The House of Commons is about to do a proper job. For the next month it is not discussing the new European constitution or "Lisbon treaty". That is sealed and delivered, and was so back in 2005. The Commons is discussing whether Britain should agree to it, and how. The debate is already angry and bad-tempered, an excellent sign.On this subject there are just two facts that matter. The first is that everyone but a fool (or a minister) knows that the new treaty is the rejected 2005 constitution in all but name. Its architect, the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, says so. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who negotiated its passage, says so explicitly. Even the pro-government Commons foreign affairs committee said so, at least in part, last week. As the pro-EU Tory Kenneth Clarke remarked in the Commons on Monday, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, would look less miserable if he abandoned his absurd denial, admitted reality and got on with the debate.
The second fact is that all three parties promised voters at the 2005 general election that their view on the restructuring of the EU would be sought in a referendum. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pledged there would there be no question of "bringing it back with a few amendments" and pretending it was different. There were no ifs, buts or equivocations. There were no references back to previous referendums or debating points about the Single European Act. There was just an old-fashioned, cast-iron, read-my-lips, democracy-is-sacred, thundering great pledge.
Given the brutal mugging and facial disfigurement to which this pledge has been subjected by Brown's ministers, it is probably best remitted to the private confessional. A more vigorous debate is whether, irrespective of pledges, there should be a referendum anyway. Parliament cannot now alter the Lisbon treaty, but it can accept or reject it and determine the means of ratification.
Any argument about any referendum is dogged by the outcome usually being predictable from opinion polls. At the present moment 80% of the public wants one, though opinion is evenly divided on whether the treaty should be approved. Nonetheless, its advocates do not want to take the risk. Thus to want a referendum is seen as opposing the treaty, and to argue against one is seen as defending it. The democratic case for a referendum as such is corrupted.
Hence the agony of the Liberal Democrats who, on this matter, are neither liberal nor democratic. They too pledged a ratification referendum. But they have never been able to see, hear or speak evil of Euro-centralism, and therefore hold that a referendum on the treaty (which might be lost) should not be risked while one on withdrawal from Europe (which might be won) can be. The party's leader, Nick Clegg, wriggled and squirmed when asked yesterday if he would support the government and oppose a referendum. It was like asking a Catholic if he would support the Pope.
Referendums are customarily used to approve changes in a nation's constitutional structure. In this they have replaced the traditional British way of reform of bipartisan royal commissions. Given the pace of centralisation in many European states, referendums have increasingly been used to limit centralisation, to reallocate and fix power vertically between tiers in a democracy.
Thus a referendum was used by the British government to validate Scottish and Welsh devolution. Blair pleaded for one to both France's Jacques Chirac and the British electorate, to validate devolution upwards to a new and clearly more potent EU. The need for such validation had special force given the constitution's extraordinary "passerelle" clause, enabling Europe's new institutions to extend their powers without recourse to further treaty amendments. Blair rightly took the view that such a marked transfer of sovereignty should receive a specific democratic mandate.
Let us assume for the sake of argument that Blair was wrong and Brown and Miliband are right. Let us assume that the mechanisms by which Britons are governed can be determined not by British electors or partisan cabinets (or even royal commissioners) but by former French presidents at chateau seminars. This is what I call the "Holy Roman Empire" case for the treaty.
Let us further assume that subtleties of modern government are such that ordinary people cannot hope in future to understand them, and that they are best left to a sophisticated supranational oligarchy: the "Brussels Raj" case. Let us finally assume that the rights of Europe's minorities - even of entire states - are too trivial to be allowed to impede interests with most leverage on the Council of Ministers: the "majoritarian dictatorship". (I had better add the ontological, or Liberal Democrat, case: that because Europe exists anything tagged European is good.)
Assuming all this, what happens next? We all know the answer. People fed up with bureaucratic meddling in their lives will gradually withdraw consent from honest government. As under communism they will evade, fiddle and go apathetic. Faced with a torrent of Euro-directives - some possibly virtuous, on free trade, energy saving, public safety, terrorism, civil rights, building regulations and conservation - they will disregard them, as Mediterranean countries ignore or corrupt any public administration they do not like.
I do not want this sort of Britain. It will happen not because voters were cheated of a promised referendum. Most will just shrug and say: "Typical politicians." It will happen because no attempt was made to persuade them of the worth of a substantial transfer of their democracy off-shore, as would have happened in a referendum campaign. This neglect was not oversight. It was because the government thought its persuasion might not work (despite the polls suggesting it might). It was the arrogance of political cowardice.
Such an exercise would have benefited both sides of the argument. I still think Britain is better off as a member of the EU. Being dragged by trade necessity into accepting its regulatory regime, like Norway or Switzerland, is not sensible in an ever-more integrated continental economy. Britain is also one of the few EU countries that regularly resists the heap of corruption and self-aggrandisement that is the Brussels commission.
This stance is tenable only if Britons are willing participants in this "ever closer union", and many are unwilling. Not asking them will not increase their willingness. It will be worse than undemocratic, it will be foolish.