Conspiracy of indecision

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There is a peculiar flavour to British politics at the moment. Six months or so from the general election, no one in the principal parties is prepared to take a risk. The Conservatives, in the Queen's Speech, ushered in a parliamentary session in which their ambitions were limited to luring Labour on to difficult ground. Not surprisingly, this obvious tactic has produced few results. The Tories are also hoping that, with little else to think about, we will begin to recognise the improvement in the economy and give them credit for it. Labour is prepared to do little more than wait for the Conservatives to make mistakes. Into this vacuum of activity have been sucked such disparate issues as naughty children, knives, time spent on remand and general moral decay. Events, in all their bewildering randomness, are being allowed to dictate to us while politicians duck and weave, striking whichever pose their focus groups tell them will be most advantageous. And so it is likely to remain for months, unless some big event comes along to change things, or unless one side blinks.

The irony of this siege politics is that there is something we should be having a proper battle about, where the stakes are high and the ideological gulf wide. European Monetary Union is now very likely to begin in 1999 and will probably involve about half the countries of the European Union. The essential decision will probably have to be taken in the first half of 1998, a maximum of about 18 months from now, or roughly a year from the most likely election date. It may be wearisome to point it out, but this is an extremely important matter for Britain, possibly as important as the original decision, taken in 1972, to enter the EEC. The response of the Conservatives and Labour to this challenge has been to avoid commitment of any kind, both parties putting forward the same argument: we can make no decision until we know all the facts. It is a familiar excuse and a hollow one, since the essential cases for and against are not going to change after the election; of course they could make a decision in principle now. We all know why they do not: the Conservatives are too divided to adopt a common position and Labour, too, would struggle. Those in favour of monetary union in both parties, moreover, fear the flag-waving antis who dominate what debate we have. As a result, if all goes to plan monetary union will play no part in the election, save in the sense that fringe parties will rage about it (and be ignored) and that the big parties will try to trick each other into unwary comment (and probably fail). Then after the election whoever wins will confront the matter, deal with it as best they can and - it seems - ask our opinion afterwards in a referendum.

This is a political conspiracy into which we are not obliged to enter. We are entitled, on present evidence, to form a view on which of the two main parties is more likely to endorse monetary union. That party is Labour. There are signs of scepticism in the Labour leadership but that is consistent with their no-risk, mimic-the-Tories electoral strategy. And, yes, there are Labour Eurosceptics, but they are fewer and less powerful than their Tory counterparts. We have no guarantees, but in the end Labour could and might endorse a single currency while the Tories almost certainly could not. This somewhat vague distinction is the most important dividing line in British politics today, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

The pity of all this delay and equivocation is that there is a risk that Labour's reluctance to commit will make entry into monetary union in the first wave more difficult. Referendum or no, the country will have to be persuaded, and thus far the sceptics have made all the running in the argument: the idea that by entering we would be losing sovereignty has taken firm root (even though Black Wednesday showed how little control we have over the pound). To turn the electorate around on this issue by, say, the autumn of 1998 will be a tall order and the sooner the task is begun the more likely it is to be achievable. But it will not be begun soon; the election has to come first. This means that we will have to put up with months of pretence that what matters most is some random event that happened yesterday, which supposedly cast the Government or the Opposition in a poor light. These will be wasted months.