Continental drift

I'm one of the few who rather applaud party leaders who nail their theses to the party headquarters' door. At least it gives me an inkling of how their minds tick. Take the sixteen statements which Michael Howard says make up "the set of beliefs which brought me into politics". The first thing that strikes me when reading Howard's credo is that it is entirely confined to Britain. Not one statement is international in content nor even refers to men and women outside the UK. It is as if human society and individual aspiration do not exist, or at least do not matter, outside our national border.

It has often been remarked upon in relation to Michael Howard that it is puzzling that nothing of his family's history influenced his entry into politics. As it happens, I find the concept of national sovereignty somewhat curious and not only do I welcome Mr Howard's family to Britain as refugees in danger, but I also welcome economic refugees, who, after all are only following the example of Norman Tebbit's father who famously got on his bike and looked for work. In fact, looking at the surfeit of television programmes on Brits setting up home in France and Italy, and seeing the long queues at the Tunnel or for the ferries, I'm beginning to think that the Brits begin at Calais.

Perhaps the experience of John Major, and the fatal attraction of the anti-European crusade for the "flapping white coats" on his back benches, has put the Conservatives off Europe for a generation. If so, it will be a huge error. Britain can no more opt out of "Europe" than the Isle of Wight can opt out of the United Kingdom. The oft heard phrase "going into Europe" is a Freudian slip of the tongue that gives the game away. The question is what Britain wants to make of the geographic accident of being part of Europe.

The foundations of the European Union were all put in place by Conservatives. Robert Schumann and Konrad Adenauer both came from the Christian democrat tradition in France and Germany respectively. It was Edward Heath who finally negotiated Britain's entry into the European Community and, wonder of wonder of wonders, it was Margaret Thatcher's Government that pushed through the Single European Act in 1986.

Conservative leaders from Mrs Thatcher onwards seem to believe that there are votes in distancing the party from European unity. I don't believe it. The British electorate may well have a gut reaction against foreigners and may well be whipped up into frenzy by nonsenses emerging from Brussels - or, more often, by invented nonsenses - but that it is a very different thing to voting against reality. Take Harold Wilson's referendum on staying in the EC in June 1975. The opinion polls showed around two thirds of the electorate against, but 64% voted in favour.

The current anti-European bogey for the Conservatives is the euro. But at the end of the day a currency is a commodity and it is odd to make it into a national totem. In my lifetime we have seen the disappearance of the guinea, the crown, the florin, the shilling and the farthing without any huge disaster falling on us.

The Conservatives also oppose the euro because the concept of a rigid single currency across a continent is dangerous. But again reality does not match the fear. Even within the United Kingdom there are considerable local differences in the value of the pound. For instance, your and my pound buys far more housing in Leeds than it does in London. A quarter of a million in Hampstead will get you a one bedroom flat but in Bramley it buys you a mansion.

The Conservatives problem with Europe is the placing of economic issues as the over-riding priority. The rationalisation of VAT across the EU may or may not be justifiable. It's an important question, of course, and one to debate and discuss, but it is not a matter of survival.

If you were to ask the fans at Elland Road what their target was for Leeds United it would no doubt be to "get into Europe". The Champions' League is now the key measure of success. Similarly if you were to ask those with an interest in music or art for their favourite composers or artists, you might well be told Elgar and Turner, but you would also hear Mozart and Beethoven, or Renoir and Van Gogh mentioned. As individuals it is more and more a European canvass that we operate on, and the no frills airlines recognise it far more than do the Conservative party leaders.

When it does come down to survival then national borders are of no use. International terrorism is footloose and we need increasing supranational organisations to combat it. War in Europe today is between micro states with no federal level to hold the ring. The collapse of Yugoslavia led to the disasters of Bosnia and of Kosovo, whereas the move to European unity began in the 1950s fired by the horrors of three wars between France and Germany within seventy years and a determination to ensure peace through the integration of states and the pooling of sovereignty. In that aim it has been a huge success.

The question for Michael Howard today is whether Britain is going to be with those forming the wider European Union or with those belatedly forced to conform to it.

8 February 2004