Xenophobia for the sake of saving Maastricht

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'AT THE heart of our policy lies one objective and one only - a cold, clear-eyed calculation of the German national interest. What is right for Germany - what is right for our future. And from that calculation I will not be budged . . . Germany's interests will come first - for me and for this party. First. Last. Always.'

Coming from a leader in this friendly new European home of ours, these words might shock. Is it bloody Helmut Kohl? Or was he the victim of a poor translator? Not really; for as you have guessed, those sentences were John Major's in Brighton, with the words German and Germany substituted for British and Britain. Nor are they atypical extracts from a generally unnationalistic speech. There were warnings to unnamed Europeans: 'You cannot bully Britain . . . I'll tell you what I think. I think they should keep their advice to themselves.'

Mr Major talked also of 'our partners' and spoke eloquently about the need for peace and stability in Europe. But after a few days of quiet contemplation, the unabashed British nationalism of the event, and particularly of the leader's speech, has a resonance that has not abated. If a Scottish nationalist leader used words like that, he would be haughtily rebuked. If a German or French one did, we would be curious, maybe alarmed.

There are obvious ripostes. You could say: well, Britain and Germany do not have the same history. Or you could say: everyone does what they think right for their national interest. The Prime Minister was being uncharacteristically vivid, but banal. Or you could say: come off it. He was playing to the audience, which is what Tory prime ministers have to do at this time of year, particularly when they have a staunchly pro-European majority in Cabinet. People keep saying he cannot ride two horses, but still he does, arms crossed and with an infuriatingly relaxed expression. Just enjoy the spectacle.

These excuses have some force. But no one who spent last week at the Brighton conference could deny that this was the most stridently nationalistic gathering of a major British party for many years. Some of the most senior members of Mr Major's Cabinet were alarmed by the mood of xenophobia among Tory representatives. The conference often sounded Europhobic. I mean that not just as a shorthand term to describe those who dissent from a deal struck in a small Dutch town one cold November night. I mean old-fashioned nationalist hostility of a kind we can all recognise when we see it. Us and them. The gradation from high- minded worry about Maastricht to foaming anti-Germanism is a steep one. But after last week, we can hardly deny that it exists as a real political fact, and matters inside the party of government.

The party of government has never, though, been in government itself: the Conservative way is to maintain the distinction between the electoral machine, or party, and the people it propels into office, the rulers. This draws some of the poison from the nationalism of Brighton. If some colourful phrases in the Prime Minister's speech - a few beads for the natives - was the price of getting Maastricht, it might seem cheap.

And yet, and yet. Mr Major also said openly what many of his friends and colleagues have been saying privately: Chris Patten is missed. He, too, proved ready to use brutal language to get his way during the election, but I cannot help wondering whether, if he was still the Prime Minister's close confidant, Mr Major would have made quite the speech he did.

Across the Community, parties of the pro-European right are threatened by splits or rivals from the anti-European right. In France, both the Gaullist RPR and the UDF are in turmoil after the divisions of the referendum campaign, and the consequences will not be worked through for some time. Then there is the National Front. In Germany, the Republicans have rattled the Christian Democrats. In Italy, the Northern League opposes the elderly Roman establishment.

The fault line between the pro-European leaders and rival nationalists is visible everywhere and, given the state of the European economy, is likely to matter more, not less. There are choices to be made. There is leadership to be given.

Here, the Conservative trick has been to hold both traditions securely within the same party, united by electoral loyalty and a common anti-socialism. The great appeal of Mr Major was that he could keep that coalition together. Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd are powerful men, but had they been leading the Conservative Party last week, it would have splintered. Mr Heseltine would have driven the dissenters out; Mr Hurd would have lifted neither finger nor voice to persuade them to stay. The existence of a whipped Conservative Party the same size this week as it was at the beginning of last week is Mr Major's achievement alone.

But what a party. It claims to be the true European party. It claims to be the truly nationalist party. We must trust Mr Major because he is genuinely the one - and deeply the other. Elsewhere, the two ideas seem opposed, and war between them looms. Let us hope our partners understand that Mr Major's populist nationalism has nothing to do with Lord Tebbit's and Lord Ridley's - that the more like them his language seems, the less like them he really is. That he was not seeking to reassure the anti-German Europhobes, but only the people sitting next to them. Let us hope the translation is a good one.

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