Monday, April 26, 2004

Pull out of Europe, said Mr Blair

Home front
Philip Johnston

From today’s Daily Telegraph, reproduced by kind permission of the author. This is an important piece, which deserves careful reading.

Question: which party leader, by profession a barrister, stood for parliament committed to pulling Britain out of Europe? A clue: it was not Michael Howard. Twenty-two years ago this month, in the middle of the Falklands war, a fresh-faced Tony Blair, then aged 28, fought a forlorn by-election campaign as Labour's candidate in the true-blue Conservative heartland of Beaconsfield.

To say he was on a hiding to nothing is an understatement and he was duly trounced, losing his deposit. The following year, Mr Blair entered Westminster as MP for Sedgefield and the rest, as they say, is history. But in view of the Prime Minister's comments accompanying his announcement of a referendum on the European constitution, it is a history that merits revisiting.

In the Commons last week, Mr Blair, at his most portentous, called for "battle to be joined" between the forces of Europhile light, led by himself, and those of Eurosceptic darkness, represented by the Tories.

"It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country wants to be at the centre and the heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins," he said. "Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case."

Yet in that by-election nearly a quarter of a century ago, Mr Blair was content to follow the official Labour Party line, which was to withdraw from the EEC. Indeed, he made it one of his main themes of the campaign. He did not openly dissent from the policy, which would have been politically courageous.

But neither did he just keep quiet about it, as some of his Europhile contemporaries did. In an article for the local newspaper, the South Bucks Observer, on April 10, 1982, he supported the "Labour Party's present leadership" on all important matters including "withdrawal from the EEC (certainly unless the most fundamental hanges are effected)".

Mr Blair's election leaflet said: "Above all, the EEC takes away Britain's freedom to follow the economic policies we need." That and the cost of the "indefensible" farm policy "are just two of the reasons for coming out. Only a Labour government will do it."

During the 1983 election campaign, Labour's anti-EEC policy was reaffirmed in a manifesto famously described as "the longest suicide note in history". Once again, Mr Blair supported this position. His election address said: "We will negotiate withdrawal from the EEC which has drained our natural resources and destroyed our jobs." This sentence appears in a long list of party policies headed "Labour's Sensible Answers".

Evidently, Mr Blair did not really believe in the policy, although he was presumably old enough to make up his own mind. Others who strongly opposed Labour's anti-EEC stance, such as Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams, had done precisely that and left the party.

Mr Blair, we are assured, was really always a strong European but was unable to show his true colours in a party in thrall to the Bennite socialists. He says he voted Yes in the 1975 referendum on keeping Britain in the EEC (unlike Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who were leading lights in the No campaign).

But let us move on a bit to 1986 when Mr Blair was required to take a position on British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the precursor of the euro. At a time when Europhiles in the Cabinet, such as Geoffrey Howe, were urging Margaret Thatcher to join the ERM, Mr Blair was making a powerful case for staying out.

He described it as "essentially a Deutschmark bloc. It could be said that we would be putting Herr Pohl of the Bundesbank in 11 Downing Street." He was also concerned that British economic policy would need to be directed towards maintaining a certain exchange rate that might not suit the country, precisely the case made today by opponents of Britain's membership of the euro bloc.

By 1989, however, Mr Blair was for the ERM and, in 1992, he was describing himself as "a passionate European". By 1997, however, he was less sure. He told the Sun: "I know exactly what British people feel when they see the Queen's head on a £10 note. I feel it too. There's a very strong emotional tie to the pound which I fully understand." In the intervening years, we are led to believe, he would have liked to have taken Britain into the euro but Gordon Brown would not let him hold a referendum on the subject.

What are we to make of all this? More than 20 years have passed since Mr Blair invited voters to back a patently barmy manifesto, so why should it count against him today when he has done so much to shed Labour's Left-wing baggage? But it is important if Mr Blair is now seeking to misrepresent the motives of those in the Tory party - and in his own - who have consistently supported Britain's membership of the EU but who object to its accretion of the trappings of a state.

Throughout his political career, Mr Blair has shown himself to be opportunistic on the issue of Europe, while many whom he now condemns as Eurosceptics have retained a principled opposition to the sort of Europe that is being created, without anyone being asked what they want. It is one of the distinguishing features of New Labour that it has shed the party's previous hostility to membership and embraced the idea of the "European dream".

But if the Prime Minister wants us to give him the benefit of the doubt for the extraordinary position he adopted 20-odd years ago, then he should treat the concerns of those who oppose the constitution with the respect they deserve, and not turn the referendum debate into a spurious argument over whether they have a hidden agenda for withdrawal.

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