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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Democracy 1, Everything Else 0.

Through the vicissitudes of the referendum campaign, at least one thing has remained constant: the insistence of some folk on conflating the EU with Europe. I’m never sure whether it is done through sheer ignorance or whether it represents an attempt to make some political point about those supporting the Leave campaign. Whatever the case, it is always worth reminding people that the EU is not Europe; the EU is a political project designed to run Europe from a centralised source. Being ‘anti-EU’ is not the same as being ‘anti-Europe’.

As Tony Benn once put it:
 "How can one be anti-European when one is born in Europe? It is like saying that one is anti-British if one does not agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer."

The main issues in this referendum have been the economy, immigration and the democratic deficit (or, as some would have it, sovereignty).

Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen to the economy if we stay or if we leave is either lying or hasn’t yet worked out that his or her guesswork doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. Perhaps you can remember all of the clever folk who predicted the dotcom bubble crash, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US or the Eurozone crisis? No, me neither. 

Immigration -whether we like it or not- is a huge issue, particularly in the poorest areas where folk have to compete with immigrants for jobs and housing. The consistent failure of the political class to address legitimate concerns within these communities turned this into a bigger issue than it ever had to be. There was a perfect little illustration of this failure last year, when the Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted her notorious ‘flag of St. George’ tweet. Ms Thornberry not only outed herself as an elitist snob with no understanding of -or sympathy for- the suckers she expected to vote for her; she articulated an entitled, insulated disdain that many folk now believe is endemic among our political class.  

But for all of the concerns about the economy and immigration, it is democracy that exercises my mind when considering how to cast my vote.

In 1973, the European Economic Community (known colloquially as the Common Market) was sold to the electorate on the basis that we were joining a trading block. When it was rebranded as the European Union in 1993, some critics pointed out (and were duly shouted down) that the direction of travel had been reset, away from a mere ‘Common Market’ and towards a federal European state. It is perfectly legitimate to believe in the establishment of a United States of Europe, but if you believe in it, you must be prepared to argue your case and you must get the permission of the electorate before you seek to impose it. Nobody, alas, has ever done this. We should judge institutions not by what they say; we should pay attention instead to what they do. The EU has consistently demonstrated that it acquires its powers by stealth, through treaties that nobody understands. In that sense, it is not just undemocratic; it is anti-democratic.

Accordingly, for all that there are good things and bad things about EU membership, I’ll be voting ‘out’ because my belief in the democratic process trumps everything else. As Tony Benn (yes, him again) put it, faced with the choice between a good king and a bad parliament, our belief in democracy should compel us to choose the bad parliament.

Although my mind is made up, there are four observations I’d make in advance of the vote:

1. The Remain campaign should win. Apart from the having the weight of the establishment behind it, evidence indicates that the status quo normally prevails in a referendum. That’s because people are more conservative than is generally acknowledged and ‘Remain’ is clearly the ‘risk-averse’ choice.   

2. In the unlikely event of a ‘Leave’ vote, Cameron (or whoever else is in charge) will merely take it as a cue to ‘negotiate’ what they’ll call a ‘better deal’ for the UK. Their hope would be that the uneducated electorate will get the right answer next time.

3. If the Leave vote prevails, the EU itself will find a way to work around it. Why do I say that? Because all of the available evidence tells us that that is how it operates. The drivers of the EU project are in too deep to give up now; there are too many vested interests with too much at stake to allow voters to mess things up. Impervious to anything as vulgar as public opinion, the EU leaders have gradually immunised themselves against the virus of democratic accountability. The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour; just ask residents of Denmark, Holland, France and Greece, all of whom gave the wrong answers in referenda and were ‘asked’ to reconsider.

4. My gut feeling is that none of this matters anyway. That is not because I doubt the importance of expressing our views through the ballot box. Rather, it is because, in the end, reality will intrude; it always does. I believe that the EU -as we know it- will collapse within the lifetime of most folk reading this article. All previous attempts at 'unifying' Europe have failed and this one will as well. History tells us that when people can’t change things via the ballot box, they find other ways to express their political will. When the mere casting of votes means so very little to the drivers of the EU project, the likelihood increases that they will eventually be deflected from their purpose by forces that might be somewhat less civilised than those we’d encounter in the average election.

Good luck, whichever way you decide to vote on Thursday.

If you are still undecided, I’d urge you to read this:

Tony Benn's speech to the House of Commons on 20th November 1991.

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