Tories who chime with Europe

The anti-Brussels forces fear an historic betrayal of the Conservative Party
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The Independent Online
Is the Tory leadership - John Major, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine - holding the European door open for the Labour Party, so that when their defeat comes, Britain's place in the EU is safeguarded? There are plenty of senior Labour people who think so. There are plenty of Tory nationalists who snarl so.

For the anti-European right who have so changed the terms of British politics, and who now claim a solid majority in Parliament and among Tory activists, this would be an historic betrayal of the Conservative Party. It would be "undemocratic". But then, for convinced pro-Europeans, to close the door on monetary union would be an historic betrayal of the national interest.

John Major's defence of his position at the weekend had the merest whiff of this. He wouldn't put party advantage before national advantage, he warned the right. What about Clarke and Heseltine, the most forceful Tory politicians of their generations? Well, if you are in favour of Europe, inclined towards monetary union, and also supporters of the welfare state, which way would you vote?

I am, of course, being malicious. Clarke and Heseltine may disagree with Major on much. However, like him, they are viscerally anti-Labour and deeply hostile to Tony Blair's programme for political reform. But there is now a closer correspondence between official Tory policy on Europe and Labour thinking, than there is between, say, Ken Clarke's position and John Redwood's. On monetary union, there is a difference between Major, who sees a constitutional problem, and Blair, who doesn't; but both are formally committed to waiting and keeping the option of membership open. Since this has become such an unpopular position in Britain, it is worth explaining why. As I have argued before, the real question is not EMU; it is the EU itself.

There is already a European hard core which excludes Britain. Before the important European ministerial meetings, there are informal get-togethers of the French and Germans, plus some others. British ministers are never invited. Indeed, they occasionally become aware of the pre-meeting caucus because of accidental remarks dropped in the formal meeting. "Sometimes, they forget I wasn't there," says one minister.

The unease and suspicion of British ministers who feel that discussions are happening without them is behind some, at least, of the institutional bias towards greater integration. As The Economist's current advert puts it, the edge of a conversation can be one of the loneliest places in the world. But it is the lonely place where Britain's political class now lives. They operate and haggle in the shadow of a European hard core that is forming before their eyes.

If monetary union took place and ran successfully, with Britain standing outside, then that informal shadow of a hard core would become permanent. The EMU block would have brick walls, in which it would meet without Britain. Its discussions would not be limited to monetary policy. They would talk about trade, environmental regulations, transport plans, regional aid, and so on. And this would become indistinguishable from the decision-making process of the rest of the EU. This is what pro-European ministers really fear. It is quite one thing if monetary union is imposed, slapdash, on a wide range of divergent economies and then, quickly, collapses. No one in the Tory party wants to be involved with that. But it is quite another if the EMU core becomes the ruling body of part of the world. For Britain to be outside that, ceding leadership to our traditional Continental rivals, genuinely worries the cabinet moderates.

The anti-Brussels Tories talk of "British independence" is optimistic. They paint a picture of a young-again, vigorous, free-trading nation, moving swiftly through the global brine of the early 2000s, a buccaneer among the slow-moving galleons of Continental Europe. And, let us admit it, this is possible. It would require Britain to go further in scrapping protection for workers, in cutting taxes, in letting the underpaid and under-educated go hang. There is a real choice in trying for a harsher, in some senses less civilised, country in the hope that it would also become a tougher and eventually more successful country too. But it would be a risky, semi-revolutionary, undertaking. The economics would not be easy. It would mean jeopardising the Asian investment upon which so many people depend. Given our monetary record, it would mean an interest- rate premium, and also the risk of covert protectionism from the Continent. Politically, too, there would be penalties that the anti-Brussels politicians generally refuse to face. Scotland might go a different way from England, to great confusion and complication. And in due course, whether that happened or not, London would lose her place at the world's top table. The G7 group would become G3: Europe, Japan and the US. And so on.

Maybe that doesn't matter so much. What cannot be seriously suggested is that this breakaway from the European path is cost-free or safe. It is more dangerous, more radical, and would probably involve a greater change in our national life, than a further stage of European integration. Anti-Brussels Tories suggest that the choice facing Britain is a dangerous leap in the dark towards European federalism, or a reassuring reaffirmation of our national traditions. In fact, for this small, unreformed country, there are no easy options.

Blair and Clarke, or Brown and Heseltine, are not men with a history of cordial personal relations. Labour and the Tory moderates disagree about devolution, the Lords, welfare and much else. But on Europe, they all think that it is more patriotic to stay in and even, in some circumstances, to join monetary union. The anti-Brussels Tories, who have such resounding press support and have been setting parts of the political nation alight, see this coincidence of view (for it is not an alliance) as political treachery.

They are fine ones to talk. They have been waging a war inside their party for years. Now, with Labour far ahead in the polls, and pro-Europeans failing to surrender inside the Cabinet, they see a conjunction of forces that can scupper them and render their entire revolt quite futile. And is this undemocratic? No; it is politics conducted under the British system.