Monday, April 26, 2004
Scratching My Head in Disbelief

The temptation to write about Blair's momentous decision as it happened, with all its confusing twists and turns, was very strong. The lure of the pint proved even stronger. The delay was probably for the best since it is easier to separate political crowing from some grains of truth.

The first myth that has arisen is Blair's cave-in to public pressure for a referendum, as orchestrated by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. This exaggerates their role and fundamentally ignores Blair's belief that he will do what is right, no matter what the public thinks. Nor is there a sufficient number of rebels on the backbenches to cause a bill on the Constitution more than a rough ride. Tuition fees are of more concern to Old Labour than a piece of paper they do not understand.

We can never know what passed through Blair's mind when he made this decision until memoirs and papers pass into the public domain years from now. There are some signposts that do clarify the choice of the referendum and what it says about the current state of this administration. We know that Blair had not made a firm moral or political decision on the European Constitution or the Euro, unlike the war in Iraq.

The issue of Europe has always been subordinated to domestic political concerns, a stance that ties Blair in with the historical relationship between the British political class and the European Union. More recent events cannot have endeared the European Union to Blair, since the Member States and integrating institutions, actively worked to undermine his attempts to internationalise the war effort before the Iraqi invasion. The war and its outcome may have predisposed Blair to reevaluate Britain's role in Europe with a more sceptical eye.

The political context within which Blair made this decision was his weakened reputation within the Labour party and his tendency to make policy through cabals. This was utilised by (we are told) Brown and Straw to persuade Blair that a referendum was the best method of defusing the political uncertainties surrounding the Constitution. Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail today pointed out parallels with the similar backroom decision decided by Thatcher, to join the Exchange rate mechanism, that only signposted her weakness and eventual downfall. Blair has found that his own cabinet divided over this decision. It has opened up European divisions that have gradually emerged over the last few years, as integration has run apace.

The referendum was not chosen to give the British people a say but as a tool to accentuate the divisions within Cabinet and increase the influence of a particular faction, whose members include Brown and Straw. Blair holds the ring in these battles and may have decided, whilst under political pressure, to give in and at the same time, cut the feet out from under Chirac. Perhaps the simplest of motives, revenge, explains this strange and spontaneous choice.

(23.09, 26th April 2004)


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