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How to tell a real issue from a red herring

Alan Watkins on politics
Over the past few months various commentators - the kind who never feel the need to set foot inside the Palace of Westminster - have been drawing a distinction between bogus issues and real issues. The latter are supposed to be matters which engage the interest and, sometimes, the passion of what are called ordinary people: they include housing, education, the health service and, above all, taxation. The former are supposed to be matters which fascinate politicians and those who write about them but bore everybody else: they include parliamentary corruption (or "sleaze" as it is superfluously called), foreign policy, constitutional and electoral reform and, above all, the European Community in general and the single currency in particular.

This is the latest example of what the French savant Julien Benda (1867- 1956) called la trahison des clercs, "the treachery of the intellectuals". The new realists, of whom Mr Tony Benn was an early example, are in reality patronising those very people whose interests they claim to have so much at heart. They are guilty of populism, of political philistinism and of pandering to understandable public ignorance. Why try to explain the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement when you can talk about taxes instead?

Taxation is supposedly a real issue. Northern Ireland would presumably count as one as well. It would certainly be placed well above constitutional reform in any list of so-called issues whose importance was ranked by the opinion poll industry. I write "so-called", a tedious habit generally, because "issue" is now used to mean any subject under the sun in which either party takes a fleeting interest and which occupies the airwaves for more than 12 hours. As Mr Tony Blair put it rather depressingly to a recent meeting of regional MPs, until the election Labour are engaged in "hand-to-hand fighting for the news agenda of the day".

Northern Ireland is not an issue. It is not even a pretend issue, as the health service will shortly become if Mr Blair intends, as has been reported, to adopt government policy over fundholding doctors. I define an issue as follows. I may say - without, I hope, undue offence to modesty - that it is as serviceable a definition as I have come across. An issue is an area of policy or practice where there is a disagreement between the parties which is, first, claimed by them and, second, recognised by others as a genuine disagreement.

Thus Northern Ireland is a subject, a topic, a cause of embarrassment all round, certainly a problem. Mr John Major is trying to make political capital out of it. But that does not turn it into an issue. Mr Blair would not be doing anything different; or so he constantly assures the House. Northern Ireland is certainly part of the general question of constitutional reform, though the political parties, the participants and the papers do not choose to present it as such. Ireland, we are always being told, is "different".

So it is. Indeed, the whole notion of the United Kingdom is a constitutional fraud, for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have, in decreasing order of independence, always been treated differently by the Westminster Parliament. Today Northern Ireland does not divide the parties, even though (a quite different matter) nobody may know what to do about it. By contrast, Labour's projected Parliament in Scotland and Assembly in Wales - note that my native land is being discriminated against yet again - are genuine issues. If everyone is bored by them, that does not make them any the less so.

After all, everyone was bored stiff by the poll tax to start with. Local government finance is never the most alluring of subjects. Only about three people understand it. Labour mentioned the new tax just once in their 1987 campaign, in a television broadcast by Dr Jack Cunningham. The only other Labour figure of any consequence to realise its implications was - this may surprise you - another Jack, Mr Straw. And yet it was the cause of the worst English rioting of the 20th century, which extended as far as Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. It also brought about the fall of a Conservative Prime Minister. I know people say that Lady Thatcher's hostility to Europe, as exemplified by her famous "No. No. No", was also a cause of the Great Fall. It was important only in so far as it activated Lord Howe's resignation and his resignation speech. It was the poll tax that did for her.

This conveniently brings us to Europe today. It is indeed a bogus issue, as the new realists claim. It is so, however, not for the reasons they give - that the voters are bored by and do not understand it - but because the parties are in agreement about the single currency: the more so since Mr Blair's emulation of Mr Major's promise of a referendum before we enter it. If there are differences, they are not going to tell us about them before the election.

Admittedly Mr Blair supported the demand of the Tory rebels, who came from both the Europhobe and the smaller Europhile sections of the party, for a debate on the single currency. We may still have one, despite Mr Kenneth Clarke's successfully emollient statement last Monday. He has had a good week. The rebels wanted the debate partly to embarrass the Government but mainly to reassert the powers of Parliament over the Executive.

We are not so cynical in this column as to allege that this noble objective was wholly absent from Mr Blair's mind either. But what he really wanted to do was cause trouble for Mr Major, not least because there was a clear possibility of a government defeat in any preliminary vote on whether the debate should be held at all. In such a debate Mr Blair was almost certainly correctly confident that Labour's ranks would be more disciplined than the Government's.

I find myself ambivalent about Labour's historically unparalleled feat of self-control. I am admiring because I can remember the time when the party tore itself to pieces over items of nuclear hardware which its members did not understand and would not, in any event, be called upon to operate. Schoolteachers who could not mend a fuse at home would discourse learnedly on Skybolt. Miners who could, but preferred to leave it to the wife, and had never handled anything more complicated than a power drill, would pronounce even more passionately on Polaris.

Maybe the Euro is more intellectually demanding than the atom. For whatever reason, the party has behaved with greater restraint than it did both over nuclear weapons and, later, over our membership of what was then the Common Market. And yet, despite Mr Clarke's Budget, Labour is still more likely than not to form the next government. We are surely entitled to know more about that government's attitude towards a single currency than Mr Gordon Brown is prepared to divulge. It may not be an issue between the parties.It is unquestionably the most important subject with which any government will have to deal.