The EU and democracy

Earlier in the week our esteemed contributor CJB  penned an excellent opinion piece, his first, regarding the basic intellectual incoherence of the isolationist, Little-Englander tendency so prevalent in the Conservative Party. Over half of the Tory backbench either voted for or abstained on the motion to have a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU, defying a three-line whip (an uncharacteristically crass political move by Cameron that has only served to undermine his already shaky authority over the Tory party).

I’m going to try and offer a few ideas about the long-term consequences of the vote and the wider in/out debate.. I’m also going to take up the arguments put forward by sections of the left and wider liberal left that I have found to be, to be blunt, a load of shite.

Britain’s membership of the EU is the subject that most Conservatives just won’t let go. Previous generations of Conservatives and those scarred by the experiences of a divided Europe and the mayhem that caused were rather more pragmatic. But now a large percentage of Tories are obsessed with trying to leave and have been for several decades. It is an affront to their ‘Rule Britannia’ sensibilities and brainless Last Night of the Proms flag-waving that they love so much. Being in the EU means extra employment regulation to protect the workers that they despise so much, and lots of extra ghastly foreigners to have to live with. It means acknowledging the obvious, that Britain is not a world power. It means growing fiscal and political integration with all of those appalling pinko European ‘socialists’ (if only) with their ridiculous ideas of equality and human rights. It is everything they despise, or think they despise, made flesh. The fact that it is their intellectual guru who signed Britain up to it in the first place seems to passed them by….

When the Tories/UKIP etc. talk about democracy, sovereignty, and “repatriating powers back from Brussels to the British people” what they really mean is repatriating powers back to them and making it easier for their chums in the business community to treat their staff like shit. All in the name of competitiveness, obviously. The Anglo-Saxon economic model is still the only one offer, despite it’s abject failure.

All of this foaming at the mouth is ably aided and abetted by the feral British press, most of which is virulently Europhobic and prepared to publish just about anything, however dishonest, in order to discredit the EU and the ‘European Project.’ Distortions, half-truths and downright lies abound. Barely a week goes by without an “EU directive means incest will be compulsory” type headline.

So the Tories and those even further to the right of them (well most of them, I think there are one or two that are genuine about the desire for a more thorough democratic settlement, they are just completely wrong about how to get it) have nothing constructive to offer the debate. The trouble is that they have shaped the discussion and largely succeeded in shaping the views of many of the British people. Overwhelmingly the ‘many-headed’ masses support a referendum of some sort on our relationship with the EU, and a large proportion of those would support complete withdrawal. The right have been able to set the tone and poison the minds of the British people for a generation.  

So what of the left, surely our only hope of salvation? (if so we’re fucked……)

Well to be honest their positions aren’t much better either. You can divide most of them into two distinct camps:

  • Some of them actually agree with the Tories and would support withdrawal. Sadly this view is prevalent on the hard left, with a lot of old Stalinists and Bennite labour lefts believing that Britain would suddenly swing left if it left the EU as we would be free of the shackles of the ‘capitalist’ common market. Much of the Scottish left are similarly naïve about the possibilities that would open up if Scotland leaves the union. This really is fanciful. A good case in point is Denmark. After the Danish people had a say in whether they wanted to join the Euro in 2000, and decisively rejected it, the next election saw the Social Democrats kicked out and replaced by a populist right-wing coalition. The political atmosphere created by the nationalist anti-Euro campaign, which the left, however reluctantly, had to go along with, obviously laid the foundations for the rights triumph in the following years national elections. The left did not benefit at all.
  • And then we have the likes of Polly Toynbee. Now in some respects I like Polly Toynbee. She is a trenchant critic of the Government’s austerity programme and her articles in The Guardian are always worth a read. But I have a few niggling doubts about her. I suppose her membership of the SDP in the 80s is the giveaway. She despises action from below or any form of popular democracy. In her view a lovely left-liberal government will rebuild the welfare state, make everything nice for everyone and as long as those daft old proles keep their mouths shut and obediently vote Labour and Lib Dem at elections then everything will be ok. Naturally she opposes any notion of a referendum and praised the Labour leadership for voting with the Government. It is the ‘wrong time’ for a referendum we are told. It will ‘unsettle the business community.’  She is rightly concerned about the potential consequences of a vote for withdrawal. It would be a disaster, as CJB has already illustrated. Sadly that isn’t an argument for not giving the people a say though. And it also betrays a complete lack of confidence in one’s arguments. Doesn’t she think she can win the argument in favour of Britain remaining in the EU? I think she can. And I bloody well know I can. 

