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John Major: Tiptoeing Into Europe

Clark Kent of British politics hides his bent toward super-Europe

POOR John Major: Even when he wins, he loses. The latest opinion poll, taken after his remarkably successful gamble in challenging his critics within the Conservative Party, showed that his electoral fortunes had risen by precisely one percentage point, to 25 percent. A large proportion of his fellow citizens regard him as a loser (56 percent), weak (61 percent), and unimpressive (68 percent). The ordinary, unexcitable qualities that in 1990 got him elected leader of the Tory Party soon started to work against him. Once, his great advantage was that he was not Margaret Thatcher; not anymore. Above all, people don't like so much division and argument in the governing party.

The division has of course been over Europe. It was a subject that divided the Labour government in 1974-75, and after Mrs. Thatcher was bundled out of office five years ago it came back to divide the Conservatives. Then, as now, unknown MPs found themselves, to their great delight, being courted by newspapers and television with an assiduity which only Cabinet ministers can usually expect. The attention became too good to give up merely for the sake of party unity; so the dispute went on. The rebels weren't many in number, but they tended to drown out the voices of their opponents by the intensity of their argument. Much the same thing happened in 1975. Then the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, called a national referendum that was won by a 2-to-1 majority by the pro-Europeans.

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In those days, John Major was strongly pro-European; many of his generation of Conservatives were and are. My guess is that his fundamental instincts haven't changed in the slightest. His problem has been that there are still many resentful Thatcherites in the parliamentary party, and his majority in the House of Commons (unlike Margaret Thatcher's) is so slim, that he has had to pretend to be skeptical about Europe to hold his party together.

Now, though, he has defeated his opponents and can be his own man. True, the win wasn't overwhelming; in fact it was much less than Major and his team had hoped for. But it has silenced his critics, and he has already begun to set the tone for the remaining two years of his government: a moderate, careful pro-European approach. It won't be too enthusiastic. John Major may be an instinctive pro-European, but he doesn't want a European super-state with a powerful, intrusive government based in Brussels. Not that this is what the Maastricht Treaty called for; but it is how Maastritcht has been presented to the British public, and it would be hard for Major to seem too favorable toward it now. Nor is he enthusiastic about a single European currency; his experiences when the pound fell out of the European Monetary System in 1992 were enough to put him off the whole experiment for good. Nevertheless he seems to believe that being on the fringes of European economic and monetary union without actually being part of it could be seriously damaging.

The key to his whole European approach was the appointment of a new foreign secretary. The outgoing one, Douglas Hurd, was a remarkable man; but Bosnia and the Europe issue filled his last years in office with frustration, and he was glad to go. His place has now been taken by Malcolm Rifkind, who shares Major's softly-softly European views. Over the last couple of years Rifkind has studiously tried to give the impression he was skeptical about Europe: such were the pressures Thatcherites managed to exert on the Conservative leadership.

Now, though, the Thatcherites have been defeated, and it should be easier for Major and Rifkind to be more Euro-friendly. Still, some things will hold them back. John Major tried to unite his unruly party by accusing the opposition Labour leadership of being prepared to do anything Brussels wanted, regardless of Britain's interest; for that reason alone it will be difficult for him to be too malleable when he sits round the table with other EU leaders. And of course the anti-European, Thatcherite wing of the Conservative party has only been quieted, not silenced. There may now be fewer pressures on him to pretend to be anti-European, but the answer to the old cliche, ''Will the real John Major please stand up?'' seems to be: Yes, but not to his full height.

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