Another fine mess for Gordon to clear up

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The Independent Online

Let us go then, you and I, back into that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday, when a Labour government last decided to have a referendum on Europe. The policy had been arrived at in opposition, when Edward Heath was Prime Minister. It had emanated from the National Executive Committee - a more powerful, more eccentric, less obedient body in those days than it is now - and its principal mover was Mr Tony Benn, then on his progress to the left.

Someone else who was equally enthusiastic was Richard Crossman, who had recently realised his life's ambition by becoming editor of the New Statesman. I was then political correspondent of the paper. Crossman arranged for me to go and see Mr Benn at his house in Holland Park.

Visiting politicians in their homes or, for that matter, in their offices has never, I confess, greatly appealed to me. I prefer to meet them on neutral territory. On this occasion, however, I fell in with Crossman's plans without having one of our numerous rows: partly because I did not want to hurt his feelings and partly because I thought it might turn out to be an interesting occasion.

Mr Benn was charm itself as he ushered me into his basement workroom containing tape recordings rather than books. He showed me to an armchair with a side table beside it on my right. On the table rested an impressive composition consisting of a cut-glass tumbler, a small cut-glass jug of water, some ice and a bottle of Chivas Regal whisky.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't terribly like whisky."

"I thought all journalists drank whisky," Mr Benn said. And, with evident irritation, for his plans had been impeded:

"What would you like?"

I said some lager would be fine. Mr Benn moved out of the room and yelled:

"Caroline, do we have any lager?"

"We finished the last bottle on Tuesday," she shouted back.

He made arrangements for the beer to be obtained from some nearby off-licence or shop. Mr Anthony Howard, then a colleague of mine, rebuked me afterwards, saying I should have drunk Mr Benn's whisky without making a fuss.

Mr Benn was then against our involvement with Europe. He had changed his position from the one he had occupied in the 1960s when, as WedgBenn of MinTech, he thought the Common Market was the only organisation with enough force at its disposal to control the dreaded multinationals. He now wanted us out of Europe. That was why - as the most fecund constitutional innovator of the entire post-war period - he had come up with the referendum.

Crossman, at any rate, had an additional motive. He wanted to isolate the Euro-enthusiasts in the party. He regarded them as a disruptive force akin to the Bevanites in the 1950s, a party within a party. As Crossman had himself been an influential Bevanite, even if on the unpredictable side, and had been treated with remarkable tolerance by everyone except Aneurin Bevan, this struck me as rich, not to say fruity. In particular, he wanted to get Roy Jenkins out of the party. Quite why he felt so strongly about Roy puzzled me then, as it does still. The two possessed a wary respect for each other. They both liked each other more than either of them liked, say, Denis Healey. But so it was.

Crossman succeeded beyond his expectations. In 1972, when the referendum became party policy, Jenkins promptly resigned as deputy leader. In 1976 he left Labour politics entirely to go to Brussels as chairman of the Commission. And in 1981 he and the three others formed the SDP. So Mr Benn, Crossman and James Callaghan (who refused to give Jenkins the Foreign Office in 1976) have some claim to be regarded as the true fathers of the SDP.

What Mr Benn managed in 1972, Mr Rupert Murdoch has accomplished over 30 years later. Or it may be that his man-of-business Mr Irwin Stelzer did it on his behalf, for Mr Murdoch is a busy man, with much to occupy his mind, in addition to having to issue instructions to the Prime Minister. Perhaps Mr Jack Straw and Mr Gordon Brown took a hand as well. But then, they might have had in their heads, equally, the prospect that at least one of Mr Murdoch's papers, even The Sun itself, would turn on the Government if Mr Tony Blair did not announce a referendum on the European constitution.

What has happened certainly cannot be represented as some kind of return to cabinet government. The referendum was in various Murdoch papers weeks ago; Mr John Rentoul wrote of it as a certainty in this paper last week; it was vaingloriously proclaimed as a scoop for the BBC in the news bulletins on Sunday; Mr Blair announced it in the House on Tuesday; and the Cabinet formally ratified it on Thursday, like the enfeebled board of a corrupt company waving through some fraudulent accounts.

Interviewed on Newsnight at the beginning of the week, Mr Straw said in effect that "24-hour news" made cabinet government virtually impossible. Well, the simple solution is surely for the Cabinet to take the decision first and to announce it afterwards. Harold Wilson looks like a man of stern and unbending principle compared to Mr Blair. He does not so much remind me of the oft-cited grand old Duke of York as of the two little dicky-birds sitting on the wall:

"Fly away Peter, fly away Paul.

Come back Peter, come back Paul."

Wilson would, at any rate, have cemented his story, however implausible, firmly in his mind and then stuck to it in succeeding speeches, statements and press conferences. Mr Blair, by contrast, has been all over the place, legs collapsing, arms flailing, as if he is suffering from the political form of epilepsy.

For example, he said quite clearly at Prime Minister's Questions (it was not, as some commentators have written, a "hint") that, if the populace voted No, the Government could always avail itself of the Irish solution. It could ask the question again, though after the initial rejection of the Nice Treaty the Irish government modified the question slightly in a way which the Electoral Commission would not allow in this country. Next day, at his press conference, Mr Blair had turned about: a No meant No. And he was not at all clear about what would happen after a No vote.

In 1975 everyone thought, to begin with, that the citizens would also vote No. In fact they voted Yes by two to one. This time, however, the Government's expenditure and propaganda will be limited by the Electoral Commission. But by autumn 2005 Mr Blair may no longer be around to control matters. He may have left it to Mr Brown to clear up the mess instead.