It is a tiny section of the left that have a position that I would suggest is remotely sensible. Some of them seem to post on Shiraz Socialist. A Lib Dem MP wrote a really sensible article in the Guardian the other day. I think it’s time that guy left the Lib Dems…….

So what is a sensible position, I hear you cry? Do you have all the answers, Mr Mambo? Well actually, pal, I think I do. So up yours.

I’m passionately in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. I also like the idea of a single currency, if it can be made to work. I would have no particular objection to living in a democratic Unites States of Europe. Democratic being the operative word though. I, unlike most of the people on this small island, am not particularly worried about waves of immigrants taking our jobs and women. If it means I don’t have to spend so much time pissing about at French airports waving my passport about so I can do my cycling and triathlon in the Alps then I’m all for closer European integration.  

The problem is that most of my fellow-countrymen and women don’t share my opinion. They don’t want further integration. Indeed, a large section of the British people seem keen on outright withdrawal. And at present there are rather more of them than me.

Many on the liberal-left are fearful of giving the people a say as they are convinced they will make the wrong choice. They are probably right.

That’s why democracy is such a pisser sometimes. People make the wrong choices.  AV was rejected completely at the recent referendum, wrongly. But that was the popular choice.  We need to accept that verdict until it becomes a live issue again, however much we might not like it. So if the majority of people wish to leave the EU, we should accept that choice.

It really aggravates me when liberal political commentators insinuate, or at times openly suggest that popular forms of democracy such as referenda should be avoided as the consequences would be disastrous. It implies that the great unwashed should be kept out of the decision-making process as they are too stupid and easily led to make the sensible choice. Sometimes this is certainly true, but most people are rational and if put the arguments and facts before them they start to see what is really going on, eventually. That belief is what distinguishes us from the Tories and the Right, surely. We have faith in our fellow man. And even if they make the wrong choice, it is their choice to make…… (It’s why I’m in favour of elected police commissioners. I have no objection to the police being ‘politicised’ and subjected to democratic oversight. I’m all for it. It should be extended across the board. I know in the short term it will benefit the Robocop supporters of zero tolerance. But if the arguments can be won about what a serious social policy should look like, then democracy in the police could be brilliant and could be used to subvert the agenda of the right.)

It is clear that the recent financial crisis will precipitate serious changes in the Eurozone and could see the nature of the EU fundamentally change. Further fiscal integration is clearly on the cards. Many in the European political elite see this as the only long-term solution to the problems that have wracked the Eurozone in recent years. It is not possible to have a single currency regime that covers economies with vastly different economic cycles, wildly different levels of debt, credit-worthiness and industrial composition as Germany and Greece, for example. Britain may be faced with a choice between going along with this, or gradually withdrawing from the project.

In that sense David Davis, the renegade libertarian Tory MP is right when he says that:

“We have been told this is the wrong time. This is the time when all the claims of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are to centralise the EU even more to create a fiscal union. It will have an impact on Britain, as the prime minister has said. So this is absolutely the time to think about this. We should be protecting ourselves from the consequences of the eurozone.”

Most of this is unarguable. It would only be a blinkered fool that could seriously suggest things aren’t going to change dramatically over the next few years, whether you think it is for good or ill. And he is right to say that the British people need a say in this. I think they can be won to European integration and democratization.

That might be very naïve. But if the alternative is a Little-England, flag-waving dystopia, then it’s time we started making, and winning the arguments. And we should respect the democratic will, whether we like what they choose or not.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jim Denham
    Nov 01, 2011 @ 14:03:33

    Very sensible comment (above). Yes, there is a danger of those of us on the left, who refuse to jump on the anti-EU bandwagon, appearing to be anti-democratic. I agree that we cannot, in principle oppose the call for a referendum, and like you, I’m optimistic that we can win our case. The recent Tory backbench motion calling for a referendum was so clearly part of a right wing anti-EU campaign, that I cannopt see how any leftist could have voted for it. The 19 Labour MP’s (and Caroline Lucas and a solitary Lib Dem), were making a big mistake if they thought that they could make a distinctive case for a referendum and/or a “different” sort of Europe, by voting with the most right-wing element of the Tory Party.

    In the ‘Morning Star’, one Steve McGiffen, while making the usual Stalinist anti-EU noises, warned against the dangers of lining up with the Tories, and argued for workers’ unity and a levelling-up of workers’ rights across Europe:

    Apart from the ritual anti-EU posturing, it’s actually not a bad article. Tragically, I suspect this miserable, bigotted response is more representative of the typical Morning Star reader:

    Those us us on the left who value genuine internationalism and recognise the reactionary nature of the anti-EU campaign(s) need to continue this debate.


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