Humble pie can be quite a tasty dish, Mr Brown

Last updated at 20:02 25 October 2007

The irony will not have escaped anyone, except perhaps Gordon Brown and Jack Straw, that the proposed, improved, laws on civil liberties follow so closely in the wake of the insistence that we should not be free to vote on the EU Treaty.

That would be taking liberty too seriously.

All the same the question does persist: why is Gordon Brown so obstinate about refusing a referendum?

It is one of the puzzles of current politics.

The first, but over-simple, explanation is his natural stubbornness. You can hear it in his voice, read it

in his words and even see it in his body language. Having said previously that the new Treaty was not a constitutional change and that Labour's election-time promise on a referendum did not apply, a change of mind would be a U-turn too far.

But about-turns are the commonplace of politics: election promises broken, policies taken up and abandoned — or modified out of existence — targets set and ignored, tax proposals suddenly regretted.

Explaining away such changes, often in the most brazen manner, is an art which every minister has to learn. In this case, Brown's refusal of a referendum is in itself a major U-turn on that Labour promise. The claim that this is merely a treaty cannot be advanced with a straight face.

Top of the list of unanswered questions is why he refuses something which voters so clearly want. One answer lies in the fact that when he first made his decision he was riding high.

But in one of those convulsions which periodically shake politics, he has abruptly gone from being apparently impregnable to being under siege. He is now desperately in need of popular support.

The calculus of changing his line now goes something like this. On the downside, opting for a referendum would mean giving in to the demands of the Opposition and thus undermine his authority.

Moreover, a referendum would almost certainly return a No vote. In Brussels, Brown would — certainly if Britain was the sole cause of the Treaty falling — come under fierce fire from other European heads of government.

On the other hand, the downside of still refusing a referendum is potentially much larger. A month-long debate in Parliament on the Treaty and its numerous clauses is promised.

This will be ideal for the Opposition to draw noisy attention to every single fault in the Treaty — how it transfers powers to Brussels in human rights, trade union law, working hours, self-employment, transport and justice; how it erodes our veto rights in 60 areas; how it provides for further powers to be transferred without treaties and so on.

The debate will also see flung at him the fact that other European heads of government admit that the treaty is essentially the previously rejected constitution in almost every respect.

It is hard to see any upside for Brown here, not least because many of his own supporters think we should have a referendum and will say so in the debates, which will not help his authority.

However, there could be real advantages in making the U-turn, once he has digested a dish of humble pie. It would depend on how he did it.

He could say that in all humility — a word the public loves to hear from a politician — popular feeling has made him change his mind. Voters would applaud, their commonest complaint being that they are never consulted about

anything. At last, the sigh would go up, somebody is listening.

As for any fear of being publicly scolded by EU leaders, his new friend Margaret Thatcher can remind him that her famous "No, no, no" to Brussels went down very well with voters.

But if he finds a straightforward change of tack too difficult, he might recall Harold Wilson's device in the 1975 Common Market Referendum. Wilson called for a Yes vote himself but kept a low profile, allowing even members of his own Cabinet to campaign against.

The Yes campaign was, as it were, contracted out to Ted Heath and former Labour deputy leader Roy Jenkins.

So Gordon Brown could declare himself in favour of a Yes vote but leave the leadership of the battle to, say, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who could carry the can for failure.

I doubt if Brown will opt for this route, much as he enjoys the complicated. But he really should weigh up all the odds. There are no votes in continuing to refuse a referendum. There could be many in granting one.

If we are to have a written constitution, as the Prime Minister thinks we should, there is an excellent example in Switzerland.

One of its great virtues is that, unlike our own Parliament today, it constantly consults the public.

Major changes in the rules have to be put to the voters. And if enough voters call for a referendum on an issue, they get one.

Mind you, rich and successful Switzerland is strongly out of favour with progressive opinion today, having just increased the vote for a party which is stern on immigration. That's the trouble with the Swiss. They don't believe in progressives, only in progress.

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