Political Commentary: Safer to moan about Eurocrats than tell the truth

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE complicity of English life is unlike any other nation's. We all know its characteristic phrases: 'I thought it was understood . . . well, if you choose to put it like that . . . in practice, I think you'll find it works out rather differently . . . we know that, but we don't choose to talk about it . . .' Playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Joe Orton have mined this rich private seam. But it runs through our public life as well. There was a period not so long ago when, successively, the Headmaster of Eton was a practising sadist, the Head of the Civil Service a madman, the Lord Chief Justice a victim of premature senility and the Chief of the Security Service a homosexual, even if of a timorous disposition.

In all the recent examples of national self-delusion - of pretending that something is other than it is - the European Community stands quite high. The most common pretence among Conservative politicians who wish to maintain their European respectability and to ingratiate themselves with their party is that the organisation which we joined in January 1973, and in whose bosom we were confirmed in 1975, was a different creature from the bureaucratic monster with which we are confronted today. Such a proposition does not bear examination.

The Treaty of Maastricht is a continuation of the Treaty of Rome. Certainly it is worse-written. But then, the Revised Version of the Bible is not so well written as the Authorised Version, while the New English Bible (whose European legislative equivalent will no doubt arrive in due course) is markedly inferior to both.

Mr John Major, in his increasingly febrile efforts to perform a balancing act, may choose to attack the European bureaucracy and, in a precooked phrase, Mr John Smith as 'Monsieur Oui', the poodle of Brussels. At least Mr Smith has been consistent, which is more than can be said of Mr Major, of his party or, for that matter, of Mr Smith's own party either. But what does Mr Major think Brussels is for except to be the centre of a bureaucracy? One might just as well denounce Harley Street for housing doctors, or Lincoln's Inn for accommodating practitioners at the Chancery Bar.

One countervailing force to the bureaucracy is the parliament at Strasbourg (though there are moves to transfer it to Brussels). But successive governments have never given it much encouragement. They have done reluctantly only what they have been compelled to do by Community law. If the present government had its way, we should still have nominated members, even more obedient party hacks than those who sit now. It was only grudgingly that Lord Callaghan's government introduced direct elections. Maybe Sir David Steel's inability during the Lib-Lab pact to persuade Lord Callaghan to introduce proportional representation will be judged his greatest failure. But before long we shall have PR in Europe whether we like it or not.

Anyway, as Mr Christopher Booker has convincingly demonstrated, most of the silly regulations emerge from Whitehall rather than from Brussels. The civil servants see their opportunity. 'I think, old man,' they say, 'we can put a few more small cheesemakers out of business today.' This duly happens. We love framing rules, we enjoy enforcing them and, being in this respect at least a law-abiding, even timid nation, we obey them, unlike those countries which have a Roman Catholic or (in Greece's case) Orthodox tradition. Imagine trying to tell a French farmer how to make cheese] The Commission might as well issue instructions on batsmanship to Mr Brian Lara.

The Conservatives - both the Europhobes and those who, like Mr Douglas Hurd, are anxious to suck up to them - talk as if the matters at issue were interferences in our national life, culminating in a single currency and a federal Europe. But the question of

sovereignty was settled in 1972, when the European Communities Act was passed. It was settled in Europe's favour. Some of us saw this clearly at the time. Sir Edward Heath and his cabinet may have seen it as well (it would have reflected badly on their acuity had they not). But they were able to mislead most people. Sovereignty, they said, was not at stake, because we had already sacrificed any absolute freedom of action through our membership of such organisations as the United Nations and Nato. In any case, we could withdraw from the Community at any time. And, really, these 'legalistic arguments' were of no concern to 'ordinary people'. Try telling that today to the dairy farmers of Wales and the South West, or the fishermen of Cornwall and the East Coast]

What the government had done was deliberately to confuse two notions of sovereignty, which is not an indivisible object but a word. The first usage concerns the limitations on the freedom of a state to conduct its external relations. The second concerns the ultimate legal authority within a state. In the United Kingdom the ultimate authority before 1972 was the Queen in Parliament, who legislated by Act. Since then it is any Community rule (which can be made by the Commission or the Council) having a direct effect here and creating individual rights and duties.

It is sometimes said that the Single European Act of 1986, which provided for a single market, was 'more important' than the statute of 1972. Well, it depends on how you judge things, I suppose. It is important enough for me if a directly applicable Community rule can override not only an Act but a law of any description.

The Conservatives are still not prepared to tell the voters that this is the true position. It is easier to go on about the Brussels bureaucracy and the perils of federalism and a single currency. Lord Wilson, through the device of the referendum, kept us in Europe against the instincts and the wishes of his own party. In April 1975 the government's motion approving our membership of the Community under the 'renegotiated terms' was approved by 398 to 172.

The majority included 248 Conservative and 138 Labour members. The minority included 145 Labour members and only eight Conservatives. Those of the last group still in the House are Mr John Biffen, Sir Richard Body, Sir Roger Moate and Sir Teddy Taylor. The Labour dissentients (a majority in their own party) who remain in active politics are too numerous to list fully. But they include, in addition to the usual suspects - Benn, Gould, Shore, Skinner, Spearing - such shadow ministers as Mrs Margaret Beckett and Messrs Robin Cook, Kevin McNamara, Michael Meacher and John Prescott, together with Mr Gerald Kaufman.

The Labour conversion is remarkable though explicable: for Europe in the late 1980s became what Science had briefly been in the early 1960s. The Conservative shift is a phenomenon of greater seismic significance. Lord Wilson defied his party but kept himself

in power and Britain in Europe. Mr Major may be able to pull off one trick or the other. But I shall be surprised if he manages to pull off both.