But we are good Europeans . . .: David Howell argues that the split over Maastricht can still end in Tory unity

AS THE Maastricht debate has dragged on it has made good copy to suggest that the wounds in the Tory Party run too deep ever to be healed. Now, with an end in sight to the Committee stage of the Maastricht Bill, it is even suggested that the party is heading for an outright split, a repeat of the 1840s split over the Repeal of the Corn Laws - with William Cash presumably in the role of the virulent young Disraeli and John Major as an unyielding Robert Peel.

This is all good historical stuff, but the analogies are quite invalid. The Maastricht differences need do no lasting damage to the party at all because the points at issue are tactical, not strategic.

The Conservative Party is the party of Europe, but it has never been the party of Maastricht. From the very start, in the mid-Eighties, it tried - albeit ineptly - to resist the processes leading up to Maastricht. Then, when the treaty happened none the less, it sought - with a little more success - to insulate the UK from the worst of its effects.

Most of the doubters - barring a few incorrigible Europhobes whom nothing will bring onside - are firmly in line with the bulk of their colleagues. They are also in line with a good and growing part of European opinion. The only real question, which has been obscured by the black-and-

white presentation of the struggle at Westminster, is whether Britain walks off the crumbling Maastricht stage now, or whether we agree to stick with the formalities of the Maastricht process while seeking to reshape Europe on better and more up-to-date lines as soon as the ratification phase is over - assuming that the Danes do not reject it anyway on 18 May.

It is a nice point of diplomatic judgement. My own preference is to stay in there since events are moving in the right direction so fast anyway. But it would be absurd to let a second- order argument of this kind create permanent divisions in Conservative ranks.

Provided the whips take care to avoid encouraging victimisation and parliamentary business managers keep some of their over-zealous henchmen on the leash, there is no reason at all for the affair to do permanent harm.

Generalised pleas for unity will make little impact. By far the best way to make the Government's case, while keeping rancour to a minimum, is to emphasise the alternative directions for Europe which the Government intends to pursue post-Maastricht - and to do so not hesitantly but with confidence and promptitude.

The style is crucial. An apologetic and defensive approach to the new thinking that is so plainly and urgently required, both in relation to the constitution and the overall priorities of the Community,reassures no one. Indeed, it tends to confirm the view of the dedicated anti-

Europeans that Britain is always going to be dancing to other people's tunes in the Community.

We British need a whole change of attitude, and with it a change of language and expression. For four of the five post- war decades we have been conditioned to the sensation of being outvoted and left behind. There have been good reasons and harsh statistics to support this. From this has naturally followed the feeling that others would always be setting the European agenda - as indeed the Germans and French did all the way up to the 1991 Maastricht meeting.

But the Europe of today is a vastly different place from the Europe of 1991, and the reasons for Britain to feel like a nervous junior partner in somebody else's successful show have now evaporated.

This is not to say that now is the time for the British, in their usual maddening way, to shake their heads at these volatile Continentals with their unstable politics, utter a few pious sermons on democracy and turn towards the open sea. We should surely know by now where that kind of cop-out leads.

But with the Germans, who were supposed to be the anchormen of Europe, in their present state of angst, introspection and uncertainty, with France undergoing a political earthquake, with Italy in a political black hole, with the foundations of Belgium shaking, with Spanish disillusion growing and with even applicant states such as Austria running into problems and Sweden drowning in economic woes, this really is the time to see who are Europe's true friends. Certainly, it is high time for positive Europeans, such as the Conservatives must be, to advance their ideas for a stronger, more flexible and more subtly architectured Europe that will be capable of meeting the strains to which it will be increasingly subjected. There are fewer and fewer people left to offend if we speak out (even if some remain very prominent) and many, many friends and allies to be helped, encouraged and given a new sense of European direction. If, following Greater Serbia, the next unfolding horror is Greater Russia, as could easily happen, the need for a new sense of European confidence and direction will be all the greater.

Now is not a moment too soon to begin preparing for a new constitutional settlement in Europe in 1996. We can start to buildfrom here on the foundations - and the rubble - of the Maastricht effort.

To start with, we should draw an editorial pencil through the existing treaties to delete all those patronising phrases about power being graciously delegated and decisions brought closer to the people. Whoever drafted these texts clearly believes that the Community stands at the apex of a hierarchy of power, some of which may, by and by, be generously handed back down to the nation states.

The next treaty must be drafted by those who understand that the issue is about power being devolved to, not from, the Community institutions and that the amount and types of this power are not matters for Community bodies to decide.

The new drafters may or may not want to stick with the word 'subsidiarity', but its meaning must be up-ended. The question must become which issues and powers the member states wish to delegate to the centre, not the other way round, and how those wishes can then be constitutionally entrenched to prevent further unwanted and inefficient centralisation.

These are the concepts and mechanisms which should lie at the heart of Douglas Hurd's 'design for a decentralised Europe'. The task of putting them in place ought to reunite the whole Tory party, except the very few at either extreme of the issue: those who believe Maastricht is perfect and that everything coming from the Elysee or Bonn must be followed, and those who believe that Britain will always be outwitted and should steer clear of the Community altogether.

I believe that most Tories, from the leadership down, reject this unholy alliance, which is rooted in utter defeatism about Britain's ability to change Europe's direction. If they want to stop this defeatist virus spreading and dividing the Conservatives, however, the political leaders will have to seize the intellectual initiative on Europe.

Last time we dithered, sensed that something was wrong with the rush to Maastricht and held back, letting Germany and France make all the running. For the race to 1996 we are in better training and actually have a view of how it should be run. We might even win it. Let us at least start from the view that we can do so.

David Howell is Conservative MP for Guildford and chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.

(Photograph omitted)