If political and social cohesion is fraying even in the United States, where citizens share a strong common American bond, what chance is there for successful European government?
In her latest Telegraph column, Janet Daley makes an interesting comparison between the prospects of European federal union and those of the United States (currently experiencing its own political turmoil with Donald Trump’s successful insurgency on the Right and a nearly-successful insurgency on the Left in the form of Bernie Sanders).
That ideal of the European continent as a unified entity, presenting an alternative presence in the world to the overweening superpower across the Atlantic was once the whole point – wasn’t it?
[..] But, as I say, nobody who favours remaining in the EU is talking up that idea these days. In fact, it’s the other guys – the ones who want to leave – who are most inclined to remind us of it, to the clear embarrassment of the Remainers. Could this be because the political model itself – the American success story of a federation of states joined together under a central government – seems to be going badly wrong? The nation that appeared to have found the ultimate solution to conjoining separate states, each with its own semi-autonomous authority, under one set of national governing institutions is now apparently facing an electoral choice between the demagogic and the disreputable.
I get what Daley is trying to do here, but she makes a leap too far in suggesting that the nature of federal government itself is responsible for American political woes. The federal model has served the United States well for nearly 250 years; today’s problems are indeed mirrored in Europe and America, but they are not the result of federalism, tempting as it might be to discredit federalism in order to prevent its unwelcome imposition on the countries of Europe.
On the contrary, the current political disillusionment and the rise of the insurgent outsider candidates is largely the inevitable consequence of corporatism, an unhealthy perversion of capitalism in which unaccountable and undistinguishable elites from all major parties leech off the state to unfairly consolidate their hold on power, which is common among many Western governments. And tellingly, Daley provides no evidence to back up her assertion that federalism is to blame for this.
Daley then goes on to discredit her argument further with this highly inaccurate portrayal of conservatism in America:
Most disturbingly, the US seems to be prey to the same excesses which are so worrying n the European scene. American federal elections both at the presidential and the congressional level, used to be predictably, boringly moderate. For generations, both the major parties (and there were no others worth considering) could have fit within what was, in European terms, a narrow spectrum of political possibility: roughly the middle ground of the British Conservative party. Capitalism under reasonable controls and a strong defence of individual liberty were the basic tenets of a consensus which underpinned every plausible candidacy, allowing only for differences of emphasis and intonation.
This is wrong on several counts. Firstly, it is a wholly wrong to suggest that the entire spectrum of American political thought would miraculously fit within the British Tory party. To make this claim is to overlook the numerous areas of social policy (gay rights, abortion and religion in public life are just the first which spring to mind) where the British Conservative Party has more or less completely moved on and abandoned its past conservative stances, while the Republican Party continues to exploit the culture wars as a vote-winning wedge issue.
It is also to overlook the fact that in terms of economic policy, the Tories are often comfortably to the left of even the US Democratic Party in terms of their tolerance for state involvement in political life, the scope and depth of the welfare state and – how can one forget – the British worship of nationalised healthcare. True, there are isolated Democrats who openly support a “public option”, but almost nobody in American political life thinks that the NHS is a great model to emulate, or would be caught dead suggesting its adoption by the United States.
In almost every way, the British political spectrum sits (at least) a few points to the left of America’s, with our dreary post-war collectivism standing in marked contrast to the individualism of the United States. To suggest that both Republicans and Democrats would find a comfortable home within the Conservative Party is simply false – even the most Thatcherite of Tory MPs would be laughed out of the GOP as a ludicrous socialist.
Secondly, while recoiling in horror from Trump (admittedly a demagogue) and Bernie Sanders (who this blog admires for bringing genuinely left wing conviction to the debate, if only so that it can be exposed as flawed) Daley seems almost approving when she writes of “predictably, boringly moderate” government which allowed only for slight “differences of emphasis and intonation”. But this is exactly the problem – it is when the major political parties begin to look and sound indistinguishable from one another that a void opens which is often filled by glib and unsavoury types like Trump. In many ways, Britain has been fortunate in this regard – going into the 2015 general election, Labour and the Conservatives could hardly have been more depressingly alike, and yet the worst we have to show for it is a diminished UKIP and Jeremy Corbyn.
Daley appears to be defending consensus politics and railing against demagoguery at the same time, while failing to understand that an excess of the former all but guarantees the latter. Her column also forms part of an unwelcome trend of unnecessarily problematising issues around the EU referendum. Both sides are guilty – mostly desperate Remainers, who in their desperation to win are prone to suggesting that the smallest of bureaucratic or diplomatic hurdles to Brexit is an immovable showstopper, but also many on the Leave side who are apt to grasp at any problem with the EU or any world event and seek to fashion it into a weapon to be fired at Brussels.
In this case, holding Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders up as evidence suggesting that the American federal model itself is broken may help to land a solitary punch on the European Union this once, because the EU’s inexorable direction of travel is toward federal union. But by slandering an entire mode of governance in this way, we limit ourselves when it comes time to think about how we may wish to be governed if and when we leave the European Union. Some – including this blog – actually believe that moving towards a federal United Kingdom following a constitutional convention to be held after Brexit would be a great outcome.
So a plea to everyone on both sides (but in reality, only to those on the Brexit side – for we know that the Remain camp will tell any lie and stoke any fear in their desperation to win): there are sufficient real problems with the European Union as it is now and is soon likely to become without attacking every single word or concept associated with Brussels. So let’s debate where we can win – not getting into a mud slinging contest with trumped up economic figures, and not disparaging every single thing associated with the European Union, but by focusing on democracy and sovereignty, and building a positive vision of how Brexit can be the first step in Britain’s re-emergence as a global player.
The Brexit side is already accused of being alarmist. Let’s not live up to the hype by slandering federalism – a mode of government which has worked exceedingly well for many countries, including the most powerful and prosperous on Earth – in our desperation to slander everything which is also connected with the European project.
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