Futility of a House with no windows

Vernon Bogdanor
Sunday 25 July 1993 23:02

BRITAIN, Disraeli once remarked, is governed not by logic but by Parliament. Last week Labour supporters of Maastricht voted not to ratify the treaty, Ulster Unionist opponents of the treaty voted for ratification, while Tory opponents voted for the Social Chapter.

The only obstacle now remaining is Lord Rees-Mogg's court case. Few lawyers believe that he will succeed. Lord Rees-Mogg is claiming that the Government lacks the legal authority to ratify, since the treaty contains elements that are not in the legislation - the social protocol, commitment to a common foreign and security policy, and an increase in the powers of the European Parliament. Yet these do not impose new obligations in British law, nor authorise significant extra expenditure. Therefore, the Government will argue, they need not be included in the legislation. Almost certainly, Maastricht will soon be ratified. The long struggle has finally come to an end.

Yet legality is not the same as legitimacy. For the manner in which the European Communities (Amendment) Act has been passed has discredited both Government and Parliament. The arcane procedural devices used to secure its passage are incomprehensible to electors; and, since both front benches favoured ratification, the democratic function of opposition was left to but a handful of Tory backbenchers.

The unwillingness of the two front benches to allow a referendum has meant that the people have been absent from Parliament. The latest Mori poll on Maastricht indicates that only 31 per cent of the public would vote for it, with 42 per cent against and 28 per cent don't knows. Rarely, if ever, can the Commons have been so unrepresentative of public opinion. Rarely, if ever, can the concerns of politicians have been so remote fram those who have elected them. The House of Commons has become, like the parliament of Fourth Republic France, a chamber of professional politicians, a house without windows.

The events of last week are likely to have fundamental consequences both for British politics and for Britain's relationship with the European Community. In theory the Government now enjoys an overall majority not of 18 but of 38, if one includes the Ulster Unionists and Sir James Kilfedder. Yet it has become apparent that the House of Commons elected in April 1992 is, in effect, a hung parliament.

From one point of view, Maastricht posed comparatively few problems for John Major - since Labour and the Liberal Democrats were, in the last resort, committed to ratification. On more straightforward party issues, such as privatisation of the railways or reform of the police, 20 maverick Conservatives will be sufficient to compel reconsideration. For the vote of confidence is a parliamentary instrument whose force derives from its infrequency. It can hardly be used as a regular weapon of intimidation.

One sure sign of a hung parliament is the pivotal position of the Ulster Unionists. In the last hung parliament, of 1976- 79, James Callaghan and his Northern Ireland Secretary, Roy Mason, were careful not to alienate those crucial votes. By increasing the number of parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland from 12 to 17 they ensured the support of the Ulster Unionists from autumn 1978, when the Lib-Lab pact ended, to the end of the Labour government. Now, however, the alliance between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists, broken in 1972, seems to have been resuscitated.

Both the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists deny that any specific bargain has been made; and there is no reason to disbelieve them. For it is Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, who is the true architect of the Tory/Unionist entente. His proposal for joint London/Dublin sovereignty over Northern Ireland served to remind the Unionists that Labour, since the time of Michael Foot, has favoured the unification of Ireland by consent. This is less a policy than a slogan inhibiting thought, yet while Labour's other policies of the early Eighties have been overturned one by one, 'reunification by consent' remains. A more skilful tactician than John Smith would have jettisoned both the policy and also its most prominent supporter, Mr McNamara.

It is, then, a hung parliament and a grievously wounded prime minister that will take Britain through to the next stage of Community policy. For, paradoxically, while the Government has been struggling to ratify Maastricht, the foundations on which the treaty was constructed have been collapsing. Europe's response to the Bosnian crisis has exposed the hollowness of a 'common foreign and security policy', while the gradual unravelling of the ERM, to be expected when France, and perhaps Denmark and Belgium also, are forced to devalue, will put the last nail in the coffin of monetary union. Most important of all, the close results of the referendums in Denmark and France, together with the swing of opinion in Germany against monetary union, show that a European popular consciousness, without which unity cannot be built, simply does not exist.

It is likely, therefore, that the next intergovernmental conference, due in 1996, will have to return to fundamentals. So far, the European Community has been based on the premiss that the leaders lead and the people follow. It has not yet had to confront the problem of how to build Europe when the leaders lead, but the people no longer follow. 'Europe', Jacques Delors has declared, 'began as an elitist project (in which it was believed) that all that was required was to convince the decision-makers. That phase of benign despotism is now over.'

A reconsideration of the fundamentals of the Community must begin not with economic or foreign policy but with democracy, with securing genuine accountability in Community institutions. Thus the future shape of the Community will become more open to debate than it has been for many years. In that debate, a strong British government would have a wonderful opportunity to shape the Community to suit Britain's needs. Yet with a crippled Prime Minister, a deeply divided ruling party and a hung Parliament, the likelihood is that the decisions affecting this country's future will once again be taken by others. That is the saddest consequence of the futile manoeuvrings which ended the 1992-93 parliamentary session.

The writer is Reader in Government, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Brasenose College.

Colin Welch is on holiday

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