At least Chamberlain was trying to stave off a world war, as he saw it, though in the event he had done no such thing. Nor was he signing away a huge chunk of the United Kingdom’s independence. Though deeply misguided, he was utterly certain that he was doing that which was in the national interest and, for the moment, he had the support of the nation behind him. He also had to act, for doing nothing was not a credible option.
None of these mitigating features is present in the case of Mr. Brown. It is difficult to believe that he does not understand the true nature of what he has done, whatever lies the Foreign Office may have told him, for almost every one of his peers in Europe has admitted that this is the Constitution in everything but name.
Given the institutional changes, the advent of an EU Foreign Minister, the ability of the EU to make further power grabs without amending the treaty, the reconfirmation of the primacy of EU law, the shakiness of his so-called red lines, the vast array of vetoes being surrendered and weakening of our general position under Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) and the arrogation by the Union to itself of legal personality, he must realise that this Treaty represents a fundamental shift of power away from the United Kingdom and its Parliament, perhaps a permanent and immutable one.
Above all he knows that he does not have the whole-hearted consent of the people of the United Kingdom to sign this document.
The business over whether he would sign in person or not is, on one level, a footling thing. Legally whether it is his signature or Miliband’s makes no difference to the effect of that signature. Yet it has pointed up only too well that he knows how this Treaty is viewed by the electorate that he should give every appearance of desperately wanting to avoid being seen signing it: a shameful thing done in a shabby backroom way. In the event he has managed to look incompetent, uncommitted, duplicitous, cowardly, discourteous, shifty, isolated and weak all in go. Not a bad achievement for something which is legally insignificant. But that is the measure of this man.
It will then, be signed, with or without the restoration of the EU symbols – the flag, the motto, the Euro as its currency, Europe Day and the ‘Ode to Joy’ – which certain nations have sought to slide back in as a final insult at the last moment. This last has been supported by the father of the Treaty himself, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (or VGE as he democratically refers to himself these days on his blog) who has demanded that France must, as a founder member of the EU Racket, join the other 16 who have signed up to rub our noses in this shameful business.
In passing, I gather that it is now de rigueur for the ‘Ode to Joy’ to be played at the opening of every session of the European Parliament as Daniel Hannan reports:
Indeed, the official anthem now opens every formal sitting of the European Parliament, bringing MEPs to their feet with their right hands clapped to their breasts.
You could not make it up, could you?
Were I to be present on such an occasion, I am afraid I would resort to engaging my neighbour in as loud and animated a conversation as I could and to delivering at least one very voluble raspberry to signify my contempt for such nonsense. Such synthetic vainglorious and Ruritanian pomposity would have one falling about laughing if one did not realise they mean it dearly.
In the short term, meanwhile, halting this Treaty in its tracks lies in the hands of two disparate groups: The Tory Party and backbench Labour MPs.
We know that both of the Liberal ‘Democrat’ contenders do not support a referendum, a denial of equal squalor with that of Gordon Brown in the light of their promise in 2005 to hold a referendum on the Constitution. After two very public defenestrations of their leaders since 2005 it is unlikely that backbench Liberal ‘Democrats’ will have the stomach for defiance of their brand new leader. They will, instead, be left contemplating the irony of their party’s name and their own dishonour.
The Tories, meanwhile, remain stuck with the political conundrum of what view to take of the Treaty if it is ratified and comes into force. Thus far they have been shy of making clear what position they would take, no doubt in view of the more politically complex situation that would then exist concerning the Treaty wherein the option of not ratifying it would have gone.
Some hint of William Hague’s thinking, but not much clarity, comes from an interview he had with the BBC’s Mark Mardell:
I was struck, listening back to an interview with the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, how often he used the conditional tense: he is not accepting that the treaty, and the changes it proposes, are a done deal.
Indeed, he tells me that, if there is not a referendum, he will regard the treaty as illegitimate, although he doesn’t want to spell out the practical implications of that for a Conservative government.
There is a germ of an idea in this to which I shall return in a moment, but this presents some hope that the Tories are not minded to give up. That said, their policy on Europe has a tendency to undergo the sinuous slither of the snake and it is perfectly possible they will knuckle under in due course.
The arithmetic of Parliament is such that, in the absence of the Liberal ‘Democrats’, the Conservatives will be left looking for more than a hundred other MPs to support an amendment calling for a Referendum. This is a veritable mountain. They might get the votes of the Ulster Unionists and the SNP but that would still leave them perhaps eighty short of the numbers required to upset the Government’s Diktat.
There is obviously a segment of the Labour backbenches which is dissentient on this issue. Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart hold individual torches aloft. Ian Davidson, who has caused problems on Europe in the past and has rebelled on Iraq, foundation hospitals, student fees and Trident, is said to be at the heart of a group inclined to vote for a referendum, but its size is unquantified. Michael Connarty’s European Scrutiny Committee has also taken a hostile line to some aspects of the Treaty (though not the really damaging ones) which may influence some. This latter outfit was the one that Miliband chose to vent his synthetic spleen on a while back when likened to Chamberlain.
So a Commons upset does not as yet look on the cards. The Lords might be more promising. Liberal ‘Democrat’ peers may prove to be less amenable to the Whip than their submissive colleagues in the Commons. Cross-Benchers are impossible to gauge. Some Labour peers too may rebel, though in their case they have mostly, of late anyway, been chosen for their ‘Bovine & Ovine Factor’ (that is, their willingness to support anything put in front of them) which may reduce their numbers.
On the Tory benches there will be the usual suspects doing their best to aid and abet Labour: Patten, Heseltine et al. But the party as a whole will follow Cameron’s lead. It is just conceivable, therefore, that the Lords will slip a referendum amendment through. Though Brown will have the option of the Parliament Act 1949 in his armoury, this buys time.
Notwithstanding the usual bleats of Labour about defying the democratic will of the House, this will ring very hollow given Brown’s refusal to honour his election promise and that of all Labour MPs to submit this Treaty to a referendum.
In these circumstances it gives the chance to all opposed to this Treaty further to damage its legitimacy. Which brings me neatly back to Mr. Hague.
This matter must be kept fresh for the time when the Tories sweep this odious Government out of the gutter into which it has descended back into the sewer from whence it so obviously comes. To do so, it is vital that at every opportunity, at every check and turn, we emphasise that the Treaty lacks democratic and political legitimacy, never having received the whole-hearted consent of the British people which consent we were promised would be sought.
By so doing we must accustom the British people to the notion that this Treaty remains unfinished business for the British People and that, notwithstanding the law, its status has yet to be resolved by us.
If it can be fixed in people’s minds as ‘illegitimate’, then the political climate can be created in which the Conservative party can proceed to hold a post-ratification referendum. Upon a resounding vote against the Treaty the Conservative Party can then go to the European Union with the unequivocal and authentic support of the British People: then let them defy us!
In that sense William Hague’s remark provides us with the possible germ of a way to manoeuvre the Party into a situation where it feels both duty-bound and safe to hold a Referendum, knowing that assent will give it a substantial free-hand to deal with the EU, for once, from a position of strength. To that end we should now work.
FURTHER TO THE ABOVE: See here for Hague’s observations in Parliament yesterday