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UK Politics

Inside Parliament : Peers heavily under the influence of Europe

Shortage of scepticism as Lords call on Government to get in step `Nationalist' bishop invokes common calling


Lord Jenkins of Hillhead yesterday appealed for a revival of the cross-party alliance which had given the Heath government its majority to take Britain into Europe.

Twenty years of "vacillation" had reduced Britain's influence in the European Union to its lowest point since joining in 1973, the leader of the Liberal Democrat peers said as he opened a debate on the need for the Government to play a positive role in the 1996 Inter- Governmental Conference.

Among the heavyweights taking part - Lords Howe, Richard, Cockfield and Callaghan - consensus was quickly achieved. One discordant note threatened with the name of Lord Tebbit at number nine on the list of speakers.

But the noble sceptic and former Conservative Party chairman did not take his place for the debate. His personal assistant told the Independent that Lord Tebbit was "overwhelmed" with work. He had intended to speak but had found himself under pressure meeting the deadline for his weekly column in the Sun.

Lord Jenkins probably had the Murdoch-owned Sun in mind, among others, as he echoed Sir Edward Heath's recent criticism of years of ministerial denigration of Europe magnified by a press which had very little stake in Britain.

As a result, the superficial public mood was much less favourable to Europe, Lord Jenkins, a former president of the European Commission, said. "If you go for a ride on a tiger you may end up, if not in Riga, then somewhere fairly unpleasant."

Reasserting the long-term goal of a single currency, Lord Howe of Aberavon, the former Tory Cabinet minister, said John Major must not pursue "some nationalistic resurrection of the past" at the IGC. "Why should we alone be so reluctant to abandon the emnities and hostilities of the past?" he asked. "Has Europhobia in some form made us so fearful even of the friendships of a wider world which all our partners are willing to embrace?"

When Lord Howe was Foreign Secretary nearly a decade ago, his loyal Minister of State was Linda Chalker. As Baroness Chalker, she is still there. Replying to the debate, she warned peers not to become "mesmerised" by the IGC. The Maastricht treaty had barely settled down and, by general consensus in Europe, it was "too early for major new departures".

Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers and a former EC commissioner, said nobody could seriously believe that if conditions were right in 1999 Britain should remain outside the single currency. "I can think of nothing more likely to put sterling under intense pressure." He shared Lord Jenkins' exasperation at ministers' attitude to other EU states. "It is perhaps time we started treating them as partners instead of regarding them with all of the warmth and eager anticipation that the east coast counties regarded the approach of the Vikings."

Another former EC commissioner, the Conservative Lord Cockfield, said the belief of some ministers and Tory MPs that the EU should be turned into "some form of glorified free-trade area" was "absolute nonsense". A core of countries were determined to go ahead with greater integration. The Government had to decide whether Britain was going to be part of that or marginalised.

The sceptic banner was raised by Lord Harris of High Cross, a pre-Thatcher Thatcherite who contrasted British classical liberalism with the Christian- socialist doctrine practised by continental Europe. The latter he equated with "corporatism, consensus, conformity, collectivism and corruption". Britain should stand by its guns and develop its different vision of Europe, he said. It was perfectly honourable not to be in the middle having to strike compromises. "There is nothing despicable about nationalism."

The Bishop of Sheffield, David Lunn, would have no quarrel with that last sentence, having described himself as a "fairly unreconstructed English nationalist" who occasionally murmured the Flanders and Swan couplet: "The English, the English are best, And I don't give a fig for all of the rest." But in a moving speech, he said his message to politicians was that they were all Europeans, with a common faith and common history. A loyalty to England need not weaken a loyalty to Europe, he argued. "We do well to remember that the word Anglo-Saxon wasn't really originally to set us who speak English against the rest of the world but was to remind us of our bonds with the other Saxons - the German Saxons."

Right Rev Lunn said recent history in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union illustrated "the terrible perils of a nationalism that says `my country right or wrong' ... and when I listen to our football supporters in Bruges or Dublin ... and, sadly, occasionally listen to our politicians, I think we are in terrible danger of the wrong sort of nationalism."

The facts did not bear out the claim to righteousness that nobody was dishonest in England but only in Europe, he said. "I long for us to be less afraid of Europe and more ready to give ourselves as English or British nationalists wholly to a way of living with our neighbours that recognises their distinctiveness and their individuality, but recognises too that we have a common calling."

In the Commons, the Prevention of Terrorism Act's provisions for extended dentention and exclusion orders were renewed by 314 votes to 212, and International Women's Day was marked by a debate on women's wages, with a call for tax relief on child care.

For the benefit of both sexes, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, made a point with the introduction of a no-hope Bill to create a commission to promote the health advantages of vegetarianism. Though a vegetarian, he was no food fascist: "If people wish to eat meat and run the risk of dying a horrible lingering, hormone-induced death after sprouting extra breasts and large amounts of hair, then of course it's entirely up to them."