Farewell Margaret Thatcher! Hail Harold Wilson! This is a most unexpected twist in the row over the war. Normally Tony Blair likes to portray himself as Thatcher-like in style, a conviction politician with a radical purpose. Yet now it is the ghost of the ultimate pragmatist, Harold Wilson, who looms over his increasingly frenzied administration. When Dr John Reid accused "rogue elements from the security services" of briefing against the Government he evoked memories of Wilson's own paranoia in this area. Wilson suspected rogue elements of being here, there and everywhere. In this instance Dr Reid was acting under instructions from Downing Street. The spies were back. Blair had cast aside Thatcher as a role model and returned us to the days of old Labour.
The Prime Minister has more in common with Wilson than he dares to realise. It is not just a rogue spy or two that links them. When Wilson led a landslide government in the 1960s there was the same sense of shapelessness that afflicts Labour's ragged second term now. More ominously, as far as Blair is concerned, Wilson was regarded as a great moderniser and was adored by the media in the early years of his leadership: he declared he would modernise Britain. The newspapers trumpeted his crusading aspirations without even noting that they were conveniently vague. Perceptions of the pipe-smoking premier changed dramatically after a single event - the devaluation of the pound in 1967. The crusading moderniser had metamorphosed into a leader who could not be trusted to run the economy. Nothing was ever the same for him again.
New Labour's moderniser has been damaged in the same way by the war against Iraq. For Blair I suspect nothing will be the same again. Already a number of Labour MPs and ministers - New Labour to the end of their fingertips - speak now of their leader as some did of Wilson: "At least he wins elections."
More immediately Blair and Wilson have something else in common: both are extremely odd targets for the security services, however rogue the elements. As Roy Jenkins once observed of Wilson: "With his light ideological baggage the security services must have been highly eccentric to regard him as a dangerous communist." Blair is even more rootless in his ideology. I doubt if right-wingers in the security services see him as a lefty that they need to undermine.
But as Robin Cook has pointed out, the main focus of this story should not be on Blair's relationship with the intelligence services, but on his relationship with the intelligence material that was provided for him. How is it that some of the more alarmist material was wrong? And why did he choose to believe it with such unquestioning passion? Bernard Donoghue, Wilson's senior adviser in the 1970s, pointed out last week that Wilson viewed intelligence material with great scepticism. What a shame that Blair does not share this trait. Why did he take the worst accounts of Saddam's armoury at face value?
While that question remains unanswered it is fortunate that the Prime Minister is not about to announce a referendum on the euro, accompanied by a passionate "trust me" campaign. In the current climate, if he were to declare that he believed passionately that it was in the country's interests to join the euro the "no" vote would be overwhelming. With good cause voters would reflect on his equally passionate belief last September that Saddam's weapons represented a "growing" threat to this country. We pro-Europeans are getting impatient, but not impatient enough to rush into a referendum that would be lost.
On this point the ghost of Wilson can lend his new prime ministerial friend a helping hand. When Wilson decided, after many twists and turns, that he supported Britain's membership of the Common Market he put the case purely in terms of Britain's national interest. Having won two elections by a tiny margin in 1974, Wilson declared that he was going to "renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership" to get a better deal for the country. Most of his colleagues thought that the subsequent negotiations were largely cosmetic, that the terms were hardly renegotiated at all. This is not the view of others, including the foreign secretary, Jim Callaghan, who spent many a sleepless night in Brussels coming up with a new package. Whether substantial or not, the device worked. In 1975 Wilson called a referendum on Britain's continued membership. His honeymoon phase had passed years before, but he won with a massive majority. Of course, he had a much easier task than Blair faces over the euro. The newspapers were largely in favour and the question posed was whether Britain should remain in the Common Market, not whether it should join a new currency. Even so, the polls suggested a large majority were against Wilson until the months leading up to the referendum. He helped to turn this round, by his wily renegotiations.
Blair seeks to adopt what he has described privately as the Gaullist approach, showing that it is in the national interest for Britain to be at the heart of Europe. After Gordon Brown has announced tomorrow that Britain is not yet ready to join the euro, I suggest that Blair dons a Gannex raincoat, pops a pipe into his mouth, and starts to move deftly towards a referendum. Blair and Brown should announce specific policies - in the national interest, of course - to ensure that we are ready to join soon. In the areas where they judge that Europe is not ready for Britain Blair should take his Wilsonian mackintosh to Brussels to negotiate our terms of entry.
In The Independent 10 days ago I suggested a way of dealing with these manic calls for a referendum on the Convention on the future of the EU. Blair should prepare to announce a two-questioned referendum held on the same day - one on the revised European constitution, the other on whether Britain should join the euro. That way he can ask with complete sincerity the question that Wilson posed in 1975: Do we want to be part of Europe or do we want to pull out? A double "no" vote would mean inevitable withdrawal, as some senior Conservatives would prefer. A double "yes" vote would mean that Britain had finally resolved what Blair has described as its ambiguity towards Europe, an ambiguity he has deepened by his war against Iraq.
Europe: in or out? When put in such stark terms Blair, with his negotiated terms for entering the euro, would win as easily as Wilson did in his fading years. Leaders can still win referendums even when they have made terrible misjudgements that change the way they are perceived.Reuse content