As the United Kingdom (UK) considers its future membership of the European Union (EU) economic issues are very much to the fore in public debate. On the basis that ‘man does not live by bread alone’ I propose to ignore them here. Instead I will focus on the two issues which will decide my vote, namely democracy and, more nebulously, the balance of social forces in a post-referendum UK. I should declare an interest at this point in an earlier blog about Scotland I came out as a supporter of subsidiarity. This essentially Catholic principle holds that social problems should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution and this guides my view of the issues at stake. Older readers may recall that the EU, when it consisted of only twelve member States, talked a lot about subsidiarity but dropped the idea when it expanded massively following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On the question of democracy then. Many of the decisions affecting people who live, or who want to live, in social housing in Hull or Haringey are not taken by the elected local council or by the elected national parliament. Instead a labyrinthine division of powers between EU Commissioners, the European Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice decide between them on a whole host of issues of daily importance to Hullonians and Haringeyans. Many, indeed most, of these decisions may be beneficial to the persons most affected but if the choice is between being well governed by distant patriarchs and matriarchs or badly governed by ourselves then mature adults would plump for the second option. We might after all learn from our daily experiences and begin to govern ourselves better but our patriarchs and matriarchs cannot learn from experiences which they do not share or see things from a perspective about which they are barely aware.
Against this it may be argued that the idea of national self-determination which existed as a possibility when nationalism emerged as a fully fledged force in the 19th century is no longer feasible. In a world economy dominated by giant corporations with global reach and mobile capital and by huge sprawling but necessary bureaucracies individual units cannot escape their control unless they band together with other units to form a countervailing balance. Hence the UK is less at the mercy of international finance because it is in the EU than would be the case if it stood alone and unprotected. There is some merit in this argument but you will notice that democracy does not feature in it. The difficulty that emerges in practice, whatever the theory may state, is that for our Euro rulers lavishly funded corporate lobbyists are near at hand, ordinary people in Hull and Haringey are far away. The temptation to co-operate with the corporations is greater than the inclination to defend the vital interests of voters who are unable to hold them to account. Over time the EU is transformed from a shield into a Trojan Horse so that granting the limited powers of a sovereign nation it is still more likely to be responsive to the needs of its citizens than a distant unaccountable melange of administrative organs.
The Left in particular makes much of the existence of a ‘Social Europe’ by which is meant the provision of goods and services to the population broadly in line with the values of Social Democracy. It is thanks to the EU that workers have maternity and paternity rights, guaranteed paid holidays and other social benefits. This is true but rather begs the question if these things are so good and popular why would a UK parliament not provide them? To which the answer is that UK voters have the embarrassing habit of not voting for the Left. So, faced with a choice between developing a social-democratic consensus among voters so that any UK government would be obliged to provide what Social Europe provides or relying on a deus ex machina to impose these things on us from afar the Left goes for the easy option of top-down reforms rather than bottom up fundamental and irreversible changes. Personally I favour many social-democratic policies but if they are the product of the beneficence of an elite who thinks they know what is best for us rather than the product of our own struggles and consciously made collective choices then they are more like a State religion where the whole population becomes Christian one week and Muslim the next depending on the calculations of their ruling caste.
Considering democracy in the abstract then there are powerful reasons to vote Leave. There are, however, no abstract democracies only concrete and flawed ones. Which brings me to racism. Back in the day when campaigning to leave the EU was a fringe proposition its proponents on the Left argued, quite correctly, that the Union infringed democracy and its proponents on the Right argued equally correctly that it infringed national sovereignty. What nobody argued about was migration. The increased saliency of this one issue is what has propelled the debate about EU membership centre stage. As an aside I should say that my own view on the subject is that so long as the, for want of a better expression, indigenous population is committing auto-genocide by abortion and contraception mass migration is a good and necessary thing not least because it tends to strengthen the traditional family.
However that may be the mass influx of new people into these islands has produced what in pre-PC days would have been called a dialogue of the deaf. At a micro level in numerous communities the increase in the number of people pursuing limited resources, particularly low cost housing and low wage jobs, has resulted in an enormous strain on those resources and on the families and individuals who are pursuing them. Not unnaturally this has led to complaints from those most affected. Many people, particularly the well-to-do who do not live in such areas look at the macro-benefits of migration and argue that there are no reasonable grounds to object to it therefore those who do object must be irrational or, to put it more precisely, must be bigots, racists and/or xenophobes.
Control of the borders is one of those things which the UK has ceded to the EU (with some exceptions) and so this has now become the central battleground of the referendum with the questions about democracy and sovereignty relegated to the rear of the queue (or back of the line for all Americans apart from President Obama.) Now it so happens that the well-to-do critics are wrong. The vast majority of the UK population, including in those communities most affected by migration, cannot be classified as active racists in any meaningful sense of that word. There is, no doubt, a widespread passive racism which does harm and needs to be eradicated but for the most part the average Briton of today has almost total disregard for her or his neighbours regardless of their colour or ethnic origin (which could be the topic for another blog.)
Having said which there is a dangerous and unfortunately large minority who not only dislike foreigners but also Britons who happen to be black or brown skinned (or Muslim.) The danger of the current EU referendum campaign is that those forces on the Right who wish to maximise the number of votes to leave will directly court this segment of the population. The dog whistles and barely veiled appeals to racism from some sections of the press have not so far been openly echoed by the most prominent members of the Vote Leave campaign but as polling day draws near this may change if public opinion does not begin to move strongly in their favour. This will have the effect of legitimising and energising the racists and the fascist political movements which seek to represent them. It is not so long since the fascist British National Party attracted hundreds of thousands of votes. Although many of these were subsequently absorbed by the non-fascist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) there is no guarantee that they will remain so absorbed in a post-Brexit Britain where UKIP has lost its raison d’être.
Essentially I see two threats to our democracy. The creeping bureaucratisation and rule by elite which proceeds from the European Union on the one hand and the real and present danger posed by a revival and growth of actively racist and reactionary forces in our midst on the other. There is no doubt that a victory for the Leave side will energise the Right and the social forces it represents far more than it will energise the Centre or Left. A victory for Remain will slow not hasten any prospects for the EU reforming itself (which it is anyway unable to do at a truly fundamental level.) Which threat is the greater? It is impossible to form a final judgement at this stage in the campaign. We must await developments before we can answer that question with confidence.
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