Saturday 30 May 2015

The debate about the EU must be about democracy

I’m in favour of the UK having a referendum on the EU. It’s been clear for some time that this issue is of vital concern to millions of UK citizens and that it is an issue that crosses party lines. There are people in all the main UK parties that favour withdrawal and people who want us to stay. It’s time now for a rational debate and then a vote. But this vote must decide the matter.

My view of referendums has been coloured by my experience in Scotland. I was in favour of us having the independence referendum. The Scottish National Party had won a majority in Holyrood. The UK Government had always said that Scotland could have a referendum if it wanted one. I too wanted a referendum as I thought it would decide the matter. If my side had lost I would have accepted the result. I might even have worked to help bring about this independent Scotland. But almost immediately after the referendum we were faced with sore losers and people who had no understanding of democracy who were immediately campaigning for another referendum. This must not happen with regard to the EU.

The last time there was a vote on the UK’s relationship to the EU was in 1975. So the gap between referendums is going to be a little over 40 years. That is a sensible sort of gap for such a huge and hugely disruptive question. It focuses the mind quite clearly. People should vote with regard to the EU with the assumption that they will be deciding the issue effectively for ever. But what if some people are terribly disappointed with the result? What if a party that opposes the result wins a majority at the next General Election? Should they be allowed to organise another one? I don’t believe they should. Let’s say the UK votes to stay in the EU. Would it be right and proper for UKIP to continue campaigning for the UK to leave? Let’s say UKIP won more seats at the next election and held the balance of power. Would it be right for them to use that influence to try to overturn the result by means of another referendum. No. It would be antidemocratic. The purpose of a referendum in UK politics is to decide a matter once and for all. Perhaps it may be revisited sometime in the distant future. But we should campaign always as if we have one chance.

UKIP voters may think this is unfair. But think about it another way. Let’s say there’s a tiny majority that votes to leave the EU. Those who voted to leave would expect this result to be respected, but the likelihood is that the next General Election will be won by a party that is supportive of the EU. Should they be able to overturn the result? Should that party be able to say let’s ignore the result of the referendum, or have another? No, they should not. The will of the people should be respected. That is the purpose of referendums.

This above all then must be made clear. The referendum on the EU must be fair, decisive and such that everyone respects and abides by the result. There should be no further referendum for decades. This is exactly the same line that I take with regard to Scotland. I do so because I am a democrat.

Who should get to vote? I think everyone who votes in a UK General Election should be allowed to vote on this issue. I don’t think the EU citizens living in the UK should be allowed to vote. I believe we got this issue wrong during the Scottish independence referendum. This is a matter for UK citizens to decide. If I lived in another European country, I would not expect a vote on an existential issue. I would consider it none of my business. There is an issue of legitimacy. If the UK voted to remain in the EU by a tiny majority and this majority was perceived to be made up of non-UK citizens, it is highly likely that the result would not be seen to be legitimate. Of course whether the UK is a part of the EU or not, does affect those non-UK citizens who live here. But it should be made clear to them that no-EU citizen would be adversely affected by the result, that all would have the right to live and work in the UK as long as they pleased. Practically speaking this would be the case anyway. No-one is going to be asked to leave.

We are going to have a referendum in part because of Eurosceptics stretching all the way back to the Referendum party which by a circuitous route became UKIP. If it had not been for the millions of people voting for parties like this, it is likely we would never have had a vote at all. Parties previously always found a way to wriggle out of whatever commitment they made to look at the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU. UKIP was primarily set up so as to obtain a referendum on the EU. Well done you have achieved your goal. But now is a good time to disband. UKIP supporters are nearly all going to vote for the UK to leave, but the UKIP leadership is not going to attract any others to this cause. The UKIP brand is completely toxic to many voters and their association with the issue will do more harm to that cause than good. If the UK votes to leave the EU, UKIP will have achieved its purpose so will have no reason to exist. If, on the other hand, the UK votes to stay it will be undemocratic for UKIP to campaign on this issue. What would be left? Apart from the EU the only other major issue that UKIP campaigns on is opposition to immigration. But an undemocratic anti-immigration party doesn’t have much going for it. Better by far to slip quietly away.

People who favour the EU should also welcome the referendum. By far the most likely result is that the UK will vote to remain in the EU.  But having voted to do so, our position in the EU will be far stronger than if we hadn’t had the vote. The issue would then be settled.

For me the greatest possible gain from the EU referendum is the possibility of changing the UK’s relationship to the EU in such a way that it better reflects our position as not being part of the single currency. We are not going to become a part of a country called Europe, so the issue of sovereignty is vital for us. Those Eurozone countries may eventually have to share their sovereignty or even give it up in order to create the single country called Europe which they are tending towards. What matters to me most is that I am part of a democracy, that my vote in however small a way influences those in power. If the UK is not to become a part of a single country called Europe, then to a great extent our sovereignty must be retained in the UK. If this were not to be the case we are liable to end up being ruled by a foreign power.

