The Spectator

It’s about democracy

The Prime Minister deserves as much praise as ridicule

‘With lip-quivering intensity,’ to use the words of Michael Howard, the Prime Minister ventured into the House of Commons on Tuesday to announce that he will, after all, allow a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution. Mr Blair has styled himself as the man with no reverse gear, added Mr Howard, but ‘today we could hear the gears grinding as he came before us once again. Who will ever trust him again?’

This made great political theatre; and yet all opponents of the EU constitution will wish not just to ridicule the Prime Minister — as he fully deserves — but also to praise him for his honourable capitulation to public opinion. As the first publication to call for a referendum on the constitution, it would be churlish for us to do anything other than welcome this week’s developments.

The successful campaign for a referendum is a triumph of British democracy. It succeeded because an aggrieved public realised where the levers of power in Britain are located. To put it bluntly, we know where the Prime Minister lives. We know the letterbox in Downing Street, marked ‘Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury’, through which the petitions have to be stuffed. We know how to contact our parliamentary representatives and we know that they have the opportunity to raise awkward questions with the Prime Minister in live debate every Wednesday. With so many channels of protest at the public’s disposal, no prime minister can ultimately resist a genuine groundswell of opinion against one of his central policies.

It is all very different from the EU’s way of doing politics. It isn’t public debate which gives us such measures as the EU directive on lawnmower noise: it is political horse-trading, large lunches between bureaucrats and lobbyists, committees working behind closed doors somewhere in Euroland.

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