Objectively, as the Marxists say, Europe is the issue

Alan Watkins on politics
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The Independent Online
So Far I have not had the pleasure of a visit from my Labour candidate, Mr Chris Smith, or from any of his earthly representatives. Nor have I set eyes on any of the other candidates in Islington South and Finsbury, though I did once meet the Liberal Democrat, Ms Sarah Ludford, at a party conference. I do not complain. But I am clearly not the only one. There must be tens of thousands like me in this constituency alone, and tens of millions in the country at large. If we did not read the papers, listen to the wireless or, above all, watch television, we would not know there was a general election going on at all.

Obviously the candidates know. But oddly their level of knowledge about what is happening is lower than ours. When they are out canvassing -- I assume it can only be a matter of time before Mr Smith arrives on my doorstep -- they are unable to watch television. In reality, two distinct campaigns are going on: one in London SW1, the other in 659 different constituencies.

Despite modern technology -- faxes, word processors, computers, mobile telephones and the rest -- the two campaigns do not impinge on each other. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, and vice versa. Indeed, campaigning in the country is exactly as it was 40 years ago, apart from the occasional use of a tape recorder for taking notes or a mobile telephone for sending messages. The loudspeaker van remains sovereign. The politicians still do not seem to realise how irritating it is for citizens going about their lawful occasions to be yelled at through a megaphone.

Still, we must not exaggerate the dissimilarity between the two campaigns. Mr Tony Blair and Mr Peter Mandelson have, for instance, succeeded in reducing all Labour candidates (with the honourable exception of Mr Denzil Davies) to a state of gibbering idiocy on the single currency. Their panic-stricken refusals to comment in the Daily Mail last week would not have been out of place under Stalin.

The European question has been the most interesting to surface in the campaign so far, not only because it is (as the Marxists say or, at any rate, used to say) objectively the most important, but also because the parties did not want it raised at all. It was a cause of embarrassment to both. To the Conservatives, it was a demonstration of disunity: to Labour, a cause for suspicion about the party's patriotism, always a feeling which is lurking in the electoral undergrowth.

What has happened has been fascinating to watch. But to begin with, we must enter a qualification. There is an easy assumption that a numerical majority are hostile to our membership of the European Union. It was the assumption which Mr Tony Benn (though initially he had been pro-European) made when he succeeded in committing the Labour Party to a referendum on our continuing membership of the Common Market, as it was then called, so bringing about the resignation of Lord Jenkins as deputy leader. Three years later, with Labour returned to office, the referendum was duly held, and our membership of the market confirmed by a substantial majority showing hardly any regional variations.

History rarely repeats itself exactly, but patterns nevertheless recur. Assume that in 1997-98 the Labour government is in negotiation with the French and German governments, much as Sir Edward Heath talked frequently to the French President, Georges Pompidou. Mr John Major's equivalent of Pompidou, by the way, is the German Chancellor, to whom he refers familiarly as "Helmut". So far, alas, Mr Kohl has failed to come up with the goods. But perhaps for Mr Blair he will.

Mr Robin Cook may prove to be a piece of grit that insists on sticking to Mr Blair's sock. But the decision will not be taken by Mr Cook: it will be taken by Mr Blair and Mr Gordon Brown. Besides, Mr Blair may appoint another negotiating minister responsible directly to him, as Sir Edward appointed Geoffrey Rippon. Finally the Labour Cabinet takes the decision to join the single currency.

We can all write Mr Blair's speech on this happy occasion: "Tide of history ... exports ... British industry demands nothing less ... New Labour, New Europe ..." The Labour majority is whipped, the Conservative minority is free and the Cabinet's decision is endorsed by the House.

In the ensuing referendum, entry to a single currency is more or less a straight party issue. Labour are not as popular as they were on 1 May 1997, but the Conservatives are an even more vicious rabble, by now led by Mr John Redwood. He gives the appearance of being a crank. Indeed, he is a crank. This was what did for the anti-Common Market forces in 1975: that all the looneys - Mr Benn, Mr Michael Foot, Mr Enoch Powell - were on their side, while the other side enjoyed the support not only of apparently sane politicians but also of British industry, the City of London and established opinion generally. A quarter of a century later, there is the same pattern. Our membership of the single currency is confirmed, even if by a narrower majority than that of 1975.

From Mr Blair's statements in the last week or so, you would be hard put to it to imagine that anything of the kind could or would happen under a Labour government. If it did, there would be no inconsistency: Mr Blair would not have betrayed a single line or one word of the manifesto. But he has been concerned to give a different impression. He tells us he is a patriot. I am reminded of what someone once said about the former Labour minister Arthur Bottomley: "Arthur's very left-wing, you know. He told me so himself." Mr Blair certainly does not want to be known as left-wing. He claims to be a leader as well as a patriot, much as Harold Wilson as Prime Minister was always inviting us to admire his "guts".

The purpose of all this vainglorious talk by Mr Blair is to counteract the effect produced by the Conservative candidates' assorted declarations of opposition to a single currency, which in turn brought about a bravura performance by Mr Major. Here all the accepted political wisdom was turned on its head. Most of the papers were proved wrong, as last week I suggested they were, not only in their editorial comment but in the language of their news stories: "indiscipline," "disunity", "chaos" and so forth.

The voters did not see it in this way. Despite the qualification which I entered earlier -- that when it comes to the point, they may well vote for entry into a single currency under a Labour government --they approved of what the Tory candidates had to say on the subject. This approval was partially transferred to the Conservative leadership. They further approved of Mr Major's response, designed as an act of convenience, to allow a free vote in the House.

Mr Major could, at this point, have seized the moment and made the promise for which most of the Tory press had been clamouring, though he would have lost Mr Kenneth Clarke in the process: that Britain would not enter a single currency during the next Parliament. He desisted. As it is, the decision will not be for Mr Major but for Mr Blair. And Mr Smith may sleep soundly in the knowledge that, irrespective of whether he turns up on the doorstep, in Islington I shall, as always, be voting for the left- wing candidate.