Brown’s ‘Manchurian’ attack on democracy

Last night’s debate on the Lisbon Treaty finally exposed the New Labour government’s deep-seated fear of consulting the public.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The most remarkable thing about last night’s discussion and vote on the Lisbon Treaty referendum in the House of Commons was not Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s floundering inability to keep his MPs in line. Nor was it Conservative MP William Hague’s use of the word ‘cojones’ (twice), and his graphic description of the Lib Dems – who backtracked on their party promise to hold a referendum on the treaty – having their cojones ripped off and ‘impaled on a distant fence’ (1).

No, the most remarkable thing was the singular effort, the almost Manchurian Candidate determination, of the ruling Labour Party to face down demands for a public contest and vote on the Lisbon Treaty. When the party of government devotes all of its intellectual resources, its massive spin machine and its clout in parliament to euthanising the argument for a public ballot – and wins by a majority of 311 to 248 – you know that there is something rotten at the heart of British democracy.

Gordon Brown’s government has been spectacularly dishonest about the Lisbon Treaty. Such is its desire to avoid a referendum, to avoid debating with or consulting the public, that it continually claims the treaty is Not The Constitution, and therefore we don’t need a vote on it. New Labour’s election manifesto only promised a referendum on constitutional matters arising from the EU. Yet everyone knows the treaty is fundamentally the same as the constitution, which was roundly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2004.

Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France who drafted the original ill-fated constitution, has openly said the Lisbon Treaty is the ‘same as the constitution’. It differs only in ‘approach rather than content’, he says. D’Estaing points out that the EU authors of the Lisbon Treaty have indulged in a two-pronged, or what some of us might describe as a shady, effort to rehabilitate the failed and rejected constitution. First, they have ‘blown [the constitution] apart into separate elements’, and then re-attached these elements, ‘one-by-one’, to already existing treaties. Second, they have jettisoned references to seemingly important symbolic things, such as an all-Europe flag or anthem, with the express aim of ‘heading off any threat of referenda’ in countries, such as Britain, where politicians promised the people a say on EU constitutional matters (2).

In short? EU officials, peering from the windows of their political ivory towers at the great European unwashed, some of whom dared to reject the EU constitution in 2004, have opted to sneak bits of the constitution into other treaties and then to disguise the rest of the constitution as the Lisbon Treaty as a way of killing off the argument for a public vote. After all, as the Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff said after the French said ‘non’ to the constitution, ‘this experience begs the question of whether it was ever appropriate to submit the EU constitution to a lottery of uncoordinated national plebiscites’ (3).

Alongside conspiring to dress up the old constitution in the new drag of the Lisbon Treaty, the Brown government has developed a strategy of trying to bore and stupefy the electorate into giving up on the idea of a referendum. At the end of last year, as various EU heads of state signed the Lisbon Treaty and then returned to their national parliaments to try to get it passed, Brown told his cabinet colleagues that he wanted a long, drawn-out, intricate discussion of the treaty in the British parliament. He hoped that ‘months of detailed examination will dampen Eurosceptics’ opposition while demonstrating that the document is too complex to be decided by referendum’ (4). Here, British officials unashamedly devised a treaty-passing programme that was based on the idea that the electorate is thick and easily bored, and on trying to put people off public debate and voting.

New Labour has also enforced a strict three-line party whip on opposing a referendum. In last night’s vote in parliament, a measly 29 Labour rebels joined the Tories in voting for a referendum, which means that Brown – despite having spun from one crisis to another over the past year, and despite the fact that 15 Lib Dem MPs also voted against the government and for a referendum – won comfortably, with 311 votes to 248.

His party has also used its powerful spindoctoring machine continually to sell the idea that the treaty is Not The Constitution and the public should not have a vote on it. On last night’s Newsnight on BBC TV, New Labour’s Europe minister Jim Murphy claimed that the treaty has no constitutional implications whatsoever. He came across almost like a Manchurian Candidate, programmed to say the words ‘The treaty is not the constitution’ on a loop. There is a moment in politics when dishonesty crosses over into delusion; Murphy seemed almost to have convinced himself that the treaty is a wholly different document to the constitution. Who needs Korean Commie brainwashers when you have been briefed and trained by Brownite spinners?

