Blair’s EU-turn: British politics all at sea
The only certainty today is that anything can happen.
Most people in Britain know little and care less about the prospect of a new constitution for the expanded European Union (EU). They will be even less sure as to why prime minister Tony Blair should have gambled the future of his government on this obscure issue, by announcing that the UK will, after all, hold a referendum on whether or not to ratify the constitution.
To judge by the reactions, nobody in the political class knows why. The media is full of conflicting speculative theories and gossip about what’s behind Blair’s shock policy reversal. But all that the commentators can agree on is that they don’t really know and did not see it coming. You are left with the impression that if somebody forcibly injected the prime minister himself with a truth serum, even he could not come up with a convincing explanation for his decision.
If nobody is sure why Blair is calling a referendum, they have even less idea what the outcome might be (although a low turnout seems a safe enough bet). Certainly, public opinion polls suggest that the ‘no’ camp is currently way ahead. But nobody can be certain about the possible destabilising consequences of a referendum campaign re-raising the buried divisions over Europe that have previously threatened to split both the Labour and Tory parties. And if there is a ‘no’ vote, nobody knows what the future fallout will be for Britain or the EU as a whole. These prospects of political instability scare many even in the anti-camp.
This surprising and messy turn of events reveals something about the true state of contemporary political life. Without the sort of anchors that can be provided by principled beliefs and ideologies, politics seems to have become a more arbitrary affair – unpredictable, unstable, adrift and out of control.
The European debate in Britain has always been shaped more by domestic political concerns than by the details of what goes on in the smokeless committee rooms of the EU. Thus the Tory Party’s very public divisions over Europe in the 1980s and 90s were not principally about the European treaties and exchange rate mechanisms on which they focused. The underlying tensions had far more to do with the advancing identity crisis of traditional Toryism. In a similar vein, the current chaotic debate over Europe says rather less about the obscure provisions of a draft EU document than it does about the crisis of authority afflicting the British government and the political system.
The Cabinet’s flip-flop on the referendum reveals the profound insecurity of the rudderless New Labour ‘project’ today. Terrified of being exposed as ‘out of touch’ with the public, an isolated political elite has buckled once again under a bit of pressure from sections of the media (not from any popular movement). That this is due more to a loss of nerve than a change of heart was clear to anybody watching Blair in parliament. He stumbled and bumbled his way through arguing the case for a referendum that neither he nor many close supporters wants, so shaken that he was unable even to bring himself to use the ‘r’ word.
The move to support a referendum also looks like a typically nervous New Labour twitch: announcing a ‘decision’, in order to put off doing anything decisive. It is clear that Blair wants any referendum postponed until after the next general election, effectively kicking it into the long grass while he seeks re-election. Expect a drawn-out process of announcements, consultations, proposals and, possibly, judicial hearings before anything actually happens.
The Tories appear cock-a-hoop at the sight of Blair’s discomfort. Yet they too must be concerned at how the European campaign could expose the extent to which they remain tied to their discredited past. There would be no automatic gain for the Tories from an anti-European vote that was based on a general cynicism about political institutions. It was not so long ago, remember, that campaigners against Britain adopting the euro decided to distance their cause from the Conservatives, because the link was costing them support.
We are left with a situation where the only certainty is that anything could happen – although the paralysis of our fearful politicians means that nothing frequently does. (We can also be pretty sure that the EU constitution debate is not about to spark a popular revolution.) The arbitrary character of politics today stems from the lack of any clear divide between alternative visions of society, the absence of defining principles on all sides. Even on Europe, there is a far narrower political division today than during the referendum of 30 years ago, when the public and the political class were split over the fundamental issue of whether Britain should join the European Community at all. That is why a prime minister who laughably claims to be a ‘conviction politician’ can switch his convictions on an issue like this apparently overnight, without even acknowledging that he has done so.
To see where an arbitrary system of politics can end up, look to Spain. The recent shock election result, in which the ruling Popular Party (PP) was beaten by the unfancied Socialists, was shaped by immediate reactions to the Madrid bombings (see Spain: a victory for peace, or for defeatism?, by Mick Hume). But it also revealed the broader problem of fickle, knee-jerk politics in which ‘loyalties’ are based on little more than an emotional spasm.
For the first time that I can recall, a major Western nation elected a government that even the voters did not think was the best bet to run the country. The Socialists were not elected because of their policies, or even because of the policies of the PP government. They won because people were angry with the government over the bombings of just a few days earlier. If the elections had been held a week later, the results may well have been different. That is no way to run a political contest, or a country.
There is an important debate to be had about the EU, focused on the way that power is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of unaccountable bodies both at home and in Europe. But this is not that debate. What unites the leading players on all sides of the current discussion is their contempt for the citizenry. The pro-Europe lobby is terrified of allowing the unsophisticated tabloid-reading mob to vote against Johnny Foreigner in a referendum. The anti-Europe lobby, on the other hand, dreams of duping the ignorant masses with a bit of simplistic flag-waving, rather than having to win a proper political argument in an election.
For all their talk of how ‘the people must decide’, the attitude of Europe’s insecure political elite to the people was best revealed when the Irish voted ‘no’ in a referendum on the Nice Treaty on EU expansion. The authorities told them to hold another, until they got the ‘correct’ result. Whether or not the EU gets its new constitution, we certainly need a new debate about democracy.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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