Saturday, June 11, 2016


I shall be going to Greece in a few days, for a shorter stay than normal in the summer. Obviously, with a house in Greece, I have a vested interest in remaining in the EU. The collision of Brexit with Greek bureaucracy is a car crash I want no part of. My postal vote has been delivered. I have voted Remain. My motives are thoroughly privileged and middle class in origin.

But for those without my motives what a dismal campaign this has been; littered with half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies. A reckless referendum on a vital issue is not the best way of resolving a dispute within the Conservative Party. Actually, a referendum is a pretty crap way of resolving anything, as opposing bands of obsessive enthusiasts try and sell their line by any means possible. A referendum is usually the result of some burning point of principle or a moment of crisis. This one is odd though. There was no crisis in relations with the EU, nobody was particularly excited about it, and there was little demand for change. We are being dragged through this because of internal Tory party disputes, the same ones that wrecked the Major government.

That doesn't mean that there are no discontents, however. There is plenty of pain for people on the margins outside the pampered middle class - just read about the employment conditions at Sports Direct for example. There is alienation, insecurity, resentment and utter disillusion with politics. And this is the problem, certainly with this referendum, a vote to leave is a vote against the establishment. It is an expression of a multitude of discontents, none of which could be resolved solely by leaving the EU. Throw in the dismal Remain campaign, the lacklustre performance of the Labour Party, and the brazen populism of Leave and it isn't surprising to see the polls moving in favour of exit. Leave could well win. If they do, it will be because of the successive failures of British politics, not the European Union.

The decision will be taken when I am in Greece, a country in economic turmoil, in real conflict with the EU, and locked in the financial straitjacket of the Euro. The resulting austerity policies make ours look munificent. Yet the outcome is determination by the overwhelming majority of Greeks to stay both in Europe and European monetary union at all costs. They think we must be mad.

The debate has depressed me. There is little in the way of discussion of principles, little that is positive and no historical perspective. It is a contest based on competing fears. It's been horrible and done nothing for my referendum scepticism. So, let me wax all academic and point to some historical origins.

The idea of European Union is not new. There was even an attempt to promote one in 1930 with the Briand Plan. However, the principles on which the idea is based are much older. I would pick out four.

1. The idea of federation was a central part of a number of plans for a peaceful world order developed from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Immanuel Kant's essay, Perpetual Peace, is the best known. It was a central principle of Kant's design that the federation had to be between nation states that were "republics." That would translate in today's language as democratic. The EU is such a federation and for the wave of states emerging from dictatorships in the 1970s, and the post-Communist countries after 1989, the EU is seen as a guarantor of their new democracies.

2. A second mainstay of the 19th century peace movement was free trade. Trade was seen as a collaborative activity that bound peoples together in mutual self-interest. Above all, it was an activity that took place outside the state. It was the state that embodied militarism and war, and so it was the state whose powers had to be limited. Free trade was more than an economic concept, even though all we seem to debate today is the economic benefits or otherwise of the single market.

3. Moving from idealism into the world of realpolitik, the third principle is the balance of powers. Preventing the domination of Europe by a single power, and deterring the search for such dominance, was central to the construction of a peaceful continent. That balance was disturbed first by the French in the Napoleonic Wars and then by the consequences of the unification of Germany in 1871. Two world wars later, a union that would bind France and Germany together and restrain equally the power of each was seen to be the way to end the possibility of a European war for good.

3. Finally, we have to talk about the rise of technocracy. In Britain, "national efficiency" was part of the modernisation advocated by New Liberalism. The rational management of collective resources underpinned Fabian socialism. That specialisation and expertise is fundamental to running a modern state and economy is axiomatic, but there is a flaw in that it can lead to elite remoteness and overconfidence, a doctrine of managerialism leading to the centralising of power in a bureaucracy, and what is often called the "democratic deficit" of the EU. I see that as failure of responsibility, rather than of representation, but it is the source of the resentment of unelected officials in Brussels (even though our own civil service is not elected).

It is also a mistake to see technocracy as ideologically neutral. Of course it isn't. It governs by the precepts of the dominant ideology of its day. Today, it is 'neoliberalism' (a term that is rapidly losing its precise meaning to become a term of abuse) or economic orthodoxy. This ideology is shared by the British government too. Brexit would mean the same policies administered by different people, not a change in the underlying principles of political economy.

Two things emerge from these concepts. The first is that the EU is necessarily a device to constrain the freedom of action of a member state. This is because unrestrained states are capable of immense crimes against their own peoples as well as against other nations. Bound into a federal union, engaging in free trade within an agreed, common legal framework, with an international administration, and defined, legally enforced citizens' rights, states trade absolute sovereignty for democracy, security, and peace. The assumption is that this can only be secured permanently by limiting state power.

The second is that the assumptions underlying European Union are liberal. They are not socialist and they are anti-nationalist. This is why opposition to the EU is being led by nationalists and supported by some leftists as minor players.

Despite the rhetoric, Brexit is not a process of democratisation. It takes British democracy for granted and doesn't seek to broaden it. Nor does it offer a different political economy, something urgently needed and the main source of unease. Brexit is a nationalist project. But it's one that has the ability to gather in a whole range of legitimate discontents and offer leaving the EU as a simple solution. It isn't. At least it isn't as far as we know. Because the details of where we would be heading outside the EU are unknown and the options scarcely considered.

That's the problem with referendums. They give a binary choice, leave no scope for nuance, and are polarising. But at the very least, at a time of growing far-right populism and authoritarianism, we should consider the virtues of the restraint of the nation state rather than insist on 'running things ourselves,' without answering the questions who do you mean by 'ourselves' and in whose interest are things to be run?

1 comment:

looby said...

I shudder to think how far austerity and the multiple miseries of unemployment, casualisation, the impoverishment of the social sphere and the poverty-inducing Universal Credit (what a misnomer, almost sounds like it should be a social wage) -- would proceed without the brakes of the social legislation of the EU. Those campaigning for an exit never set out, as you say *who* would be running "us" and what would happen afterwards. They can't though, because there is no single coherent political strategy underlying their wish to leave.

Have a lovely time in Greece. Pouring down here in Lancashire.