I put the national interest first

Edward Heath sets the record straight on Labour, Europe and party treachery

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In recent years I have become increasingly alarmed at the way the press has distorted and sensationalised the European debate in this country. Even so, I was still somewhat shocked to read the headlines in Monday's newspapers: "I'll back Labour, says Heath"; "Heath may vote with Labour"; "Heath threatens revolt over EU". The content of the articles did nothing to soothe my ire. The Financial Times, normally more temperate, claimed that I had warned the Prime Minister that I would be willing to "defy the party line and vote with Labour if the leadership's drift towards Euro-scepticism continued". The Independent was virtually alone in ignoring this wholly spurious tale.

Such reporting amounts to a gross misrepresentation of what I actually said in my interview with John Humphrys, as anyone who watched it will be aware. My position was, and is, quite simple. In the entirely hypothetical event, put to me by the interviewer, of there being a Labour government which was putting forward sensible proposals for the future of Britain in Europe, I might be willing to support such proposals. I hope that other Conservatives would give them a fair hearing as well, and put the national interest before the usual party battles.

What this emphatically does not mean is that I am intending to vote against the present Conservative government on European matters, nor indeed on any other matters. I have always supported this Government and I will continue to do so. It is true that I wish the Government had more that is positive to say about European Union, and rejoiced more in our role in it. However, I have not the slightest intention of voting against the Government while it continues to support Britain's membership of the Union, and our role in its development. Nor did I say that I found the Labour Party's policy on Europe to be more congenial to me than the Government's. Indeed, despite the promptings of my interviewer, I refused to be drawn on this issue.

While Labour politicians have spoken warmly of Europe, the entirety of our post-war history suggests that we should not regard this as a Pauline or even permanent conversion. The Labour Party has a dismal record on Europe, both in and out of office. The Attlee government's refusal to partake in the Schuman Plan, which laid the foundations for the European Community, was primarily responsible for leaving us isolated from the Continent. Harold Wilson's gyrations were equally destructive of British influence, conveying the impression that Britain was not committed to Europe, and favoured it only out of opportunism.

It is too early to be sure of Tony Blair's commitment to the European Union. None the less, his endorsement of the Labour leadership's anti- Common Market platform in 1983, as well as his general political style, suggests that his view on Europe may be as liable to change as those of Harold Wilson and Neil Kinnock. The Conservative Party, which has been in power for two-thirds of the post-war period, has been consistent as a party of Europe.

Because of this deep-rooted and long-standing support for Europe within the Conservative Party, I believe that the hypothesis put to me by Mr Humphrys - that of a pro-European Labour government faced with an anti- European Conservative opposition - is highly unlikely to arise. Nor would I wish it to.

The point I wished to make in answering the question as I did is that matters of supreme national interest must override partisan boundaries. This is hardly a sensational pronouncement. That it should be seen as such reflects not just on the nature of the reporting in question, but also on the erosion of statesmanship in the House of Commons over the past two decades. The adherence to principles and the pursuit of national, as opposed to party, interests have become so unfashionable these days, that the great figures of our history would scarcely find comfort, let alone adulation, were they to operate in the present political climate.

Europe has always been an issue which I have regarded as being above the cut and thrust of domestic politics. There are two reasons for this.

In the first place, Britain's relationship with Europe is of supreme importance to the British people. Though it is occasionally represented as an arcane constitutional issue, it is in fact hugely important, not just in shaping our role in the world, but also in affecting the practical, everyday concerns of ordinary people. No effective strategy for raising employment, combating crime or enhancing investment can exist at a purely national level. Our Empire has gone, and in 1997 our last major overseas territory - Hong Kong - will have gone. We can still play a positive and influential role in the development of the free world - but only as part of Europe.

Secondly, if Britain is to gain the maximum rewards from its membership of the European Union, a constructive commitment to Europe must exist across a wide spectrum of opinion. Our colleagues in Europe are not impressed by confused signals about our commitment to the Union. Nor are our industrialists or potential investors impressed. This is not, of course, to say that debate should be stifled, but merely to emphasise that a polarised attitude to Europe is unlikely to result in a coherent and long-term appraisal of British interests.

There is a strong pro-Europe majority in the House of Commons, which is only prevented from emerging clearly by party manoeuvrings. Until it does emerge, international confidence in our intentions will be damaged. Almost all the other members of the EU broadly accept that European integration is in their national interest; as a result, they are able to focus domestic debates on the important questions of "how" and "when", not on what they regard as the rather redundant one of "whether".

These are not merely hollow words, rhetoric without fulfilment. The dilemma of party interest versus national interest was one that confronted me on several occasions during my 10 years as leader of the Conservative Party. One such occasion was in May 1967 when the House of Commons voted on the Labour government's policy of applying to join the Common Market. Though the method of application was deeply flawed, and I was aware that party capital could be made by embarrassing the government, I asked all Conservative members to support the government's policy. As I told the House: "We on this side of the House are backing the government's application. I wish that to be known everywhere. This clearly demonstrates that the great majority of the House of Commons are backing it also. What is important at this juncture is that this is all history and must make its own impact on Europe."

John Major and his government have rightly welcomed the support of Mr Blair and his party over the peace process in Northern Ireland. Labour may have put party interest above national interest when voting on European matters, but I do not believe that the Conservative Party should do the same if Labour comes into power and is right about Europe. For the record, I issued a statement explaining all of this and clarifying what I said on Sunday to avoid any further misrepresentation. It was ignored by every newspaper, so far as I could see.

When I am accused by Euro-sceptics of threatening treachery, and of conspiring with Labour on Europe in order to embarrass a Conservative government, I am torn between anger and scorn. My own conduct on Europe and my support for John Major have been honourable and consistent. It is the Euro-sceptics who voted on the Maastricht Bill both against their principles and against their own party and government, and then queued up to join the campaign against John Major in the summer. Regarding interviews by me or anyone else in future, I suggest that my Euro-sceptic colleagues might watch them before commenting on them. The future of this country in Europe is too important for all these trifles to put it at risk in any way. Let us get back to a serious, intelligent debate about the choices that lie ahead.

The writer is Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup.

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