Magazine article The Spectator

The Election: Yes, There Is an Issue

Magazine article The Spectator

The Election: Yes, There Is an Issue

Article excerpt

STOP! Stop! Rewind the tape! Take two! This business about an inevitable Labour victory in 1997 is all a terrible historical mistake. What was meant to happen was quite different. This election was meant to be about Europe. And the Tories were meant to win it by putting clear blue water between themselves and Labour on the issue.

You must admit that having an election in 1997 which is not about Europe is a little like having an election in 1832 which is not about electoral reform, or an election in 1886 which is not about Irish Home Rule.

After all, Europe is the issue of our time. It is now undeniable that, as a result of the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht, this country is on the point of becoming part of a federal European state, in which ultimate sovereignty is vested in supranational institutions, namely the European Court, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. All that is missing is the extension of qualified majority voting to all areas of government competence; but as the recent European Court judgment on working hours revealed, we are in practice much closer to the loss of our right of veto than we realised.

It is equally clear that the central objective of the Maastricht Treaty - the creation of a single European currency would have disastrous economic consequences not only for those states who join up, but also for those who do not, especially if it is combined with the kind of punitive `stability pacY which the German finance minister craves.

Yet both the major parties are going into the election with more or less indistinguishable policies on Europe, and particularly on the single currency. The policy is that they are not sure. They will wait and see. And if they do finally make up their minds in favour, they will hold referendums. As a consequence, an election which ought to be dominated by the Europe question, will largely ignore it. We are likely to hear more about Tony Blair's hairstyle than about the single currency; more about Norma Major's nickname than about the European Court.

It is, of course, arguable that this demotion of the European question is simply a response to the internal divisions which afflict both major parties; or to the apparent indifference of the electorate on the subject. But it did not have to be this way. This election could have been about Europe - and the Tories would be poised to win it - if only John Major had lost the last one.

What if Labour had won in 1992? Such 'counterfactual' speculations are conventionally dismissed as mere day-dreaming a parlour game for bad losers, as the late E.H. Carr said, in the days when dons still had parlours. Yet such historical determinism is the Marxist vice. It blinds us to the unpredictable and indeed chaotic quality of history - in Ranke's phrase - wie es eigentlich gewesen.

`As it actually was', all but a few hardened cynics and trend-buckers expected Labour to win the last election. The polls were unanimous (even today, when pollsters ask people how they voted in 1992, the results imply a Labour victory). And some of those marginal seats really were marginal: remember the Vale of Glamorgan, won from Labour by just 19 votes, and Ayr, which the Tories held against all expectations with a majority of just 85?

The expected outcome at the time was therefore that Mr Major would enter the history books as the third most ephemeral Prime Minister of the twentieth century, after Bonar Law and Alec Douglas-Home. True, a few of us put money on a Tory majority of 20 or more; but that was an act of bravado more than rationality, and the money we won was scant consolation for what was obviously a serious historical mistake. …

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