Europe and the Tories
After the election of Michael Howard as the new leader of the Conservative party, there may at last-after 7 years out of office-be a serious chance of defeating Prime Minister Tony Blair in the next election.
Blair's uncompromising commitment to the unpopular Iraq War (another British soldier was killed this past week by a bomb in Basra) and the creeping rise in taxes are not the central factor in lifting Tory hopes. The real cause of thinking that they might have a chance next time is that the issue that tore the Conservatives apart may finally have gone quiescent.
The Tory party has been almost destroyed by Europe. It was the issue of Europe that sparked the internal revolt that evicted Margaret Thatcher in 1990, despite her extraordinary record in winning three successive elections.
It was Europe that destroyed the government of Thatcher's successor, John Major, because the anti-Europe rebels in parliament could never be controlled. And it was Europe that put the hapless and ineffective Iain Duncan into the leadership for the past two miserable years, because as one of those rebels who undermined John Major, he was reckoned to immunize the party against a continued civil war between the Europhiles and the Europhobes. (Instead, this poacher-turned-gamekeeper proved to be an incompetent leader, and a lackluster political performer on TV and in parliament.)
But Europe may finally become a helpful issue for the Tories, the party who under Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1971 took Britain into the European Economic Community (renamed the European Union in 1992). For many years, it was the Labour Party which was torn over Europe. Most of the party opposed Europe as a "fat cats' club," and, in 1975, the Labour government tried to resolve its internal differences by forcing a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or withdraw.
Britain then voted by a margin of two to one to stay in - on the less than honest promise that Europe was simply a convenient and potentially profitable economic arrangement, a customs-free trading zone that carried no serious constitutional implications for British sovereignty.
As the Tories' rebels against Major never tired of repeating, that was not the case; subordinating British to EU law, allowing a majority vote within the EU to set British taxes or define British foreign policy or surrendering the power to set interest rates and control the money supply by joining the euro, were all at the heart of national sovereignty. These were the issues that tore the Tories apart.
It might seem odd to suggest that Europe has gone quiet as an issue, when many in the EU are hoping that Tony Blair will finally summon the courage to hold a referendum on whether or not to ditch the British pound and adopt the euro currency. He will not. The defeat of the euro in the Swedish referendum in September and his Iraq-battered standing in the opinion polls almost guarantees that Blair will not risk his diminished credibility with the voters by asking them to approve the euro - when the opinion polls say they are against it by a margin of two to one.
The one area where Europe is likely to emerge as a dominant issue in British politics before the next election is over the ratification of the new European constitution, its terms now being debated between government officials of all 15 member states. Blair has said the ratification will be done in Parliament, where his majority ensures success, and there will be no referendum. The Tories overwhelmingly agree (as does much of the national press) that on an issue of such importance there must be a referendum. This is an issue where the Tories, standing for the right of the British voters to be heard directly, are on very strong and unifying ground.
In short, the historical pendulum may finally be swinging. It may once again be Labour that is divided over Europe, and the Tories who can be united by it. However, it is unlikely to stay that way. Once the ratification of the new EU constitution is complete, then the Tory divisions will return. As the party of property and capital, the Tories should in theory be for Europe and the euro, like most if its natural supporters in corporate Britain and in the great financial center of the City of London.
But deep in their bones, the Tories believe that even more than the party of wealth, they are the patriotic party, the custodians of British traditions and national sovereignty. Torn between their economic interests and their patriot instincts, the party's schizophrenia over Europe is likely to revive. As the new leader, the former Home Secretary (and mild Euroskeptic) Michael Howard may have an easy tenure on Europe all the way to the next election. If he wins it, the Tory divisions on Europe will almost certainly re-emerge.
Martin Walker is the chief international correspondent for UPI.