If the EU were to become a fully democratic single state like the USA, I would be very tempted for the UK to be a part of this. But at present the EU needs to work much harder on becoming fully democratic. Far too much power is held by people who are not elected. But really this is not an issue for us, it is an issue for them. We, above all, must make sure that our UK parliament is sovereign.

It is because I am a democrat that I want all of our laws to be such that parliament can accept or reject them. I want no law to be such that the will of the people cannot overthrow it. I do not want unelected judges to hold any sway over my life whatsoever. Of course it is right and proper that a country has some sort of constitution, whether written or unwritten that guarantees the rights of its citizens. But nothing in the constitution should be such that the majority of the people in a democratic vote cannot overthrow it. Every part of every constitution should be subject to the will of the people. By all means let it be difficult to change a constitution, but it must be possible.

What I like about the EU is above all free movement of people. We benefit massively from EU citizens who come to live and work in the UK. I want to be able to live and work where I please in the EU and I want that right for every EU citizen too. I like the Single market and hope that it extents further. We must bring down all barriers that hinder our economic interaction. If we do so we will all prosper. There are things I like less. There is no need for harmonisation. It matters not at all if things are done slightly differently in the UK than in another member state. Above all I dislike the fact that with regard to the rest of the world the EU tends to be protectionist. The Common Agricultural Policy, above all, hinders poorer farmers outside the EU. This damages free trade. I dislike what is happening in southern Europe. It is vital that help is given to the poorer parts of the EU like Greece, Spain, Italy and some of the Eastern European countries. This is especially necessary in order that the Eurozone functions properly. The UK will not be part of the single currency, but we too should be willing to play our part in helping countries like Greece. It is in our long term interest to do so. A prosperous Greece will help our trade. We helped Germany in the 1950s by writing off their debt. We should do the same for Greece and those others who are suffering now. Imagine if we had left Germany in poverty, we would only have hurt ourselves.

So there are things that I like and things that I like less about the EU. There are things I am hoping for in the coming year or so as negotiations are made with regard to the UK’s relationship with the EU. I have not yet decided which way I will vote. I am minded to stay in the EU as I think it can be a force for good. But above all I am a democrat and I don’t want to end up being ruled by people who I can’t vote for. So there are circumstances, which are hard to define which would make me vote to leave.

What of Scotland? Scotland, of course, will do what the UK does. There is only one nation state in the EU. It is the UK. It matters no more with regard to an EU referendum which way Scotland votes than it does which way Yorkshire votes.  To say that Scotland should have a veto is to already assume that Scotland is independent. All nationalist arguments in the end beg the same question. They assume that Scotland is an independent country in order to justify their belief that Scotland ought to become an independent country. As is common in such cases they react with fury whenever someone points out the fallacy.

The reality is that unless Scotland takes leave of its senses the independence question has been resolved until and unless Scotland ceases to be economically dependent on the UK. Nicola and Co. might just be able to persuade Scots who don’t understand the economics to jump like MacLemmings off the cliff, but those same MacLemmings finding themselves in poverty with their benefits cut and their nice freebies no longer free would be liable to tar and feather Miss Sturgeon for the austerity she would have to impose on them. It’s a nice question. If she were offered independence tomorrow would she take it? She might and indeed so might the Scottish people, but then again the prospect of real decline in your own personal standard of living does have a way of concentrating minds. The SNP would be better advised for the moment to focus on making the Scottish economy more productive and less dependent on state subsidy. Until and unless the Scottish economy is more or less breaking even independence will remain a pipe dream or something for those who don’t understand the economics. They may or may not make up half the population, but that doesn’t change the truth about Scotland’s economic position. As I always say, truth is not democratic.

None of this matters however. If the UK votes to leave Scotland will go along for the alternative is far worse. The UK leaving the EU far from making Scottish independence more likely in fact makes it virtually impossible.  See elsewhere for detailed argument on this point.

The UK is going to have a relationship with the EU come what may. We must make sure that this relationship benefits us and also our friends in the EU. We must not be selfish, but negotiate in good faith for the benefit of ourselves and everyone else. I hugely doubt that the UK's relationship with the EU will change much, indeed I’m not sure that it’s even possible for it to change much. Whether we vote to leave or vote to stay is more a matter of degree than anything else. But above all we as citizens must focus on who we vote for and the power that these people have. That is the crucial issue for democrats. It matters not at all that I am part of state, be it the UK, the EU or even the whole world and that my part votes differently to the whole. What matters is that I am part of a democracy where my vote may influence, in however small a way, what politicians decide. I am an individual with one vote. That is what matters. Don't find yourself defined by the group. Democracy is about one man one vote. 
Let the whole world be one country so long as I have a vote that influences, but we must reject being ruled by those who I cannot vote for. That is not democracy. It is rule by bureaucracy. 

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