It was 1992, Labour had recently lost the election and it was at a dinner party, not in Islington - the very phrase "Islington dinner party" seems to raise the blood pressure of otherwise rational persons to dangerously high levels - but in Clapham. The speaker was a well-known woman journalist, a former member of the SDP, of distinctly Europhilic tendencies. John Major, she said, was behaving appallingly. He had promised "Neil", meaning Mr Kinnock, a commissionership in Europe, but now he was going back on his word because of opposition inside his own party. It was too bad.
As things turned out, Mr Kinnock had to wait till 1995 for Mr Major to send him to Brussels. Before then, on the social occasion of which I speak, I found myself becoming slowly angry. Why, I asked, should Mr Major be in any way obligated to Mr Kinnock?
Mr Kinnock (I continued, warming to my theme) was a nice chap with whom I had sunk many a half- pint after London Welsh matches at Old Deer Park, Richmond. He was the best platform speaker in the country. Before Mr Peter Mandelson had tried to turn him into a statesman, he had even possessed a sense of humour as well. But there was no reason to suppose he was interested in Europe, still less knowledgeable about it.
The painstaking attention to detail required of a commissioner was the very quality in which Mr Kinnock had proved himself deficient. Why, in any case, should the post be one of the numerous pieces of patronage in the gift of the prime minister, to be distributed to those who had failed in or otherwise shown themselves ineligible for the struggle of British political life?
That is what I said, more or less. It failed to enthuse the company one way or the other. The subject of Mr Kinnock in relation to Europe found no further expositors. It was as if a libertarian had piped up at a meeting at the Department of Health, or someone had cast doubt on the story of Adam and Eve at a conference of Biblical fundamentalists. Nevertheless, that is what I thought then and think still.
Mr Kinnock, true, appears to have been a reasonably successful commissioner, despite his previous disinclination to immerse himself in small print. Air France, however, is still regarded as a branch of the French state and treated accordingly. Heathrow Airport is principally a place maintained for the convenience of British Airways. But it is not the object here to investigate European transport policy. On the question of principle my mind is unchanged. If commissioners are to be appointed rather than elected, which is by no means self-evident, it is wrong that they should be superannuated politicians.
Thus Mr Kinnock unjustly - inasmuch as justice comes into it - lost an election after leading his party for nine years. Sir Leon Brittan was the chosen victim of the Westland affair. Mrs Edith Cresson, after a brief spell as prime minister of France, was dismissed by her presidential lover, Francois Mitterrand. All three appointments shared a common cause: guilt. In Mr Kinnock's case, it was guilt at his rejection by the British people; in Sir Leon's, at his ejection by the anti-semitic 1922 Committee; and, in Mrs Cresson's, at her mistreatment by her lover. This is no way to run a Commission or even a sweetshop.
I would not wish to suggest that it is guilt which is always at the back of these appointment. Since 1973 the UK representatives, in chronological order, have been: Christopher Soames, George Thomson, Roy Jenkins (President 1977-81), Christopher Tugendhat, Ivor Richard, Arthur Cockfield, Stanley Clinton Davis, Leon Brittan, Bruce Millan and Neil Kinnock.
All of them were - those alive still are - personally as pure as the West Virginia snow. But they were all appointed for a variety of reasons, some less creditable than others. If in 1976 Lord Callaghan had sent Lord Jenkins to the Foreign Office, which is what the latter wanted, instead of back to the Home Office, which he did not want, he would probably have stayed inside the People's Party, the SDP would never have been founded and the history of the last two decades might have been very different. But not only are our commissioners Persil-bright: other, less happy lands, so we are given to understand, produce less brilliant specimens. As Belloc wrote:
The most degraded of them all
Mediterranean we call.
His hair is crisp, and even curls,
And he is saucy with the girls.
If, however, we are talking about the methods of appointment rather than the quality of the appointees, we have little of which to boast. It is not only our representatives in the Commission who are the beneficiaries of political jobbery. As Mr Tony Benn has been pointing out for not quite as long as I can remember - for I first knew him as the Hon Anthony Wedgwood Benn - our entire system of public administration is based on patronage. Whether one calls this "corrupt" or not is largely a matter of taste.
In 1997, for instance, Mr Tony Blair wanted a solicitor-general. He turned to his Islington neighbour and old friend from his early days at the Bar, Charles Falconer, then a QC earning a packet in commercial law. He was promptly ennobled because, for some reason which I have never been able to understand, the law officers for England and Wales have to be members of the one or other House, whereas the Scottish law officers do not. He was then promoted to the Cabinet Office and, without having once sullied his hands with a rude voter, is now in charge of the populist Dome. Similarly Lord Irvine is on the Woolsack because of his supervision at the Bar of Tony Blair and Cherie Booth.
So I could go on, but it would be tedious. Last week Mr Blair said that Mr Jacques Santer had to depart from the presidency of the Commission, Mr Kinnock and Sir Leon should be restored to pomp and power, while only first-class people should be appointed - whether to the presidency, the Commission or both was not wholly clear. What was clear was that he was not going to have any newfangled nonsense about election to the Commission or, indeed, anywhere else if he could help it. After all, if he will not allow democracy in my native land, what chance is there for Brussels?
It is certainly true, as the Europhile commentators wrote last week, that the European Parliament has deprived the Europhobes of one of their best arguments, about the lack of democracy (sometimes varied to "accountability") in the Community. It has shot their fox. But what is not true is what the Europhiles have also written: that it is they who have been frustrated by the phobes in their principled march towards democracy and accountability in Europe.
Come off it! The governments of the Community have been trying to move towards political union while consistently keeping power, as represented by the Council of Ministers and the Commission, in their own ministerial hands. There is no political equivalent of the new European Central Bank. Until there is one, political union or federation will remain so much pie in the sky.