Lessons of History: Labour continues Russian roulette on Europe: As the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill approaches, David Caute looks at the alliance of nationalists of the left and right

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SEALS to the Maastricht treaty temporarily lie in the joint custody of the Labour Party and the Tory rebels - an unholy alliance of ancient pedigree. During the 1975 referendum campaign, which culminated in a two-to-one popular vote in favour of British membership of the 'Common Market', the Evening Standard published a cartoon by Jak, depicting Labour left-wingers Peter Shore, Tony Benn, Ian Mikardo and Michael Foot, with Enoch Powell, the prophet of a racial doomsday, leading a 'Get Britain Out' march, followed by a phalanx of weirdos, National Fronters, Nats, Orangemen and Maoists. In those days of passionate contention and spectacular division within the Labour Party, Mr Benn and Clive Jenkins, the white- collar trade union leader, were not shy of making common cause with Mr Powell. The common cause was national sovereignty.

Labour's European posture has always been influenced by partisan considerations. By 1969, Britain had twice applied to join the European Economic Community - once under Wilson in 1967 - and twice been turned down by France's President de Gaulle; but as soon as Edward Heath, Tory Prime Minister from 1970-74, renewed the application, with the fervour of a true believer, Labour decided it did not want anything he wanted. The pretext was the terms and conditions of entry; Harold Wilson and James Callaghan sailed with the party wind, but in reality the grass roots mood of rejection was fundamentalist. Had not Roy Jenkins, the deputy leader, and 68 other Labour MPs defied the whip, with 20 more abstaining, the Parliamentary Labour Party and 39 Tory rebels would have scotched Heath.

Four years later Mr Wilson recommended continued membership after minor renegotiations of the terms. It was the Tories who carried him through, while 145 Labour MPs said No and a further 33 abstained. Following the Labour conference of 1976, which voted against direct, popular elections to the European Parliament, 'a major step towards the merging of this country in a new superstate', the Callaghan government needed Tory support to shepherd the European Assembly Elections Bill through the Commons.

Partisan tactics apart, the left's resistance to 'Europe' has been ideological. Europe provides a symbolic playing field for the debate about national economic policy. Today, as in the 1960s and 1970s, the European Community's commitment to capitalist or monetarist strategies offers the left a stick with which to beat Labour leaders. Although the island-utopia of socialism in one country has been off the agenda since 1976, the current anti-Maastricht stance of Bryan Gould, Peter Hain and Ken Livingstone is reinforced by the parallel conviction that the Smith-Brown economic strategy has strayed too far from Keynes and the public-spending policies of the New Deal towards a balanced budget, a stable currency and supply-side economics.

In the mid-Sixties Mr Wilson came under fire from Cabinet colleague Barbara Castle for heading towards Europe as a diversion from a socialist strategy at home. The EEC application, she said, 'flowed logically from our decision to give priority to the defence of sterling; from our refusal to try and make a controlled economy, based on import controls and . . . an incomes policy'.

A decade later the Bennites mounted a more ferocious attack on Mr Wilson, Mr Callaghan and Denis Healey, the Chancellor. At that juncture No to the Common Market was synonymous with Yes to the alternative economic strategy, involving heavy state intervention in large companies through a National Enterprise Board. 'We are conniving at the dismemberment of Parliament,' Mr Benn told the Cabinet. 'The Community is nothing but a capitalist club.' He complained that 'metrication has made me an alien in my own country'. When he was shown the proposed Euro passport, he had 'an absolute gut reaction that this was selling our birthright for a mess of unemployment'.

The Labour left's ideological suspicion of the EC has been underpinned by a cultural sentiment extending to all quarters of the party. The old Third World idealism - Ghana, Tanzania, etc - has never travelled comfortably down to Sicily. Labour's internationalism has been historically interwoven with the reverse paternalism, the inverted patriotism, of the post-imperial mission. Europe was uncomfortably close, torn between communism and Catholicism - and once possessed rival empires of its own. In 1962 Hugh Gaitskell united the party, after furious rifts over the bomb and clause 4, by rejecting the Common Market in the name of the Commonwealth and 1,000 years of history.

This touched a solid layer of Labour geology. 'I prefer Nehru to Adenauer or even to de Gaulle,' A J P Taylor, the historian, remarked. Professor Richard Titmuss, the social welfare expert, recalled how Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian leader, had asked him whether Britain was about to join 'the rich man's club', the EEC. Kenneth Tynan, the critic, dismissed the Common Market as 'small minded'; nothing but 'internationalism on a global scale' would do. Playwright John Osborne wanted none of this 'Common Supermarket jargon and high-minded greed . . . its ugly, chromium pretence'. Labour's most perseverant Europhobe, Mr Shore, could always raise a conference cheer by complaining that we were paying through the nose to subsidise French and Italian peasants who had failed to achieve the efficiency of - one assumes - the great, capitalist farms of East Anglia.

Obsessed by food prices, the balance of payments, the need for import controls and the prospective flight of capital within the EEC's open market, the Labour Party of the Sixties and Seventies remained largely indifferent to the democratic dimension of the Community - the refusal to admit the Greece of the Colonels, Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal. But the Iberian democrats and socialists were not indifferent; for them the EEC's democratic entry-fee was the best guarantee that the bourgeoisie of southern Europe would finally dispense with the comforts of Falangist dictators and military juntas. Turkey's frail democracy would today be a great deal frailer but for the golden egg of future EC membership.

