Her Majesty's Press provides a sterling serviceSimon Jenkins O happy day. The pound saved. Gordon and Tony reconciled. A national debate conducted with due vigour and fudge. Honour satisfied. The rookeries of Runnymede are crowing with contentment.
I do not often view British politics this way. On matters of public policy the gates of debate nowadays tend to clang shut. Mere mortals must await smoke signals from the chimneys of power to know what the celestial ones have decided. Britain does not any longer have a deliberative constitution. The word Parliament is code for government and government usually for Downing Street. On wars, taxes, schools and hospitals, we are told what to do, and do as we are told.
But not on Europe. Another torrent of argument and paper this week has again left Britain's governmental relations with the rest of Europe vexed -- as they have been since the Roman legions departed the shores of Kent in AD410. Some might say that relations are never safer than when vexed. From the loss of Calais to the five tests, Britain has stayed semi-aloof from continental politics, a bridge between Europe and the wider world, but one that has stayed connected at both ends.
Siren voices have long wanted to cut one or other end of this bridge. Some want "no Europe" and others "all Europe". It is plain that Britain's voters and its political Establishment want neither extreme. Prime ministers of both parties have gone to European summits and cried, with Horatio: "Now who will stand on either hand/ And keep the bridge with me." They have ended fighting alone.
Commentators yesterday ridiculed the bumf with which Gordon Brown supported his decision against early euro entry. They derided the 38 tonnes of paper, the 18 Treasury studies, the 1,723 pages and the million and a half words. They satirised the five tests and their gibberish codicils. The whole thing was portrayed as a post-prandial nightcap after another Granita leadership dinner. Boring, Mr Brown, they cried. Why no jokes? Why no decision?
Mr Brown's failure completely to close the door on the euro seems elementary Cabinet footwork. He could not humiliate the pro-euro lobby, but fobbed them off with the bauble of a referendum paving Bill, a "roadshow" and an offer to review his five tests next year. This may mean uncertainty for some City gents, but the poor diddums can lump it. They have been doing all right outside the euro, and can now benefit from a falling pound. On any showing, this operation has been politically deft. At such moments, Margaret Thatcher and John Major had their Chancellors screaming and resigning the length of Downing Street.
During the recent row over Europe's constitutional Convention, much was made of the lack of interest shown by most Europeans to Valiry Giscard d'Estaing's draft. Continental newspapers either ignored it or put it on an inside page. Even the serious media were more interested in David Beckham and the Eurovision Song Contest than in the future shape of Europe. The EU integrationists claimed this as proof of the greater sophistication and readiness to "move forward" of the French, Spanish and Italians.
It proved the opposite. Modern electorates are informed on matters of importance almost entirely through the media. In European capitals there are one, or at most, two serious newspapers and usually one state-run TV channel with any political content. These are universally in favour of greater European centralism: Le Monde and Le Figaro in France, El Pams in Spain, Corriera della Sera in Italy and the weekly Die Zeit in Germany. Like The New York Times in America, these papers are of great distinction. But they lack competition. Competition is vital to variety of opinion.
Yesterday morning in London I could choose between nine versions of Mr Brown's statement. The five more serious papers covered the statement in great detail, including special supplements. Three of the five, The Guardian, The Independent and Financial Times, were pro-euro, The Times and The Daily Telegraph were against. The FT damned Mr Brown as the "biggest obstacle" to the euro, with his "bogus economic tests". The Telegraph greeted him as a bulwark against insanity.
The four tabloids split two for the euro (the Daily Express and Daily Mirror) and two against (The Sun and the Daily Mail). The Sun taunted Mr Brown's "humiliation" at being forced to dance to Mr Blair's proeuro tune. The Mirror cheered that "at last the Government is to come out fighting for the euro". Even the BBC, customarily a cheerleader for the European lobby, has been studiously impartial on this one, perhaps because many BBC chiefs and pundits are known allies of Mr Brown.
The result has turned a debate normally conducted in the privacy of Westminster and Whitehall into a massive public argument, blazoned over even the tabloid press. Only enemies of participatory democracy can see this as cause for ridicule. The media are now the parliament of the nation. On Europe, they have given their readers and listeners a good service, better by far than Parliament itself. As a deliberative forum, the Commons is close to useless. Its one duty to the democratic life of the nation is to ensure that the Government's regulation of monopolies gives proper protection to media pluralism and diversity. It must keep the reptiles fighting.
On Monday the EU's London representative, Jim Dougal, protested that press coverage of the European debate was inaccurate, misleading and distorted. Mr Dougal is a true Eurocrat. No reading of The Guardian, Independent, FT, Express or Mirror could lead to that conclusion. Mr Dougal clearly takes the support of a compliant press for granted, as do his colleagues in other European capitals.
Nor has the British press been alone as handmaid of democracy. This time it found a rare ally in the open antagonism between Downing Street and the Treasury. To have these twin towers of the modern constitution at loggerheads is a huge bonus. It is the political equivalent of a solar eclipse. Living creatures fall silent, astronomers rush to high places, and swirling flames of gaseous heat are revealed on the surface of power.
We saw this when Margaret Thatcher clashed with Nigel Lawson and John Major with Kenneth Clarke. The Earth moved. This time the pro-euro Mr Blair felt obliged to lobby even his own Cabinet for support. Mr Brown and Mr Blair have reportedly gone head-to-head for a fortnight. As talisman of his victory, Mr Brown had to publish this week's massive apologia. Yesterday Mr Blair forced him to salute the "principle of the euro" in symbolic penance at its grave.
Mr Brown's document is a masterpiece of modern politics. As critics have pointed out, its style is the nadir of the dismal science of economics. The fatuous equations and gobbledegook that could have been cut by two thirds was no more than Mr Brown jeering over the corpses of his victims. But I cannot recall any decision of British government that was the subject of so colossal a work of analysis, least of all a decision to do nothing. If only British entry to the Common Agricultural Policy in the 1970s had been approached with such rigour. If only the inanities that pour daily from the Home Office and the Education and Health Departments were so thoroughly pre-tested.
British entry into the euro has thus endured two ordeals, one intellectual/bureaucratic and the other media/demagogic. The lack of such scrutiny elsewhere in Europe is precisely why the performance of pan-European government is so deplorable. (Next week it is expected yet again to funk farm policy reform.) The boasted complacency of the continental press at Brussels corruption, log-rolling and meddlesome incompetence has done more damage to European integration than any national chauvinism. I cannot see what is anti-European in an aversion to a supranational regime that fails to regulate its rotten apples and lacks any wider accountability.
It must be infuriating to Mr Blair, and to Mr Dougal and his colleagues, to find British newspapers alone in drawing attention to this rottenness. But newspapers have been sucked into a vacuum. Democrats grab safeguards against arbitrary power where and when they find them. In Britain at present they find them in a raucous, exhaustive, opinionated, irreverent, biased but healthy press. Thank God for it.