All rebels are rebellious, but some more than others

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ONE of our greatest historians, F W Maitland, said that what is now in the past was once in the future. We have had a referendum before on the European Community, the Common Market as it was called in those days. The parallels between Mr John Major's position today and Lord Wilson's 20 years ago are so numerous and so exact that we should be most unwise to assume that history was going to repeat itself. Still, it might.

For then, as now, the government was divided about Europe. The opposition was for it, with a few eccentric dissenters around the edges. But the governing party in the country was solidly against. The party in parliament was against also, though by a narrower margin. The cabinet, however, was in favour, by a majority of 16 to 7.

Of the cabinet minority, the best known were Mr Tony Benn, Lady Castle, Mr Michael Foot (who played little part in the campaign owing to illness) and Mr Peter Shore. Their equivalents today are Mr Jonathan Aitken, Mr Peter Lilley, Mr Michael Portillo andMr John Redwood. Whatever the comparison between the two groups in terms of what the civil servants call "ability", the Labour dissenters contained three of the best public and parliamentary speakers of the entire post-war period. They were supplementedby Mr Enoch Powell, who was, however, like Mr Foot, more subdued in the campaign, though for a different reason: he had ceased being a Conservative in February 1974 and was now Ulster Unionist MP for Down South.

This luxury of oratorical talent availed nothing. It was overwhelmed by the forces of respectability, led by Lord Jenkins and Sir Edward Heath. They were reinforced by Lords Callaghan, Whitelaw and Wilson - and by Lady Thatcher. By 67 per cent of the electorate to 33, respectability defeated the left and the cranks (as the anti-European leaders were, not unfairly, then seen by the public).

The phrase of the time - coined by Sir Edward, and taken up by Lord Wilson - was "full-hearted consent" to Europe. The result, the Guardian said, was "full-hearted, wholehearted and cheerful-hearted". The Times was equally pleased: "Of course it is a wonderful result. There is no point in trying not to be happy on one of the few genuinely fortunate days that Britain has had in recent years."

The question was whether the United Kingdom should stay in or leave the Common Market under the allegedly new terms negotiated by Lord Callaghan after Labour's return to office in 1974. Though there was a move in some quarters, when the form of the referendum was being discussed, for a multi-choice question, the government decided on a question with a "yes" or "no" answer. At that stage we had been three-and-a-half years in the Community (as it now is, despite the linguistically propagandist endeavour to transform it into a Union). Withdrawal may not have been a realistic option but - though we should have been as much in breach of the Treaty of Rome in 1975 as in 1996 or 1997 - it was an option of some kind.

Whether it is more or less of one now is a matter of opinion. Mr William Cash, who is not one of those members who have been deprived of the whip, likes to think of himself as a good European, opposed to federalism in the future and to the excesses of Brussels in the present. Others would like us to be out of the Community altogether. I wrote last Sunday that the rebels did not form a cohesive group. On Wednesday eight of them abstained in the vote about giving Spanish fishermen rights to operate in British waters. Mr Michael Carttiss, however, voted against.

This makes Mr Carttiss the most rebellious Tory rebel. He has two votes against the Government, the other having been cast in the VAT division. A Suffolk schoolmaster who has sat for Great Yarmouth since 1983, he is usually described as "obscure". This is unfair. As Randolph Churchill once remarked in the course of a dispute with one of his editors, who had accused him of being less than wholly lucid: "To the obscure, all things are obscure." In November 1992 Mr Carttiss gained temporary fame after bein g led up the garden path by Mr Major to support the Government in the Maastricht `Paving' vote. Two years previously he had intervened in Lady Thatcher's last Commons speech, after she had lost the leadership of her party, saying: "Cancel it. You can wip e the floor with these people."

The second most rebellious members are Mr Tony Marlow and Mr Richard Shepherd, who both voted against VAT on fuel. Mrs Teresa Gorman, who - simply because she happens to be a woman - is being misleadingly written up in the cheap press as the leader of the rebels, is a consistent abstainer. So are Mr Christopher Gill, Sir Teddy Taylor and Mr John Wilkinson, who sits for Ruislip and is the only dissenter to be in trouble with his local association. Sir Richard Body voted with the Government in the European division and went on to deprive himself of the whip as an act of reparation and contrition; while Mr Nicholas Budgen voted the same way in the VAT division to demonstrate his independence and bloodymindedness.

Whether or not these people can agree about a referendum, the members of the cabinet do not. Mr Douglas Hurd is a late convert. He is opposed by Mr Kenneth Clarke and Mr Michael Heseltine. Mr Aitken, a fully paid-up Europhobe, though he keeps quiet aboutit, is in favour of a referendum. So is Mr Michael Howard, who inclines to the same view on Europe, about which he keeps even quieter. Mr Major is coming round in little steps of which Lord Wilson would have been proud.

He could solve most of his own problems with his party by saying now that the UK would refuse to participate in a single currency. He has made no such pledge. After the Maastricht triumph ("game, set and match") which he and his press advisers claimed atthe time, he promised that the question of the single currency would be decided by the House of Commons. This almost implied a free vote. Naturally, Mr Major did not mean anything of the kind but, rather, a decision by the Cabinet followed by a whipped vote.

The opt-out protocol to the Maastricht Treaty recognises that "the UK shall not be obliged or committed to move to the third stage of economic and monetary union without a separate decision to do so by its government and Parliament". Presumably this would not preclude a referendum before such a decision. But it would almost certainly have to come after the intergovernmental conference of 1996.

Mr Tony Blair has suggested that a general election can be an adequate substitute. This is not so, even when the parties disagree about the answer to the question being asked. For elections are about many matters. Foreign affairs do not usually figure prominently among them. In 1975 the parties agreed and the dissenters were crushed - for a time. Mr Major may be manoeuvring for the same result in 1996-7, followed by a quick election.