Maastricht: this one will run and run

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HERE'S a tale of two kinds of political debate. Yesterday afternoon in the Commons, we had a bravura performance by Douglas Hurd as he smoothly led pro-government MPs away from certain defeat on a Maastricht amendment. It was witty, complex and abstract, highly entertaining for the Commons in-crowd.

Also yesterday afternoon, and on many previous afternoons, Tory canvassers were enduring earthier exchanges on the doorsteps of local electors. There, according to depressed MPs who have returned from the battlefront, the mood of hostility towards the Government is acute. Once- loyal Tory voters refuse to vote. Even some party workers are refusing to canvass. Maastricht is mentioned, when it is, as the irrelevant indulgence of feeble, spiritless ministers.

The question is, do these two debates intersect at all? Are the parliamentary, and now legal, manoeuvres about Maastricht - the Schleswig-Holstein question of our time - related to the political rot affecting the Tory party at ground level? Or have the political classes wholly lost touch with the rest of the country?

First, and perhaps sad to relate, the mind-dazing arguments about this particular treaty will keep the political classes talking for a long time yet, at least for the rest of the summer. That being so, can the legal arguments be made any clearer? As it happens, yes.

The advice of the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, about the social chapter opt-out is central to the current crisis. And it has not, naturally, been published. Sir Nicholas explained in February that publication was impossible: 'I am not aware of any precedents for the publication of law officers' advice to the Government, although I stand to be corrected.'

Indeed you do. Lord Acton, great- grandson of the man who coined the expression about all power tending to corrupt, has kindly dug up the relevant precedents, in Law Officers of the Crown by J J Edwards. In 1865, the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, allowed the Commons to hear government law officers' advice in a debate about Irish riots. And in 1927, the Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, quoted at length from such a piece of advice during a debate on disarmament. So there. It is rare to be able to pass on some good news to a government minister but, Sir Nicholas, you may make public your controversial advice today. Delighted to be of service.

However, that still leaves us questioning the importance of Maastricht itself. The core of the treaty was the single European currency, now ripped apart by the money markets. Will sterling re-enter a revised exchange rate system before the next election? Other EC governments are getting angry about the free-floating pound. They regard it as unfair competition that cannot be allowed indefinitely.

But John Major cannot help them. The anti-Maastricht ministers who meet privately would resign en masse, or rather en groupe, since there are about nine of them, if sterling rejoined the ERM. There would be a huge backbench revolt, too. It is not practical politics.

What else is left of substance in Maastricht? Nothing and everything. It is a fudge between two rival versions of Europe - a free-trade area of nation-states, versus a federal super- state. It is an inconclusive mid-point in a much greater argument about how some small northern tribes get on together. The details of Maastricht do not matter much. But the argument does, for all of us. The fact that it has become internalised in the Conservative Party and bogged down in parliamentary procedure is sad, but does not make it any less important.

The popular argument will come in the years ahead, even if Maastricht is ratified. It cannot be avoided. Already, I hear, money is being raised and plans laid for an anti-European Union campaign at next year's European elections, with candidates fighting every British seat. They would come from outside the political elite and would try to mobilise a popular revolt along the lines of the Danish June Movement. This action, opposing itself to the consensus among the party leaders on Europe, will attract huge media coverage.

In response, ministers and civil servants are trying to create a more coherent post-Maastricht policy. As Mr Hurd has signalled publicly, they have no intention of being caught napping before the next round of European constitution-mongering, planned for 1996. Work has started inside the Foreign Office to produce a policy that can unite the Tory party and create a looser kind of union.

It is early days, and only some broad principles are clear. These include changes to the way the Council of Ministers votes, giving a more decisive role to Britain, Germany and France, and so ending what French politicians call the 'tyranny of the small states'. It would also mean fewer commissioners and perhaps fewer powers for the Commission. Could such an anti-federalist package be sold on the Continent, even to a more Gaullist France and a more nationalistic Germany? Probably not: but it would be the decisive argument about Europe's future, far more important than Maastricht.

So those ministers who dream of tranquil politics after Maastricht, and those voters who just want all this European stuff to go away, are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. There will be no 'happy ever after'. There will be no return to 'real politics'. This is real politics. The battle about our European future will go on, and spread. Sooner or later, it will break out of the Westminster ghetto and be fought on the doorsteps, too. And that'll be fun.