01 September 2007

A weak Constitution, erm, Treaty

I thought I'd cast my beady eye over calls for a referendum on the EU Treaty Formerly Known As The Constitution, and why they will go completely unheeded. I may as well call this post "Stating the Obvious", but sometimes it's good to do that.

Anyway. Brown will never agree for two reasons:

1. He will be on the losing side. Brown has not yet managed to be on this so far, having handled the various crises of this Summer well, coming across as solid, safe and re-assuring. His Brown Bounce will evaporate overnight, and the Tories will use the result as a stick to beat him with from the moment the result is declared to 10pm on polling day for the next Westminster Election. By the following breakfast, David Cameron will be Prime Minister.

2. He cannot let the referendum genie out of the bottle. As soon as he gives in to calls for a referendum on the UK's place with the EU, calls for a vote on Scotland's place in the UK will intensify, and prove harder to resist. If he does resist them, Labour's loss in Scotland will happen again. And again. And again.

Now, Blair could afford to suggest a referendum: he had the European Elections around the corner, and Labour were in serious political trouble as this was becoming a hot button issue. A referendum put the issue on the back burner and bought him time, during which the French and the Dutch kicked the Constitution into touch. If they hadn't, if everyone else had backed it, then Labour could have run an effective "Don't get left behind" campaign. Also, the independence referendum wasn't on the horizon. The SNP were far weaker at that time than today, trundling towards the end of John Swinney's Convenership and the poor result that caused it. Independence just wasn't on the table.

In Brown's case, the Westminster Election is closer, and as William Hague learned to his cost in 2001, European issues hardly play at all with voters during those campaigns. Given that this is a "treaty", a number of countries who held votes may avoid doing so this time, pulling away Brown's safety net of someone else rejecting it first, and also undermining any "Don't get left behind campaign", as opponents of the treaty would point out how few people have had a vote on it. Blair staved off an election defeat; Brown would invite a referendum defeat. And of course, Alex Salmond is in Bute House and the National Conversation has started. Brown will not add fuel to the referendum fire.

Of course, I could point out that at least there's a consistency here, that Brown opposes both referenda, while the Tories want the people to have their say on Europe but not on Scotland's future in the Union. I could also mention that the LibDems insist that any document needs democratic legitmacy through a referendum (a principled policy as they realise that they'll probably lose), but the mention of a referendum on independence forces them to stick their fingers in their ears and go "La la la".

But that wouldn't be like me at all.


Mountjoy said...

Great analysis, Will, and you point rightly to the quandary that Brown has found himself in regarding the 'referendum genie'. Although a unionist of the Ulster variety, I am at one with Alex Salmond and (I think I am correct in saying this) Lord Forsyth of Drumlean in their call for a Scottish referendum. In both cases, let the electorate decide - that is democracy, after all, as it is not just restricted to electing a Government every four or so years.

Sir James Robison said...

Brown would most certainly lose - there'll be no referendum on the Constitution.