John Major: still fighting the 20 years war
It was said of the Bourbon dynasty that used to rule huge chunks of Europe that they learned nothing and forgot nothing. And the same, it seems, is true of former Prime Minister Sir John Major. Yesterday he made a speech at Chatham House in London which backed the current Prime Minister’s call for an in/out referendum on Europe – an issue that tore his own Premiership apart. And he backed the call primarily because it would heal the rift in the Conservative Party.
This was, remember, the Prime Minister who resigned just to fight an internal party leadership contest, so he hasn’t got a good track record of putting the national interest before party unity. He was also the Prime Minister whose majority was entirely eclipsed by the civil war that engulfed the Conservatives over Europe: an uncomfortable echo for David Cameron, whose own majority was over-turned on the EU budget last autumn by the same combination of Tory rebels and Labour opposition as brought Major low over Maastricht.
So, despite David Cameron’s 2006 warning to his party not to “bang on about Europe”, the Conservatives are back where they were in 1993, but with an election two years closer. Twenty years on, the balance of forces in the Conservative Party has shifted – from a broadly positive approach to Europe to one which veers between euroscepticism and outright europhobia – and we have UKIP instead of the shorter-lived Referendum Party, snapping at their heels. But essentially, the Conservatives are still fundamentally divided.
Except, wouldn’t you know it, on the issue of workers’ rights! John Major, who as Prime Minister mounted a futile legal challenge against the Working Time Directive, is still as obsessive as ever about the measure which guarantees British workers a paid holiday, rest breaks and lunch breaks, time to be with their families, a weekend and prevents injury and illness by the tens of thousands annually (the health effects of long hours working are far more widespread than the safety aspects, although they’re more graphic.) He called not just for a relaxation of the Directive, but “full repeal.” He also, for the record, wanted more protections for the City of London (where not even a majority of finance sector employment is based), less regulation, and no more social legislation of any kind.
It’s a measure of just how debased the argument in the Conservative Party and on the right of British politics has got that this speech was billed as pro-Europe. UKIP were waspishly hostile, and even veteran Euro-head banger Harry Phibbs on Conservative Home, suggested – despite the swathes of employment legislation mentioned above – that Major would be campaigning to stay in Europe “no matter how little was conceded” in any renegotiation. But it’s also worth recalling that the issue of workers’ rights was a big issue in John Major’s travails over Europe, too. The Maastricht rebellion (actually much smaller than in last year’s EU budget vote) was over a Labour motion which denied support for the Treaty until the issue of the Social Chapter had been dealt with satisfactorily.
As a footnote, I should of course be generous enough to allow that the former PM mentioned the TUC in his speech, urging us to make the case for Europe. He didn’t spend long enough on our role, however, to answer the question of why we would do so if Cameron gets his way, strips out all the social elements of the EU, and leaves us with the husk of a pan-European free trade area.