Leading Article: Political survival in the theatre of the absurd

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The Independent Online
THIS WEEK has put our politicians and institutions of government under heavier strain than they have known for a long time. It has ravaged the Conservative Party, discredited Parliament, rocked our constitutional arrangements and may have destroyed the premiership of John Major. But has it changed anything fundamental?

After an upheaval of this type, one would expect there to be a consensus that things will never be the same again, that the crisis has shown up weaknesses in the system, over the need for constitutional reform, proportional representation, realigned politics or maybe simply a general election. But once the Maastricht treaty is out of the way, life may return to normal for everyone except the more severely wounded participants.

This is because the whole dispute has been a curious example of politicians pursuing a life of their own, only tenuously connected to real life. Of course, Britain's membership of Europe is a very big issue, perhaps the most important the country has faced this century. But the central question has already been decided by referendum, and by legislation passed in both Houses and accepted by large majorities in three parties. The Maastricht treaty merely provided Tory rebels with a convenient means of reopening the debate on sovereignty, because it tried to go too far too fast and was drafted without any attempt to mobilise public support. Mr Major added to his problems by exaggerating the importance of the Social Chapter in order to placate his rebels.

It has, however, been absurd to depict this as a moment of destiny for Britain, or to depict the Social Chapter as a death threat to British industry. The rest of Europe is facing problems very similar to those of Britain, and will be just as anxious to adapt the treaty to the demands of real life. In the end, Maastricht will take Europe only as far as its governments and people permit.

The British people seem to understand this. They instinctively dislike the treaty and would probably vote against it in a referendum in order to punish the inept and presumptuous politicians who signed it. But there are no mass demonstrations against the treaty, no floods of letters to Members of Parliament, no politicians making their careers by leading a crusade against it.

The parliamentary crisis has not reflected a national crisis. It has been a closed-circuit crisis of the political establishment. The Tory rebels are not leaders, but outsiders who have been engaged in an atavistic defence of parliamentary power that is slipping away for many reasons unconnected with European integration. They have discredited themselves as defenders of principle by voting in favour of the Social Chapter, then reversing themselves in order to avoid a general election.

Their main achievement is to have further damaged Mr Major, probably beyond repair. Paradoxically, he has been saved by his own weakness, since it was only the threat of losing a general election that brought the rebels to heel. If he is to have a hope of survival, he must quickly establish a clear domestic agenda and mobilise popular support for it. He can expect fair winds from economic recovery and no new challenges from a chastened Europe for quite some time. But his chances must be rated low.

More important than his own fate is that of Parliament and the political system. The public this week has watched a miserable spectacle, a theatre of the absurd, the final act (one hopes) of an unedifying drama that has dragged on for a year and a half. Instead of orderly debate leading through principled voting and clear constitutional channels to a conclusion representing the will of the Commons, there has been a long series of tactical manoeuvres, procedural wrangles and constitutional uncertainties. Respect for Parliament and politicians, already low, must now be touching rock bottom.

Proportional representation might have improved matters by enabling Eurosceptics to form their own party, but the case for a written constitution has also been strengthened. It is absurd that there should be uncertainty about the scope of judicial review and the power of the executive to ratify a treaty that has not been fully approved by Parliament. Anomalies of this sort have no place in a modern system of government, particularly at the heart of Europe. If Mr Major wishes to demonstrate that he still has some vision in him, he could initiate a constitutional review designed also to start the political system on the long road to rehabilitation in the eyes of the public.