Meanwhile, foreign secretary David Miliband made a statement in parliament last night in which he spelled out the conditions in which the British government might hold referenda, and said the Lisbon Treaty did not meet these conditions; some are already referring to it as the ‘Miliband Doctrine’ on referenda. He just made it up. He fashioned a new doctrine out of thin air in order to squash the demands for a referendum. At least that old, largely loathed king of spindoctoring, Alastair Campbell, tended only to make up silly phrases (‘the People’s Princess’) or wild stories (Saddam and the 45 minutes thing). Miliband has spun an entire doctrine such is his and his party’s deranged determination to keep the madding, misguided crowds out of the ballot booths.

All of the things that New Labour, especially under Tony Blair, was frequently criticised for – its ‘dodgy’, fact-lite arguments; its intensive use of spin; its cajoling of its MPs to follow the party line ‘or else’ – have been on display in full regalia during the debate about a referendum. New Labour has devoted its political and intellectual energies – such as they are – to arguing and voting against any kind of public consultation on the Lisbon Treaty. Yet many of those who attacked Blairitie ‘lies’ and ‘spinning’ have remained silent. That is because many in the liberal media, too, believe that the Lisbon Treaty is too important an issue to be left to voters, and if you allow people a say they will only be swayed by the arguments of the ‘populist Eurosceptic press’. We cannot be trusted with Big Politics, it seems; that is for grown-ups.

The events of last night expose how paper-thin is New Labour’s commitment to consulting the public. The government is fond of fairly false forms of democracy, which allow it to appear engaged and concerned, but it runs scared from any meaningful kind of consultation. So, every political committee these days carries out ‘consultation exercises’; ministers are forever holding focus groups to find out what ‘the public thinks’; the No.10 Downing Street website allows web-surfers to petition the government on everything from road tolls to whether policemen should wear black or yellow helmets. Yet when it comes to the public exercising some real power, using their vote to decide an important aspect of the nation’s fate, then the government marshals its political and intellectual troops and wheels out its spin machine to shoot down in flames the consultation argument. It likes to hear what we think about things every now and then – but it doesn’t want us deciding things, actually saying ‘I want’ or even ‘I demand’ rather than simply ‘I think traffic cones should be pink…’

Parliament’s discussion of the Lisbon Treaty finally showed what is at stake in the debate about the EU. The anti-referendum campaign is driven by fear and loathing of the electorate, by a deep doubt that we the people have the ability to make rational decisions and to determine our affairs as we see fit. Meanwhile, much of the pro-referendum campaign, certainly amongst Tory MPs and the Tory-leaning press, is driven too much by a Little Englander desire to say ‘Va chier!’ to the rest of Europe.

spiked rejects both of these arguments. We want a referendum on the treaty in order that the public at large can have a grown-up debate and a real say on the EU – and in order that we can explore new ways of linking up with the peoples of Europe, and sharing ideas and arguments, free from the clunking, patronising politics-management of the dusty, ageing elites of the European Union. A united Europe is a wonderful idea. And the biggest obstacle to it right now is the fevered disenfranchisement of the European people by their cynical rulers. If you believe in Europe, then demand a referendum, reject the wooden Lisbon Treaty, and let us start afresh the project of bringing Europe together. We cannot possibly do as bad a job as d’Estaing, Brown, Miliband and the rest.

spiked campaigns: This week and next, spiked is launching a series of new campaigns on some of the most pressing issues of our day. We describe ourselves as the magazine that wants to make history as well as report it, and we want our new campaigning journalism to shake up and stir public debate and public perceptions. Today, we officially launch our campaign for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and for European solidarity but against the EU. Check back next week for two more new campaigns.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi rejected the Lisbon Treaty, highlighted the anti-democratic nature of contemporary politics and celebrated France’s rejection of the EU constitution. Chris Bickerton called for a truly democratic referendum on the Treaty and noted the end of the EU romance. Or read more at spiked issue Europe Campaign.

(1) Clegg’s cojones, Independent, 6 March 2008

(2) EU treaty ‘same as constitution’, BBC News, 30 October 2007

(3) See Hungary: a ‘hooligan revolution’?, by Frank Furedi

(4) Battle of the EU treaty to last for months, The Times (London), 19 October 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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