Leading Article: The Tories mustn't fudge on Europe

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The Independent Online
Are we naive to be filling our front page with questions for politicians not to answer? After all, we have all seen what happens during election campaigns. The media moan that the parties won't respond to the important questions; the politicians retort that they have answered very thoroughly, thank you - or at least that they have answered any question worth asking. Pragmatic electoral considerations keep them safely mum on everything else. In the circumstances, then, it looks as though we might be wasting our time.

But no: election campaigns are skilful games in which politicians and journalists circle each other, each trying to register different points. Some of the questions thrown at politicians of all parties will be unfair and ridiculous - the "have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?" variety, alternating with "why won't you promise to cut tax and raise spending in your first week?"

However, politicians also have a clear interest in ducking certain sensible and legitimate questions, too. We can understand why they want to do it: it may occasionally help them win more votes in the short term. But that should not stop voters getting the information they want to make a balanced decision between the parties. And in the long term, as we shall see, politicians themselves lose out by not talking straight with the voters.

Admittedly, where politicians lack the facts to make a balanced judgement, it is foolish to expect them to provide all the answers. When Labour MPs say they cannot promise more money for everything until they have "seen the books", we should applaud rather than condemn them. They are exhibiting more honesty and prudence this time round than they did in 1992, when party policy documents were stuffed full of unaffordable spending aspirations.

We can sympathise with Ken Clarke too, when he points out that his judgement about whether Britain should join the European currency in the first wave depends at least in part on facts that we do not yet know, including the structure of the new monetary system, the proposed relationship between countries that are in and out, and the state of the British economy at the time.

In the past, our politicians have often been too enthusiastic to answer questions when they should have known they were too ill-informed to make responsible commitments. In 1992 the Conservatives said we could have tax cuts year on year. They should never have made such a promise.

Governments cannot commit to reducing the tax burden every year when they never know what unforeseen economic events might blow them off course. John Major could have given a far more honest and intelligent answer to the tax question. Likewise Labour's lack of access to the resources of the civil service and the government's accounts should not prevent the party giving us its broad tax and spending intentions. We may not need a Shadow Budget (there wouldn't be much point; the details would all have to change) but we should be told how redistributive Labour thinks the tax system should be.

We know the party thinks that the tax system should be "fair;" but voters also need to know whether Labour believes fairness requires a new top rate of income tax to redistribute some of the earnings of the very rich, or merely a windfall tax to take back some of the profits of the privatised utilities.

For their part, the Conservatives cannot use the absence of information about the shape of a single currency to duck answering questions about the principle of monetary union. They should be able to explain, for example, under what specific conditions Britain could contemplate joining a European Monetary Union, even if we cannot yet tell whether those conditions will be fulfilled. Alternatively, if the Tory command actually expects to withdraw from Europe, or "renegotiate" our relationship away from Europe, voters have a right to know because the implications will be immense.

The Conservatives' fudge over Europe goes to the heart of the problem. The reason we are not getting a straight answer has nothing to do with lack of information, or responsible politics, and everything to do with the fact that there may be something to hide. That is precisely why we are highlighting the question; so that no one forgets that it's being avoided.

There are at most 16 weeks left to go before a general election. Not long, is it? All of the political parties still have time to be more forthcoming. If they have simply chosen to delay policy announcements until the runup to the election for political reasons, that's fine. Election campaigns are, after all, complicated games of strategy. Giving your opponent time to sabotage your preparations is unwise, to say the least.

But politicians should not be allowed to use these excuses for fudging the big issues entirely. Our politicians have an interest in steering away from risky, provocative headlines. They do not want to risk offending voters, ignite tabloid campaigns or provoke tensions in their own parties unless they are forced to do so? But that is exactly why we will harry the parties for answers to perfectly proper, answerable questions. Whichever lot we elect, we could be stuck with them for the next five years. The more we know in advance, the less complaint we will have later.

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