The media’s fixation with personality politics and the petty ups and downs of individual political careers distracts us from the only thing that matters when it comes to the EU referendum – the future of our democracy
The Times’ Red Box briefing email today leads with more sneering commentary about the supposed shortcomings of the broader anti-EU, pro-democracy Leave campaign:
Maybe it’s a stunt to show how difficult it is to work together for the greater good, thus undermining a key argument for staying in the European Union.
Or maybe the campaigns to leave the EU are a total bloody shambles.
While Remain was pumping out letters to ten million homes yesterday, the Outers were out to get each other. Again.
The briefing continues:
The infighting is also causing another problem: who would want to join this rabble?
Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, has suggested that a senior cabinet minister will eventually lead the Out campaign, though refused at the weekend to say who that might be.
There are suggestions that Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers are not high profile enough, and the likes of Michael Gove will fall in line and support the PM.
Which leaves Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader who remains popular in some parts of the party and has long argued against staying in the EU.
Yet he too has history with Cummings, who was his director of strategy during his ill-fated leadership before quitting and later declaring: ” Mr Duncan Smith is incompetent, would be a worse prime minister than Tony Blair, and must be replaced.”
Because of course that is the most important question in this whole debate – whose reputation and political prospects will be most enhanced or damaged by the stance they take on the future of British political governance.
What ambitious, self-respecting politician would want to associate their glittering career with the grubby and laughable concepts of national sovereignty and democracy? Which of the petty, superficial personalities who pass for statesmen today will win a coveted promotion, and which will find their career progression halted because they pick the wrong horse in this race? The sheer superficiality of the media’s EU referendum debate coverage absolutely beggars belief.
Is there currently a lot of unseemly (to outward appearances) infighting among the eurosceptic, pro-Brexit crowd? Yes. But a lot of this is necessary fighting. Though our first instinct may be to separate the squabbling factions with cries of “can’t we all just get along?”, in actual fact this fighting serves an important purpose.
Many people and organisations who purportedly oppose the European Union are actually either ambivalent about leaving, or busy spewing out contradictory and uninformed messages which will ultimately harm the Leave campaign and provide the Remain side with plentiful campaign fodder. This harms the Brexit cause, and so must be confronted and dealt with if the Leave campaign is to win the referendum.
Vote Leave in particular is filled to the brim with people who don’t actually want Britain to leave the European Union, but simply want the government to use a “leave” vote as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Brussels. Meanwhile, UKIP and others are often guilty of promoting an overly simplistic view of Brexit, conjuring a fantasyland where Britain quits the EU on Day 1, bans all immigration on Day 2, and holds a big Bonfire of the Regulations on Day 3.
None of these things are possible, nor even desirable. And pretending that they are achievable reflects badly on the entire Brexit movement. And so while it may appear unseemly to outsiders and the half-interested media, it is essential that eurosceptics have these essential debates now, while relatively few people are watching, so that we go into the campaign with the message that carries the greatest chance of success.
As Ben Kelly points out over at The Sceptic Isle:
[..] it is impossible for everyone to agree and therefore impossible to have one unifiedLeave campaign. The Remain campaign is entirely based on disseminating fear, uncertainty and doubt amongst the populace and propagating myths about Brexit. Thus, as a movement Remain is easy to unify; Europhiles are unified in their duplicity, unjust smugness, their lack of faith in democracy and their inability to stop clinging to an archaic ideology and an ideal that is redundant and bad for Britain.
The debate over leaving the EU is more nuanced and therefore necessarily divided; this makes the europhiles positively gleeful because they see it as an advantage. It isn’t. Those of us who want to leave the EU are now involved in a great competition, a battle of ideas, over how exactly we achieve Brexit both in terms of convincing the public, winning the referendum, and the plan for what we should do with our independence.
