30 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 30 2004

OK, I’d heard the rumours that Tony Blair was toying with the idea of doing a U-turn on the European constitution. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written my incisive column of a month ago (click here), which ran under the headline “We don’t need a referendum” (an accurate summary of its content).

Well, actually, it was so incisive that no one noticed — not even one of Tribune’s gaggle of geriatric Europhobe letter-writers. As for the government, the weekend before last our great leader announced that, contrary to previous declarations, the European constitution would be put to a plebiscite (or perhaps even two if the first one doesn’t turn out right).

As Private Eye’s caricature of Harold Pinter might put it: the bastard! But I’m not taking this personally. Really. Like most pro-European members of the cabinet, I’m angry because Blair’s decision was a shameless sop to the anti-European press, a surrender to the opportunist populism on Europe of Jack Straw and Gordon Brown — and totally unnecessary. It would have been completely legitimate to leave the endorsement (or otherwise) of the constitution entirely to parliament, and to do so would have saved us all from a truly gruesome fate.

Unless some other country rejects the constitution before we’ve voted (which is by no means impossible), we now face the prospect of at least 18 months and perhaps two years in which British politics will be dominated by a tedious debate about a document that will be read by hardly anyone and will make barely any difference to our everyday lives.

The “no” camp will trot out its familiar (and mendacious) claim that the constitution means an end to civilisation as we know it, a Brussels super-state swamping our dearly beloved democracy. The “yes” camp will counter with the equally well-rehearsed line that the constitution is mainly a means of streamlining the European Union as it expands eastwards that will do nothing to undermine national sovereignty. (This point happens to be true — but it is also about as inspiring as the paper clips sitting on my desk as I write this).

It will all be balls-achingly boring, an immense turn-off to an already pretty much turned-off electorate. If and when the vote takes place, plenty of people will vote “no” just to have a go at the government or because they think a “no” vote would be a way of getting rid of Blair. Hardly anyone who votes “yes” will do so out of enthusiasm for the constitution: I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s anything but an intergovernmentalist carve-up that does little to give the EU’s institutions the democratic legitimacy they need and is thus at best a stop gap. Rather, the motivation of “yes” voters will be simply that the “no” camp consists of the Tories, the BNP and the most ghastly elements of the brain-dead hard left.

And all for what? Well, if Britain were to vote “yes”, Blair would be able to claim a famous victory against the Europhobic press. That would, I suppose, be a good thing for democracy, though I don’t for a moment believe it would make the Sun or the Mail see the error of their ways and embrace all things European.

On the other hand, if, as is more likely, Britain were to vote “no”, the effect would be to give a massive boost to the xenophobia and parochialism that have blighted Britain’s relationship with Europe since the 1940s, effectively ruling out for the long term the possibility of Britain joining the euro or of otherwise playing a full part in the European project.

No one but the Tories could possibly benefit from such a disastrous outcome, and simply by risking it, Blair has been almost incredibly irresponsible. What on earth was going through his mind when he made his decision?

* * *

Almost as mystifying as Blair’s about-turn on the European constitution is the decision of the British National Party to invite Jean-Marie Le Pen to Britain this week to launch its campaign for June’s European Parliament elections.

Le Pen is undoubtedly the face of the contemporary continental far-Right most familiar in Britain. But that’s precisely the problem with him.

Far from reassuring voters that the BNP is now respectable — which was presumably the point of its parading him at a press conference in Cheshire then taking him to a rally near Welshpool — the appearance of the fat French fascist with Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who looks the epitome of an oily spiv, has served only to show that the BNP keeps some extremely unpleasant company.