Conscience is still for hanging and God, not EMU

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
I Ended this column last week by saying that declarations by Conservative candidates (as distinct from members of the Government) opposing United Kingdom membership of a single European currency need cause Mr John Major no concern. He had already promised several times that the question would not be for the government but for the House of Commons. That implied - more, it entailed - a free vote in the House. I added that I had no idea what Mr Tony Blair thought but should be very surprised if he chose to enlighten me.

The age of miracles is not yet passed. For Mr Blair has now made his intentions clear or, at any rate, clearer. Or I think he has. With Mr Blair you can never be quite sure. The Labour Cabinet will decide whether or not to join the first stage of the single currency.

Mr Robin Cook seems to think it is not going to happen, which suggests that he is not going to be a very percipient Foreign Secretary. It is reminiscent of the attitude taken by Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland in the late 1960s over our entry into the Common Market. It was an inconvenient possibility which would affect their careers if they did not come down on (in the party sense) the right side: therefore best put it out of mind and say, as Lord Healey did, that Charles de Gaulle would stop it or, as Crosland did, that his constituents in Grimsby had other matters on their minds.

As then, so now, with Mr Cook and others: they devoutly hope they are not going to be required to make up their minds. But should that uncomfortable eventuality come about, Mr Cook believes that, on balance, and taking one thing with another - for I have perused his statements carefully over the last few months - it will be unlikely that the UK will be getting on the bus. He does not go so far as the great Denzil Davies, about whom I write elsewhere in this paper, and who daily provides a living demonstration of the honesty of the Welsh. But Mr Cook nevertheless seems to go slightly further than Mr Blair's line.

Mr Blair's position is as Mr Major's, completely open, a perfect and absolute blank. There will be negotiations during which British correspondents will be told a pack of lies by Foreign Office or Downing Street officials. The untruths will be given a wider circulation on television and in the papers. Whatever happens, a great triumph for Britain will be proclaimed. The Cabinet will take a decision. The House of Commons will endorse it, or not, as the case may be. Then, if the decision is to join and has been endorsed by the House, it will be put to the people in a referendum. The only difference between the parties is that Mr Major now promises a free vote, whereas Mr Blair does not.

Indeed, Mr Blair, Mr Cook and other upstanding representatives of the People's Party have made it clear that, after the Labour Cabinet has taken a decision, all the lads, not to mention the numerous lasses, sitting in the new House will be expected to trot obediently through the lobbies. Mr Blair goes so far as to make a virtue out of his despotic disposition, contrasting the terror which it evidently strikes with the indiscipline which prevails among the miserable Tories under Mr Major.

It is perfectly understandable that Mr Blair should take this line. It is what he is there for. Moreover, his attitude - Mr Peter Mandelson may not like this - is not only consistent with that of Old Labour. It is of the very essence of Old Labour. The party believed it was the sole task of Labour MPs to support a Labour government, if there happened to be one. Conscience was allowed to function only in matters concerning drink, God or hanging. C R Attlee used to say he had always understood it to be a still, small voice rather than a megaphone.

In autumn 1971 Sir (as he then wasn't) Edward Heath allowed a free vote on the government side over the principle of our entry into the Common Market. Harold Wilson refused to do the same for Labour. A total of 69 Labour members, including Roy Jenkins and John Smith, voted with the Conservatives. There were 20 Labour abstentions. If all the Labour members had obeyed the Whip, and all the Conservative rebels continued in their insurrection, the Heath government would have been defeated by 36 and not won, as it did, by 112. It is arguable that it was Labour that got Britain into Europe.

Though there is a clear precedent both for Mr Major's promise and for Mr Blair's disciplinarian attitude, I do not delude myself that the Prime Minister is following the course he is on high political principle. Nor is he promising a free vote because, by implication, he promised it in the past. Indeed, he seems to have forgotten completely what he did say when he came back from Maastricht and on immediately subsequent occasions: that whether the opt-out he had secured would be exercised would be determined not by the government but by the House of Commons. What else could this mean than that the decision would be made by free vote? Still, I had my doubts. Mr Major was not explicit. Judges frequently refuse to intervene in a dispute between the government and a citizen by saying that such- and-such is a "matter for Parliament" when they know perfectly well - or they ought to know - that a civil servant will take a decision about which neither Parliament nor even the minister will have the faintest idea. It may be that Mr Major was using "the House of Commons will decide" in this rhetorical sense. The Conservative majority in the House would have been expected to follow the line set by the Cabinet.

Then came the promise of the referendum. The powers of the House ceased to engage the interest of the press and, consequently, of the politicians. Mr Major has now promised a free vote to save himself embarrassment, because his troops are on the rampage. But that does not mean his promise is wrong. A free vote of the House of Commons on both sides - not on the Conservative side alone, as in 1971 - is clearly the best way of deciding whether our entry into a single currency is to be put to a referendum.

It is, as I say, understandable enough that Mr Blair should take a different view, both to embarrass Mr Major further and to emphasise his own disciplinary proclivities, which have a long and, in their way, honourable history in the Movement. But that is no reason why our great liberal newspapers, the Independent and the Guardian, should parrot Mr Blair, as they have been doing throughout the week, over this question at any rate. Rather, there are two reasons or, if you prefer, two explanations.

One is that they want Labour to win. The other is that they want this country to join the single currency. It remains part of the orthodox liberal consensus. To achieve this end, a whipped vote will be necessary in the Commons, even with a Labour majority. It all provides a further illustration of the liberal paradox: that independent members are admirable but that the government should always get its way in the end. An independent House of Commons resembles 19th-century nationalism. Striving, it is virtuous; whereas gained it is vicious. Mr Blair, however, is troubled by no such doubts. In this respect, at least, he is Old Labour through and through.