Remember, this referendum is the europhiles’ to lose. They have the government on their side, nearly the entire political establishment, the European Union itself and the lion’s share of the funding. They also have the most powerful advantage of all – the incorrect perception, fuelled by the media, that this referendum is a contest between staying in the EU as it is now (the “safe” status quo), and taking some deathly plunge into the unknown. Both of these axioms are utterly wrong, but they are widely believed and toxic to the Brexit cause.
Of course, in reality there is no status quo when it comes to the European Union. The EU is but a process, set in motion half a century ago, whose end destination is a single European state. And frankly, I am getting tired of pointing this out when the EU’s founding fathers and today’s euro-federalists have repeatedly said so in their own words.
At this point, it is for the pro-EU campaigners to explain why a humble organisation that supposedly only wants to promote free trade and co-operation requires a parliament, a judiciary, a flag and an anthem in order to accomplish these basic tasks. It is most certainly not for me to continually explain why the person pointing a gun in our face and demanding that we hand over our cash is in fact a mugger, and not a kind-hearted charity collector.
But it is hard to promote any kind of message about democracy, governance or anything else when all of the oxygen in the debate is sucked up and wasted on breathless speculation about whose careers will be helped or hindered by their eventual stance on the Brexit question.
I couldn’t care less whether Boris Johnson biding his time is a smart move in terms of his Tory leadership ambitions, or whether the likes of Theresa May and Sajid Javid are wise to lie low and obey David Cameron’s command for eurosceptics to keep quiet while his pro-EU ministers are given free reign to sing endless hymns of praise to Brussels. It doesn’t interest me. The only abundantly clear thing is the fact that none of the supposed Conservative eurosceptics truly care about safeguarding our democracy and sovereignty, because if they did they would be promoting Brexit for all they are worth rather than weighing up the options and deciding whether campaigning for Brexit might hurt their careers.
I know it is hard for the legacy media to remain focused on issues rather than personalities for any length of time, but given the gravity of this particular debate – and its profound, far-reaching consequences for how the British people will be governed in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time – it would be nice to see more than the usual token effort.
The current gossipy, high school style fixation with personality politics and the petty ups and downs of individual reputations and political careers is more toxic than all of the Remain campaign’s lies, distortions and evasions put together. For it distracts us from the only thing that matters in this referendum: democracy, and whether we surrender it out of fear, or stand and fight for it.
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“At this point, it is for the pro-EU campaigners to explain why a humble organisation that supposedly only wants to promote free trade and co-operation requires a parliament, a judiciary, a flag and an anthem in order to accomplish these basic tasks.”
Okay, I’ll give it a go.
As you’ll know doubt be aware from discussion around TTIP, one does not simply “promote free trade” without a set of political rules defining the contours of that free trade. In the case of TTIP, those political rules are actually judicial rules, with corporations writing the law (TTIP itself) and then exercising their powers in it by challenging governments in courts. As someone who cares so much about democracy and sovereignty, I’m sure you can see how that is hugely deficient compared to having a parliament, elected by the people, voting on decisions that matter to their electorate.
That’s not to say that the judicial branch is inferior in a political system; I’m sure we’re in agreement that it is not. An independent judiciary is needed to ensure that the laws passed are enforced fairly, and not at the whim or by the fiat of the executive. It would not make sense to give an English court the final say on Britain’s compliance with its international obligations under a treaty with another sovereign nation, much less for it to have the final say on matters between France and Germany, for example. Giving the EU an independent (but nationally representative) court to deal with matters arising under its own international treaties is therefore perfectly consistent, although I can see why that would be of little comfort for someone whose real complaint is that Britain has international obligations at all.
Objecting to a flag is even more perverse. Does anyone object to the UN flag or the Olympic flag? Should Britain leave the Commonwealth, because it has a flag? Fortunately if the Commonwealth ever became an oppressive Empire (as some people think the EU will — or already has), it would be Britain doing the oppression, so there’s nothing to worry about there, I suppose.
Finally, as for the anthem, did you know that the Olympics has one of those as well? And its lyrics are in Greek! Can’t you just imagine the Greek army invading Britain and banning fish and chips, all because we were foolish enough to empower this undemocratic flag-waving anthem-singing organisation?
