Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The EU thing

Well, here we are, at long last the referendum is to happen.  

Before the 2010 General Election both parties that formed the 2010-2015 coalition government promised an In-Out referendum.  Of course everything changed when the coalition agreement was forged.  The Conservatives couldn't agree to a referendum because the Liberal Democrats wouldn't agree the terms the Conservatives wanted, and the Liberal Democrats couldn't agree to a referendum because the Conservatives wouldn't agree their preferred terms.  It was all jolly convenient for the career politicians at the head of both parties for whom the European Union was the perfect model for established party elites to be guaranteed not just well-paid jobs for life but also political influence long after they lost electoral support in their own constituencies and countries. 

The repetition of that promise in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto coupled with that party's win in the election forced the Prime Minister to do something about it.  His chosen course was a renegotiation of the terms on which the UK is a member of the EU and then the presentation of that new deal to the common people of the UK.  

Mr Cameron did not, in truth, have any other option open to him.  Successive manifesto commitments could not be ignored so something had to be done.  His choices were to give us a "take it or leave it" referendum against the existing relationship between the UK and the EU or to try to change that relationship and then offer the vote.  I am happy to accept that he went into the renegotiation on the basis he claimed - namely, with the intention to return certain law-making powers to the UK Parliament.  As it is, he returned with a deal that returns no law-making powers and merely tinkers at the edge of a few minor matters of detail on how existing EU laws will be implemented.  

I must make clear that I am not criticising Mr Cameron's achievements in the negotiation process.  I believe he achieved the absolute most that could be achieved.  He is a clever man, a determined man, a clear communicator and a Prime Minister who wants the best possible deal for the UK.  And therein lies the problem.  Despite his determination to return powers to the UK Parliament and the use of his clever and clear ability to communicate, he achieved nothing of substance.  

He never could achieve anything of substance because of two aspects of the way the EU works.  He was facing not only the self-perpetuating, superannuated bureaucracy in Brussels; he was also facing the honest and understandable national self-interests of the leaders of the other member states of the EU.  The bureaucracy would never allow a return of substantive powers and the other member states would never allow anything to be done to diminish their citizens' access to the benefits of living and working in the UK.  Against this background, to achieve even the tiny change he did is a matter of great credit to Mr Cameron. 

Since the referendum was announced we have been subjected to a bombardment of ludicrous guesswork about how an exit from the EU will affect the UK economy.  The simple fact is that no one knows how it will affect our economy.  Let me give an example of the main arguments I have heard on a central economic issue. 

Those in the "remain" camp assert that we will be excluded from trading with EU countries.  That seems extremely unlikely, although the terms on which we deal with them might well change.  How will they change?  No one knows.  What we do know is that we buy a greater value of goods from the other EU states than we sell to them, so excluding us from trading with them will (in monetary terms) hurt them more than us.  That doesn't mean we will necessarily be allowed to continue to trade without tariffs.  It's something that will have to be negotiated.  Whether - in the short, medium and long term - the UK economy will benefit cannot be predicted.  

Those in the "leave" camp assert, with great confidence, that we will continue to trade as we do now because we buy more from them than they do from us.  That is not necessarily so.  They will be much bigger than us and might use their ability to freeze-out our goods in order to secure a trading agreement which is to our detriment compared to the current position.  

In reality both sides are saying the same thing.  They both say that we will continue trading with the EU but they do not know whether the terms of trading will be the same.  So what?  If we stay in things will change that might or might not benefit the UK.  If we leave things will change that might or might not benefit the UK.  The whole economic argument is a nonsense because no one knows whether the next year of economic activity will be good or bad for the UK, or for France, or for Spain, or for Germany, or for Italy, or for any other country - be it an EU country or one of the 168 countries not currently in the EU.  

For me the most important issue in this referendum is not economic, it is political.  

I believe that the most powerful force in maintaining stability in any country is the general populace having the power to remove its current government and replacing it with another.  Everyone knows that elections every four or five years do not allow Mr & Mrs Ordinary direct power over everything.  They do, however, allow millions of Mr & Mrs Ordinarys to make their decisions and, if, collectively, they are so minded, to remove one government and replace it with another.  

There was, I believe, something very significant in the result of last year's general election.  Despite being bombarded by the BBC and every entertainer and "celebrity" who was given airtime that the Conservative Party promotes the interests of the rich and seeks to oppress the poor, that party was returned with a Parliamentary majority.  It was returned through the votes of people of all ages, races and levels of wealth.  A secret ballot allowing the quiet people to take a decision in private can overturn the consensus view of any self-appointed elite.  

For me the most important issue in the referendum, indeed the only issue of any importance, is the need for the people of the UK to be able to have as much control as possible over those who govern them.  That control occurs not just through the ballot box but also through the ability to influence politicians in numerous other ways.  Some of those ways are affected only very indirectly by the ordinary people, for example they have little direct influence over what the newspapers say and how television and radio stations report issues.  But opinions polls, phone-in programmes and petitions are legion.  In addition MPs attend their constituency surgeries and numerous public events at which views are expressed.  No doubt a huge number of people take no part in any of these means of communicating their views to their governors, nonetheless they are direct means of not only influencing politicians' opinions but also of holding them to account for their previously-expressed opinions.  

If you think our politicians are idiots you might or might not be right.  But they are our idiots and we can, in so many ways, hold them to account.  In my lifetime there have been so many that held high office but were rejected by the little people once they were accountable to Mr & Mrs Ordinary making a choice with a stubby pencil in a voting booth.  They had no right to political power unless it was given to them at an election because government exists for the people and not for the politicians. 

We have absolutely no control over the unaccountable powers of the EU.  We have MEPs but they have virtually no power - they cannot even introduce proposals for new legislation. 

I am a great believer in self-determination.  I believe in it for individuals and I believe in it for countries.  The more the little people have the ability to influence politicians, the more likely it is that those politicians will have to think carefully about every decision they make and the more likely it is that the parish, district, county, constituency and country will be stable.  Influence is not enough, the power to say yea or nae to a particular politician continuing to have the possibility of power is fundamental.  The two most high-profile recent examples are Michael Portillo and Ed Balls - politicians of the highest profile ejected from any political power by the greater power of the stubby pencil in the voting booth.  Long may it continue.  

Whether we stay in the EU or leave, the power to influence our own politicians will remain unless the EU passes laws to the contrary.  I don't expect it to, but it has the power to do so and there will be nothing we can do about it.  I would rather keep that power with Mr & Mrs Ordinary and their stubby pencils rather than with politicians who have been rejected by their own national electorates and been rewarded with more power as part of the EU commissariat. 

Self-determination has kept this country stable for a long time.  Long may it continue.  That is much more likely outside the EU than within.