EU constitution debate and the UK referendum
Yesterday the government, in the person of our illustrious Prime Minister Tony Blair, confirmed that there would be a plebiscite so that the British voting public might approve, or deny approval for, ratification of the EU constitution treaty once it is finalised. This is good news, of course, but as someone who is basically in favour although who has serious doubts about the draft version published last June, I know that the path before it can be ratified will be long and rocky, if indeed it ever happens.
Today, however, at PMQs Tony Blair implied that if the public declined to approve first time around then it would be re-submitted after renegotiation. Whilst I want to see approval, it has to be the right kind of document that is presented for approval - and it has to be accepted by all that the result of a referendum is final, whatever it is. This will put the right kind of pressure on all of us, in my view. We had an earlier referendum almost 30 years ago to decide whether we should remain in the EEC (as the EU then was), or leave; we voted to remain and that too is final - depsite the views Mr Blair outrageously tried to impute to his principal opponent, Michael Howard. I am no great fan of Michael Howard or his Conservative Party (the 'gay' issue makes it difficult for me to support them just at present), but it has to be said that his views on the EU, whilst very different from mine, are clear and unambiguous.
Mr Blair has executed his U-turn by agreeing to a referendum on the constitution and he must not be allowed to manipulate this debate for his own political survival. His survival politically is of minor importance, as indeed is that of Michael Howard, when seen in the context of the long-term future of this country. I personally have read the draft constitution treaty when it was first published (just as I took the trouble to read the draft Scotland Act in 1997, which provided for devolution in Scotland); whilst it is probably unrealistic to expect that everyone else will do so, I would hope that the debate will be kept at a rational level and not descend into point-scoring by both sides. There needs to be a serious effort to clarify the major factors fairly and honestly for a wide audience so that people can make up their minds and make the refernedum a worthwhile exercise. This is where Mr Blair must direct his government and the civil service to place the greatest emphasis once the final terms of the consititution have been agreed. If he performs this public service, whilst putting forward what presumably will be the 'pro-' argument on behalf of the government, then he should not be expected to resign just because it is rejected, if that is what happens. But if he simply indulges in a classic Labour 'spin' exercise on this important matter then he will deserve to be booted out at the earliest opportunity afterwards, with opprobrium.
UPDATE: (Thursday 22APR04 14.10 BST) At a press conference earlier today, Tony Blair appears to accept that the vote in a referendum is final and can't be revisited to try and get another result. As the Guardian laconically puts it "... several reporters at the hour-long press conference appeared unconvinced.".