It would appear that I am still having problems with the comment system on this blog – they should be being sent through to me immediately (so that I can reply to them promptly) but this is not happening, and I don’t yet know why. Apologies – especially to Tess and dover1952. I shall investigate and try and solve the issue.
So in the Queen’s speech we have been assured that there will be a referendum on our membership of the European Union by 2017 at the latest. I am delighted that this is going to happen, although I already have grave misgivings about the way in which the debate is going to be framed. The principal deceit as I see it will be to confuse two things which are logically and politically separate – membership in the European Union, and participation in the common market.
We have a history of fair dealing in this country, and my sense of what happened in the previous referendum back in 1975 (the template for which seems to be the one that Cameron is following) is that the British people voted to join a free trade area, a customs union. We had a sense that we would be able to compete within it and earn our way forward. What I suspect was not made clear to the British people, and what I am worried will once again become obscured in the national debate, is that there is a significant difference between a free trade area and the political union that the EU embodies.
There is no excuse for this distinction not to be placed at the forefront of the campaign. The language of the European Union treaties are very clear, not least in the reference to an ‘ever closer union’ in the original Treaty of Rome which set up the European Economic Community, language which has been built upon in all the subsequent treaties. The symbolism of this is straightforward – simply look at a current passport, which demonstrates that British citizens are first and foremost citizens of Europe. That includes our Queen.
It is not essential to be a member of a political union (the EU) in order to benefit from the free trade area. There is another organisation, called EFTA, the European Free Trade Area, which has access to the European Economic Area but which does not require the member nations to concede sovereignty to a supra-national organisation. In addition, the most important elements of global trade are established at a higher level than the EU, through the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. Given that we purchase more from Europe than Europe does from us it is clearly in everyone’s interests that the economic side of our present arrangements is disrupted as little as possible, and that could be done through transferring our membership of the EU to EFTA instead.
No, the real issue at stake in the coming referendum is about national sovereignty. Put simply, do we wish to take charge of our own affairs and work our way in the world as a mature and independent nation? I sometimes feel that our national confidence, at least at the level of the institutional establishment, was at an extremely low ebb in the post-war period, climaxing in the mid-70s, and that this was a factor in the campaign to dissolve our sovereignty. We had infamously ‘lost an Empire and not found a role’. It was as if we could no longer govern ourselves, and looked for a higher authority to take over.
The trouble with that higher authority is that, in the subsequent decades, it has taken on more and more responsibility in more and more areas of our national life, changing everything from how we measure and weigh things to how we fish and how we are able to generate electricity. The true locus of power governing this nation is now off-shore, in Brussels (or, more precisely, in wherever the rolling caravan of ministerial meetings chooses to get together). I do not believe that the British people chose to give up that sovereignty back in 1975 and it is essential that a clear understanding of what is at stake is communicated over the next eighteen months or so, until the referendum itself takes place.
The campaign has already begun, of course, with a salvo of pro-EU businessmen talking about the economic costs of disengaging from the EU. Their actions are what has prompted this article, as I do not wish to see their narrative become the dominant one. If the argument is once again reduced to economics it would represent a deceit about the true nature of the decision that we face. If the argument is centred upon national sovereignty then we will at least be able to say that whatever answer is given is a definitive one. After all, if the British people choose consciously to surrender their sovereignty then that will be that. We will, in practice, become the north-west provice of the European Union, no longer able to make our own choices in the world, which I would see as an immense tragedy and shame – but if that is what people choose, then so be it.
I have two grounds for hope that the national debate will indeed centre on questions of sovereignty, and not on questions of economics. The first is that I believe it to be unlikely that Cameron will be able to get anything substantial from his ‘negotiations’ with other European leaders. It is clear that they are trying to establish a stronger political centre for the EU in order to cope with the stresses and strains caused by the misconceived adoption of the single European Currency. As was predicted at the time, a single currency across different nations could only work if there was also a single political authority with the capacity to require fiscal transfers from one area to another. A currency union without such a political union to reinforce it was simply a recipe for disaster – a disaster that we are now seeing the shape of.
Which leads me to my second ground for hope. I do not believe that the situation in Greece is going to end very well, and it will demonstrate the political nature of the European Union in spectacular fashion. It is unconscionable for the Greek people to be immiserated as a result of decisions made by the political and financial elites in which they had no part. The crisis there – which will likely come to a head in the next few weeks when the Greek government declares bankruptcy – will show the political nature of the EU to anyone watching. It will be the moment when the mask slips and the underlying truth of the EU will emerge.
