Daily catch-up: lessons for Cameron in the referendum on Europe that never happened

Tony Blair didn’t hold one because he would lose; David Cameron is holding one because he thinks he will win

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I commented the other day on Denis MacShane’s Brexit, his book predicting that Britain will eventually leave the EU, which is about to be re-issued.

It provides useful source material for that part of the Blair Government course at King’s College, London, which I teach with Jon Davis, which deals with Blair’s desire for Britain to join the euro. My thesis has long been that, while Blair was sincere in trying to adopt the euro, it was never going to happen – not, primarily, because Gordon Brown opposed it but because the required referendum was unwinnable. (Further, the reason it was unwinnable was because joining the euro was a really bad idea.)

MacShane quotes Blair as recognising the potentially disastrous consequences of holding a referendum and losing it:

“When taxed about holding a referendum on the euro early in his premiership when his popularity and authority were at their highest, Blair would respond bitterly: ‘I am not going down in f–ing history as the prime minister who took Britain out of Europe.’”

MacShane also observes that Blair’s ally and friend, Goran Persson, the Swedish social democratic prime minister, “organised a referendum on Sweden joining the euro in 2003, confident that the Swedes would say Yes. They said No. His government never recovered.”

Yet MacShane, like so many of Labour's ardent pro-Europeans, refuses to accept that it could not be done. He implies that Brown’s objections, codified in the five economic tests drawn up by Brown’s adviser Ed Balls, were purely tactical. When MacShane was Europe Minister, he says that Balls once joked to him that “he could never actually remember what the five economic tests were”. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t sensible.

Sometimes MacShane suggests that Blair was naive about Europe. From his diary for 22 February 2001, he quotes a conversation with Stephen Wall, Blair’s civil service Europe adviser. Gerhard Schröder had told Blair: “Perhaps in private I might be a bit closer to your view Tony, but as Chancellor of Germany it is the integrationist route that I will support and express publicly as my position.” Wall told MacShane that Blair was shocked by this. “I found that baffling," comments MacShane, “since the absolutely central core of German policy is for Germany not to express itself aggressively and openly as a unilateral nation state with independent, nationally decided economic, monetary, trade, immigration or defence policy”.

At other times, MacShane complains that Blair wasn’t naive enough, rehearsing the old pro-European lament: “Blair made little effort to enthuse people about Europe or try and reverse the steadily increasing Euroscepticism in political and public life.” As if Blair had such powers that he could turn public opinion on a fundamental question by magic.

But later he recounts how “Tony Blair turned to me with a sad look in his eyes as the Royal Air Force aeroplane taking us back from a meeting in Brussels was getting ready to take off. ‘How can I do anything on Europe with the tabloids we've got, Denis?’” Wisely, MacShane does not attempt to answer this question.

He complains to his diary about “the little maggots at Number 10” who come in and say his article for an Italian newspaper shouldn’t be published. “If we don’t explain why we are doing things then people will always assume the worst.” As this was in February 2004, people would have assumed the worst and trying to “explain” anything would have made it worse still.

He has a nice line about the passing of the pro-Europeans. “The generation of Labour politicians who had turned around the party and made it into a pro-European party 25 years ago have died, retired or, like Peter Mandelson, passed into the netherworld of the House of Lords.”

But actually, the Parliamentary Labour Party is essentially pro-European in a way that it has never been. Which makes it all the more surprising that party members and supporters are about to elect a pre-1983 Eurosceptic as leader. Which is partly because the grassroots left sees “austerity” imposed by a German-led core on the EU periphery as capitalist plot against decent Greek people, as opposed to the product of a flawed currency union.

The euro, though, is one thing. Leaving the EU altogether is quite another: that is a winnable referendum and I think David Cameron will win it.