Why be embarrassed about common sense?

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IN THE Eighties, a huge explosion hit British politics. It was called Margaret Thatcher. Her powerful afterlife buzzes on, distorting the landscape and forcing her successors to inch their way around the crater. This was why John Major told the Commons yesterday that it had been misled by his interview with this newspaper about manufacturing. He had never criticised the views of Baroness Thatcher.

Now, I admit the question I asked him did not actually include the words, 'wasn't Thatcher a disaster when it came to manufacturing?' The 'T' word was my gloss, not a direct quote, out of quotation marks, and intended to make Mr Major's refutation more explicit. It needs to be explicit because the old policy was wrong and the new one is right, and people need to notice the difference. My question was, 'But the idea got about in the Eighties that actually making things wasn't so important in this country?' We knew what we were talking about, though, and if there was any doubt, there was none in the answer then given; Mr Major cut in quickly about not agreeing in the Eighties, being in a minority then, not being in a minority now.

A minority of what, exactly? The YMCA? The Muckle Flugga Indoor Hang-gliding Club? The Politburo? This mysterious organisation was one in which he is now in a majority, apparently, and 'in a better position to expound my views'. It doesn't sound like a trainspotters' club.

He meant the Cabinet, and he knew that, and I knew that. In the context of the conversation, he was making a clear and explicit point about the preceding administration. Now, it is possible that Mr Major thinks Lady Thatcher was also part of this silent Cabinet minority and never quite noticed what her government was up to. But it seems, shall we say, a trifle uncharacteristic?

Moving on, Mr Major criticised 'the inheritance I had when I became Prime Minister'. The inheritance that was passed on by . . . now, who was it? The idea that a man as subtle and political as the Prime Minister was wholly unaware of the commonsense meaning of his words seems hard to credit. Those words, the substance of the thing, were quoted directly from a transcript of the interview provided afterwards by Downing Street, and quoted accurately. A close ally of Mr Major confirmed to me last night that 'of course, the substance was right'.

Enough, then, of the detailed textual criticism, and on to the politics. On the face of it, Mr Major's alarm was strange. Here he was talking manifest good sense, about one of the greatest issues facing the country, in language that was immediately and warmly welcomed by the Confederation of British Industry and, no doubt, many British manufacturers. What he said was not only clear, it was spot on and needed saying. Why the anguish?

The answer, I fear, is the Maastricht Bill and the Thatcherite afterlife. Mr Major is hypersensitive to anything that might rub up the Tory rebels badly. They tend to be Thatcherites. Ergo, anything that offends these great personages is bad news. I believe Mr Major meant every word of what he told the Independent this week, and meant the dig at his predecessor's policies, but felt their use was embarrassing and that they had to be repudiated for internal, party-political reasons.

It is sad. He has troubles enough, and I had no particular desire to add to them. But what kind of a political world is it in which large areas of legitimate public argument, calling for strong leadership and plain speaking, have to be skirted around and fudged in case they offend the memory of a former leader and, perhaps more to the point, a small gaggle of her former foot soldiers? What kind of a party is this, in which the truth about economic policy has to be disguised because of the imperatives of parliamentary appeasement?

Mr Major would no doubt answer: it is the Conservative Party, in these particular few weeks, with a small majority and the Maastricht Bill to pass. Maybe. The Maastricht Bill is important, for the reasons Mr Major set out in his interview: getting it carried is not an arcane or theological business, but a matter of straightforward economic and political necessity. A Major government that failed to push the Bill through could not maintain essential alliances with continental governments and would be cut off from real influence during a turbulent and crucial period of European Community development. The wearisome details of competition policy and the battle against protectionism are at the heart of Britain's hopes for prosperity in the decades ahead.

So, however, are engineering and exporting. And many of Britain's leading industrialists have barely noticed that the Government is changing direction. All those years of being cold-shouldered and downgraded have left their mark. It was right, therefore, for Mr Major to say explicitly that the policy was changing. It may have seemed embarrassing tactically, because of the Maastricht Bill, but it was right strategically.

As it happens, with theatrical timing, a ruling last night on a controversial Labour amendment probably means that Mr Major and the Maastricht Bill are now safe. That being the case, it is surely time to start being a little more brutal, a little more explicit and a little less sensitive about criticising the inheritance of the Eighties. The few-score Thatcherite hardliners have nowhere to go and the country needs clear leadership more than a tranquil Conservative Party.