I’d been meaning to make this post ages ago, and have it all complete and referenced and linked and stuff, but, as usual, I delayed and procrastinated and now the time has run out, so this will have to do.
So tomorrow is the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union. Many I think, me included, will in part breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over. That said, I do think this is a significant decision, so I think I feel I have a duty to make my position plain as I actually think this is just the beginning, whichever way the referendum itself goes:
- Why this decision needs a referendum
There has been some talk that this decision should never have been put to a referendum at all. The most famous example of this is, I think, by Richard Dawkins, and it exemplifies one of the great misunderstandings about what it is we’re actually voting about. His appeal that lacking a degree in economics or history somehow disqualifies his views is based on the assumption that we’re making an exclusively economic or historic (whatever that’s meant to mean) decision. It is not.
This is a question that has broad ramifications for who has ultimate decision-making authority for the UK. A referendum on such an issue is the very essence of ‘Consent of the Governed’, and the idea that it’s a decision for our ‘betters’ (with tongue-firmly-in-cheek) is as anti-democratic a notion as I can think of.
- The campaigns
Oh my word, kill me now! I thought referendum campaigns couldn’t get much worse than the AV referendum, but yet again I underestimated the political class. From everything getting compared to Hitler at some point, to the scaremongering (either of the risks of leaving or the threat of immigrants), to the dodgy numbers (£350m anyone?) to the petty personal politics – we are not voting on whether Boris Johnson should be Prime Minister, people! – the media campaigns have been appalling.
I have to say, though, I’ve been impressed, for the most part, with my social media friends on all sides who have, for the most part, honestly tried to grapple with the issues and, also for the most part, kept it cordial. In or Out, if we are to survive as a nation, this is a skill that must never be lost.
- The economics
I’m just gonna come out and say this and you can judge me if you want: No, I don’t take the prognostications of a profession that specialises in being wrong seriously. What sort of a silly question is that? More seriously, leaving aside the issue of the strange assumptions that all these doom-laden forecasts have been based on, there’s a strange sense of deja-vu about having a large swathe of economists recommend a course of action with regards to Europe. Quite simply, the track-record isn’t great. Common-sense credibility is in short supply…
That’s not to say there aren’t risks associated with a Brexit, but they mostly stem from the idea that the rest of the EU is more interested in ‘making an example’ of Britain than the welfare of their own citizens (which is a topic I’m going to leave to last).
I’m only going to make one observation here, and it’s a more broad point really. There’s much hand-wringing over attitudes to immigration, and certainly there is some justification in that and a desire to change it, but a word of caution. You can’t enforce friendship with the sword. The idea that political unity overcomes cultural divides is, I think, a dangerously wrong idea. Wrong, because it ignores the limits of democratic legitimacy, and dangerous because it predisposes political discourse to grant greater and greater powers to government in an attempt to solve a problem that, in fact, it is incapable of solving.
The other caution is that it does not help the cause of anti-racism to conflate immigration concerns with racism. This has been an issue in political discourse for a long time and is counter-productive. It may make you feel good, but its main effect is to delegitimise the voices of those with genuine grievance and as Kennedy said “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Maybe not quite so extreme as that, but hopefully you get my point.
- Democracy and scope of government
If there’s one thing that I think the Eurozone debacle shows, it’s that the kind of halfway house between a federation and a loose association of nation states that currently exists is unworkable. The traditional EU answer to any such difficulty has always been ‘more and bigger’, and I don’t see much evidence of that changing (with the possible exception of Donald Tusks recent comments – probably sparked by what he sees as the end of Western Civilisation; no, that’s not an exaggeration, that’s actually what he said!!)
I’m of a different opinion. I think historical experience has shown that there are natural limits to the size and scope of legitimate governments and I think the EU is quickly exceeding them. It’s not even about the way the EU is structured, although I think there are serious problems there. You simply reach a point where things become too large and cover too many people to be either wieldy or meaningfully representative.
People have been talking about the risks of Brexit, but I don’t see how remaining in this structure is a particularly safe choice.
- Democratic Deficit
To me though, the main problem in terms of representation in Europe is the way our national government interacts with it. I really could have done with starting this post earlier to try and explain this better but here goes.
The phrase that I remember hearing most from my Uni days whenever I heard parliamentary debates was something along the lines of ‘we have to do this because it’s an EU directive’. It seems the truth is that the government was totally happy at the EU level to make these directives and then ‘play dumb’ before their own parliament. It is this, more than anything that makes this referendum a valid one for me, because governmental structures matter, and they matter because the form absolutely affects the function.
The sad truth is that I think successive governments support the EU because it makes their own lives easier. It gives them a bogeyman to deflect blame onto, while they actually get what they want regardless of the public, and that is not a situation I want our own politicians to be able to exploit, and I don’t believe it can meaningfully change while we are part of the EU.
- A vision of the future
While I think it’s meaningless to ask the Leave campaign as a whole for it’s vision of the UKs future relationship, it’s certainly valid to ask individuals what they are hoping for. So what am I hoping for? I mean, apart from the obvious pipedreams.
First, I think I’d be okay with the EEA option as a good compromise position, or something approximating it, and I certainly think it’s possible to achieve. It takes us out of the more obviously damaging parts of EU law (like the CAP and VAT harmonization), while giving much more scope in our own affairs, but to be honest, I actually think the hard work in British politics only begins with a Brexit. As many on the Remain have rightly pointed out, many of our problems are actually self-inflicted, but I think they misunderstand the remedy. I think our biggest problem is that we no longer really know where ultimate responsiblity lies, and as long as that’s true, politicians will do what suits them, and cover for each other if it helps them.
What happens next though, depends very much on us, we will be left without excuse, but I will be voting Leave because I have faith that my fellow Britons are up to the task. Even if you think this Tory government is terrible (and I wouldn’t even say you’re wrong), you’re still looking at 2 years before Brexit would actually happen and then we’re in election season. You’re not giving Cameron (or Johnson or whoever) free reign here.
- Malicious Lunatics?
…and if it turns out that the rest of the EU are hell-bent on making ‘an example’ of us? That they would rather burn Europe to the ground than admit that a giant supra-national government actually isn’t that great of an idea? All the more reason to get out now. If the lunatics really are in charge of the asylum, they can do far worse to you if you stay than if you go.