Leading Article: Setting the majority free

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ALL three main parties in the House of Commons were elected on a platform of ratifying Maastricht; in the House as a whole there is a majority of four or five to one in favour of the treaty. For all that, it may fail without determined and imaginative leadership from John Major. The minorities in both main parties are implacably opposed to the treaty. They are in a position to block the will of Parliament, and they are determined to exploit this to the utmost.

Labour argues that it has a duty to vote against the paving motion next Wednesday for the kind of casuistical reasons outlined by Jack Cunningham, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, who claims that it would be a vote against the Government, and not the treaty itself. But just suppose Labour did succeed in bringing down the Government and winning a subsequent election. John Smith would then be committed to bringing the Maastricht treaty back to the Commons, albeit in the form of a new Bill. He would almost certainly find that his difficulties in passing the Bill were far greater than Mr Major's, even though the majority of the House would still be overwhelmingly pro-Maastricht. There are perhaps 60 Labour MPs who are opposed to the treaty under any circumstances. Given that the Maastricht Bill brought forward by a Smith government would include the social charter and presumably would not include the opt-out on monetary union which the Labour leadership has so frequently criticised, the Conservative Party would have little difficulty uniting to defeat it. Once again, the anti- Maastricht minority would have achieved its aim, at great cost to the country and even to our democracy.

So what is to be done? The question is one for the leadership of all three main parties. If the paving motion is a substantive one, as it ought to be, then it should be put to a free vote. It will be objected that a free vote on such an issue goes against every party political instinct. None the less, the treaty is of such paramount importance that a free vote might well be the most symbolically fitting way to get it through Parliament. This is an issue on which majority opinion crosses parties as much as the obstructive minority does. Only a free vote can decisively blow away the log jam, and demonstrate with the requisite clarity to the voters and to the world what a majority exists for the treaty.

A failure to ratify Maastricht would be a disaster for this country and for Europe, too. It is the fact that one can no longer distinguish between the two sorts of disaster that provides the most compelling argument for ratification. The interdependence of European economies is established. The Single Market, which even the Conservative Europhobes profess to favour, will deepen and strengthen that interdependence. It is favoured by all the countries involved, at least in principle, and by all British parties, for the excellent reason that it will benefit them all.

Britain is a European country with many problems that demand European solutions. Failure to ratify the treaty will not make these problems go away. On the contrary, it will make them very much worse, and remove from this and future British governments any influence over the solutions eventually decided upon. Until ratification of the treaty is under way, no convincing start can be made towards solving the country's other problems.