Leading Article: The victory that shrank our politics

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The Independent Online
WOULD JOHN MAJOR really have pressed the button and called a general election if he had lost the confidence vote on Friday? We shall never know. It is hard to believe that this weekend would not have been one of deals and cabals, secret country house meetings and buzzing telephone lines, perhaps even the emergence of a new prime minister. But Mr Major took the proper constitutional and democratic course and, for that at least, he deserves some credit.

His party's anti-European rebels deserve none at all. They were prepared to pay any price, do any deal, make any alliance to stop the ratification of Maastricht. At stake, they said, was the future of the United Kingdom, of democracy, of independence. These great abstractions weighed, in the end, less than their parliamentary seats. If the rebels meant what they said they should have been ready to fight a general election as a separate party, opposed to closer European unity.

'The question is, shall we perish in the dark, slain by our own hand, or in the light, killed by our enemies?' Those were Lord Selbourne's words in 1911 when the House of Lords' defiance of Lloyd George's budget provoked a constitutional crisis. The Tory rebels chose last week to perish in the dark. That is where they deserve to die and - contrary to Douglas Hurd's soft- soapings - they deserve no place in parliamentary history.

But nor do any of those engaged in the whole sorry Maastricht episode. The events of Thursday and Friday encapsulated everything that has been wrong about the British approach to Europe: the confusion; the lack of conviction; the manoeuvring for short-term political advantage. When the prospect of a general election was raised last week, politicians described it as 'the thermonuclear option'. That is an apt measure of how fearful they have become of the voters. And that was where Maastricht was flawed from the start. Despite the Government's protestations, it moves Europe in a federal direction. But what is being created is a bureaucratic federation, not a democratic one. This is why the EC is under such strain and why the people of Europe have been so suspicious of their leaders' intentions.

If Britain is to be, in John Major's words, 'at the heart of Europe', it should be pressing for democratically accountable structures and institutions. Instead, the Government has resisted attempts to give the European Parliament greater powers. Yet, without more democracy, Europe cannot work; the inexorable logic is towards European government, complete with European presidents or prime ministers and cabinets, accountable to a European parliament. Nothing better illustrates this than the history of the exchange rate mechanism. Even this modest step towards monetary union is cracking under the strain of trying to withstand competing national interests. For internal reasons, the German government has allowed interest rates to be kept high, making other currencies vulnerable to speculation. Why should the German government do otherwise? It is elected by Germans and charged with protecting German interests. There is no European economic policy, designed by European politicians for European interests, which could override its national concerns. As long as that remains the position, Europe will be dictated to by the money markets. The result will be economic stagnation. As we report this week, even Treasury economists have now admitted that, if Britain were still in the ERM, recovery would not even have started.

John Major's failure is that he has presented no coherent vision of Britain's role in Europe. His Commons victory last week was a purely mechanical one; it cannot be described as a victory for a political programme or philosophy. It had no purpose beyond keeping him in office. That has been his approach from the moment he set out to the Maastricht summit. His object was not to advance the European cause or Britain's part in it, but to achieve an agreement that would appease all wings of his party. If he had genuinely believed that the Social Chapter was bad for Europe as well as for Britain, he would have signed the watered-down version that was, at one stage, on offer. But he preferred to allow the other EC countries to sign a stronger version and, in the hope of buying off his right-wing backbenchers, to secure Britain's right to opt out. How fitting that this tawdry triumph should have rebounded on him last week. How ironic that he should have berated the Tory rebels for their cynicism in supporting something they abhorred. How ridiculous that he should have asked Labour - which has at least been consistent in supporting the Social Chapter - to reconsider its position.

On Thursday, Mr Major faces the anger of the Tory voters in Christchurch, a by- election that he seems prepared to write off as an irrelevance. As our opinion poll in the constituency shows, the voters there are not much interested in Maastricht. Why should they be, when the politicians seem interested in it only as a kind of private game, the rules and purpose of which they seem incapable of articulating to the public? The Christchurch voters are not even much exercised about Mr Major. To them, the Tory leadership is another game, preoccupying politicians but remote from their real concerns of the economy, fuel bills, crime and pensions. Looking at the Commons, particularly last week, they can have little confidence that politicians have answers on any of these subjects. The gap between the people and the rulers can rarely have been greater. Westminster can argue as long as it likes about whether the Prime Minister is weakened by last week's events. What is certain is that the past year has diminished democratic politics.