Europe outside as the parties go on

Click to follow
IS THE old order starting to totter? Across Europe, parties of the communautaire establishment are struggling. In Italy, Christian Democrats and socialists alike are regarded as disgustingly corrupt and unfit to rule; there are even rumours that right-wingers might attempt a coup. In Germany, the far-right is inching forward, causing a ripple of unease among mainstream leaders. And as the French socialists are blown apart, Michel Rocard calls for a big bang to rebuild the ardently Europhile left.

For each of these countries, the EC used to represent an escape from history, an unchallengeable contemporary consensus. In each of them, in different ways, that consensus is now being questioned.

And in Britain? For us too, the EC has been a way of escaping from our past. For us too, social and economic problems have caused a revulsion against current leaders. And if, on the Continent, the European Union debate is warming up, they have had nothing like the Tory convulsion and the fall of Baroness Thatcher. Yet in Britain, unlike elsewhere, the big parties themselves have hardly been challenged.

Not seriously, anyway: it is a mere amusement that Paul Johnson, a right-wing journalist, has called for the creation of an anti-federalist National Party to oppose Maastricht. The real division in politics, he notes (rightly), is between nationalists and federalists. Therefore, he deduces with remorseless logic, they should form parties and fight one another. Another right-wing journalist, the gorgeously fruity Peregrine Worsthorne, applauds this, calls P J 'a marvel' and compares him to Thomas Carlyle.

Yet somehow I don't think the barons of the Conservative Party are trembling at this revolt of the clerks. No more than John Smith is concerned about the anti-Maastricht left breaking away from Labour. It is time to investigate a further link between the party system and the politics of Europe.

The really noteworthy thing about recent European politics is that it doesn't exist. Faced with deep recession, the different countries revert to type. The Community has not produced a common political culture - far from it.

So there was something idiosyncratically French in Mr Rocard's proposal that, as his Socialist Party was being hammered at the ballot box, it should be replaced by a new alliance of leftists, democrats and ecologists. The French right, also in a new and uneasy alliance, has had its recastings and name-changes, too. To the French voter, all this is as it should be. The socialists have, after all, only existed as a party since 1971 and the modern political history of France has been a succession of new constitutions, new settlements and new alliances.

Similarly, the sheer scale of Italian political corruption was, well, excessively Italian. It flourished in a rich, sticky cultural manure composed of mutual obligation and cynicism about public life. The very same politicians caught out as corrupt had said they were trying to use the EC to escape from Italy's historic corruption. That in itself might make many Italians more hostile to the Community.

In Germany, although we tend to overstate the situation by the use of grotesque parallels, the rise of the nationalist right is a real threat. A more optimistic German tradition, of partnership and strong democratic leadership, was asserted by this month's 'solidarity pact' between the mainstream parties on sharing the burden of unification.

Clearly though, in each case, the peculiarities of national political history explain more about what is happening than does some new pan-European political culture.

The same goes for Britain. An 18th-century observer would have recognised the modern country's tolerant contempt for its rulers, the phlegmatic readiness to muddle through and the general lack of interest in new parties, fresh starts or any other foreign nonsense. Mr Johnson's problem is that he has been corrupted by reading books (worse than that, by writing them), and so ludicrously attempts to assert his Englishness by arguing like a logical Frenchman.

Above all, party continuity has been the hallmark of the British system. Challengers have risen, from the wartime Common Wealth to the SDP, and have been vanquished. The big parties dominate the scene with remarkable success. The Prime Minister regards it as one of his great achievements that the Conservative Party has not broken apart over Europe since the fall of Lady Thatcher. John Smith rigorously opposes a referendum on Europe because it would expose Labour divisions. They are party men first, inheritors of a political tradition and voting system that rewards the loyalists and sends the occasional dissidents off to the House of Lords, or to negotiate with Bosnian Serbs.

In terms of the European debate, this tradition has had one obvious benign result. It has successfully ostracised right-wing, anti-foreigner extremism. There is no British Le Pen. We may become more and more grateful for that as the Nineties roll on. But we may also wonder whether the stability of the party system has been such a good bargain.

For it has internalised and muddied the European question. Mr Major cannot be as clear on Europe, or other matters, as he would wish, because of the demands of party management. The Conservative Party may be responsible for the lack of an overtly racist party of any significance in Britain. But it is also responsible for this country's timidity and prevarication about its European identity: the unity of the Conservative Party has dominated British policy on Europe far more than it should have done. Mr Smith has had to tread carefully for similar reasons. The party system generally has ensured that the important dissident viewpoint on European Union has not been placed before the voters.

We have preserved, in short, the stability and continuity of our dominant political institutions, the Labour and Conservative parties, at the price of fudging our European future. We have avoided the more unpleasant arguments about foreigners being fought out on the hustings, but we have been less enthusiastic or clear- voiced Europeans as a result. It has been a very British deal.

And, for the foreseeable future, it will hold. Single-issue parties get nowhere. The only possible 'big bang' in the British system - the collapse of Labour after a fifth defeat - would have no serious impact on this issue. One day, voting reform may encourage the modern Carlyle and the good Sir Peregrine to face the British electorate for the Nationalist Party - and, God willing, be thoroughly trounced.

But I doubt it. The British political culture is tough, resilient and hostile to dissidents - even those who are keen to protect it from foreigners. The Community may offer many things, but not an escape from history - neither for those who dream of such an escape, nor for those who fear it.