Leading Article: What Major can learn from Kohl

Sunday 28 April 1996 23:02
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Helmut Kohl has his problems. Germany has unhappy trade unions, high unemployment, a constipated economy and must pay the growing social costs of an ageing society. The Chancellor has just forced through a package of spending cuts that, fat and unpopular as it is, will probably be insufficient to cut the German budget deficit to Maastricht-acceptable levels. The Bundesbank snipes with its gilt-edged bullets at his ambition of merging the mark into a common European currency. There may, therefore, be a couple of things John Major could usefully tell him about job creation and economic growth when they meet in Downing Street today.

But Mr Kohl has one thing that John Major entirely lacks, and desperately yearns for: political security. The Christian Democrats are strong and united. Mr Kohl's approach to Europe - his vision of Germany's future - goes virtually unchallenged. The Social Democrat opposition failed to sell any alternative to the voters in recent regional elections. In contrast, Mr Kohl will encounter a British prime minister who is (perhaps in more ways than one) at the end of his tether. He will present himself to the Chancellor as a political mendicant, begging for help on beef, for help at the Inter-Governmental Conference, for help on the timing and content of European Monetary Union.

What does Mr Major have to offer in exchange? Tabloid headlines about Wembley '66 and the whereabouts of an ageing leather ball? Mr Major has no geopolitical vision to offer to a Germany that is still struggling to find a diplomatic and military mission to match her economic power. He has no alternative model for the development of the European Union, nothing to bring to the German-French party except tired negatives. They are thinking hard about the shape of European governance on the Rhine, too. There are Germans, not just in the Bundesbank, who would have responded with alacrity to any sign of British imagination on Europe.

New, different thinking was promised by the Government's Europe green paper. But instead of being followed up by diplomatic effort in Bonn, let alone in Rome, Stockholm, Madrid and those other capitals where British leadership would be applauded and even followed, all we have is a Tory party which long ago gave up any pretence of doing much other than grasping at the tufts of political power as it hangs over the chalk cliffs.

Mr Major cannot even offer Mr Kohl an object lesson in pride. Imagine an international political playboy turning up in Bonn with money and barely a coherent thought in his head. Here, by contrast, Sir James Goldsmith is feted. Tory pretenders queue up to pay court, and the best riposte to his posturing that the Government can mount is to wheel out Douglas Hurd. Where are the cabinet ministers with the guts to take on the carpetbagger and his supporters in the Tory press? Does John Major have no political heroes from his party's past? What does he think Baldwin, Balfour, Pitt or Peel would have said about their party being so in thrall to adventurers and press lords?

The Tory party will not awaken from its political nightmare this week - its likely performance in the district council elections on Thursday should see to that. For a time, pundits predicted that the party would hold off its inevitable splits and realignments until after a general election defeat. But now the crust of unity is broken, and the pie is heaving.

At the weekend, commentators made play with the Tory party's efforts to turn itself into (lower case, of course) the British nationalist party. During and after its Thatcherite infatuation, the party held together, however uncomfortably, while the horses of free market individualism galloped away. Yet, during that tempestuous journey, the Tories seemed committed to modernising Britain, and that broadly made the course they drove worth following. A nationalist Conservative Party - if that is now its fate - would lead us all into ignominious retreat. John Major should ask Helmut Kohl for a history lesson on where the politics of nationalism can lead you.

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