LEADING ARTICLE : A referendum for democracy

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It is difficult to feel any gratitude towards the Government for promising to offer us a chance to vote in a referendum on whether Britain should enter a single currency. Its decision yesterday was all to do with the fragile unity of the Conservative Party rather than calculating the best interests of the country. The equilibrium of the Conservative Party is not a national priority; what is good for it is not necessarily what is good for Britain. The stakes in recent days have had little to do with Britain's place in Europe, everything to do with John Major's tactics for survival.

And now, as ministers issue their formula for a manifesto pledge that would deliver a referendum but maintain collective Cabinet responsibility, they imply that it is time for a dose of political Temazepam to send us all back to sleep.

That is quite wrong. For what Britain needs perhaps more than anything is a national debate, ferocious but informed and thoughtful about the future of Europe and its place within it. The point of holding a referendum is to provoke just such a debate, not to stifle it. The argument to come has two parts: the first about about Britain in Europe and the second about modernising our democracy.

Monetary union does not pose simple questions that are easy to answer. There is no point in pretending most people will find arguments about fixed exchange rates at all interesting, let alone easy to understand. Yet the more the operation of a single currency is discussed, analysed, extrapolated, the better we will be able to understand what is to come. It should also unsettle the cosy complacency of the Labour Party, which sooner or later will have to face its own ambiguities and divisions over Europe.

Economic and Monetary Union will have far-reaching consequences. Countries will not be able to respond to a reduction in their competitiveness and a fall in exports by devaluing their currencies. That means unemployment will grow in the less competitive regions. They will demand transfers of funds from the central EU budget to compensate. That must mean not only that European monetary policy will be in the hands of the European Central Bank but that poorer regions especially are ever more dependent on money delivered from the EU's structural funds. In other words a commitment to take part in a single currency must mean an irrevocable commitment to embrace the politics and institutions of Europe. That is why we must engage in debate about the future of the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament and the roles that they will play.The lesson of the troubled passage of the Maastricht treaty was that the European debate needed to move out to the people.

That is why a referendum is vital to open up a debate. We owe a debt to the Conservatives, the erstwhile party of untrammelled parliamentary sovereignty. Their agitations have legitimised non-parliamentary judgements. They may try to dress a referendum package up as a validation of a House of Commons decision. But the cat is out of the bag.

Referendums ought to be one of the decision-making mechanisms of an advanced country such as ours - rare perhaps, but one way of giving people a better grip on their collective fate. People would bring to a Euro-referendum their ignorance of finance, their prejudices, all kinds of emotional baggage to do with Britain's past. But they will also bring aspiration and enlightenment and their hopes for Britain's further modernisation and change within the community of Europe.