insisting upon this we make plain that, this apart, there is absolute freedom for Conservatives to hold and voice their views. So we contrast pretty starkly with New Labour, where the control freaks have won the day.
Nowhere is that freedom more important than on European issues. There is genuinely and properly a national debate about the euro, as there is about almost every aspect of our relationship with our nearest neighbours. It would be unthinkable that that debate should not be reflected within the Conservative Party. How could it be true that everyone who holds free- market principles would have exactly the same view about the timing of our entry into a single currency.
In that debate we do need to be talking as colleagues and not as opponents. The party needs a John Redwood as it needs a Michael Heseltine. They are the proper guarantors that the broad church has not degenerated into a sect. William Hague recognises that, and it explains why he both emphasises that the euro has to be tested in good times as well as in bad, and insists that we could not rule out membership for ever. That is not just a compromise, it is a proper reflection of the situation in Britain today.
Of course, Hague is under pressure by absolutists on either side. Yesterday's letter to The Times by Conservatives attracted by the Pro-Euro candidates is the mirror of those so often published by The Daily Telegraph, which insist that we should vote for parties who want to withdraw from Europe altogether. Both sides press the leadership to espouse their position as a means of gaining power. Yet neither stance is a proper one for a Conservative.
Clearly, to propose a future for Britain outside the EU would be economically, historically, culturally and geographically nonsense, and would consign any party who espoused it to permanent opposition. Yet to suggest that we should join the euro come what may, with no consideration of rates, terms, conditions or timing, makes no sense either. Being in favour of the European ideal does not mean you have to sign up to its every manifestation on every occasion, favourable or not.
The problem with the debate is that we are constantly polarised. What is important is the language and the tone. "In Europe, not run by Europe" is a perfectly proper slogan as long as we recognise that both halves of the proposition have equal weight. We must not allow the absolutists to run off with either bit, ignoring the other.
Britain is permanently committed to our membership of the European Union and wants it to succeed. Our place there was forged by Conservatives, and the nature of the union has been fundamentally changed by Conservatives. Mr Heath took us in and one of Mrs Thatcher's lasting memorials will be the single market, with all the changes in European law which that implied. Of course, we have made it harder for ourselves because we did not join up at the beginning. Attlee and Eden bear a heavy responsibility for having allowed Britain to miss out on the original Common Market. A Europe originally built for seven and not six would have been better today.
Yet that does not mean we should avoid being tough about the radical changes that are needed now. Not being run by Europe implies that Britain does not intend to be rolled over by others. We need to give notice that we shall be fighting for an open Europe and against protectionism; that we are not federalists but believe in subsidiarity and the nation state; that we will retain ultimate control of our taxation. These stipulations are made not because we are anti-European, but because we are Conservatives. We do not want a bloated European structure any more than we want a bloated British system. We believe in small government as a political principle, and it applies universally.
The national equivalent of our European slogan is "Committed to Britain, but not to being bossed about by British Governments". It's the traditional Conservative slogan and I, as a believer in Britain's European destiny, will be voting for it.
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