Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Fatal Lure of the 'Femme Fatale.' (Referendums in UK politics)(Column)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Fatal Lure of the 'Femme Fatale.' (Referendums in UK politics)(Column)

Article excerpt

It promises to be a momentous autumn. In Europe, the final touches will be made to the single currency before its launch in January. Closer to home (much closer, as Britain will be playing no part in EMU's early evolution) Lord Jenkins will release his proposals for a new voting system. Yet the government, in spite of its great majority, will be addressing these huge issues with both hands tied behind its back.

The decision to hold referendums means that whether or not ministers wish to join a single currency or introduce a new voting system is largely irrelevant. The only option available to this mighty government in the coming months is delay and prevarication until the wretched referendum becomes winnable.

Lord Neill's proposals to tighten the rules governing referendum campaigns are a peripheral consideration. Tony Blair will have to be virtually certain of victory before calling a referendum irrespective of how much money can be spent by opposing sides.

Referendums are the femmes fatales of British politics. From a distance they appear irresistibly enticing, but the closer political leaders get to embracing them, the more dangerous they become.

So several years ago, Tony Blair announced a referendum for a single currency and gave his backing to the proposal for one on electoral reform. At a stroke the distant beauty had done her work: Eurosceptics could support Labour knowing that they could still scupper EMU in a referendum. At the other end of the vast new Labour coalition, Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins could be kept on board with a promise of a referendum on PR without Blair having to commit himself either way on the issue. Earlier John Smith, an opponent of change, had proposed the referendum on PR as a way of uniting his party. The lovely creature did her duty then as well: for a while the party was united.

But now the time has come when referendums might have to be called and they appear in a different light, as treacherous, threatening harridans. The main reason that the single currency was ruled out for the whole of the first term last autumn was because no safe moment remained, even then, to hold the referendum. Forget about the economic factors. They played their part in the decision (a correct one, in my view) not to enter in the first wave. But the longer-term delay was based on a cruder calculation: in mid-term a referendum would not be winnable because the government was bound to be unpopular and no sane leader would risk one in the run-up to the general election itself.

Now the thinking in government circles is that a referendum would be winnable in the honeymoon of a second term. But there is no reason why that should be so. If Labour is returned to power it is likely to be with a reduced majority. The Tories and the Eurosceptic media would interpret the narrowing of the gap as a vindication of William Hague's hard-line stance on a single currency. …

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