Melanie Phillips

29 March 2004

A very British coup d'etat

Published in: Daily Mail

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Nothing illustrates the shallowness of the Prime Minister's grasp of the British national interest and Parliamentary democracy better than his astonishing attitude towards the EU constitution.

He has now indicated that he intends to shoehorn this through Parliament with unseemly haste. He hopes the EU will agree the constitution within three months, after which he wants Parliament to ratify it before the next general election.

The constitution will destroy our power to govern ourselves. Assuming a general election is held in May 2005, it would therefore take less than a year to dismantle Britain as a functioning nation state.

The ostensible justification is the Madrid bombings, which are said to indicate the need for unified action against terrorism. This is a quite disgusting piece of cynical manipulation. As the Labour MP Frank Field has said, the EU constitution will not stop a single terrorist atrocity.

Everyone agrees there must be internationally co-ordinated defence against terror. But that does not mean we must sacrifice the ability to govern ourselves. For the constitution will create a European mega-state, in which we would lose control over just about every area of national life.

Tony Blair ridicules this concern. He says the idea that the countries of Europe are willing to surrender self-government is 'a bit dumb'. But has he not said there are constitutional red lines his government won't cross? These have only been created because the British government does not wish to lose power over key areas - which by definition is precisely what other countries will be doing.

And what price these red lines when they appear to be so flexible? Last week, the government suggested it would drop its veto over some areas of criminal procedure, opening the way to a common arrest policy and jeopardising still further our common law and trial by jury. Now, after an outcry, Mr Blair is letting it be known he will stand firm on criminal justice after all.

But why should we believe this is anything more than an opportunistic retreat when he has already cancelled his previous red line opposition to the Charter of Fundamental Rights? What price his red line on defence, when he is signing up to an independent European defence force that will undermine NATO?

What price his previous red lines over social security and the budget rebate, which seem to have vanished from his most recent promises? Only 11 out of the UK's 200 amendments to the constitution have been accepted. Does anyone seriously suppose that the EU will agree to retain national vetoes over the crucial areas Britain may seek to defend - whatever these finally turn out to be?

But if it doesn't agree, Mr Blair has said he won't veto the entire constitution. He has thus already signalled surrender. So what do his red lines amount to, other than empty promises designed to trick the people?

Even if all these issues were safeguarded, the constitution would remain fundamentally unacceptable because it would wipe out self-government in many other areas. It is supposed to retain national vetoes over tax and foreign policy. But the small print allows control of our tax policy by the back door.

As for foreign affairs, what price the veto when the EU is to have a foreign minister, and when member states will be required by law to 'actively and unreservedly' support its foreign policy 'and comply with the acts of the union', whatever they might be? Or given that it will become illegal for us to sign our own treaties with other countries over issues such as education, extradition, energy, health, the environment and much else?

We will lose control over economic and employment policy - which must include tax and public spending, pensions and social security. On asylum and immigration, we might be forced to take quotas decided by Brussels. We will lose the power to make our own laws, unless Brussels gives us permission, in a range of areas including agriculture, fisheries, transport, consumer protection and public health.

Most crucial of all, our laws will be subordinate to the laws of the EU, which will become an entirely new entity, a 'legal personality' in its own right. Mr Blair claims a referendum is not necessary because the constitution does not fundamentally alter our relationship with the EU. But the constitution will fundamentally alter the EU itself. It will no longer be what we were told we were joining in 1972.

Until recently, the government heaved a sigh of relief that the progress of the constitution had been blocked. But Ireland has been quietly discussing with France how to stitch up a deal. And the crucial development was not the Madrid bombings but the general election that followed. Previously, Spain and Poland had blocked the constitution. Now, the new Spanish government which is sucking up to France and Germany says it wants to push it forward, causing Poland to buckle too.

In these changed circumstances, Mr Blair has decided his best tactic is to attack. He seems to think that bluster will win people over. But there is a huge groundswell of opposition in the country, and incipient revolt even within his own ranks. Independent-minded Labour MPs, such as Frank Field and Kate Hoey who understand what is at stake here, are warning they will fight.

Of course, the constitution may yet be blocked by the people of Europe themselves. Seven countries - and possibly as many as twenty -are holding referendums, and a 'no' vote by just one country would scupper the whole thing.

It is therefore all the more outrageous that the British government is refusing to allow a referendum. But in any event, the constitution should be defeated in Parliament. It would be appalling beyond measure if our elected representatives voted to destroy British democracy.

Given the supine nature of so many Labour MPs, this unconscionable prospect is, alas, all too likely. All eyes will be therefore on the House of Lords, where a referendum amendment will undoubtedly be tabled. It is possible that, before that happens, Mr Blair will try to pack the Lords with an infusion of cronies in order to get the measure through.

In any event, he will try to turn it into debate on membership of the EU itself, implying - falsely - that a vote against the constitution is a vote to get out of the EU. He already derides the well-founded concerns over the scope of the constitution as scaremongering eurosceptic myths.

In other words, he is preparing to short-circuit or suborn Parliament, ride roughshod over democracy and bully, bamboozle and browbeat the public through distortions, omissions and deceit to get this constitution agreed.

One has to pinch oneself that a British Prime Minister intends to go to such lengths to ram through nothing less than the destruction of British self-government, in flagrant defiance of the wishes and interests of the British people.

This goes far beyond party politics. True democrats of all political parties must join forces to oppose this. To force through this constitution without a referendum would amount to a kind of bureaucratic coup d'etat. It must be stopped.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie