Who is the Unregulated Monster?
Britain is not a beacon of democracy, nor a rock of economic pragmatism, and a break from Europe will sure up neither
"An unregulated monster." That's what an old school friend said to me recently, but he wasn't referring to the global financial system, he was talking about the European Union. The inference is obvious - that British Democracy stands strong and tall while that weasly lot over the Channel are determined to knock it into just another block in a Stalinist super-state.
But this gross simplification misses the point completely. Europe is not a single entity by any means, it is rife with historical squabbles and many inside the Union feel separate from it. The British speak of "going to Europe for their holidays", but so do the Spanish and Hungarians, to name but two EU member states a thousand miles apart. In those countries, a visit to Britain is precisely what many have in mind when they talk of "going to Europe," in just the same way as the British consider Spain and Hungary to be part of the continent, but not themselves. We have more in common than we imagine.
Today's Europe is splintered like at no time since the fall of the iron curtain, yet press reports of Cameron against the rest are not a fault of the others ganging up on him; they are a result of his poor decision-making and inability to build consensus. If anything, Cameron's promise to reform the block has been widely seen as a missed opportunity - many Europeans recognise there are problems within the Union and were hoping for something more substantial from Britain's 'renegotiation'. Yet as that boiled down to little more than a proposal to limit benefits for eastern European migrants, Cameron failed to deliver anything except a racial slur on his closest, if somewhat dubious allies in Poland and Hungary.
What is all too clear is that the British press has been stirring up distrust in the Union, often claiming Europe to be the anti-democratic force keeping Britain from fulfilling its destiny of 'democracy' and 'economic growth'. That these two aims generally run contrary to each other is by-the-by; as long as democracy can be boiled down to an election every 4 or 5 years it is generally unimportant compared with the economy (stupid!). In the good times, 'democracy' can get away with being only about elections, but without constant vigilance even the most democratic of constitutions can be usurped, and the bad times are prime-time for usurpation of powers.
And it's not like Britain even has a democratic constitution to fall back on - a government that claims a mandate like they do having secured the backing of just 25% of the country is bad enough, but the unelected House of Lords, which is currently being stuffed full of Tories, is even worse. Since coming to power in 2010, the government has created 245 new life peerages, more than at any time since the title became available in 1958. This has swelled the size of the unelected upper house to 826, making it the second largest legislative body in the world after China's [population 1.4 billion] National People's Congress. Of all these new appointees, almost half were Conservative peers, with Labour getting 55 and the Liberal Democrats 50.
So Britain hardly has a monopoly on democracy. Indeed, it was only with the creation of the Supreme Court in 2005 that there was a formal distinction made between the legislature and the judiciary. If they can find one, the Law Lords may still sit at one of the chamber's roughly-400 seats, can claim all the benefits associated with being Lords, but are unable to speak or vote. Incidentally, Britain is one of very few countries in the world (I believe Iran is the only other) where there is no formal separation of church and state, and the 26 bishops that sit in the House retain both their voting and speaking privileges.
An independent legal system is vital for democracy - just think of the show trials of the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany - and Britain is not immune from this through some mystical cleansing effect in the Channel. But this separation has been difficult for the Home Secretary, Teresa May, to come to terms with. The cases of the two 'Abus' (Qatada and Hamza) are the most striking. Having made political deals with foreign powers to extradite the British residents rather than charge them in the UK, the European Court of Human Rights needed more guarantees of their safety before allowing them to be sent to Jordan or the United States, as had respectively been agreed. Qatada, incidentally, was released by Jordanian courts just 15 months after he was formally extradited, having found him not guilty of the two counts of terrorism they had against him. But such an assault as was launched by the British Home Office, and supported by so many in the popular presses, attacking an independent judicial authority should be enough to send shivers down the spine of anyone with the faintest understanding of history.
Britain remains incapable of dealing with its past; it seems to me as if the country would be quite happy to be sitting back supping gin and tonics while relying on the captive markets of Empire, that great we-don't-know-what-to-think in the minds of the former masters of the world. But all that's left of the Empire, on which the sun only set some 65 years ago, are but a few windswept islands in the south Atlantic and a rock on the southern tip of Spain.
Britain clings to its glorious past like a barnacle on the side of a frigate. One in which the old engines of exclusive trade and world-beating innovation have been removed and outsourced, leaving us powerless on the open seas. To retain some level of global posturing, we prostrate ourselves towards the great power on the other side of the pond, arming ourselves with their weapons and offering ourselves up to be their forward aircraft carrier.
What the European Union offers Britain is the chance to regain some of its own steam. Unlike majorities in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, what the English have apparently failed to grasp is the importance of EU membership to their global standing. We are a big fish in this club; the right might talk of a counterbalance between the Germans and the French, or of keeping Europe from ever-closer Union. And if Britain has succeeded in anything it has been effectively to kill off the idea of an ever-closer Union, something they never could have done from outside. The United Kingdom also set much of the financial regulation, or deregulation, in the EU. If we blame Europe for the financialisation of British society, we miss the point that it was 'us' that largely forced through such legislation and the UK is basically the only country to have followed it to their letter.
The European Union gets blamed for much that has little or nothing to do with it. One such circumstance is the privatisation of publically-held utilities and services. We know that every British government since Thatcher has been dead set on selling-off the state. That has left our energy system is in the hands of German, French and Spanish companies in which government has been rather less hands-off, something Britain is apparently unable to do as EU laws would forbid it. Much of our privatised 'public' transport system is run by German and Dutch state-owned railway companies and one bus line in the capital, ironically called 'London United', is part of the Parisian state-monopoly public transport provider. If we think privatisation is such a wonderful thing, and the EU so bad, why are we so insistent on giving contracts to companies owned by our European neighbours?
Britain is unique in Europe for its steadfastness in adhering to neo-liberal economic ideology. Although all member states have adopted some aspects of the doctrine - disproving the myth of a 'socialist' Europe - they have each taken a rather more cautious approach. I mean, the Parisians would hardly be likely to let the British run their public transport system, the Amsterdammers and Berliners neither. The Greeks are being forced to sell off public assets by the terms of their EU bailouts, but Britain actually chose this path for themselves. Doesn't it seem ever more doubtful that Europe has been responsible for the decline of the United Kingdom, when our own 'ruling' managerial and aristocratic classes have been doing such a piss-poor job for such a long time.
So Britain is not a beacon of democracy, nor a rock of economic pragmatism, and a break from Europe will sure up neither. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether it might not be better for Europe if the pesky British left. But that is not the majority opinion in any single country in the European Union. Most Europeans actually want us to remain.
A vote to leave would not just mean Britain turning its back on the influence it has in Europe, on the advantageous terms that could be negotiated as part of a block rather than a solitary island, or on the many diplomatic relations that would be spoiled by such a move. An out vote would most probably leave the door open for Boris Johnson to waltz into 10 Downing Street. Is that something anyone really wants?
3 April 2016
A letter from an English European
A last minute plea to my countryfolk
Why BREXIT would be madness
It's not scaremongering to say an Out vote on 23 June could have disastrous effects on Britain and the wider world
the Aimless Wanderer
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