Alan Watkins: Beware of the dead rising from the grave

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The Independent Online

In the 1920s a less well-known member of the Bloomsbury Group took up with an attractive girl of normal tastes. When a friend asked her how they were getting on, she replied: "He's surprisingly nice, but he will spend half the night sitting on the bed talking about sex."

One is tempted to add: "How like, how very like, our own dear Prime Minister." Not in relation to sex, of course - for here we have the word of Cherie, Mrs Blair, that he is a man of prodigious appetites - but to various other aspects of policy. In particular, he makes a habit of talking about referendums, giving a firm promise to hold one on whatever topic takes his fancy or serves his immediate purposes.

It is often forgotten that he once promised a referendum on electoral reform. The 1997 manifesto said: "We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system." Five years previously, Neil Kinnock had flirted with electoral reform. More recently, Mr Peter Mandelson and Mr Robin Cook had urged its potential benefits - as they, or their successors, may well do again after the next election. Even so, there was no irresistible political force behind the demand. After the 1997 result, Mr Tony Blair appeared to be happy to forget all about it. After his memory was activated, he appointed Roy Jenkins to head a committee on the subject. The elder statesman worked quickly and industriously and produced an elegant report, recommending the alternative vote (the ballot paper marked 1, 2, 3,...) with a topping-up element nationally.

Then nothing whatever happened. It is an illustration of Jenkins's generosity of character that, having given several months of his life to Mr Blair, he did not once recriminate with him about the failure to carry his work forward, though he may have been disappointed privately. Certainly we heard nothing more about the promise of a referendum.

This, however, did nothing to diminish Mr Blair's enthusiasm for the device in another connection. The 2001 manifesto said: "We will engage fully in Europe ... and insist that the British people have the final say on any proposal to join the euro ... We will now ... give British people the final say in any referendum on the single currency."

The whole topic has been of obsessive interest to the political classes since 1997. That was when Mr Gordon Brown first laid down his five tests, the subject of endless analysis and exegesis. I was diverted by the story, in one of the numerous recent accounts of the relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown, of the Prime Minister's surprise that the Chancellor had carried out an allegedly unbiased review of the tests, instead of arriving at a conclusion first and finding out the reasons to justify it afterwards. However dispassionate his analysis may have been, I still think Mr Brown would always have had a disinclination to join the euro.

If at any time in the last eight years I had been asked to provide sage advice for an ambitious young political journalist, I should have said: "Sarah, write about the euro." The expensive press is fascinated by the subject. At least two of its number, The Times and the Financial Times, aim to appeal to the Mr Moneybags of this world, who, it is universally assumed, are even more in thrall to it. As for the cheap press, the story can always be presented in terms of the froideur between Mr Brown and Mr Blair.

Now that advice would, I fear, be sadly out of date. How are the mighty fallen! The euro has joined the balance of payments, a floating exchange rate and the position of sterling as a reserve currency as a topic which once detained Cabinets and kept leader-writers from their armchairs but is now of little concern to anyone. Indeed, the question is not whether we should join it, and when, but whether the other countries will continue to remain part of it. So Mr Blair can forget about his referendum.

Most people, I find, confuse the euro-referendum with the one on the European constitution. Mr Blair started off by claiming that the latter was a question of detail only, a tidying-up of loose ends, as Mr Peter Hain was to put it, a sentiment in which he was loyally echoed by various other members of the Government

Then the Conservatives promised to offer a referendum of their own, if the Government would not. The line changed. Mr Blair saw his opportunity to steal the Tory clothes and, at the same time, to keep Europe out of the election campaign. In this he was largely successful, though arguably the relegation of Europe to the substitutes' bench was even more convenient for the Conservatives than for Labour.

Earlier, Mr Jacques Chirac had asked Mr Blair whether he was serious about the referendum. Would he really hold it? Mr Blair replied that he was and he would. Mr Chirac then proceeded to have his own referendum, with consequences which we know. In this country, it is always considered clever - or, at any rate, justifiable - to let down the French on the reasoning that, if left to their own devices, they would behave in a much worse way towards us.

The wisdom of the wise in this country is that the treaty is now dead. All that remains to be done is to give it decent burial. Yet Mr Jack Straw did not go quite as far as most people had expected in the House last Monday. True, he did not promise a resurrection: what he seemed to have more in mind was spare-part surgery. Neither this nor simple death is wholly straightforward. Declaration 30 of the treaty goes: "The conference notes that if, two years after the signature of the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, four-fifths of the member states have ratified it and one or more member states have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter will be referred to the European Council."

This seems to me to envisage ratification as a continuous process which has to be completed before November 2006. Nor is there anything, as far as I can see, to make a referendum necessary: some countries have employed one, while others have not. What is special about this country is that ratification has to come about as a result of proceedings in Parliament, because the treaty involved is a European treaty.

But Mr Blair, having promised a referendum, could hardly now go down this other, purely parliamentary path. Suppose the European Council, or some other high authority, or several of them, instruct Mr Blair to go through with his promised referendum? Perhaps he will have to hold it after all. I see trouble ahead.

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