Most of us are familiar with the situation: you are having a rather trivial conversation at a party, when suddenly you become aware that a couple of other people nearby are discussing something which interests you much more – and so you somehow manage to continue with your own inconsequential chatter while absorbing the gist of the neighbouring conversation.
On this occasion – it was almost four years ago – I had become transfixed by the discussion between the then head of the Civil Service, Andrew Turnbull, and the French Ambassador, Gerard Errera. It went something like this; Turnbull: I hope that your Government will not bow to pressure to hold a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. It would make things difficult for us. Errera: Mmm, I do see that.
There was a sort of threat – I hope that is not being too cynical – in the British Cabinet Secretary's remark. I understood him to mean that if President Chirac were to announce a referendum, then Mr Blair might have to do the same; but we all must understand that the British wouldn't vote "yes". Result: collapse of Constitutional Treaty.
As we now know, in April 2004 Mr Blair, having said "there will not be a referendum" grandiloquently announced to Parliament that "the electorate should be asked for their opinion ... Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined." As we also now know, this forced Chirac – furious at Blair's volte-face – to hold a plebiscite in France on the Constitutional Treaty; the French voted no, as a result of which the issue was not put to the British people, and the battle was not joined.
In the short term, Mr Blair's pledge got him out of an awkward political hole. A general election was about a year away, and the Murdoch press – in particular the Sun – had signalled that it would find it difficult to back Labour if there was no referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. A friend who saw Mr Blair in the week after he made his U-turn on a referendum told me that the then Prime Minister was cock-a-hoop, not because he was completely convinced that he would win such a referendum, but because he had dished the Conservatives. Not for the first time, Mr Blair had shown that his main criterion for any domestic policy was: would it steal territory from the Tories?
The Government's decision last week to double the inheritance tax threshold for married couples demonstrates that this remains the fundamental characteristic of New Labour ; indeed, those who study these matters say that the then Chancellor Brown was one of those who had convinced Mr Blair to commit to a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. If so, then Gordon Brown is now paying the long-term strategic price for his own short-term political fix.
I do not propose to engage in the almost talmudic discussions as to whether the "EU Reform Treaty" is so close to the original Constitutional Treaty as to make no difference. I am content to take the word of the admirably blunt German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that "the substance of the Constitution is preserved. That is a fact." We might also note the remarks of the Belgian Foreign Minister, Karel de Gucht: "The aim of the Constitutional Treaty was to be more readable; the aim of this treaty is to be unreadable ... The Constitution aimed to be clear, whereas this Treaty had to be unclear. It is a success." What both Merkel and de Gucht seem to be saying is: we've cut out all the colourful headline stuff about flags and anthems, but the small print is just as it was.
It is, of course, not identical, and the description of it by some Euro-sceptics as "largely identical" is an assault on the English language: something either is or is not identical – there's no such thing as "largely identical twins." Morally, if not logically, however, Gordon Brown is obliged to honour the 2005 election manifesto commitment: "The new Constitutional Treaty ensures the new Europe can work effectively ... we will put it to the British people in a referendum".
Mr Brown now puts the argument that he is negotiating "red lines", which mean that the revised Treaty would not make such inroads into British sovereignty as to require a plebiscite. Bizarrely, he has declared that only "if the amending Treaty was not what we wanted, then we would have a referendum." I'm sure that other EU leaders will have laughed at this attempt at a threat: it is simply not believable that this – or any other – Government would call for a referendum to endorse a treaty which it has itself declared to be undesirable.
More to the point, the four opt-outs which the Government is negotiating – on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Home Affairs, Foreign Policy and Tax – are the same guarantees that they gave over the original Constitutional Treaty, on which a referendum was nevertheless promised.
It is true that there are some long-standing objections to having a referendum – this is a parliamentary democracy (translation: mind your own business); or, plebiscites tend to be votes on anything but the precise issue at stake (translation: you lot are much too thick to understand what this is about). Yet having backed a referendum during the last election, this particular Government is in no position to make any of the "principled" arguments against one now.
Worst of all, if it continues to set its face against a popular vote on the revised Treaty, then a party which claims to be fighting against what it declares to be destructive euro-scepticism will be doing more to advance the cause of such discontent than anything that UKIP or the Conservative Party could dream up. That, presumably, is why some of the most passionate British supporters of the EU are beseeching the Labour Party to honour the pledge given at the last General Election.
The problem for Gordon Brown is, yet again, his innate pessimism. If he was too apprehensive to call a General Election when he did not have a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, how much more concerned the cautious Caledonian will be about the prospects of winning a referendum in a country which has shown itself to be profoundly sceptical about grand schemes of European integration, especially since our humiliating exit from the European Monetary System.
The great calculator is probably right that such a referendum would be extremely difficult to win. However Mr Brown will also be able to calculate that the political damage caused by continued refusal to hold a popular vote on this issue could be even greater than that caused by losing such a vote.
Still, we mustn't sympathise unduly with Gordon in this predicament. He wanted to be Prime Minister more than anything else in the world. How he conducts himself over this will tell us if he is up to the job.Reuse content