I’m not trying to be flippant, and you make some very thoughtful and intelligent comments in your post, but I think your complaint about why the EU has all these attributes falls flat on its face. If you put as much effort into challenging your own position as you put into presenting arguments for it, I think your positions would be that much stronger (and more pro-EU).
Here’s one for you to try: If 40% – 60% of people in this country would vote to stay in the EU, and only 37% of people voted for the current government, then which political union is it that lacks democratic legitimacy?
Thanks for a detailed and incisive comment. You make a really important point about how ordinary people are best represented in the course of international trade negotiations like TTIP. Again, I would suggest that the best and most “democratic” way of doing this would be for the people negotiating to genuinely represent the communities for whom they speak. An EU negotiator almost by definition cannot speak on behalf of any one member state, since the commonly agreed EU position will be a compromise 28 ways. By contrast, if individual nation states are around the table (as is the case with UNECE and other forums – http://thescepticisle.com/2015/10/29/david-camerons-fear-of-the-norway-option/) then the output will still be a compromise, but the views of each country will be heard directly rather than filtered down twice.
I don’t claim that any solution is perfect. We absolutely need rules to govern free trade, and with those rules there will be winners and losers. Some form of democratically legitimate input to these discussions is essential, and I still don’t see why getting the EU to act as an intermediary for 28 countries is in any way superior to letting those countries represent themselves. The latter would inevitably be more responsible to the views of the people.
With regard to the flag and the anthem – yes, the Olympics have one. Microsoft, Google and McDonalds also fly flags with their logos, and have jingles (anthems), doing so without any pretension of becoming a nation state. But when you take the flag and anthem and add those sometime trappings of a state with the EU’s desire for a common foreign and defence policy (for example) then I think it’s pretty clear what the EU intends. The 12 stars are not just a “brand”.
And let me close with this. Clearly the way that humans govern themselves is going through an important series of changes right now. Maybe the nation state, so long the bedrock of our civilisation, is on the way out, having been made a laughable anachronism. Maybe. But this is the first time that humans have changed the way they govern and relate to one another in the age of universal suffrage – where women and minorities and non landowning men can have their say. For the first time, every citizen has the right (if not the expectation) to participate in the democratic process and help shape the future of their community and country.
Why, then, are we set on pursuing one very specific mid-century view of how globalisation and internationalism should look, cooked up in smoke-filled rooms by 1940s and 50s elites? Why do we have to unthinkingly implement this rusting blueprint from the past? Why, when the EU is so beset by problems and so disliked by so many, do we want to double down and try to make national square pegs fit into the EU’s round hole? Why do we have to remain wedded to the idea of a regional European customs union when I can more easily do business or collaborate with someone in Texas or Singapore than I can someone in Burgundy? The localism/culture argument doesn’t wash – I have far more in common with Americans, Canadians and Australians than the nationals of many EU member states.
I believe in globalisation. I believe absolutely in free trade, which inevitably has to be governed by international rules. But I don’t see why a political union is necessary to achieve this (there is no NAFTA parliament), and I wish that europhiles would stop suggesting that the EU is the price we pay for free trade. I don’t want to pay that price, and I don’t see why we should have to.
On your final point, you are comparing apples and oranges. The 63% who did not vote Conservative (mostly) still feel British – their sense of national identity is not dependent on which party is in government. I’m all for voting and constitutional reform (see the Harrogate Agenda) but if you want to make a real comparison about democratic legitimacy you would look at voter turnout in the general election vs the European election, since that gives a much better indication of which political entity – Britain or Europe – people feel most vested in.
Great reply, Sam, thank you.
You’re right that there is a trade-off (no pun intended) when negotiating international trade deals. On the one hand, game theory tells us that the bigger the economic bloc you represent, the bigger your leverage is against your trading partner (look at the Microsoft anti-trust ruling, or the Facebook privacy ruling, from the EU, and compare that to the divide-and-conquer strategy those big companies can apply against lone states like Norway or Iceland), and on the other hand, making a deal at a centralised level means having to form an uneasy aggregate of all the constituencies represented.
