For some time Labour MPs have been quick to admit in private that they have no foreign or defence policy worth the name. The party is broadly in favour of the continent of Europe, after decades of equivocation. Or at least some of it is. While Labour anti-marketeers and their opponents have argued and fought elections and lost them, European politicians have been quietly getting on with building a social democratic system. Now that it's there, even Labour's nationalists are inclined to like it after all.
Tomorrow's hard choices are, however, relatively rarely discussed, except by MEPs, who are mostly ignored. On the current qualified majority voting row, John Smith told the Commons that it would be irresponsible to put enlargement at risk. That implies that Labour would settle for a higher blocking vote of 27. But trying to confirm that yesterday proved tricky. From the Shadow Foreign Secretary's office came the explanation that the policy is - I quote - 'that we are frankly amazed that they got into this mess and we are thoroughly enjoying it'. Well that's nice, and everyone, I'm sure, is pleased that the Shadow Cabinet is having a good time. But what about the size of the blocking minority?
I think the policy is that Labour would, if pushed into a corner, accept a higher blocking vote of 27 rather than jeopardise enlargement. But officially, they won't confirm it. The firmest assertion I could get from Jack Cunningham's office was a dubious: 'Weeell . . . I don't know. You could say that.'
Defence policy is a similar tale. Looking at recent defence debates, it is clear that the Labour front bench is worried about the future of the armed forces and has tacitly given up the idea of a peace dividend. But again, little hard thinking has happened. One Labour MP recently decided that he would use a six-hour train journey to read himself into the party's current defence thinking. He asked his research assistant to collect and bring him all the policy papers. Presented with a single thin paper, the MP exploded: 'I asked for everything. How dare you . . .' Sorry, came the answer, that is everything.
Naturally there are policy papers, impeccably bland and choice-avoiding. And yes, some Labour MPs are both interested and knowledgeable - though it is worth noting that during a recent brief Friday morning debate on the European Union in the Commons, only Conservative MPs took part. But the view from the top has been that the perils of Abroad are best minimised by saying little; pointing a self-righteous finger at squabbling Tories seems to be regarded as a perfectly reasonable substitute for thought.
Now, I yield to no one in the self- righteousness of my leading digit. But is it not just possible that there is a case for Labour having some foreign policy, too? One would not want to be extreme about this, but if the Conservatives are indeed intent on discussing Europe during the European election campaign - a dirty trick, I concede - it may be that voters will start to ask questions about the views of the government-in-waiting led by Mr Smith.
Today's meeting of the Conservative Party's central council will see the first barrage of British-bulldog ministerial speeches. The Maastricht rebels are now seen by mainstream Tory loyalists, including the constituency activists who have to get the voters out, as having been vindicated in their warnings. Maastricht has not been the end. The social chapter opt-out is being punctured. The party worker in the street thinks the rebels were sinners - but justified sinners.
In response to that mood, ministers will deride Labour as (to use the Prime Minister's tacky phrase) 'the poodle of Brussels'. The truth is that the European Union is providing Labour with just the policies it cannot get at home. But, lacking a sharp-edged European rhetoric of its own, the party is finally learning the dangers of vacuum politics. The Shadow Cabinet has been discussing the need for a more positively European policy, and Mr Smith, probably the staunchest pro-European in the Labour Party, has set up a policy commission on foreign and security policy, which had its first meeting yesterday under the chairmanship of Neil Kinnock.
Well before that reports, though, come these elections, during which it seems that the principled Tory case for European integration will not be heard. That being so, a heavy responsibility rests on the Labour leadership to pick up the gauntlet of British nationalism and make the European case in unequivocal and unapologetic terms. This time it is not a matter of avoiding hostages to fortune, but of providing national leadership on an issue where leadership has been lacking.
A turning-point in Labour's position may be approaching. The private view of the party hierarchy is that so long as it gets its tax and spending policies right, the next election is in the bag. Mr Smith will attack John Major relentlessly as a flip-flopping ditherer, but will in general be cautious about making commitments that the Conservatives can use against him. Fair enough. But the time is at hand when Mr Smith must choose either to display courage in support of the European vision he has supported all his political life; or play safe and use the coming campaign merely to make easy anti-Tory points. Politics is about tactics and about policy. But it is about character first.Reuse content