Wednesday, 5 March 2008

No Vote

Of course there won't be a referendum. Even if all the LibDems did defy their leader's absurd sophistry and voted with the Conservatives, and there was a Labour rebellion, the numbers wouldn't add up. The cyncicism of the Government in ditching their manifesto commitment is staggering, yet somehow not surprising. And, no doubt, the Tories are in their own way being equally cynical. By the time they get into power the debate will be ancient history, and for all their present bluster, talk of a referendum will be quietly dropped.

Today, though, the possibility of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is at least being debated, and the public, perpetually bored by all things European, has momentarily raised its collective eyes and noticed that something, somewhere, is going on. But then the normal Eurobore factor kicks in. What is all this stuff? 51 national vetoes? President of the Council of Ministers (or is it an EU President, a "Mr Europe", a job for Blair?). Single legal personality? Sorry, not interested. The news media don't report it, because it doesn't have drama and is highly technical, as well as unsexy. The EU is about politicians with funny names meeting in rooms, and making obscure decisions about farm subsidies and environmental directives. People watching the news want murders, don't they? Murders and bust-ups and drug-using celebrities. The last time Europe was really big news was fifteen years ago, when the Conservative party tore itself to pieces over Maastricht. But even then, the story wasn't about Europe. It was about squabbling politicians.

It is this bore factor, of course, that the government, and to a lesser extent the opposition parties, rely on, so that they can carry on the business of building the new post-democratic power structure without frightening the horses. The public, meanwhile, have a fairly shrewd idea that something big is happening, something to do with more and more areas of democratic control being removed, and they don't like it. But, lacking the easy storyline, or even an identifiable villain (as Jacques Delors used once to be), Europe has little imaginative purchase. It's more of a vague feeling of uneasiness.

A referendum would, at least, crystallise the issues. No doubt the debate would quickly descend to name-calling on both sides. But the issues would be fully aired, which they haven't been for many years, during which time Europe has altered beyond all recognition. The result, whatever it was, would answer the democratic challenge. The people would have their say. The say that they were promised in all the manifestos at the last election.

The argument that the new treaty is substantially different from the "constitutional concept" that it replaced is errant nonsense. The constitution did two things: it combined all the old treaties into a single document, and it added some new bits. The Lisbon Treaty is the new bits. A referendum on the constitution would have been, to all intents and purposes, a referendum on the new bits. If rejected, only the new bits would have been thrown out. The old treaties, for better or worse, would have stood.

The government, and now the LibDems, are well aware of this. But it suits their purposes to split rhetorical hairs in a transparent attempt to mislead.

Would a referendum actually change anything? I doubt it. If "won", it would lead to a ratification of the treaty. If "lost", it would lead to a slight delay while the question was re-phrased in a slightly different way. The EU is now thoroughly entrenched. That the great majority of laws passed are EU directives scarcely merits a mention: it's just another of those ways in which democracy has passed out of the hands of the electorate. And national politicians still have plenty to do: there are expenses to claim, anti-obesity drives to launch, consultations to rig. No-one any longer relates to these self-contained, self-regarding cliques, what Ken Clarke in the Commons today called, unselfconsciously and with apparent approbation, the "ruling political class". But no-one can stop them, either.