Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Is the tide turning?

Britain’s long, febrile ‘continental’ summer seems to be affecting people’s minds. The campaign for a second EU referendum seems to be gathering pace, as it becomes increasingly clear that the supposed options and benefits of leaving are not on the table. Hard Brexiters and Hard Remainers are joining forces in their opposition to what is on the table.

Some Leavers are starting to conclude that life outside the EU is not going to be on the terms they claimed, and that May’s compliance-without-influence solution is not acceptable. With which I generally agree, except if the alternative is No Deal.

I want to consider here some alternative ways of looking at the issue of remaining in the E.U. I will start by conceding that they do depend on a certain perception of the players involved which not everyone shares. In particular, beliefs about the current efficacy of the U.K. as a sovereign nation-state and the reasons why the EU is pursuing the approach to Brexit that it is.

My own pro-Europeanism is not fundamentally political. For most of my adult life, I have travelled in other European countries at least two or three times a year. I have made lasting and in some cases close friendships with people in those countries (both ex-pats and nationals), to the point that nationality has all but disappeared as an issue. The mental map that defines my own life is now quite instinctively at least as often that of Europe as that of Britain. It feels a good way to live.

Those many, many visits to other countries have led me, despite my best efforts to shake off the effect of rose-tinted spectacles, to the conclusion that in general, life as a citizen of many of the countries with whom we might compare ourselves, is better than it is in this country. It is seen in part from the materially superior condition of those countries, where investment in infrastructure has been more consistent, where matters such as people’s living environments are generally more pleasant, and where higher material standards still seem to be balanced by a stronger commitment to matters such as social justice and the environment.

But it is also there in aspects that are much less visible. The mindset of people – even close friends – is different, in ways that even they may not realise. The embedded class-consciousness of Britain is absent: people simply do not have such a strong sense of social hierarchy, and it is liberating for one’s perception of one’s place in the world. Total equality of opportunity and income is never achievable – but the much greater sense of equality in people’s minds makes a significant difference. In my experience it means, for instance, that corporate structures are flatter, and people are given more agency to run their own affairs. One might claim that trust remains stronger: certainly I saw that when comparing the experiences of colleagues in my own field of education with experiences in Britain.

What’s more, structures are organised to push in this direction, rather than reinforce privilege. Policies such as legally-guaranteed worker representation in company board rooms makes corporate mal-governance less likely, while stronger environmental regulation adds different restraints. Quick-win shareholder gains are not top priority in the economy. But it is also the mindset that tends to make wrong-doing less likely in the first place: there is often a stronger sense of civic obligation than remains in Britain, where we have been fed ‘dog-eat-dog’ for four decades or more.

By comparison, revelations in recent years have shown just how rotten the British system has become. Even setting aside matters such as the parliamentary expenses scandal, the prevalence of lobbying, big-money influence, the too-close forms of patronage suggest that too much is done in Westminster for reasons other than democratic mandate. There is too much evidence for at least some of it not to be true. The mis-representation of the population in terms of the elected representatives and other top positions is more evidence that this country is not – and probably never has been – really run ‘for the people’ in the way post-War continental countries have come much closer to.

Another part of the problem is the Monarchy. Whatever one thinks of those individuals, the fact that the British monarchy remains the most influential in Europe distorts the mindset of the entire nation. Deference to a hereditary individual – and the existence of the whole associated hierarchy – is simply not compatible with running a nation in the name of ‘The People’.

Then we have the electoral system. As Vince Cable recently observed, in a first-past-the-post system, the formation of more than two parties distorts the process by dividing the vote, and can be seen as electoral suicide by anyone contemplating it. This creates a system where binary choices are the norm, and where far too much effort is put into winning power and discrediting the opposition. It operates on confrontation rather than consensus, and it means that the country is in a constant state of conflict between two power-groups. The effects can be seen everywhere in the utter inconsistency of national policy over decades, the frequent policy reverses and the vast waste of money, time and resources that accompanies it.

It is probably an integral feature of relatively educated populations that consensus will fragment as people gain more ability to make decisions about their own lives. Set against that, Britain has a large remnant of under-educated population, whose tribal instincts are increasingly manipulated by the media – and which ironically play to the status quo. And it is large enough to sway the political process.

For all its compromises and complexities, a system that accurately represents multiple viewpoints has to be preferable, and that means proportional representation. The fact that it is mis-sold in Britain cannot hide the fact that almost all other democracies now use it in one form or another. The fact that it requires compromise and consensus surely has to be worth the difficulties – and its tendency is to promote agreement where it can be found, rather than manufacturing disagreement even where there is none, which is a feature of the FPP system.

So much for Britain’s shortcomings. What about those of the E.U.?

It is certainly not perfect – what system is? But it seems to me to be the logical extension of co-operation between European nations. Indeed, what would that co-operation mean without some organ by which it is conducted? I do not believe that shifting bilateral agreements between nations would ever achieve the same thing. And we all live far too close to each other ever for Splendid Isolation to work.

Some have criticised the E.U. for its inflexibility in the Brexit negotiations. But it is a rules-based system – something that again the British system cannot understand. It means that the rules, once agreed, have to be rigorously but impartially applied, otherwise they are meaningless. And that means that Britain needs to accept that it cannot cherry-pick EU membership, however much the British Establishment might be used to doing precisely that everywhere else.

It would be naive to think that all other EU countries are perfect; of course they have their own inconsistencies and play for their own interests too – and this is why a strict framework of rules is necessary. But we should not forget that they have been agreed by all national legislatures, including our own. So they are not ‘imposed’ by some faceless third party. As any sport fan will hopefully recognise, any match only works if both sides accept the rules, even when they work to their short-term disadvantage. One might hope principled nations would accept the same. Or maybe some have difficulties with that; I really don’t know.

Personally, I have never seen the European issue primarily as one of competition.

There is always a case for reviewing the functioning of the EU – but it can only be done from the inside. Having studied the workings of the EU at length in order to teach students, they seem to me to be well thought out, and logical, in a way that the British system – which has never been fully modernised – just is not. I advocate the strengthening of the European Parliament, because it has a direct democratic mandate. But we should not forget that the European Council does too, as it is made up of national administrations.

While the E.U. may seem remote from everyday life, in some ways that is a good thing. For a start, it can hardly be otherwise when it represents such a huge populace – but that is not to deny that it still deals with issues of concern to all Europeans. It needs to have a degree of detachment in order to remain impartial.

But one might consider it to be the higher chamber of a bicameral system where the national legislatures constitute the lower house. In all such systems, the duty of the upper house is to be impartial, to take the larger, more principled view and remain above the partisan and often short-term priorities of party politics. That is in effect what the E.U. already does. Alternatively, one might perceive it as a collective European presidency – in the sense that a president remains above partisan loyalties.

I view it as the guarantor of trans-national stability and co-ordination in Europe, the defender of cross-border issues such as trade, travel and the environment – and the promoter of inter-national understanding – which I suspect is actually what a lot of anti-Europeans feel afraid of. My experience is that it is liberating and affirming to cross borders. The island-nation British would benefit from doing more of it – and I don’t mean just by going on more holidays. One way the EU could help this would be by diverting cohesion funds to drastically reducing the costs of cross-Channel travel. Although even there, many of the practical barriers to movement actually originate in Westminster rather than Brussels.

I do rather hope that the E.U. is deliberately playing hard-ball on the Brexit negotiations. But I also believe that it is not doing it to be cussed – or from megalomaniac tendencies. It has a responsibility to uphold the principles agreed by all member states – and that includes the indivisibility of the four principles of mobility. But I also hope it believes that by forcing Britain to make a hard choice,  it will bring this nation to its senses for its own sake, as to where its real best interests lie.

Because where the British have got a short deal from E.U. membership, it has often been due to their own insistence on semi-detachment and opt-outs. Who really loses out from the Home Office’s insistence on retaining frontier checks? Or indeed from the need still to change currency? Or from the exemption from the Working Time Directive? Or from the national failure to implement high environmental standards (such that we have been fined for it)? Who will really gain if Human Rights legislation is repealed in post-Brexit Britain?

One has to question why systems that suit 27 other countries (including Schengen) are so anathema to the 28th. Why is Britain so exceptional? I suspect the real reason is that the nation’s ruling classes realised that they were going to lose too much of their traditional hegemony if European standards and systems were given the free rein that have everywhere else. But from past and recent experience, perpetuating that is certainly not in the wider national interest. I would rather put my faith in remote but impartial bureaucrats than the entitled classes of the British Establishment.

The big problem that remains to be solved lies not in Brussels, but with those in the U.K. who cannot see that the real problems lie much closer to home in the unreformed way in which the U.K. still operates – and above all in their own heads.

 

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