We need to have a proper debate about the nature of the EU before the referendum, and that proper debate has to centre upon the political nature of the EU, not simply whether we will be better or worse off in a financial sense. We are worth more than that.
Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.
Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.
Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.
This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.
Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.
So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.
We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?
Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.
In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.
I write this the morning after a very lively and well attended General Election Hustings at West Mersea Parish Church. It was good to be involved and to become better acquainted with what the options are for us here on Mersea. If it happens again I will be much stricter about time-keeping, so that we could have more questions – there were several excellent questions that we didn’t have time to take. The character of the candidates became very clear, however, and this helps people to make their decision on who to vote for. That, after all, is the very purpose of hustings. I am convinced that we need a much greater involvement with politics at all levels of our society. It matters not only how we vote, but much more crucially, it matters that we vote.
Somewhere in one of my boxes at home I have a picture of me at secondary school in 1987 campaigning in a mock school election (confession – I was sporting a blue rosette with “I ♥ Maggie” on it). I have always been fascinated by politics and for a long time I had thought about a political career. After university I joined the Civil Service in Whitehall in order to become more fully acquainted with the political process. The role that I had involved changing jobs each year in order to be exposed to the different parts of the Department – I was in the Department of the Environment – and one of my jobs was ‘Radioactive Substances’. That is, I worked closely on the monitoring of nuclear power stations, and learned a very great deal about the science involved. One particular job I had – in 1993 if memory serves – was running a public consultation about the THORP processing plant in Sellafield, which was, at the time, extremely controversial. We knew that any decision reached by the government would immediately be taken through the judicial review process by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, so we had to be note perfect in describing the how and why behind the eventual decision. When it came before Parliament I wrote the briefing for John Major, and I have a very fond memory of his hand-written comments thanking me for a ‘perfect’ preparation (please forgive the boast!). What I came away from the Civil Service with was a full appreciation of how politics is just like making sausages, you don’t really want to get too exposed to the detail of how it is done!
It is possible – perhaps it is inevitable – that a cynicism about politics develops. The nature of the political process is such that it is extremely rare for a clear principle to be argued for and then carried out by someone who has not had to make all sorts of compromises along the way. In order to achieve anything in politics it is important to be alert to what is possible at any particular moment in time. In political theory this is called the ‘Overton window’ which describes the range of policies that the public are willing to accept. An average politician will work within that range and seek to advance his cause in incremental fashion, making deals and agreements along the way. A great politician will seek to change the nature of the window itself; that is, they would seek to ‘change the political weather’ in order that what had previously seemed impossible to implement later becomes accepted wisdom. In my lifetime the only politician who might be classed in that category is Margaret Thatcher, who clearly changed the terms of the political debate in this country. Even Thatcher, however, was very willing to compromise and make deals along the way, making tactical retreats on issues when it served her larger purpose.
So the great majority of politicians are average, and they are obliged by the very structure of our politics to make compromises, to accept that their ideals will have to be watered down if they are to make any progress at all. This is a recipe for cynicism. If you approach politics with a sense of idealism, a feel for how things might conceivably be, then it can seem a very brutal environment. More than this, when people on the ground suffer at the hands of a bureaucratic state, when decisions seem to be made without any respect for the human context – something which happens more and more these days – then it is easy to become disillusioned about the whole process and say ‘to hell with the lot of them’, and then disengage completely.
All that happens at that point is that the Overton window becomes much smaller, and the possibility of significant change recedes even further away. The saying goes, “all that is required for bad men to triumph is that good men do nothing” and that applies even to each of us, as we exercise our right to vote. If those of us who are dreamers and idealists, who are unhappy with the existing state of affairs, who are shocked or disgusted by the shabby compromises of the political class – if we disengage and do not vote then the process will only become worse. On the other hand, if all the dreamers and idealists do turn out and vote, then the political class will see that what is possible in this country is greater than they had realised, and the possibility of genuine progress comes that much closer.
To put that in religious terms, cynicism is a sin. To give in to a cynicism about the political process, to argue along the lines that Russell Brand does and think that voting makes no difference in the end, is to give greater power to the established and vested interests. It simply makes things worse. The answer is to follow the advice ‘be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. In other words, do not be under any illusion about the political process, recognise the nature of the beast – but hold on to idealism, hold on to hope, hold on to the sense that things may change – and let that guide your choice as you vote. Whoever it is that we choose to cast our ballot for, it is important that we each exercise that hard-won right. We’d certainly miss it if it was taken away from us.