Lancing the Euro-septic boil

May 16, 1997

Last week the Cambridge Union debated the motion 'Herr Kohl succeeded where Hitler failed'. Edward Pearce went to do battle for Britain, Kohl and common sense

It was a serious matter to be asked to debate last week at the Cambridge Union the motion absurdly proclaiming that Chancellor Kohl had succeeded where Napoleon, Bismarck and Hitler had failed. My opponents were to have been the MPs Bill Cash and Hugh Dykes, polar opposites over Europe, but the rout of the Tories on May 1 had also driven most of them away from Cambridge. Both Cash (busily damaging John Redwood's case for the leadership) and Dykes felt unable to attend, their places being taken by Sir Richard Body MP, supported by Martin Holmes, chair of the Bruges Group. I spoke with David Rennie of The Daily Telegraph - in-house heretic - and Michael Walsh of the European Reform Group.

What Cambridge debated last week was the most extreme version of an obsession which is destroying the Tory party. I am just a small "l" liberal who shops for sense among the politicians, but the shattering of a party that has governed rather well in a cack-handed way is bad news. And obsession with Europe is a major strand in that calamity.

Last week's Cambridge debate was potentially another King and Country affair. Oxford in 1934 was not prepared "to fight for King and Country" and plaster showered down on to cornflakes wherever politics (or Oxford) was taken seriously.

The public is not excited by Europe. Most people feel a sensible agnosticism about something they suspect they do not understand. What they notice is not the subject of the quarrel, but the quarrel itself. The endless assaults on John Major, the disloyal briefings, the cabal of Redwood and friends, these things do not happen in healthy parties.

The message I put across at Cambridge was that if resentment of the neighbours governs the Tories, the Tories will not govern anyone else, nor are they fit to. The Referendum party placed an ad showing rows of British war graves with the caption "Did they Die in Vain?" It was worth going 100 miles last week to tell undergraduates that if a motion cognate with such thinking passed, it would degrade the university of Newton and Russell.

I suspect the evil of Europhobia has peaked. The Tories are not arguing what shall be government policy, but what attitude a weak opposition will strike. Europe is going to be resolved by Labour. The social chapter is going through giving poorer people better terms and pay which straight business knows swivelling business can afford. If the single currency is treated like an important technical enhancement to be got right, the obsession of 1992-97 could be "that old chestnut" in 2001.

Meanwhile, the fever has to be met. Comparing Helmut Kohl with Hitler is obscene. Reasonable objection to a difficult coalescence of currencies and justified dislike of the bad bits of Europe - bad because we did not negotiate them, like the Common Agricultural Policy - has been twisted into "Did They Die in Vain?" and Lord Tebbit's response to some German overture, "jackboots in Whitehall". What comes over is an ignorance of what the Federal Republic of Germany is and a wretched flight into nostalgia.

It is Manichean, of course, but time-warped Manichaeism. We, as we were, are good. The Germans, as they were, are bad. And we will not let 50 years of Adenauer, Brandt and Schimdt or the Basic Law and entrenched civil rights and sedulously minute democracy get in the way of that. And we will not let Germany's recurring helpfulness to us in the EU, her coming to our rescue with her money over the agricultural rebate, get in the way either.

It is fashionable to discount union debates, but the conclusions of intelligent young people do not strike me as discountable. The King and Country assertion, though morally far more understandable, ought to have been fought with facts and energy. The case against hating the neighbours ought also to be fought - with what Ken Clarke has talked all the time, to the grief of his party - sense.

... And sense worked. On May 7 the motion that Herr Kohl had succeeded where Hitler failed was rejected by the Cambridge Union.

Entraining with Emu, page 24

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