The question is this: did Charles Wardle resign as a last-ditch attempt to prevent the end of British border controls, and the race-relations problems he thinks would follow? Or did he resign in a mood of bitterness, wittingly to inflame the xenophobia rising in his party and his country?
It has been widely reported that senior ministers express ``puzzlement'' about Mr Wardle's departure. That is true enough. But it hardly conveys the real feelings about him in the higher circles of government. I have rarely witnessed such cold, contemptuous anger. One minister, a firm Major supporter, sat biting back his words and finally snapped: ``It was shameful.''
It was; and to understand why, it is necessary to look again at the situation which provoked him to go.
Yes, the Commission is keen to abolish all remaining internal passport controls. Yes, the European Parliament is goading it, also. Yes, a European court case on the subject is under way, with the Parliament trying to press the Commission to implement fully the nine-year-old commitment on the free movement of peoples. Yes, Jacques Santer is likely to announce in Strasbourg today that the Commission intends to do so. All these things are true and provide petrol to fling on the flames of Europhobia. But ... nevertheless ... however - it has to go the Council of Ministers; this is all ultimately a political matter.
Back in 1985, during Single European Market negotiations, the other heads of government gave Margaret Thatcher a pledge on the subject, written down as the ``solemn and binding declaration'' whose legal status is, admittedly, lower than that of a treaty. But the declaration was, and is, regarded by the British government as an unbreakable commitment from the other signatories.
If the heads of government decided to break their word by bringing forward contrary proposals to the Council of Ministers, the Major government would use its veto. Britain cannot be forced to abandon border controls that way.
What, though, if Britain is taken to the European Court and loses? This question goes to the heart of the nature of the EU and is, I think, badly misunderstood by the Euro-sceptics. They see the Union as a legal juggernaut, unstoppable by mere national governments, even ones as big in the system as Britain's. They are administrative determinists (poor them).
The British government, though, is convinced that on such an issue the European Court will take a political view. It thinks that the too-easily- forgotten reality of the Union will take effect, which is that in practice it depends on the consent of governments, if not of peoples.
Both France and Germany want Britain, unless it becomes intolerably difficult, to stay in the EU. France needs Britain, to avoid becoming the junior partner in a German-dominated Union; Germany needs Britain, to demonstrate that the Union is more than a German-led bloc. These realities trump the legal paragraphs and bureaucratic proceduralism that dazzle and then hypnotise so many British Euro-phobes.
In this case, all the Government needs to do is to demonstrate that it would provoke a political crisis if it is forced into a corner. Sorry - wrong tense. In the Commons yesterday, Major did just that. He said simply: ``We shall take whatever steps are necessary''. That was a clear and intended signal that if the court pushes the issue, he will refuse to co-operate, and would ignore the court ruling. So?
So the court won't push it. If I'm wrong about that, I will declare myself a Euro-sceptic convert. I will eat my hat, which is old and horrible. No, I will go further. I will buy Bill Cash a lunch of roast beef at Simpsons- in-the-Strand and nod vigorously throughout it.
Enough rash promises - that is the real situation, and it is clear, and it does not lead to the conclusion that Wardle is touting, and I cannot believe that Wardle hadn't noticed it.
So what was he about? There was a striking rebuke from the Prime Minister when he said yesterday that he prized Britain's recent record on race relations and added: ``Raising fears about immigration does put that at risk.'' Major is addicted to public understatement, but his meaning was obvious - he thought that the effect, if not the intention, of the ex- minister's stance was to risk inflaming the racism he knows perfectly well is alive and kicking (literally) across the land.
Major hates racism. Not for him the loose and nasty talk from Thatcher about Britain being ``swamped'' by immigrants. Not for him the imagery chosen by some pink-faced boy on the Tory benches about Britain facing ``a tidal wave''. Not for him Wardle's language in the Daily Mail about the ``nightmare'' facing this country.
He has always argued that immigration controls are essential for race relations. Although I remember carrying a placard at an Anti-Nazi League demonstration reading: ``They're welcome here'' (for which sentiment I make no apology), it is hard to ignore the correlation between those European countries with the highest levels of immigration and those with the most virulently vicious right-wing politics.
Here, we have done things differently. We have submerged some of the right-wing nationalism and xenophobia present in all countries inside the ruling Conservative Party. It has brought in tight control of immigration and that has seemed to control racist party politics, too. Not even Labour dissents from this order, which is not generous, or noble, and is tinged with hypocrisy, but which has kept the British National Party at bay. Today, though, the rising Tory nationalism of the anti-Europeans has made this matter particularly sensitive.
To put it brutally, there is too close a correspondence between ``keep the [Brussels] foreigners out of our business'' and ``send them [Who? Them] home'' for anyone with decent instincts to be happy. It is, therefore, particularly important that the Tory leadership is able to understand and watch the divide between those of its people who are in favour of tight immigration controls because they are interested in the genuine well-being of black and Asian Britons and foreign nationals living here, and the xenophobes.
I don't say Wardle is the latter. I don't know him, never mind having a window into his soul. But he raised this issue at this time in a way that has inflamed some people and misled many more. It has happened before that a politician has claimed to be a whistle-blower, concerned about race relations, and has found bands of racists marching through London in his favour. Then, he claimed to be speaking for the highest of motives, and was widely disbelieved. His name, of course, was Enoch Powell, and his speech became known as ``Rivers of Blood''. The words that begin this column were his, and come from its opening lines.Reuse content