Allan Massie: Major could be best man in Europe

Former PM John Major knows how to tackle the EU without throwing his toys out of the pram. The Tories could use him now, says Allan Massie

John Major and wife Norma after the Tories historic defeat in 1997. Picture: Getty
John Major and wife Norma after the Tories historic defeat in 1997. Picture: Getty

It is now more than 17 years since Sir John Major led the Conservative Party to its heaviest defeat since 1945. It was hardly his fault. Indeed in 1997 he was one of the few assets the exhausted, divided and discredited party had, and one should remember that he had won a victory in 1992 which was far less expected than the defeat five years later. 1992 incidentally was the last general election in which the Scottish Tories did better than most thought they would.

I always liked and admired John Major. I interviewed him at some length on three occasions and found him impressively intelligent, level-headed and sensible – the intelligent aren’t of course always sensible. Indeed I had a higher regard for him than for either Ted Heath or Margaret Thatcher, or for any of his successors as Tory leader. If he had become prime minister in different circumstances, he would, I think, have been a great one.

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Even so, he had three considerable achievements to his credit. He supported his chancellor, Ken Clarke, in his management of the economy and repair of the public finances, which left a legacy that the incoming Labour Government profited from. Second, he set in motion the Northern Ireland Peace Process, for which Tony Blair would take the credit. Third, he handled the negotiations over the Maastricht Treaty with great skill, achieving a settlement which was good for Britain without alienating our European partners.

This third achievement is relevant today. Last week he made a speech in Germany about the UK’s relationship with the EU. He spoke as one committed to our continued membership but warned his audience – and by extension the leaders of other member states and officials of the EU Commission – that there is a real possibility that we might vote to break away from the EU in an in-out referendum. He put the chance of doing so at 50-50.

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This needed to be said, and it needed to be said in a calm level-headed manner, without threats or bluster. It needed to be said by a senior and respected politician who is a committed European, at least in the sense of being committed to a union of states, not a united or federal state. This is of course the classic Gaullist position which has more support throughout Europe than officials in Brussels are often willing to admit.

Sir John recognised that the free movement of capital and labour is an essential principle of the EU. It was established from the first in the Treaty of Rome, and it is something from which we have all benefited both as individuals and as a country. Nevertheless, he observed, there are times when this unfettered free movement of labour may cause problems and provoke resentment; the problems are social, not economic. This is such a time. Because the British economy has recovered faster from the global Depression than some continental ones, jobs are available in greater numbers here than in the Mediterranean countries and in states in eastern Europe which have more recently joined the EU. The scale of immigration from within the EU has therefore become a divisive political issue here.

The principle of free movement isn’t going to be scrapped, but it may – and indeed should, he suggested – be temporarily suspended. In other words, while backing the principle, the British government should be able to impose quotas to restrict economic immigration. The circumstances are exceptional; so an exceptional remedy is required.

At the same time Sir John had a message for David Cameron (though he didn’t mention him by name): stop shouting, start negotiating. This is how you score goals in Brussels. There are knots to be unravelled. Fine: this is best done by calm deliberation, by patience coupled with firmness. That – though again he didn‘t say so – was how he achieved his aims in the negotiations over Maastricht, one of which was to avoid our commitment to any future single European currency. He got his opt-out.

There was an unspoken sub-text to his speech. Since it was being given in Germany, it would have been impolite to point out that a British exit would unbalance the EU because it would leave Germany as the indisputably dominant power, and that nobody wants this. Actually the Germans don’t want it either, which is why, eventually, Angela Merkel will do what she can to keep Britain in – always provided that fundamental principles of the Union are maintained.

Britain needs a deal if we are to stay in the Union, and it was necessary for a senior politician to say this clearly to a German audience. It was necessary that it should be said by someone with the right credentials, a committed European who understands the way the EU works and who is not blind to its defects.

At present of course only the Conservative Party is committed to a referendum on our membership of the EU – even though the wording on the referendum paper may only ask for our approval or disapproval of whatever has emerged from the prime minister’s renegotiation of the terms of our membership. But any European politicians who believe that the issue will disappear, or a referendum be endlessly deferred, if Labour forms the next government here, are fooling themselves. In truth the election of a Labour government would make a successful renegotiation of Britain’s position in Europe even more urgent, because it is probable that the Conservative Party, out of office, would be taken over by anti-Europeans.

Sir John’s speech delivered a wise and necessary message. It is in our national interest to remain a member-state of the EU. It is also in the interest of the EU as an institution, and of the other member-states, that we should do so. But unless our position is recognised and our grievances treated sympathetically, and unless the negotiations on our side are conducted with equal sympathy for the nature of the Union and its essential principles, then we may lurch towards an exit that would do both the United Kingdom and the European Union itself irreparable damage.

Perhaps David Cameron should invite Sir John, as the last Conservative leader who understood the EU and its workings, to lead his negotiating team?

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