The Tory peer Lord Young has suggested that if, as now appears almost inevitable, the government denies the public a referendum on the new EU (absolutely not a) constitution, then Eurosceptic businessmen should fund a privately-organised referendum of the general public. There is some precedent for this, in the form of the private referendum on the future of Section 28 organised and funded by the multi-millionaire Brian Souter in 2000. While Souter's referendum was limited to Scotland, it would surely not be impossible, with substantial funding and efficient organisation, to organise a UK-wide poll on the considerably more important question of the EU "treaty".
The practical effectiveness of any private referendum would be a different matter, however. In spite of an overwhelming 87% vote against abolishing Section 28, Souter's referendum failed to prevent the ultimate removal of the clause. I suspect that a private referendum on the constitution would be similarly unsuccessful.
One of the significant problems that Souter's referendum faced, was that anti-Section 28 groups boycotted the poll. As a result of this, supporters of abolition were able to depict the poll as unrepresentative of the public, despite the fact that it attracted a 32% turnout among Scottish voters, a figure approximately equal to the average turnout in local elections.
The same problem would be likely to afflict any private referendum on the EU constitution. It is highly unlikely that pro-constitution forces would actively participate in any such referendum; indeed, like the anti-Section 28ers in Scotland, they would probably seek to reduce its legitimacy by boycotting it. And, it cannot be denied, that a boycott would, to some extent, diminish the poll's legitimacy. After all, a vote organised by anti-constitution activists, and boycotted by supporters of the constitution, could never claim the same legitimacy as an impartially organised referendum in which both sides participated. It would simply not be seen as a fair fight. That principle held true for Souter's referendum, and it would hold true for Lord Young's proposed referendum.
Where such a referendum could prove useful, would be as a display of strength. If several million people voted, and voted overwhelmingly against the constitution, then, even if that vote could not be said to be an exact representation of public opinion, it would nonetheless possess importance, as a representation of the views of a very large number of people. As such, it could be considered equivalent to a protest march: if a protest march attracts hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people, then it can strengthen the position advocated by the marchers, by clearly showing that their views do have substantial support.
The problem here, is that the government must surely already know that, not only are a very large number of people opposed to the constitution, but that the vast majority of people are. After all, it is because they know that they would lose any referendum, and lose heavily, that they will not allow a referendum in the first place. A large anti-constitution vote in a private referendum would do no more than re-emphasise this, and would, in all probability, be ignored.
This is not to say that it would be a waste of time organising a private referendum on this matter. Anything that gave the public an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to this latest sell-out of our country by its leaders would be a good thing. But we must be realistic in our expectations: the politicians are hardly unused to ignoring the views of the public, and doing it on one more thing is unlikely to cause any of them a sleepless night. No, I think that the most likely way in which Britain will be saved from the constitution is by its rejection by a nation whose government does allow it a referendum.