Tribune leader, 19 February 1993
On Monday, the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, told the House of Commons that the government’s law officers had advised him – contrary to previous advice – that Labour’s amendment to the Maastricht bill would, if passed, neither bring down the bill nor make the government accept the social chapter.
Labour has rightly condemned the shabbiness of Mr Hurd’s performance. It is quite clear that the government sought legal opinion from the law officers, whose credibility is in tatters after the Matrix-Churchill affair, simply because it faced parliamentary defeat.
The more important question, however, is one of democracy. As well as reporting on his new legal advice, Mr Hurd attempted to reassure the Commons that the government had no intention of ratifying the Maastricht bill “except through the normal parliamentary procedures”. It would not, in short, use the royal prerogative to ignore Parliament.
As Tony Benn has pointed out, the real problem is not whether or not the government is going to ignore the Commons in this particular instance but the very fact that it has powers to do so – powers that will be increased once the Maastricht treaty comes into force.
Mr Benn was alluding to two giant “democratic deficits” in our political system. First, the creaking British constitution allows the government to get away with far too much. Secondly, the EC settlement reached at Maastricht, giving pride of place in the EC’s political structures to the (intergovernmental) Council of Ministers, gives governments even more unaccountable power.
Mr Benn believes that the way to deal with this unaccountable power is to reassert the powers of national parliaments over governments and to scupper Maastricht.
He is right on the first point but wrong on the second.
The time when nation states of the size of those in the EC were capable of running independent economic policies is long since gone. If there is to be any possibility of the countries of Europe controlling their own economic destinies, economic policy will have to operate at European level. We need European economic union. The key question is how we make it accountable.
National parliaments are wholly inadequate to the task. With or without Maastricht, so is the European Parliament. But the European Parliament at least has the potential to become a body that can adequately control EC executive bodies. Better still, it could become a parliament from which a federal EC executive is drawn and to which it is accountable. This week’s Tory manoeuvring gives Labour the opportunity to spell out a vision of a democratic federal Europe. It should seize it with alacrity.