The Saturday Essay: After half a century, Blair could get it right in Europe

Tony Blair is the most instinctively European prime minister since Heath - and a good deal more adept
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The Independent Culture
THE BEST news of the last politically depressing month of 1998 was that Mr Blair might at last be prepared to take on the tabloids (and their honorary members in the shape of The Daily Telegraph and The Times) on Europe. He has good credentials for doing so. He is the most instinctively European prime minister since Edward Heath. He is also a good deal more adept a party leader than Heath ever was. Adeptness is a useful quality in leading opinion. But if it is allowed to become a way of life rather than a useful tool it can become a menace not an asset.

Mr Blair should remember that Heath's forthrightness, even if accompanied by a certain clumsiness, has made him almost the only prime minister of the past half century who has not had their reputation damaged (and in some cases their leadership destroyed) by equivocation on the European issue. Anthony Eden is widely regarded as the evil genius making the generosity of Churchill's fine late 1940s sentiments about a united Europe run into the dismal sand of Britain's standing aside from the Messina Conference which led to the Treaty of Rome. Harold Macmillan made a lunge forward but failed to convince de Gaulle of Britain's European vocation, which led to the General's veto beginning the rundown of Macmillan's Government.

Alec Douglas Home did nothing much, either good or bad, on Europe. Harold Wilson boxed several compasses on the issue, eventually walked backwards into a successful pro-European referendum, but nevertheless damaged both his reputation and his self-confidence by a zig-zag of equivocation on the issue. James Callaghan maintained Britain's offshore record by being the only one of the then Community of nine to refuse fully to join the European Monetary System.

Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act (thereby surrendering more sovereignty than was involved in the treaties of either Maastricht or Amsterdam), but then swung her handbag so ferociously, not only at the summits of Madrid and Milan, but also against Sir Geoffrey Howe and Mr Nigel Lawson, as to ensure her own downfall. Mr Major was simply pole- axed by the European issue. It ruined his Government and made him a figure without influence on the continent and a cork on the top of competing Tory waves at home.

So Mr Blair has plenty of warnings to hand. Despite the immensely strong position of his Government, both in Parliament and with the public, and his own dominance within it, there has been little hard progress to show on the British European front. A better mood has been created. Personal relations with the main European leaders are improved, and partly as a result progress has been made on one or two awkward peripheral issues. Furthermore, according to the latest poll, the overwhelming majority of the public have become convinced of Britain's inevitable participation in the single currency, and believe that this is already the Government's firm but unproclaimed intention.

All this may be regarded as progress, but it is not glorious progress. Inevitability is not the same as desirability, and practically no advance has been made towards creating the positive majority which, with the commitment to a referendum is essential to bring about the "inevitable'. Furthermore there is evidence of some resentment that the Cabinet is thought to conceal rather than to display its hand. That this should be so 20 months into the life of the most popular Government in recent political history is surely a story of wasted opportunity.

Even with Mr Blair's capacity for walking on water, and with Mr Hague's inability even to swim in it, the first 20 months are likely to be the most popular and therefore the most persuasive in the life of any government. It is, in my view, a great pity that a European referendum with a firm government lead was not held in the summer of 1998. With such a lead, provided it was pitched in positive and not apologetic terms, that soft hostility could easily have been dissipated and turned into a substantial "yes" majority, just as it was, starting from an even less favourable base, in the 1975 European referendum.

The moment was not seized and the result is not only a missed opportunity but Britain's sadly marginal position as the momentous European advance of this week-end unfolds itself. The City of London, still the strongest financial centre in Europe, will increasingly have to operate in a currency which we have not joined. We have an economy which successive Governments have for several years but with doubtful validity proclaimed to be the strongest in Europe. But we have a currency which, on its record over the past 40 years, should be one of the most eager to dissolve itself in a wider entity.

It is an amazing paradox that the Germans, who over this period have made the deutschmark into their most symbolic and valued national asset, a much more beneficent replacement for the Wehrmacht, should be willing to give it up in pursuit of a wider objective. In Britain, on the other hand, there is a pathetic attempt to erect the pound, which over this period has fallen from a value of 12 deutschmarks to one of less than three, into a national virility symbol.

What I find humiliating is not that we should contemplate merging this devalued currency but that we should once again, for at least the fourth time in post-war history, allow a great European initiative to go forward while standing on the sidelines and saying "we will join later if it works". Whatever else this may be, it is not an heroic stance. It is the equivalent, much despised in British traditional thought, of those Balkan countries, Romania or Bulgaria say, who in the two world wars have waited to see which side was winning before deciding with whom to ally themselves.

