26 April 2004

The Greatest Leader the Conservatives Never Had

Yeah. So. Speaking of Chris Patten. Not that I was, but let's pretend. He's getting very outspoken nowadays, isn't he? Britain's finest Tory, mastermind of John Major's electoral victory in 1992, last governor of Hong Kong, reformer of Northern Ireland's police service, Chancellor of Oxford University, and External Affairs Commissioner of the European Union, has been very frank about what a British rejection of the EU Constitution would mean.
'We've got to make our mind up whether we want to make a success of Europe or not... That's why I think that, if we ever get to this referendum, it's really going to be about whether we want to stay in. What's the point of being inside and endlessly, truculently making trouble? Is that really pursuing the national interest?'
In any case, he points out, the Constitution is, broadly, a good thing: 
'If you believe in the nation state, if you believe in greater parliamentary accountability, if you believe that we should try to make the best of organisations that we are members of, then the constitutional treaty makes a huge amount of sense'
That's hardly toeing the part line, but then Patten is a man who doesn't have to curry favour with the foreign press barons that control national debate in Britain. 
'Is it true, and I think we are entitled to be told, that Irwin Stelzer [one of Rupert Murdoch's key economic advisers] waited on the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or their nearest and dearest, to tell them that, unless the British Government committed itself to a referendum, the Murdoch papers would support the Conservatives in the run-up to the next election?' We hear a great deal about British sovereignty: are we to set, alongside the Queen in Parliament, Mr Irwin Stelzer and Mr Rupert Murdoch? How would the Americans react if their agenda were being set by foreign press proprietors? How would any of our European friends?'
'The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all'
It's easy to understand Patten's disquiet about the idea of holding a referendum on this issue. In theory referendums should be supreme examples of democracy at work, but too often they're anything but. Direct democratic means can lead to profoundly undemocratic ends. The fact that referendums were the tools of choice for Hitler and Mussolini is but the most blatantly obvious example of how they can be abused; nowadays they can be abused in far more subtle and insidious ways.

The Constitutional draft is enormous - how many people are really going to have time to read it? If they don't read it themselves, they'll have to go along purely with what they're told through advertising and the media. Murdoch - accompanied until recently by Conrad Black - has no love of Europe, and indeed very little financial interest there. His newspapers uniformly bombard the British public with anti-European propaganda. It's nonsense to claim that his editors are independent - take a look at how his papers reflected his views on the invasion of Iraq.

The British public are routinely misled and lied to about their continental neighbours, forcefed rubbish about how the 21 miles of the Channel divides them from Europe (though the Atlantic Ocean, more than a hundred times wider, supposedly unites Britain with America). Don't they realise how European they are?

Is this paranoia? Am I being unfair? I don't think so. The Irish referendums on the Nice Treaty were distinctive for the lies and ambiguities of the 'No' campaigners. And this was in a country with a sophisticated electoral system and a long tradition of national plebiscites, unlike the United Kingdom, where hardly anybody younger than fifty has ever voted in anything other than a crude first-past-the-post contest. I was home for both Nice votes, and on both occasions I was horrified to find how many people were voting against the treaty, and at their ignorance of what the treaty involved. I couldn't blame them for opposing the treaty. Had the treaty involved what they thought it did, I would have voted against it too...

We have a free press, but I sometimes wonder whether than freedom includes the freedom to lie. If it does, does it include the freedom to shout 'Liar!'

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