Alan Watkins: Mr Gordon Brown can jolly well wait

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The Independent Online

For the last week I have been reading sapient articles on the condition of France by commentators who would be hard put to it to order themselves a cup of coffee at the Gare du Nord. For myself, I remember the time, just after the last war, when the authorities decided that more coal miners were needed. To this end, they resolved to import miners from Poland. The South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers said that if any Poles arrived in the valleys, there would be big trouble.

For the last week I have been reading sapient articles on the condition of France by commentators who would be hard put to it to order themselves a cup of coffee at the Gare du Nord. For myself, I remember the time, just after the last war, when the authorities decided that more coal miners were needed. To this end, they resolved to import miners from Poland. The South Wales area of the National Union of Mineworkers said that if any Poles arrived in the valleys, there would be big trouble.

This was a region that had long been dominated by the Communists, though there was also a strong Syndicalist tradition. Frequent references to the brotherhood of man were commonplace. Even so, the lads from the lodges did not want any Poles about the place. The National Coal Board quickly had second thoughts.

As then, so now, though the unwanted Poles are plumbers rather than miners: the precise occupation being shorthand for any skilled or semi-skilled worker who is prepared to work hard for relatively low wages. I have a certain sympathy for the French, as I had for my fellow countrymen in 1946.

Likewise, it is extraordinary that Mr Tony Blair, having made this country the third most hated in the world - the first and second being, respectively, the United States and Israel - now wants to make everybody work at least 48 hours a week. I am reminded of what the late Denis Compton, by then engaged in journalism and public relations, said on being told of Edward Heath's introduction of the three-day week: "I'm not working an extra day for anyone."

The minister who is newly responsible for these matters, Mr Alan Johnson, is not like this. He takes a pride in this country's opt-out from the present European limits. This comes from a minister belonging to a party which fought Sir (as he then wasn't) John Major's government on the opt-out from the social chapter in the Maastricht Treaty. Mr Blair was not then leader - that was still John Smith - but Mr Geoffrey Hoon played a prominent and valuable part in the proceedings.

Today Mr Johnson, a trade unionist himself, purports to regard the 48-hour limit as an unjustifiable limitation on freedom. This is rich, not to say fruity, coming as it does from a member of a government which specialises in stopping people from doing what they want to do (the reverse of what Mr Blair once called "libertarian nonsense"). In fact it has nothing to do with freedom, as both Mr Jacques Chirac and the French voters realise only too well. It is to do with making life easier for capitalists.

On this, at least, Mr Chirac and his ungrateful voters are at one. Mr Johnson's arguments are reminiscent of those employed by extreme economic liberals in the 19th century. Not only does stopping small boys from being sent up chimneys deprive them of their freedom. More: they actively enjoy being sent up chimneys as a consequence of their playful, boyish nature.

To a certain extent, Mr Chirac has brought his troubles on himself by imitating Mr Blair, always a dangerous thing to do. That, at any rate, is the current theory. Against it, we should remember that his predecessor François Mitterrand held a referendum on Maastricht which he very nearly lost, though he had no legal need to hold it. We did nothing of the kind. The parliamentary position was the one which, similarly, Mr Blair took initially here, supported by ministers such as Mr Peter Hain, who described the new European constitution as a tidying up of loose ends.

The Conservatives then saw the refusal of a referendum as a chance to put Mr Blair on the back foot by making it an "issue". Like Disraeli, Mr Blair saw the opportunity to steal the other party's clothes. This hallowed political practice, whether called "triangulation" or something else, did not start with Mr Blair or even with Mr Bill Clinton.

It is an open question whether the document would have fared better in France and Holland if it had been called a treaty rather than a constitution. It was called a constitution largely to gratify the vanity of the former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. As politicians become older, they want to be remembered for something specific that can appear in the index of some history book as yet unwritten.

In this country, there was no need for a referendum, irrespective of whether the document had been called a treaty or a constitution. What there was a need of, whatever it had been called, was approval by Parliament. This is because all European treaties require parliamentary approval before ratification. The provision is in an Act of 1978. It was inserted by the Callaghan government as a sop to Euro-suspicious backbenchers of that day in exchange for direct elections to the European Parliament.

It is an admirable provision, not so much because of its somewhat squalid origins as because all treaties should be subject to prior parliamentary approval. As it is, most treaties can be ratified under the royal prerogative, which in practice means on the say-so of ministers or, rather, of civil servants. Indeed, when the Maastricht debate was going particularly badly for the then government in 1993, No 10 - whether ignorantly or mendaciously - gave out that the debate was more or less a courtesy to the legislators and that the treaty could be ratified by prerogative at any time of the Major government's choosing. This was not so. Eventually the treaty got through, though not before one of its main provisions had been defeated, to be restored next day, together with an accompanying vote of confidence.

It is doubtful whether we should have seen such parliamentary high jinks in 2006. Mr Blair's majority is much bigger than Sir John's was on that earlier occasion. Mr Michael Howard says he wants the debate and the ensuing referendum to take place. This is more a tease than anything else. Mr Blair did, after all, say that the referendum would be held irrespective of any French result. If it were held, Mr Blair would very likely lose it. By next year, in any case, Mr Howard will have retired to the back benches, or somewhere.

And Mr Blair? He will be busier. True, he will not have to fight a referendum campaign. His heart might have been in it but he would have feared he would lose it. In the circumstances, he would not have gone out in triumph. As things are, the opportunity of glory has been removed. But then, so also has the risk of humiliation. The Prime Minister can find all manner of other fanciful projects, from the salvation of Africa to the leadership of some new Europe. And Mr Gordon Brown can jolly well wait.

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