Saturday, May 08, 2004
Where there is discord, we pray for more

Now that we are into the second week of the new 'referendum regime', the outlines of the debate are becoming clearer. The U-turn that garnered such jawdropping amongst the commentariat has proved to have come without a guarantee. The preconditions for holding a referendum have been discussed and two obvious developments are required: you actually need a Constitution in order to vote on it; and the vote may be postponed or dropped, if another country declines to ratify the document via legislative vote or referendum. (The second development deserves greater scrutiny).

The Euro-federalists have attacked Blair for allowing a referendum to take place on the Constitution. Their primary argument is media bias. The Eurosceptic press, or in its demonic mode, the "Murdoch" shilling, will prevent the development of a transparent and honest debate upon this issue. Those who actually vote, the electorate, are proverbial sheep who cannot be trusted to act for the public (read European) good. This self-serving argument ignores the acknowledged pro-European bias of the BBC and the resources of the government that will be directed towards obtaining a 'Yes' vote.

The other common theme of the Constitution's supporters is the 'national interest' argument. Stephen Byers, in a speech this weekend, has forcefully argued that a 'Yes' vote would be a 'patriotic' vote. Through speeches, statements and interviews, the government is using its outlier Ministers and ex-Ministers such as Mandelson, Darling, Byers, and so on to craft public debate and set out positive arguments for the Constitution. Their instinctual response has been to clasp the flag in order to clothe their barefaced nudity and set out the "Dad's army defence". (This phrase was coined by Labour backbencher, Ian Davidson, who has established 'Labour Against a European Superstate'). Such a ploy follows on from the Labour election campaign of 1997 where such imagery was utilised, through the traditional bulldog and the contemporary failure of cool Britannia, to present themselves as trustworthy on security and defence.

Most surprising of all are the vocal divisions that have opened up in the Labour Party. It never fails to surprise how the ideology of Europe gains such a strong foothold amongst certain elements within all three Westminster parties; so strong, that they place Brussels above party loyalty or their re-election hopes. In the 1990s, Euroscepticism scuppered the Major adminstration. Will Eurofederalism play the same role within the Labour party, as disillusioned elements feel betrayed by Blair's decision to allow the electorate to have a say?

There is a Eurosceptic element within the Labour party. They launched their report, "Labour Against a European Superstate" in mid-April, and their spokesman is Ian Davidson, another MP from north of the border (identified here as Unreconstructed Left). The stalwarts of 'True Labour', who still view the suicide note with nostalgia and Brussels as a black heart of capitalism, retain a hold in parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The numerical support for Euroscepticism in Labour can be gauged by that other organisation, 'Labour against the Euro'. This attracted 37 MPs and, a pro-referendum sounding around Easter, indicated support from 60 MPs. However, as soon as the organisation was announced, Blair made his famous U-turn a few days later

Now, when looking at the causes of Blair's decision, the announcement of this group may acquire some significance. There has been little information in the media on backbench orientation within the Labour Party towards the European Constitution, but if Blair had learned, through the whips, that a pro-referendum organisation, had acquired significant backbench support, then his decision may been taken to pre-empt dissent.

Whilst 'Europe' as an issue may never acquire the vitriolic and internecine struggles that disfigured Toryism in the 90s and spawned a successor party (UKIP), the Labour Party no longer represents a united monolith and has become a number of fractured voices. Divided parties hasten their own downfall unless one faction (New Labour, the Thatcherites) is purging their opponents.

(22.55, 8th May 2004)


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