Magazine article The Spectator

Some Things Never Change: The Euro-Enthusiasts Are Still Avoiding Serious Debate

Magazine article The Spectator

Some Things Never Change: The Euro-Enthusiasts Are Still Avoiding Serious Debate

Article excerpt

If a week is a long time in politics, how long is 12 years? The last time I wrote this column was in September 1991. Tony Blair was just a front-bench spokesman on employment; Gordon Brown ditto on trade and industry. These I had at least seen and heard. But if anyone had said to me, 'Gcoff Hoon', I would have had to answer, 'Geoff Hoo?' He was not even an MP, just a Derbyshire MEP with an improbably large moustache.

The biggest recent political excitement was the fall of Mrs Thatcher in 1990. (If people ask, a la Kennedy assassination, where were you when you heard the news that Mrs Thatcher had resigned? I can reply: at my word-processor, writing an editorial to say that she shouldn't.) The political landscape was still populated with 'big beasts': Heseltine, Lawson, Howe, Healey. And many of the issues that preoccupied us then seem positively archaic today. Would Labour ever modernise and abandon Clause Four? How big would the 'peace dividend' be, now that, with our war against Saddam Hussein successfully accomplished, we were entering a new world order?

There is, however, one issue that has remained strangely constant: the issue of Europe. I do not mean that nothing has changed in the subject matter here; the ratchets have been steadily clicking for the last 12 years, and the degree of European integration now under discussion is hugely greater than what was on offer in 1991. But what strikes me is that the whole style and manner of debate on this issue has remained almost completely unaltered.

Even the personnel have hardly changed. On my last visit to the House of Commons, a couple of months ago, whom should I meet in a corridor but Bill Cash, who - it was as if he had been standing there since I last passed in 1991 - immediately drew my attention to a legal hazard buried in a clause of the new European constitution. And if the Today programme wants (as it usually does) to offer the opposing point of view, it has only to ring up Ken Clarke, the man who pushed through the Maastricht Treaty on the basis of not having read it.

I personally have lost interest in many of the domestic political issues I used to write about; but I make an exception for the European issue, which seems just as compellingly important - even more so, indeed, since the loss of this country's constitutional independence could be legally formalised within the next year or two. Perhaps I also feel a personal interest here. For the European debate got going at roughly the same time that I entered the small world of political commentary; and for a while, in the late 1980s and early 90s, The Spectator, more than any other journal, was making the running on this issue.

I don't mean to belittle the passionate debate of the mid-1970s on membership of the EEC, nor to forget that in the early 1980s there were some (such as Tony Blair) who were even campaigning for withdrawal. But the truth is that by the mid-1980s the issue seemed to have been settled, and most people were utterly unconcerned by it. In 1986, the year before I joined The Spectator, I was approached by a Radio Four researcher who was planning a series called something like Against the Grain. The idea was that each week someone would challenge an orthodoxy: she suggested that I might like to criticise Freudianism. I said I thought that was old hat, and proposed instead that I tackle what I called the European ideology - 'ever closer union', and so on. …

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