There is no easy answer to this balancing act, and I welcome any empirical data that would support any particular size or shape of trading bloc (such as the theoretical work on determining Optimum Currency Areas), but from anecdotal evidence I feel that without the strength of the EU backing us, we never would have seen things like the forthcoming (better balanced) replacement Safe Harbour deal. Perhaps a large part of the reason for needing to find these difficult balances is that corporations have so much power over governments, but I think the problem will exist as long as different nations are different sizes and have different amounts of power (out of proportion to their population sizes, and in any case in the absence of any international democratic system to prevent abuses of power).
Your argument about the common foreign and defence policy is much more apposite than the earlier examples of flags and anthems, which I accept may have just been emotive symbols for rhetorical effect. At the end of the day, though, the EU cannot gain for itself any powers that the member states don’t give it, and both foreign affairs and defence policy remain matters requiring unanimous consent, effectively giving Britain a veto. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_in_the_Council_of_the_European_Union#Unanimity
From that point of view it doesn’t matter what “the EU” “intends”, what matters is what is legally possible. By all means lobby the British government and your MEP not to vote for foreign and defence policies that you disagree with, but if you are worried your government might adopt the “wrong” policy in these areas, that is a problem that leaving the EU won’t solve. Fortunately I think you’ll find that other countries don’t want to give up their veto in these areas either, and even if all the countries in the EU went mad one day and voted for some terrible policy, Britain is free to leave at any time (such a policy would just make a future “Leave” campaign’s job easier, and I don’t see UKIP disappearing even if the country votes to “Remain” this time, so the threat of leaving will always be on the table). Also, I’m sure you’re aware of the European Union Act 2011 which prevents any new transferral of sovereignty without an automatic new referendum.
Moving to your next point, it’s great to see your thinking about the long term shifts in how humans govern themselves. Personally I would describe human history as a flow from narrow, insular, closed minded, xenophobic tribal groups, forming villages, then city states, then nations, then kingdoms, then empires, then continental unions of democratic, open minded, multicultural societies. The idea of international law in particular has flourished over time, especially since World War 2, and we have potentially entered era of peace and prosperity, unique in human history, and in no small part thanks to the international cooperation and institutions that have contributed to and benefited from it.
To say that all of a sudden this march of progress has hit a brick wall, and that the bonds of international unity need to be severed, seems like quite a strong claim to make given the trajectory I have laid out. You are right that to some extent the idea of nation states is dissolving, and I would say it is the nation state that is the round hole that the differently shaped square pegs that we are as individuals have a hard time fitting into. This is as much a challenge for the EU as it is for national governments, but I don’t think that the solution is to replace the EU with less-integrated nations any more than the solution is to replace our individual nations with a unitary EU state.
You say you have more in common with Americans than with people of many other EU states, and I don’t doubt that, but similarly (to pick one obvious example) many people in Scotland feel they have more in common with Scandinavian countries or Ireland than they do with England. For many people (in the UK and elsewhere), I think the nation state is a vestige they cling to of a time when you could live your life surrounded by people who thought the same way as you, where things outside your immediate sphere of experience and expertise didn’t affect you; and there is something very comforting about such a world. I know you are not such a person, but you seem to ascribe the problems of nation states onto the EU, whereas I see the EU as a (partial) remedy to such problems, and a natural consequence of an interconnected world where the problems facing nation states exist.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking comment of yours I have read so far is the simple observation that “there is no NAFTA parliament”. I suspect there are important differences in terms of the amount of trade or trade barriers, but perhaps the biggest difference is simply the number of member states. It may seem crass for me to say “but NAFTA only has 3 members”, but remember that bilateral deals scale according to Metcalfe’s Law, thus with the square of the number of participants, so if NAFTA states need 3 agreements, the EU would need 378 (i.e. 28 * 27 / 2). Anyway, this is something I need to inform myself on more, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Finally, I don’t think I am comparing apples and oranges. The noticeable effect of the EU on people’s lives is very minor (except when they are enjoying free movement on the continent, or lower roaming charges, or improved human rights protections that our government fights against), whereas the effect of the Conservative government is very visceral, from the under-funding of our schools and NHS, to the disastrous effects of short-sighted austerity cuts, or the wars our country gets involved in (all things that the EU has no control over). The fact that these policies, which are being foisted onto the 82% (yes, 82%) of the population who didn’t vote for this government, are the policies of a party which happens to be based in Britain is of little comfort except to the most petty of nationalists.