Detachment may be admirable if not wise when it is based on a splendid and determined isolation, a firm rejection in principle of ever getting mixed up in the enterprise. And it may be wise if not admirable if it leads to effective free-riding, getting the benefits without taking the risks. But if it leads to neither, but on the contrary to a weak and late entry with influence diminished, and to a markedly worse medium-term economic performance than those (Germany, Italy, Ireland) who take greater risks, it is surely unwise to go on with the procrastinating formula.

Cannot we learn from the errors we have made with the Coal and Steel Community in 1951, with the Economic Community in 1957, and with the European Monetary System in 1979? We always join in the end, but at the wrong time and on worse terms.

The excuse of successive governments has been special difficulties with British public opinion. This is nonsense. The trouble with Britain's hesitant and ineffective handling of its European policy has nearly always lain with the politicians and not with the public. The public, as in 1971 at the time of entry and 1975 at the time of referendum has been willing to respond to a strong political lead. It has rarely had one. This has been partly due to the rigidities of the British party system.

For at least the last 30 years there has always been a considerable pro- European majority in the House of Commons. But it has been a cross-party majority. And party whips and party machines hate cross-party majorities. They undermine their authority. As a result a clear European voice from Britain, from Wilson to Major, has been inhibited by a series of party games.

Now, however, this government has a clear one-party pro-European majority. The Tories may have dug themselves into an anti-European bunker which is more extreme and less constructive than anything since their opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. (And there is no Disraeli on the horizon who, having dug them in, has the flexible opportunism to dig them out.) But Tories in this Parliament do not greatly count.

The extra-parliamentary support of the old Europeans - Clarke, Heseltine, etc - will be crucial in a referendum, and their views should never be taken for granted, but under Mr Hague's managership they are firmly relegated to the substitutes' bench. The Liberal Democrats are solid on Europe. And so are the great majority of Mr Blair's cohorts. Labour anti-Europeanism (and that is one great achievement of the present leadership) has become an old people's club.

This parliamentary strength deprives the Government of many excuses. There is a lot to be said against landslide majorities, but at least they ought to provide a basis for courage. Courage in this context means taking the European issue head-on, that is to say explaining why it is a great integrationist venture, one of the most constructive in the history of the world, in which we ought to be proud to join with France and Germany (a partnership as beneficent as it is miraculous) in playing a leadership role; and not simply muttering that Europe is a rather unimportant affair, but that it is on the whole better that we should be in than out.

The claim that the British people have been misled into believing that Europe was only a narrow almost technical affair of trading arrangements is greatly exaggerated. The purpose from the beginning was abundantly clear. It was to use economic means towards a political end, and that end was to restore Europe to the position of prosperity and influence in the world which it had so wantonly thrown away in the two wars of 1914- 18 and 1939-45.

Nor was that object dodged by the pro-Europeans. I remember vividly the conversation that Edward Heath and I had immediately after the 1975 referendum. Between us, he as the Prime Minister who had taken Britain in and I as the president of the "yes' campaign, had probably addressed more meetings than anyone else, and we both agreed that, throughout the campaign, it was the political argument which "got' the audiences. On economics they listened politely. On the arguments about Britain's future place in the world, and how crucial Europe was to that, they became engaged.

Nonetheless I think there has sometimes been a dangerous tendency to stress how little Europe was likely to do rather than how important it might be. Excessive defensiveness is always a bad posture for victory. I have long regarded the politics of Europe as more important than the economics. The single currency is crucial, both because the single market is hobbled without it and because no country outside it can hope to play a central role.

It will of course involve some further degree of both political and economic integration. I do not believe that Europe will ever become the analogue of the United States. Integration will stop well short of that. But I think Europe can and should evolve a lot further and I am not fearful of this. My attitude is very like that of Churchill's to Anglo-American co-operation in 1940. He thought that Britain and America would become increasingly "mixed up". "For my own part," he added, "I do not view the process with any misgivings. I could not stop it if I wished. No one can stop it. Like the Mississippi it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on in full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broad lands and better days."

That quotation obviously raises the question of whether it should now be with America and not with Europe that we should seek closer union. Warm transatlantic relations have never been incompatible with Britain's involvement with Europe. On the contrary our stand-offishness towards Europe has been a fairly constant source of exacerbation in our relations with Washington. But I find it more difficult today to admire American politics than at any time in the past 60 years. Nor do I wish Britain to be a satellite, as with the United States it would inevitably be, as opposed to an equal with the leading partners, which can be our role in Europe.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, as President of the European Commission, 1977- 1981, helped launch the idea of monetary union in his Florence speech of 1977