Under Michael Foot's bizarre leadership the Labour manifesto of 1983 called for outright divorce between Britain and the EEC. Yet Labour has never before embraced Europe with such sweet fervour as it has since 1988. In that year the TUC Congress, the battered spouse of a dissolved government-union partnership, welcomed Jacques Delors, the French socialist president of the European Commission, as Frere Jacques. Madame Europe was definitely preferable to Mrs Thatcher, whose famous Bruges diatribe had equated supranational federalism with the nanny-state she had disposed of in Britain. The lesson was clear: nannies of Europe, unite] In the late-Kinnock era of user-friendly doorstep smiles, Labour went camping in the Dordogne: red wine, red roses, pink federalism.

In 1989, the affair burst into a singing wedding when the Euro-elections granted Labour an experience almost forgotten: a victory. Suddenly there were 45 Labour MEPs hopping between Brussels and Strasbourg - though only a decade earlier the Labour Party had condemned direct elections to the European Parliament as a dire threat to British sovereignty. But European socialists, although delighted by the conversion, remain wary of suspect kisses from a swivelling mouth.

Last November the party staged its first Eurofest under the great Dome in Brighton, enthusiastic delegates hurrying from one hotel to the next, French rolls and brie in hand, to hear the MEPs and the new breed of Euro whizzkids explaining Maastricht, democratic deficits, convergence, transnational structures, twinnings and the super new EuroSoc Party. It was like the Grand Tour all in a weekend and Labour's Euro enthusiasts had at last come out of hiding to gaze across the Channel from the promenade and pier. One chap was so transported that he stood up under the Dome and apologised for speaking in English.

But there were specks of grit in the escargots. The leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, the elegant Jean-Pierre Cot, sternly warned us in his immaculate English to 'stop playing Russian roulette with Maastricht'. Earlier that week Labour had taken the Major agenda for Maastricht to within three votes of defeat on the bizarre technicality known as the paving motion. Cot knew that there were plenty more bizarre technicalities coming up in the parliamentary pipeline - and indeed now, five months later, the Russian roulette is drawing blood.

The armoured column of Labour heavyweights parading under the Dome were far more interested in mutilating Major and anathematizing Ashdown - one could never have a cup of tea with a Liberal again - than in the Euro-topian perspectives of 'Delors Two' or the joys of a single currency. In spite of a few token, transnational genuflections, it was clear that for Labour, the map of Europe still looked uncannily like the map of Britain. The regional and structural funding heading in this direction arouses more interest than extra Convergence Fund money for the Greeks, Portuguese and Irish out of our pockets. The stout oaks of the constituency parties - who share the general preference of an urban nation for industrial subsidies over agricultural ones - generally stayed away from the Europe conference. They were waiting in the committee rooms with counter-resolutions and points of order for the Euro-snobs who almost invariably favour proportional representation, a bill of rights, an end to the union bloc vote - all that gerrymandering with British heritage and tradition.

These fissures are not simply about policies; they also touch a raw social nerve. Observing the emergence of the SDP in the early Eighties, who could doubt that it was attractive to the fast-lane middle class partly because it provided a relatively streamlined, one member-one vote forum for advancement? You could join on Monday and address the annual conference on Saturday. The EC likewise appeals to the mobile, professional middle class because it offers rapid promotion without tedious service inside the labyrinthine pyramids of the Labour Party. Many constituency Labour party activists regard the new generation of Euro-kids as SDP-ers in drag, floating off into their own Euro-space, Euro-chattering about the 'democratic deficit', 'qualified majority voting' and 'convergence'.

The loyal Labour members who knuckle down to fight the Tory cuts, closures and redundancies suspect that Euro-Maastricht is becoming a fantasy substitute for concrete action on behalf of the unemployed, the exploited, the under-educated, the defeated of our own society. Can the Labour MEPs (29 out of 45) who urged support for Maastricht, even without the social chapter, really believe that by scrambling into the bankers' belly they might one fine day leap out and take prisoner the job-cutting multinationals?

This point of view has been on the rise within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Even the pro-Maastricht majority express misgivings about the treaty's emphasis on price stability and deflation, its ban on high government deficits, its insistence that currencies must qualify for monetary union within the exchange rate mechanism. What distinguishes the present crisis from the great Common Market battles of the 1970s is that Labour, defeated in four successive general elections, is tempted to believe that it has a fractured Tory government by the throat. In spite of the party conference's support for Maastricht, to have Major's head Labour would not only toss the treaty into the Channel, it would seize Calais. As the Government's frailty is exposed on the amendments, a Third Reading showdown becomes beguiling. In that event, a modest but saleable Dutch painting called Maastricht will abruptly be declared a fake.

But here Mr Smith faces a dilemma. Since he disposed of Bryan Gould in the leadership election, his personal commitment to Maastricht has become a casus belli for the Socialist Campaign Group and sections of the Tribune Group strongly critical of the Smith-Brown economic strategy. Mr Gould's opposition to the treaty evokes loud echoes of Mr Benn's No to Europe 20 years ago. The treaty is a 'permanent victory by bankers over democrats'; it is a blueprint for a 'unitary European super-state'; economic and monetary union will mean full political union, 'centralised, unitary, exclusive, committed to financial orthodoxy'. As in 1975, left and right coalesce to besiege the pragmatic Euro-centre.

Mr Smith cannot 'do a Gaitskell' and paste over the party's enduring divisions by appealing to 1,000 years of history - it is too late, the single market is in place, the Commonwealth has slipped into oblivion and the curtain is coming down on the millenium of the nation state. John Smith himself has said as much. He will be wise to remain loyal to his convictions and to buy this flawed and flaking Dutch painting for future socialist refurbishment.

David Caute, historian and novelist, has recently completed a biography of Joseph Losey, the film director, to be published by Faber in January.

(Photograph omitted)