It’s no surprise Tony Blair doesn’t like referendums – he’s spent his career breaking promises on them

It’s no surprise Tony Blair doesn’t like referendums – he’s spent his career breaking promises on them

There is a certain degree of irony to Labour’s most democratically successful politician ever – and indeed the only Labour leader to have actually succeeded at the ballot box since 1974 – now openly attempting to reverse the largest democratic mandate granted to any proposition in British electoral history.

This year, it will have been a full twenty years since his messianic rise to power, and a decade since his rather less auspicious fall, but if anything, the man has changed much less than the British people who jubilantly elected him all those years ago. Blair almost seemed to be rolling back the years at points in his speech today, and much of his rhetoric and delivery was a clear reminder of exactly why he was the most accomplished political communicator of his generation by a mile.

His masterful command of New Labour doublespeak was out in force – which other politician could open a speech by declaring their acceptance of the referendum result, only to spend the next hour explicitly spelling out precisely why they wanted to reverse it, as if the second proposition followed seamlessly and logically on from the first?

And his ability to craft and present political arguments – as objectionable as they may have been – in the highly compelling and clear fashion that propelled him to so much electoral success in the past was also on full display, as well-worked metaphors and analogies provided the gilding on top of a speech whose main thrust was essentially that if Leave voters could just have the arguments explained to them properly, they would almost certainly change their minds.

Much of it came across as something approaching a doleful lament: “If only I had been the one explaining to the people of Britain just how terrible life would be outside the European Union, they would have done exactly what they were told.”

Except that the British people’s attitude on one thing has changed – and perhaps more dramatically than anything else in politics over those twenty years – and that is their attitude towards Tony Blair.

Having started his premiership with meteorically high approval ratings of almost 80% that would have made even Trudeau blush, he now sits at an ignominious 14%, according to YouGov polling from last November, with a staggering 74% of the public disapproving of him. Even amongst Labour voters, he has a net disapproval rating of -60%.

However, even in his heyday, Blair was not immune to major public disputes on Europe, and under his watch, Britain narrowly escaped joining the euro – in spite of his desperate attempts to take us in – before the subsequent furore over the European Constitution, which would be repackaged and rammed through as the insidious Lisbon Treaty instead.

Of course, neither of these should have been Blair’s calls to make at all, because – on both the issues of joining the euro and signing the European Constitution/Lisbon Treaty – he had pledged to put these decisions to the entire country in referendums. Yet in both cases, Blair’s promise to consult the people was broken, and the decisions were simply taken by the Government instead. Gordon Brown’s role in keeping us out of the euro remains arguably his greatest political legacy.

The sorry story of the European Constitution, firmly rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 (by 55% and 62% respectively), before being rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty and forced through anyway, ranks as one of the lowest moments in the history of the EU’s troubled relationship with democracy.

The fact that the EU was prepared to plough ahead in the face of decisive democratic rebukes, having made only cosmetic changes to the rejected Constitution, underlined not just the EU’s contempt for genuinely democratic processes, but also the contempt of all those European Governments which were complicit in this bulldozing over democratic rights, with Blair’s New Labour chief among them.

The rebranding of the Constitution as the Lisbon Treaty enabled all those Governments which had pledged referendums on the European Constitution to conveniently break all of their manifesto pledges on the issue, even though Blair and the rest of the EU elite were fully aware that the Lisbon Treaty was materially the same as the Constitution which had been resoundingly rejected by French and Dutch voters, and which they had promised their own electorates a vote on too.

Blair showed no respect for democracy then, so it is no surprise that he is showing no respect for it now.

Of course, the denouement to the Lisbon Treaty saga was that the one country which did actually hold a referendum on it – Ireland – did in fact also reject it, before being told that they had got the ‘wrong answer’ and would need to vote again until they got it ‘right’, with the Irish people having been subjected to threats of the worst order from the European elite in the meantime.

>Mark Francois MP on BrexitCentral: The appalling handling of the Lisbon Treaty sowed the seeds of Brexit

Holding referendums with the intention of only accepting one outcome is not the behaviour of liberal democracies – which Blair spoke so passionately about the need to protect in his speech – but the behaviour of tyrannies, using fig-leaf democracy in attempts to add a shroud of legitimacy to their autocratic actions.

As he acknowledged in his speech, Blair has every right to speak out and make the arguments he wants to, just as people have every right to choose whether to listen to him or not.

But if he genuinely values the liberal democracy he claims he is so desperate to defend, he should think extremely carefully about whether rejecting the largest democratic mandate in British electoral history because it wasn’t the ‘right answer’ is truly the way to do that.