There's no point in a referendum. It won't even win votes Better ways to shift votes than calling referendums A stream that went underground has become a torrent

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
WHEN Harold Macmillan had the first of his spectacular defence disasters over 35 years ago - the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile, followed shortly afterwards by the jettisoning of Skybolt - the great cartoonist Vicky showed him as Supermac saying: "Ha, ha, this puts old Gaitskell in an awful dilemma." He was making fun of a Conservative prime minister claiming that a severe embarrassment for his government would be even more of one for the opposition.

The trouble was that it was no joke. Vicky was such an acute observer that many of his humorous conceits, notably the creation of Supermac himself, turned out to be no more than statements of the sober truth. So it was on this occasion. The defence difficulties of the 1959 Conservative government caused more discord in the opposition than they did among the Conservatives. The ill-tempered warfare ceased only with the election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1964, after which the party conveniently forgot his promise to abolish the independent nuclear deterrent and to renegotiate the Nassau Agreement under which Macmillan had obtained Polaris from the United States in place of the grounded Skybolt.

In politics issues come and go, according to the fashion of the day and the needs of the moment. At present, defence is no longer a substantial issue, either between or within the parties. For much of the 19th century, the main issue was the electoral system itself, which may come back into fashion if Mr Tony Blair is elected. Then we had a period, lasting up to the First World War and beyond it, when the topics of the day were tariff reform, the House of Lords and Ireland.

On Ireland we now have a contrived agreement between the front benches which does not reflect the divisions between and within the parties. The House of Lords, like the electoral system, may return to prominence in the late 1990s. The tariff controversy - protection or free trade - has assumed a new form in Europe. The stream we had thought had gone underground has emerged not as a harmless trickle but as a raging torrent, which has already carried away two chancellors, a prime minister and a leader of the House in, respectively, Lord Lawson, Mr Norman Lamont, Lady Thatcher and Lord Howe.

Mr Blair has received perhaps insufficient credit for keeping the People's Party away from these treacherous banks. There has been no repetition of the defence row of 1959-64 or the European (then called the Common Market) dispute of 1970-75. This ended with the referendum of 1975, which was the inspiration of Mr Tony Benn. It was then cleverly adopted by Wilson to serve completely the opposite purpose: not to get us out of Europe but to keep us in and, additionally, to unite Labour.

Someone wrote last week that it was Labour's referendum which had laid the foundations for the breakaway of Lord Jenkins and the others to form the Social Democrats. This can hardly have been so, for the referendum gave them precisely what they had always wanted, Britain in Europe. What had gone before was, as Lord Jenkins explains in his memoirs, more crucial to the formation of the SDP: the disgust, including the self-disgust, brought about by the whipped votes against the Heath government on minor points, after 69 Labour members had already supported it on the principle of entry.

The referendum promised by Mr John Major is certainly intended likewise to prevent any breakaway from the Conservative Party. The party in office is behaving over Europe in exactly the same way as the Labour Party in opposition used to over a variety of topics. For a single currency to be a pressing concern to the Conservatives, there must be, first, such a currency in existence and, second, a Conservative government. The former is more likely than the latter. Why then all this fuss? There is not the slightest need for it, except a psychological one inside the Tory party.

It is difficult to see why Mr Kenneth Clarke should have donned his combat- gear as he was reported to have done, at one minute threatening resignation, at the next withdrawing his threat, or claiming to have been misunderstood about it. As I have indicated in this column several times, correctly anticipating last week's announcement, a referendum in the form in which it is proposed can be of benefit only to Mr Clarke and the Europhiles.

To begin with, the Cabinet must be in favour of joining the single currency. This must then be approved by Parliament. Certainly it would be possible for the Commons to reject the recommen- dation. But that would almost inevitably mean the fall of the government. If this did not happen, the proposal would be put to the people, supported by a united cabinet, by Parliament and, we may be fairly sure, by the bulk of supposedly respectable opinion. Mr Michael Portillo, who (appearances to the contrary) is not wholly foolish, has seen this. That is why he has from the beginning been against any promise of a referendum on a single currency. It is hard to understand why Mr Clarke, who is at least as acute politically as Mr Portillo, has not seen it as well.

Part of the explanation is, I suspect, that Mr Clarke enjoys being depicted as the Europhiles' friend. Unlike Mr Malcolm Rifkind, say, he shows no disposition to suck up to the Europhobes by supporting measures of which they approve, even though they may be mistaken in their approval. He relishes being the man they love to hate. "They" in this case need not necessarily be Europhobes but merely those who claim to be in mystical communion with popular opinion. As Mr Andrew Neil put it in his column in the Daily Mail:

"When Nigel Lawson was chancellor he had the pound `shadow' the Deutschmark without his prime minister's permission - and was sacked for his pains. Now we have a chancellor who, in his mind, is already shadowing a single European currency. But Mr Major is too weak to dare to sack him. And Britain is lumbered with a voluble chancellor without even an O-level grasp of economics."

But, as we know, Lady Thatcher did not sack Lord Lawson. On the contrary: he resigned after she had tried to dissuade him. Never mind. We all make mistakes at times. Homer nods. The paradox is that the fate of the Conservative government is from now until the election largely in the hands of a politician whose views are out of sympathy with those of the majority of his own party. R A Butler occupied a similar though by no means identical position.

We can forget the single currency for the moment. Mr Blair would certainly be well advised to pay no attention to those Conservatives who, echoing Vicky all those years ago, say of Mr Major's promise of a referendum: "Ha, ha, this puts young Blair in an awful dilemma." I doubt whether a referendum or the promise of one shifts more than a few thousand votes. Mr Clarke can shift more - with a November Budget followed by a quick general election.