Leading article:Oh, for a real political debate

Click to follow
Eric Forth, the abrasive Education minister, at least performed one public service last week when he gate-crashed a radio interview being given by Labour's David Blunkett in the Wirral South by-election. The ensuing row provided a perfect symbol of the pre-general election battle: it was noisy, agressive and took place in a school playground. A couple of hundred miles to the south, in the House of Commons, a rather similar event took place at Prime Minister's Question Time. Ostensibly the issue was Europe, but the exchanges between John Major and Tony Blair rapidly deteriorated to a ritual trading of insults. At Westminster, Britain's future in Europe became, in a matter of seconds, a battle between a weak Prime Minister and a Leader of the Opposition who will say anything to get elected. Neither, of course, used Question Time to comment on one really significant development on Europe last week: the statement from Toyota that its investment plans for Britain might come to a halt if, as expected, we stay out of the European single currency. For Mr Major this pronouncement could not have been more embarrassing, coinciding as it did, with a turf-cutting ceremony at a new South Korean-owned semi- conductor plant in Wales. The ability to draw inward investment into a country free of the Brussels-inspired social chapter has been a central plank of Conservative economic policy. Now it emerges that the Government's barely disguised distaste for Europe might actually hamper inward investment. Tory divisions make any sensible discussion of EMU all but impossible. However, Labour, in the run-up to a general election, would rather not mention an issue now seen as a potential elephant trap.

Britain may end up paying a high economic price for this failure of political leadership. Business, divided on the merits of a single currency, might hope the Government is right when it argues that EMU will probably not go ahead in 1999. It may be content to "wait and see". But the rest of the world is making serious preparations. It is not just one Japanese car firm musing aloud; every self-respecting bank in Germany, for example, is spending millions of deutschmarks preparing for a change that will mean every transaction, every mortgage, every bond and every form of saving being conducted in a new currency. So much money is now invested in EMU on the Continent that it may be becoming inevitable. Hence these politically awkward "noises off", showing that the real debate on the most pressing issues is being conducted miles away from Westminster or the hustings.

Europe is not the only issue where the most powerful debates seem to be coming from off the political stage. Another surfaced from a tunnel underneath the A30 in Devon where a 23-year-old vegan, known as Swampy, had lived as a "human mole" for seven days as a protest against road-building. When he emerged, blinking into the televison lights, Swampy explained cogently why he had spent a week in a network of underground tunnels. "It is," he told the assembled camera crews, "the only way to get a voice these days. If I had written a letter to my MP, would I have achieved all this? Would you lot be here now? I think not.". To a generation which was at play-school during the last Labour government, and which is less likely to vote than any other age group, direct action seems to be more relevant than anything happening in Parliament. This is a development that Conservative and Labour politicians at Westminster have either failed to identify or, more likely, chosen to ignore. On Tuesday this week, for example, Mr Blair will address a conference that might have been designed to capture some votes from idealistic pro-green voters. But its title, "Business and transport" hardly seems designed to appeal to Swampy, Animal, Muppet or the rest of the A30 protesters.

We are being offered pre-election party campaigning divorced both from the crucial - but divisive - issues which dominate high politics, and from the grassroots concerns of millions of disillusioned voters. What is worse is that this could drag wearily on until May. Each week like the last will only confirm more voters in a dangerous belief that Westminster is irrelevant. For this reason alone, Mr Major should make it March.