Cry 'God for Tony Blair, England and The Sun'

Europe or the tabloid, which will the Labour leader betray? His nationalistic tirade panders to Euro-sceptic prejudice and undermines our best interests, argues Andrew Marr

Andrew Marr
Wednesday 23 April 1997 00:02

"On the day we remember the legend that St George slayed a dragon to protect England, some will argue that there is another dragon to be slayed: Europe.''

There is a weasel phrase there - ''some will argue'' - but in tone it is indistinguishable from anything by John Redwood, Norman Tebbit, Bill Cash or Michael Portillo. In the relentlessly nationalistic tirade that follows, the author promises to slay any European federalist dragon, so that England can be strong, building a Europe ''on Britain's terms''. It comes from an article in yesterday's Sun and the author was Tony Blair.

It goes much further than "reclaiming the enemy's tunes''. The impression given is the fashionable one that Europe is all threat. Nowhere was there a mitigating word of praise, however faint, for the European Union.

That, I suppose, would be ''inappropriate'' for the audience of Sun readers. Blair has often sounded more pro-European, but when speaking to different audiences. One message for one group of readers on Europe, another for another. Does this ring any bells?

Alarm bells, obviously - but there's also a faint chime reverberating over the years. I remember, in particular, a Conservative Party conference.

In a seaside hotel, I bumped into one of the most pro-European Tory MPs in the party, and then later had a drink with a fiercely Euro-sceptic right-winger from the ''No Turning Back" group. Coincidentally, both had seen the same rising, little-known minister that day and both were impressed. Why? Because he had given both of them the impression that he agreed 100 per cent with their views. He was then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and his name was John Major.

The trait became famous and the rest is history. Today, Tony Blair mocks Major for his weak leadership, his failures of party management, and the whole country knows what he means. But how did Major come to seem weak?

It was because he thought the best way of dealing with a divided party was to tell the different factions that, deep down, he was on their side. He was agreeable to the bastards. That was why they became disruptive bastards. He was winningly pally and reassuring with the pro-Europeans. That is why they feel betrayed.

By failing to make his own views sufficiently clear, the Prime Minister thus made it inevitable that he would have to take special account of whichever Tory faction won the struggle for hearts and minds. You may say that the argument about nationality and power was good for the country as a whole, however damaging it was for the Tory party. But in brief, that is the short story of how Major the leader became Major the follower.

No one is suggesting that the Labour Party today is in anything like the same state as the Tories were when Major became leader. The great difference is that most of Labour's Euro-sceptics are ageing and ideologically far removed from the Blair project; whereas the Tory Euro-sceptics are often young, including many new candidates, and are close to the ideological heart of their party.

New Labour's people, during their long years in the wilderness, were heartened by the social programme of the EU. Quite a few of them served in the Strasbourg parliament, as MEPs or aides. And anyway, they don't tend to have the rhinoceros-faced angst about national destiny that is ingrained in every proper Tory.

But if Blair can ignore, at least for the time being, the likelihood of a serious party split on Europe, there is the rather larger question of the direction of the country. Yesterday's press conferences by Labour and the Conservatives confirmed a general impression of a desperate ''more- sceptic-than-thou'' competition - a headlong flight away from Europe.

Doubtless this was fuelled by messages from target voters. This week, soft Labour voters and soft Tory voters are thought to be winnable by the party which offers most nationalist-patriotic reassurance. Apart from the Liberal Democrats, no one has the courage to stand against the tide and speak up for what used to be thought plain common sense. Kenneth Clarke is obliged to fume silently. The Labour pro-Europeans keep their mouths shut too. And so the tide flows over both, leaving only bubbles to mark where they stood.

You don't need to be an enthusiast for the single currency, or a federalist, to be worried. If people are constantly told that the EU is a scaly, fire- breathing threat, a danger which needs to be stood up to, then we cannot, as a country, stay in it forever.

That is worth pausing over. Without better, more balanced and wiser political leadership than we are seeing in this campaign, we cannot stay fully within the bloc that takes 57 per cent of our exports and provides 55 per cent of our imports; which was directly responsible for 30 per cent of our inward investment last year (more than Japan, and securing or creating 32,000 jobs). Business is overwhelmingly in favour of the EU, however irritated companies are about some of its bureaucracy.

But politicians, cowed by a handful of millionaires and xenophobic newspapers, haven't the guts to stand up for it. Instead of mimicking the Tory rhetoric, Labour could have been championing an alternative democratic agenda for the EU, speaking loudly about opening up the Council of Ministers, reforming the Commission and reassessing the role of the Parliament.

Many of us are genuinely sceptical about the single currency and see the need for some clear and final definition of the ''ever-closer union''. We understand the fear of being politically swamped, and the need for vibrant national and local democracy. Where true radicals differ from the Euro-sceptics is that we don't only want to defend national politics; we want to make British democracy really worth defending, by taking it away from the hands of focus group organisers and late-night cabals in the whips' offices of the House of Commons.

''Europe'' cannot be separated from these domestic concerns: flinch from Europe and you start retreating back from reform into nostalgic, flag- waving Gormenghast politics. It's no coincidence that the fiercest British enemies of the EU have been those on the right who uncritically and unhistorically worship Westminster absolutism and the self-congratulatory, incompetent old establishment that goes with it.

Whatever his other views, I had always thought that Tony Blair wanted to lead us away from all that. I thought I knew that much. No, I said to friends, in the end he will turn out to be a radical not a conservative. He'll be brave. He'll lead, not simply follow the fashion. Now, writing this in anger and bemusement, I no longer feel sure. How can modernity and pro-Europeanism be compatible with sentences like the one which opened Blair's article and which stands at the head of this one? How?

Yes, this is an election campaign. In power, it might be very different. But it seems to me that Blair will have to choose between betraying the whole emotional tone of his Sun article; and betraying our nation's better future.

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