TCS Daily

Not Arrogance but Genius

By Sean Gabb - June 21, 2004 12:00 AM

When Tony Blair returned to London after signing the European Constitution, he was accused of arrogance by the leader of the UK Independence Party. There is truth in the accusation. After all, it is barely a week since the various Euroskeptic parties in Britain received more than 50 percent of the vote in the European elections. More than arrogant, though, it is probably an act of strategic genius.

Undoubtedly, the Constitution is not popular in Britain. Though the Europhiles insist it is just a tidying up exercise, it is suspected -- and probably rightly -- to be the charter for a United States of Europe. But this does not mean that signing it was an act of political madness for Tony Blair. Before it can be ratified by Parliament, there must be a referendum. This will be next year, or the year after -- almost certainly after the next election. Before then, it may be rejected in another referendum elsewhere, or something else may intervene to stop the thing from ever coming into force. If not, Blair may no longer be prime minister, and this will be a problem for his successor. Until the British referendum, though, the government can insist on refusing to discuss the particulars of the Constitution, instead talking vaguely of its alleged merits and promising full discussion at the proper time.

Until the referendum, therefore, the debate will not be between those for and those against the Constitution, but among the various groups opposed to it. The government and the UK Independence Party are agreed that Britain must either accept the ever-closer union desired by the other member states or leave the EU. We either accept the deal as it is offered or we walk away. There is no middle position. The Conservatives under Michael Howard insist that it is possible to reject the Constitution and remain inside the European Union. So convinced of this do the Conservatives seem to be that any elected Conservative who breaks ranks and calls for even a discussion of withdrawal may face expulsion from the party.

We do not need to decided for ourselves which position is right. We need only realize that the Conservatives and UKIP will now join in furious debate over which position is right. The Europhiles can sit back and watch the Euroskeptics tear each other apart. If they still have any by the time of the referendum, they will use up their remaining energies on competing with each other for the majority of state funding.

Tony Blair leads the minority in the debate over Europe. His great advantage is that he leads a united minority. There are Europhiles who will find the Constitution as he has had it watered down a disappointment. Nevertheless they will accept it as a step towards what they want. But he may now face a majority so fractured that his minority will be able to prevail. At the very least, he can look forward to a quiet life on the European front for the remainder of his time in office.

Divide and conquer -- that is how great leaders win their battles.

Probably nothing will be done by the Euroskeptics to counter this. But what could be done, assuming more strategic intelligence on their side than has ever so far been apparent? The answer is simple. It may be that the Conservatives are technically right in their claim that Britain can reject the Constitution and stay inside the European Union. But the emergence of UKIP as a party of hard-core Euroskeptics makes it political lunacy to keep up the claim. Howard's only chance of forcing the prime minister into a personal catastrophe over Europe, and of becoming premier himself, is to drop the claim. How he does this without losing too much political face is for him to decide -- and, whatever he cannot do, changing principles at the drop of a hat is one of the qualifications for political leadership. The Conservatives must close the dangerous gap that has opened within the Euroskeptic movement. They must find some way of making it clear that they will consider withdrawal as a serious option.

Of course, this involves a big risk. For all the talk of a Euroskeptic breakthrough in the European elections, barely 10 percent of the entire electorate voted for a party advocating outright withdrawal. It may be that much less than a majority of those voting in the next general election will really want to withdraw. Against this risk, though, is the certainty that the Euroskeptic movement in general and the Conservative Party in particular will fragment over the next few months, leaving the Europhiles able to do as they will.

In the next ten days, we shall see if Michael Howard is the man to beat Tony Blair -- or just another failed contender, like all the other Conservative leaders since Margaret Thatcher.


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