It was in these pages four weeks ago that the idea of a non-governmental referendum on the new European constitution was first mooted. Paul Robinson explained how, if Tony Blair remained steadfast in his refusal to consult the people, it would be possible to organise a referendum. He could have cited the example of Gibraltar, where last November the government called its own referendum on the British proposal for joint sovereignty with Spain. A fraction less than 99 per cent of voters opposed the Anglo-Spanish scheme. In the face of such opposition Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, had little option but to shelve his plans. A similar effect might be produced by a freelance referendum in this country on the European constitution. The editor of this magazine has declared that it could be organised by the Electoral Reform Society, an obviously reputable body, for some £20 million, and I am prepared to take his word for it.
Despite Peter Hain's dismissal of an official referendum ('we're not going to do it') the government is plainly rattled by the ferocity of the press's onslaught. One moment the European Convention can barely work its way to the bottom of editors' news agendas, the next – pow! Last week the Daily Mail and the Sun gave it the full treatment, the former warning us that 1,000 years of history were at stake, the latter invoking the Spanish Armada, Napoleon and the Nazis. The Daily Telegraph was more restrained, but in its splash on Monday rolled out its own big gun – Conrad Black, proprietor of the Telegraph, as well as of The Spectator, who warned that a new constitution was 'a step of such importance that the people had to be consulted'. The implication was that if the government failed to offer a referendum, others, including Lord Black, might do so. The Sunday Telegraph had already reported that a new group called Vote 2004, in which Maurice Saatchi will play a leading role, will campaign for a referendum on the European constitution.
Meanwhile the Daily Mail (for which, I should remind readers, I write a column) has decided to hold its own referendum on Thursday 12 June. The newspaper will carry special ballot forms, and people will also be able to email, telephone or even text-message their verdict. There will also be ballot boxes in newsagents. The paper is not pretending that its referendum has the status of one organised by the government. Its purpose is to invite as many people as possible to vote in favour of a national referendum. The exact proposals for a new European constitution will not emerge for some months, and could hardly be voted on now. Even though the Mail's exercise is limited in scope, it must be shown to be transparent, and voters must not be led by the nose.
Unless the government is able to water down the kind of constitutional proposals being aired at the European Convention, it is heading for the biggest fight of its life with the Mail, Sun and Telegraph. I should be surprised if it receives very heated support from pro-European papers. Who, after all, can gainsay the validity of a referendum on what appears to be a vital constitutional question? New Labour has authorised 34 referendums since 1997, and it is difficult to understand why the European constitution should not merit another one. The Daily Mirror appears to be hinting it might back a referendum. The Daily Express and the Times are keeping their counsel but are unlikely to be against. Even Quentin Peel in the Financial Times is in favour. The wildly pro-European Independent is attempting to argue that the European constitution is not an important enough issue for a referendum, while the less madly Eurofanatic Guardian says 'there is no case yet [my italics] for a referendum'. These papers are going to find it very difficult indeed to argue against the democratic legitimacy of a referendum, whether official or freelance. As is the government.
The Guardian is understandably upset that its correspondent in Zimbabwe (whom it shared with the Observer) should have been bundled out of the country. Andrew Meldrum has been a fine reporter for both newspapers – enterprising, fair-minded and courageous. Small wonder that the Zimbabwean authorities should have wanted to get rid of him. His only consolation is that he has escaped torture – or worse. Journalists who remain in Zimbabwe, particularly those working for the country's independent press, are in mortal danger.
Everyone in this country now agrees that Robert Mugabe is a monster. But it was not always so. When Mugabe was elected in March 1980, Tony Benn wrote in his diary, 'It is a fantastic victory and I can't remember anything that has given me so much pleasure for a long time.' After Mugabe had won, the Guardian concluded its leading article with the words, 'Mission accomplished, and not without aplomb.' The Observer noted that Mugabe 'had behaved with considerable restraint and good sense'.
Former apologists may plead that Mugabe has changed, and that he was at that time a perfectly decent human being. It is not true. In the very dirty civil war preceding independence, his Zanu guerrillas were responsible for the worst atrocities and the most blatant intimidation. Not long after his election victory, Mugabe dispatched the dreaded Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland, where they killed untold thousands of people. This was the finest hour of Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer, who himself reported the massacres in his newspaper. Tiny Rowland, the Observer's proprietor, and a close friend of Mugabe, was enraged.
Mugabe has always been utterly ruthless when it suited him, but he is not a genocidal maniac along the lines of Idi Amin of Uganda or 'Emperor' Bokassa of the Central African Republic. He does not kill people for fun. So after the Matabele had been slaughtered, things quietened down for many years. The monster was only sleeping, though. When Mugabe decided to move against the whites, their black farmworkers and his black political opponents, there was a widespread sense of shock, not least in the British government, which had supplied Mugabe with spare parts for his aircraft and Land Rovers for his police. But, in truth, none of us should have been surprised. It should not have taken 20 years for us all to agree that Robert Mugabe is a very bad man.
Two corrections arising from last week's column. I wrongly named the New York Times's executive editor, Howell Raines, as Howard in my item about the newspaper's persecution of its over-imaginative young reporter. I also asserted that the Guardian was the only newspaper to put on its front page the story of Africans being sucked out of an airplane. On Friday 9 May the London Evening Standard splashed with it in its later editions.