Thursday, 30 September 2010

Opposition Opportunities

John Smith had been one of the Labour rebels whose votes behind Roy Jenkins had passed Heath's European Communities Bill. But he cheerfully deployed every trick in the book during Maastricht's passage through Parliament. That's called Opposition. There is still work to be done by a Leader of the Opposition acting ruthlessly as such, particularly over the adoption of the show-stopping Empty Chair Policy until the Council of Ministers meets in public and publishes an Official Report akin to Hansard, and over the restoration of the annual votes on the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies.

The backbench Conservative Right is disaffected, so these challenges to put up or shut up, on the issue about which it claims to care the most, might well yield considerable results. Meanwhile, what of the Lib Dems? They were EU enthusiasts when they saw no hope of office at Westminster. But those days are gone, and everything about the EU - a legislature which meets in secret, for heaven's sake - is contrary to everything for which they stand. That is sharply true of the CAP and the CFP, and the CFP hits several centres of Lib Dem support particularly hard.

On further Scottish and Welsh devolution, it would be entirely consistent and honourable for the party that legislated for the present arrangements to say that that the matter should be left there, which is certainly the private view of most of its MPs from Scotland and Wales, and the public view of a few of them. On that basis, there is another Maastricht-style alliance to be built with the backbench Conservative Right. It was also the absence of the hope of office at Westminster, combined with the positive expectation of it at Holyrood and Cardiff, that made the Lib Dems enthusiasts for devolution. But they are now in office at Westminster while no longer in office either at Holyrood or, for quite a while, at Cardiff. Scottish and Welsh Lib Dem support is concentrated in areas where devolution has never been terribly popular, and the party is not doing very well at all in Wales.

As local communitarian populists and as battlers for single issues, Lib Dems are interested only in institutions that deliver the goods. Both on the EU and on further devolution, they, too, can say with entirely straight faces that having supported the creation of what currently exists does not necessarily compel support for anything further. At least on their back benches, they might very well say so publicly, as they already do privately. Especially if they are given opportunities to do so. By the Leader of the Opposition. Ed Miliband, over to you.

And over to you on the circulating proposal to abolish all three Armed Forces by merging them into some sort of giant Marine Corps, under overall American command within the single EU structure that America has favoured since the 1940s. On the other side of the House are the Tories, together with a party largely based in rural Scotland, Mid-Wales, the West Country and North Northumberland. Defy them to explain their support for abolishing any, never mind all, of the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Define instead your agenda of saving and restoring the historic regimental system, rebuilding the Navy, saving the RAF, placing them all under strictly British command, and only ever using them strictly to defend British territory, citizens or interests, not to make the world anew to some academic blueprint. Propose to pay for it by, among other things, scrapping Trident. And dare the parties opposite to disagree. Including in the division lobbies of the House of Commons.

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