As I say (and you seemed to suggest), “national identity” is an increasingly outdated concept, and viewing election results through that lens (at the expense of considering the policies that people are actually voting for) is almost wilful obfuscation. People give many justifications or explanations for low voter turnout (and we should not be surprised that it tends to be higher in countries with more proportional voting systems), but in the case of the European election I would say that the biggest factor is that people don’t see that decisions made at the EU level matter to them (just as turnout for local council elections tends to be lower). If anything you should be pleased that the EU is causing so little concern to people that they don’t feel the need to even attempt to influence it. UKIP is right there as a protest vote for them (and indeed they seem to do disproportionately well in EU elections for that very reason), but right now people are more vested in the elections where the sovereign power is decided, which remains nationally.
I suppose “Democracy” means different things to different people – certainly each of the 28 member States of the European Union has a different system. Different cameral arrangements, voting systems, subsidiarity etc. There is no right and wrong template, no “more democratic” nor “less democratic” – except subjectively of course. This variety brings with it an interesting test. If the EU was really “undemocratic”, as this writer claims, then from these various perspectives surely at least one member would challenge the system and demand change? But they don’t and I’ll explain why.
Over the decades the EU and its predecessors has become ever more democratic as it has pursued ever closer union. Above all, the European Parliament, has evolved into a fully-fledged democratic Assembly. Not perfect, of course, but a solid symbol of the democratic principles that underpin the EU. The Parliament has changed over the years and will continue to do so. At the same time the Commision, the civil servants who make the EU work, have become ever more democratically accountable. It’s work in progress and not everything that has to be achieved has been achieved. But Europe has not just a coherent Union but one fit for modern times and one that the 28 members can be proud of.
The concept of “subsidiarity” is key to the EU. Take decisions at the lowest level possible. Ensure that decisions taken in Brussels are taken there because it is right to do so – not to reinforce the EU’s power. The U.K. is not in a position to lecture the 27 other EU members on this, nor much else in respect of democracy. We do not delegate to the lowest level possible in Britain anywhere nearly enough. Indeed we don’t even have the democratic institutions to do so – other than in the Celtic fringe. Similarly our Governance system is no model for any other State. An unelected Head of State. And unelected Upper House. A voting system which utterly distorts election results in respect of Party representation. And so on.
In the modern world crucial decisions which impact on our lives are taken all the time by those who are not accountable to us. By the Boards of multinational corporations. By the leaders of big countries such as the United States, China or Russia. By often unaccountable non Governmental and transnational bodies of various types from the UN to FIFA (etc.). Are we more likely to be in a position to challenge these processes together with 27 other nations or on our own? Obvious isn’t it? So the EU, as well as being increasingly democratic as an institution, has the power to act together and make a difference. It protects our democracy rather better than we do!
Many thanks indeed for the long and thoughtful comment, but a lot of this is smoke and mirrors, designed to distract.
Of course elections or parliaments by themselves do not “make” democracy. Democracy comes from a cohesive population who feel part of the same community giving legitimacy to a publicly accountable legislature and executive. And the thing you cannot escape, no matter how hard you try, is that there simply *is* no European demos. The vast majority of people do not feel European as their primary (or even secondary) identity. The EU is a top-down construct, cooked up by political elites and gradually imposed on the peoples of Europe by stealth. Despite its best efforts to now act like a state, with its own anthem and flag, it is supremely unloved by the people. You talk about the EU parliament being more democratic than our own – well, the European Parliament cannot even propose new legislation of its own. All legislation must emanate from the powerful, unelected commission.
