So - it's official. We are to have a referendum on the European Constitution. And - of course - we are going to vote No. What happens next, no-one is very sure of. This depresses me deeply. After all this time, says Blair, we are going to have the grand showdown argument to whack the Eurosceptics for good. Just like the one we were meant to have about the Euro. We'll still be having that one, at some time in the future, in case anyone is worried about running out of misrepresentations, self-seeking and nonsense. I've never been very convinced by this argument that a referendum will part the seas and finally revolutionise the popular perception of Europe - it seems to me more like hurrying to hell than brilliant statesmanship, especially now with the astonishing degree of hatred for Tony Blair that exists in the country. For some time now, even before I parted company with The Party, I've not been able to understand the conventional wisdom that Mr. Blair is generally loved. In fact, as far back as 2000, I've been more impressed by the ferocious loathing so many people harbour for him personally. I wonder to what extent those old stellar poll ratings were really a reflection of the government's success dragging up the prime minister, not the other way round?
Now, with equal loathing on the Left and Iraq all over his face, what chance a revolution in opinion at his behest?
Most depressing of all is the widespread story that Irwin Steltzer, Rupert Murdoch's pet economist, was the agent of Blair's decision when he supposedly informed the prime minister that the Murdoch press "would not support Labour at the next election". And this is the national sovereignty they claim to defend. Government policy is reversed at the drop of a hat, without debate, without reasons, without Cabinets, without Parliament, on the say-so of the friend of a denationalised Australian resident in the United States, with menaces. This was nothing but blackmail. But it points up a crucial, perhaps the crucial myth of the Blair years.
This is the delusion that the Murdoch press support Labour. It is held especially strongly by those closest to the Prime Minister, I suppose because of the psychological phenomenon that, placed under stress, we tend to revert to the plans and perceptions we learnt first. Hence the flying instructors' maxim that "it's important to learn the right way first time; the way you first learn it is the way you will react in an emergency." Back in 1996-97, the first taste of power for the Blair team, the operational code of the day was to trim to the (albeit minimal) concessions given by the yellow press whilst bashing the Tories with all available means and attempting to divide opposition through triangulation. They learned it from Bill Clinton's staff and put it into practice with success. That perceptual fix is still there, and each crisis sees them reaching back to it.
The problem is, of course, that the facts have changed and the ideas have not.
Whatever promises of support were ever given to Blair have not been borne out by reality. From 1997 on, the four-barrelled barrage continues. The Sun, the Times, the Mail, the Telegraph - they pour on the vitriol daily with astonishing and probably unprecedented ferocity. Europe is the issue on which the ferocity is greatest, the unity most pronounced and the distortions most severe. And this is support? Is handing over what appears to be a pre-emptive veto on policy in general really a price worth whatever insignificant reduction in violence this "support" adds up to? The Government has an abusive relationship with Murdoch. However viciously he behaves, they cling to their promises. Oh, I know I can change him. He loves me really. Smack! Get hold of that you whore! But they aren't going to leave, and he's not going to change. They usually don't. And the longer this goes on, the worse the consequences will be in the end.
Does anyone honestly believe, for example, that now Mr. Murdoch has the latest concession tucked away his papers will not mount a savage anti-EU and anti-Blair referendum campaign? If such a paragon of good will exists and reads this, they may be educated by today's headline in the Sun. They have chosen to demonstrate the promised support by a splash in at least 72 point red lettering that "97% SAY NO!" (God knows what Uzbek polling methodology was used to get that result) The agenda is to get the referendum held as soon as possible, win it, and boost Michael Howard into power on a withdrawal ticket. Which means, I suppose, we're all going to have to sign up to help win the referendum. Which means supporting Tony Blair. What bliss.