Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The EU Referendum: do you believe in politics?

Looking at the propaganda from both sides over the referendum campaign, I wanted to make a final point about the nature of the question facing the people of the United Kingdom.

There are questions to which we cannot possibly know the answer, and have good reason not to believe the predictions of the campaigners on either side. These include the kind of trade deals the UK might or might not be able to negotiate, the effect of leaving the EU on questions like Northern Ireland's relationship with the Republic of Ireland (which has been sui generis since long before we joined the EU), and the ongoing careers of various politicians.

But there is something more straightforward which has come up again and again in different guises. It is the question of whether we believe in politics.

Here is one guise it comes in. The scientists and the farmers and the fishermen and the regions and all sorts of charitable bodies who and which get money from the EU have had to ask themselves: will they be worse off if we leave the EU? If we leave, it will be up to the UK government whether they go on getting the grants, and enjoy other advantageous arrangements, which they get today. The farmers and the fishermen and the regions seem to be more confident than not that they'd be ok. The scientists and the charities appear to be seriously scared.

It is hard not to conclude that the scientists and the charities believe, having thought about it, that they have no real case for getting this money, and that any sensible future UK government would turn off the taps. It is understandable that they should vote Remain, but quite baffling that they think this would be a reason for the country as a whole to vote Remain. It is, after all, the very same electorate voting in the referendum tomorrow which will be voting in the next general election, to choose the government and set the tone of policy towards this as towards everything else. These lobbies seem to be telling us voters not to trust ourselves.

Here is another manifestation of the issue. I've heard that EU laws on animal welfare or the environment or the protection of workers or any number of other issues, are frightfully good, and that this is a reason to stay in the EU. Presumably, the thinking is that, if we leave, future UK governments will have the option of tinkering with these laws, and that the people making this argument think that, all things considered, such tinkering would not be to the advantage of the lobbies they represent. Again, they are telling the voters in the referendum not to leave such questions to the judgment of voters in future general elections: themselves.

It is a strange argument, but not an entirely unfamiliar one. Sometimes people do vote to have less say. People vote in dictators, and vote to keep them. (The referendums to maintain the regimes of Louis Napoleon and Pinochet spring to mind.) Sometimes people vote in, or otherwise willingly accept, 'technocratic' governments, made up of people who haven't come up through the normal processes of party politics, but are plucked from universities and think tanks.

What is happening in these cases is a rejection of politics. People are saying in one big vote that they do not want a say about a lot of smaller things. They do this, usually, for a limited time in a moment of national crisis, either as a result of war or unrest, or because of the collapse of the normal political institutions as a result of endemic corruption or a breakdown of the rule of law. It is characteristic of such situations that the term 'politician' has become a term of abuse. The political class is no longer trusted. Voters would rather have a general or a university lecturer running things.

The first question for us is: have we got to that situation in the UK? Are things this bad? The second question is: does the EU represent a less partisan, less corrupt, and more competent system of government that what we are likely to come up with on our own?

I think those questions answer themselves. I don't have a great deal of trust in our current elected politicians, but the EU, to me, just looks like the worst aspects of them, in a form entirely above popular scrutiny, and answerable to no one. It may have given this or that person or lobby a sweet deal on this or that issue, but that is not a reason to give up on politics. Politics is a frustrating and dirty business, but it's not as bad, in normal circumstances, as no politics at all.

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  1. You are correct in that no-one knows what will happen after the referendum but we must surely trust our ELECTED representatives (who can be voted out) rather than the UNELECTED Eurocrats who will always be there. We must reclaim the sovereignty of the UK to enact laws which are to the benefit of UK citizens. We have already voted by post to LEAVE!!!

  2. What worries me in the choice is whether the ultimate aim of the EU is to abolish nations - I believe it is - and therefore I cannot support it. I believe such a concept is contrary to the divine order. I regret that the arguments on both sides have been based largely on fear, threats or fantasy scenarios which are unprovable one way or the other. The xenophobic approach has been likewise very unedifying.

  3. Well said, David. I couldn't have put it better myself. My LEAVE vote is also already in.
    The democratic deficit and the emasculation of English Law is far more important than anything else, and we have a chance to get our country back on Thursday.

    Terry Middleton

  4. Living as I do in Gibraltar - we are under a great threat if Britain leaves the EU. If the result is Brexit Gibraltar will lose the freedom of movement that we gained when Britain stopped Spain joining the EU until they opened the land border which they closed in the late 1960s to try to bully the Gibraltarians into submission. They may not close it this time but will do as much as possible to prevent free movement in order to try bullying us again. Everything comes through the border, our food supplies, medicines, construction materials just to name a few. Our economy is built on EU passporting to a large extent and a real fear is apparent locally. Yes - the Gibraltarians have survived before and will do again should it be needed but expect a clear 90+% In vote from our electorate. I'm not a fan of the EU but have reluctantly come to the conclusion that I will vote remain for the good of the community of which I am a part of - for better or for worse one could say.

    1. It's not the 1960s any more. Similar action by Spain today is not inconceivable, but it wouldn't be sustainable in the same way.

      I mean for heaven's sake you are talking about the era of Franco!

    2. Over the past few years, if my memory serves, the Spanish have on several occasions closed the border on various whims or pretexts. The EU could do nothing to stop them

    3. Well, so much for your vaunted EU, then.

  5. A lot of British-made laws are not decided through the political process. They are secondary legislation, drawn up by ministers on the advice of civil servants through statutory instruments. Such legislation is never debated in parliament.

    Most of the kinds of laws the EU makes would be dealt with after Brexit by the same undemocratic method.

    1. British MPs and ministers are answerable to Parliament and the electorate just the same whether they've used statutory instruments or not. The lack of parliamentary debate is lamentable but we can vote them out of office. Is that a small thing?

      That is why the political elite love the EU. They can tell us that a new law has been agreed in Brussells and no UK or indeed EU election can put in place office-holders with the power to resist or overturn it.

    2. Statutory instruments can be debated in Parliament if the House of Commons asks to within a specific period. In the case of those giving effect to EU law, there's no point in debating them as the law has to be implemented somehow.

  6. "telling us voters not to trust ourselves"

    This is a bit of non sequitur. Scientists or any other such interest group which profits from EU membership simply are well aware that they are a minority in the general populace who do not care about them getting grants etc. Therefore they know that in national democratic process they would not have the leverage to enact decisions beneficial to them. Whereas they are fine with the existing order of things. Thus in the referendum we see a convergence of diverse wills of groups who otherwise have not much in common. Judging from what I lately hear from different interviews of British voters, such diverse motivations drive the OUT voters, too.