I would respect your argument a lot more if you would just ‘fess up and admit that you yearn to live in a United States of Europe, and concede that the project has largely been brought about by stealth (at least from a UK perspective) and against the wishes of the majority of people. Then we could have a serious discussion about the merits of a federal Europe versus a humble free trade agreement / customs union (which the “Remain” campaign still risibly pretend is the extent of the EU’s ambition).
On your argument about Britain being in a stronger position to face the ravages of the world when yoked to 27 other countries, I would point out that the vast majority of regulations Britain is subjected to are set at global levels through the auspices of UNECE, etc. The EU merely takes previously agreed global standards and applies them with their own protectionist twist. Far better to sit at the top table influencing the global rules in the first place – but we can’t do so at present, because the EU speaks for us.
I don’t disagree with anything you say about Britain’s own broken and flawed democracy, but one imperfect democracy at home is not just cause for the subsuming of Britain into an even more imperfect union in Brussels. We need real constitutional reform in this country to bring about a federal UK of equal home nations, invigorate local democracy and devolve power to the lowest level possible, and proper separation of powers. To bring about these ends, I support the Harrogate Agenda and recommend you give it your attention:
As I say, I would find it a lot more intellectually honest if europhiles and Remain campaigners would simply admit that they want Britain to be a federal European state, rather than coming up with these tortured arguments and credibility-stretching statements about the EU’s opaque, distant and unloved institutions somehow being more democratically legitimate than our own.
I have no problem at all with the ongoing moves to ever closer Union and like Churchill I fully support the idea of a “United States of Europe”! (I know that he didn’t see the UK as part of it. Arguably at the time he was right in this – though the rapid decline of Empire, the disappearance of the “Special Relationship”, and the inevitable rise of the Great Powers, which did not include Britain, soon totally changed the situation).
It is now 55 years since Dean Acheson said “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role” and if we were to follow Mr Hooper’s wishes we never would! Unless we want that role to be on the margins of Europe – a sort of sad, pessimistic, grumpy old relative to the Europeans’ youth and optimism. I want the opposite of that. I want us to be right at the heart of Europe bringing our history, and our learnings from it, to the table on every occasion. Not in a Flanders and Swann way (“The English, the English, the English are best…”) but in a genuine spirit of cooperation. I want us to build on our prominent position in the Financial Sector and develop other areas where we can be European trailblazers. (Of all the venalities of the Brexit adherents their willingness to put the position of the City of London as Europe’s financial capital at risk is perhaps the most ignorant and dangerous).
“And the thing you cannot escape, no matter how hard you try, is that there simply *is* no European demos. The vast majority of people do not feel European as their primary (or even secondary) identity. The EU is a top-down construct, cooked up by political elites and gradually imposed on the peoples of Europe by stealth. Despite its best efforts to now act like a state, with its own anthem and flag, it is supremely unloved by the people.”
I have travelled to most, but not quite all, of our partner States in the EU and without exception the statement you make is untrue. The European flag flies unselfconsciously and proudly on public and private buildings in all of them and the people acknowledge the freedoms that the EU, and the Euro, brings. Even in Greece, where I was last summer, the thoughtful see that membership of Europe and the Euro over time brings benefits which far exceed the disadvantages. I agree that here in the UK those of us who see the irrefutable benefits of Union have not presented our case well. But it is a gross exaggeration to argue, even here, that the EU is “Supremely unloved”. And across the other 27 member states it is simply not true.
The modern world is a cooperative world or it is nothing. To argue that Britain could carry more weight in it alone rather than as a member of the world’s largest and most powerful economic bloc is, shall we say, pushing incredulity to its limits!