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U-turn, Mr Blair, you're fast running out of road

William Rees-Mogg

TONY BLAIR is obviously right to be preparing his U-turn on the issue of a referendum on the European constitution. Those of us who have ever had to perform U-turns ourselves, with or without the benefit of a reverse gear, will not reproach him. On the contrary, we admire the skill with which he is handling it, starting with Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun, running through The Times and some of the Sundays, and virtually completing his process on the Today programme.

A dispute has immediately broken out in the pro-referendum press between competing claims to have been the first paper to have called for a referendum. The two main claimants seem to be the Daily Mail and The Sunday Telegraph. Until they put in their claims, I had thought that I was probably the first commentator to demand a referendum, but I would not dream of intervening in this battle of the Titans.

My own claim to priority is based on a column I wrote for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle early in October 1066, calling for a referendum on the respective claims of King Harold and Duke William. In place of the Battle of Hastings, I suggested the issue should be settled in a democratic way by a Folkmoot at St Paulís Cross, the traditional site for referendums in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Although the conversion of the Prime Minister is not yet complete ó officially the Governmentís policy has yet to be changed ó he is beginning to face the reality of public opinion. There are two different questions about the European constitution.

The first is if it is in the interest of Britain to sign the proposed treaty, on the assumption that it will be largely unchanged from the present draft. That is the fundamental question, since this constitution for Europe is also, manifestly, a constitution for the United Kingdom, if not a complete one. On this question, public opinion is divided, with voters opposed to the constitution by a majority of about 2-1. Nevertheless, there is a substantial body of opinion, including the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, that supports the constitution. It is not yet possible to be certain of the outcome of a referendum. It is only possible to be certain about the historic importance of the decision.

The second question is the form the ratification should take. Assuming that a treaty is agreed at the Dublin inter-governmental conference in June, should the treaty be ratified by parliament alone, or should Parliamentary ratification be subject to an affirmative vote by the whole electorate? Polls suggest that the majority for a referendum is overwhelming, perhaps higher than 80 per cent. In party terms, a referendum has the support of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; it also has serious support inside the Labour Party.

When the Maastricht Treaty was ratified, an amendment to require a referendum was moved in the House of Lords. Baroness Thatcher was in favour; she made the finest speech I have heard her make in the Lords, but the amendment, for which I voted, was lost.

I am sure that on this occasion it would be won. I do not believe that the Government would feel able to use the Parliament Act procedure to overrule the Lords amendment and prohibit a referendum. At this point the House of Lords is the protector of British democracy.

The Prime Minister has two elections to consider, the European elections in June and a general election probably in May or June next year. The Labour Party is likely to do badly in the European elections, and it knows it. If those elections were to become a referendum on whether to have a referendum, they could prove a catastrophe for Labour. That would still leave the referendum issue to be decided. No doubt Mr Blair is a genuine supporter of the European constitution in what he hopes will be its final form. But he cannot afford to let the issue destroy Labourís campaign for the next general election.

That is the strong political reason for his U-turn. There is also a more statesman-like reason. Both sides of the debate are worried that the refusal of the referendum could damage Britainís long-term relationship with Europe. Suppose the constitution is agreed in June; suppose there should then be only parliamentary ratification, without a referendum. Such a ratification would not be regarded as valid by the large majority of voters who wanted a referendum.

No doubt they would put up with the constitution for the time being, but it would be a weak constitution, because it would not have the authority of the public will. That could certainly lead to quarrels with Europe; it would strengthen parties hostile to Europe; in the extreme case of a slump or a war it might even lead to British withdrawal.

For these reasons, Labourís original intention to adopt the constitution without a referendum is neither practical politics nor desirable from a European point of view. The timing of the process is still uncertain, but Mr Blair will want to settle the matter as soon as possible. If he announces his decision well before the June European elections, he could in theory aim to hold the referendum before the end of the year. There would be obvious political benefits in a rapid decision.

Yet that timetable would not be easy to achieve. After a summit agreement there is always a bureaucratic process to be completed; we do not know exactly when the constitution could be ready to go to Parliament. Nor can we be sure how Parliament will handle it. Traditionally, treaties cannot be amended in Parliament, on the commonsense ground that one cannot have a simultaneous drafting process taking place in many different national parliaments.

Yet this is no ordinary treaty; it is a treaty for a European constitution, and this constitution will be binding on Britain. Against the wishes of the Government, the House of Lords recently voted to send the current Constitutional Bill, which would abolish the Lord Chancellor and establish a supreme court, to a select committee. That is an exceptional procedure. The Constitutional Bill is not anywhere near as important as the European constitution. Parliament will surely need to find some way to give detailed scrutiny to the constitution. Yet adequate scrutiny will take time. The parliamentary process will come before the referendum, and the Bill will have to go through both Houses.

The practicalities of the parliamentary timetable suggest that the earliest date for a referendum might not come before the first half of next year. If Mr Blair is to avoid a general election in which Europe is a major issue, he will either have to postpone the election into the autumn of 2005, or even into 2006. Alternatively, he could slow down the European process and delay the referendum itself into well after the general election. But this would leave him with two European referendums, on the constitution and the euro; both would be getting past their sell-by date.

The Prime Ministerís worst difficulty is the weakness of the constitution itself. It establishes Europe as a state, with greatly increased powers, extending the primacy of European law over national law to an ever-widening circle of functions. It does not reserve or return any exclusive powers to the individual states. Europeís government will be more centralised and less democratic, and can never be turned out by any vote of the British people. The draft constitution reminds one much more of Napoleon than of Locke; it comes from French administrative law rather than from British individualism. In terms of our tradition, it is neither liberal nor democratic. There is a clash of cultures.

The process of ratification, followed by a referendum campaign, will give British voters an intensive education in the realities of this constitution. There is very little in it they are likely to relish. They will see that it extends the powers of European administration at the expense of the independence of our elected House of Commons. It is not what the British people are likely to choose, now or later. The British will not vote for a government of bureaucrats, by bureaucrats, for bureaucrats.