What a disgrace!
After a long absence the current mess of the Brexit process has reached such dire straits that it has motivated the members of DLN to once again pick up their keyboards and re-engage with the world of blogging. Not that the long absence was planned or desirable (at least on our part – readers may think differently). Rather it was a consequence of: the burdens and distractions of real life (work, family, etc), the pause in ‘normal’ British politics while the ‘exiting the EU’ process was underway (which suggested only one topic would be salient for a long, long time) and in conjunction with that (an apparently naïve) confidence that Brexit would actually ‘get done’ and it would be at that point that political debate could move onto other topics. At which point DLN would no-doubt have looked to once again engage in the public debate about the numerous future challenges facing the UK, the left and the world, including:
How to renew the left in the context of an (once again) independent United Kingdom.
What the Labour Party might fruitfully do next, after the gains made in the 2017 General Election.
The implications of the significant political disruption to ‘traditional’ political cleavages currently underway in many countries (including the UK - albeit this trend was somewhat reversed in the 2017 election).
The likely impacts of the gathering wave of technological disruption and how they will affect the UK’s already troubled model of political economy and whether it is possible to construct a ‘British Social Model’ (BSM) of political economy.
The visible emergence, it might even be said domination, of the post-modern left across many of the UK’s social, political and cultural institutions and the public discourse.
The abominable mess that has been the Theresa May led Brexit negotiation means that politics will not return to ‘normal’ anytime soon, if ever. Therefore the kinds of important issues listed above, which need debating and addressing are not being. The Government’s desperately bad negotiating (McTague, 2019) has done more than delay ‘normal politics’, its set the stage for and helped unleash some of the most grotesque behaviour from our supposed ‘elected representatives’ since Cromwell ‘dissolved’ the Rump Parliament in 1653. There is a strong argument to go much further and say it’s the worst behaviour since the earliest days of Parliament, when it became a key institution in the governance of England. The last six months in-particular has seen a litany of abhorrently perfidious behaviour by some MPs on all sides of the House. It has been behaviour which defies belief! The brazen disregard for: their promises, the integrity of democratic process, consistency with their own previous public utterances and plain old fairness has been astonishing, shocking to watch! If it wasn’t actually happening in real time, you wouldn’t believe it could happen.
The list of ‘guilty men’ and women that have brought the UK to this place is long! It is a further depressing thought that the likelihood of the guilty parties facing consequences as a result of their actions is virtually zero, if not actually zero. This is for several reasons:
They are protected in their party hierarchies and networks of like-minded people in positions of power and privilege who can ensure that the dangers of de-selection are minimised.
The scandal that is ‘safe seats’ combined with ‘tribal’ politics which mean that, even where there is significant discontent the majority enjoyed by the incumbent makes the MP very difficult to dislodge when opposition is dispersed among multiple alternatives or the one realistic alternative is either someone of the opposite ‘tribe’ or who essentially holds the same or similar position on the issue of over which there is disgruntlement.
The reaction among the electorate to the duplicitous shenanigans of these MP’s is more likely to be apathy and withdrawal rather than rage and counter-action. A turn to despondency and indifference by voters who thought the UK was residually democratic (notwithstanding EU membership) and the results of legitimate plebiscites would be honoured and adhered to by those who asked for/ wanted the people to make the choice in the first-place, is the likely consequence. Reducing the numbers of potential voters who might vote against the incumbent who has betrayed their promises and the democratic process.
A familiar pattern
Placing questions of justice (i.e. fairness, clear and predictable process, trust and fealty to promises) aside, the long-term observer of how the EU and the political establishments in its Member States ‘deal’ with acts of democracy (such as plebiscites) might note that what is happening in the UK is not that surprising at all. Indeed, it falls clearly and squarely into a pattern oft repeated in numerous EU Member States vis-à-vis EU matters. Most prominently where the EU and constitutional issues explicitly collide.
Whether it was the Danes rejecting the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, the Irish rejecting the Nice and Lisbon Treaties in 2001 and 2008 respectively or the French and Dutch kicking the EU constitution to the kerb in 2005, each time the political elites (aided and abetted by the business, legal, trades union, media and ‘big’ charity nexus) in these countries – horrified at the impudence of their electorates – connived with the EU and its other Member States to ensure that the particular EU measure (repulsed in the relevant referendum) was eventually put-in-place. It is clear, a similar process of connivance to side-step a legitimate democratic process is now underway in the UK. The details are of course different. The result to be reversed is that of a referendum on membership rather than a Treaty i.e. it is about the maintenance of the status quo rather than changes to it with a new Treaty, the individuals involved are also different as are many of the specific tactics being deployed not least because of the very different domestic political context. However, the fundamental impetus and forces at play are the same, as is the end-game.
Further, the kind of manipulation or ‘denial’ of democracy on EU issues is not entirely new to the UK either. Many may have thought that this kind of ‘corruption’ of the domestic polity wouldn’t or couldn’t happen in the UK. Sadly, this overly-generous view of the UK’s political (and media, legal, business, trades union and ‘big’ charity) establishment and the integrity of domestic institutions was woefully naïve.
A brief retrospective on contemporary UK history shows that variations of the kind of behaviour the ‘establishment’ is currently displaying has reared its head ‘above the waves’ before in this country. Indeed, there are multiple examples. Therefore, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the establishment, having stooped low before, can quite easily reach subterranean levels of duplicitous behaviour. What is going on is merely matters of degree different (albeit a considerable number of degrees) to what they have done before. And done successfully.
The shenanigans around the Lisbon Treaty and the passing of its provisions into domestic law is a clear example of this phenomena. The country had been promised a referendum on the EU Constitution. As the leaders of EU Member States made clear at the time - Angela Merkel (then and currently Chancellor of Germany), Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (then Prime Minister of Spain) and Anders Fogh Rasmussen (then Prime Minister of Denmark) among others, made clear at the time, the Lisbon Treaty was almost identical in substance to the failed EU Constitutional Treaty:
‘The fundamentals of the Constitution have been maintained…’. (Merkel, 2007)
‘A great part of the content of the European Constitution is captured in the new treaties…’. (Zapatero, 2007)
‘The good thing is that all the symbolic elements are gone, and that which really matters – the core – is left’. (Rasmussen, 2007)
Yet, the then Labour Government worked to deny the people a referendum on it on the false pretext that it wasn’t the same thing (Waterfield and Helm, 2007). While the Conservative opposition who had made a ‘cast iron guarantee’ of a referendum on it denied the electorate their say on this most significant of Treaties with the argument that once it had passed into law the situation became a fait accompli and therefore there was no point in trying to get the people’s consent. Instead they said the ‘next’ Conservative Government would undertake a very limited renegotiation of the UK’s position in the EU instead (Summers, 2009). This renegotiation policy was then swiftly dropped when there was a sniff of power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
Perhaps the most amusing part of the establishment ‘machinations’ were the Liberal Democrats. They employed rather elaborate and dramatic tactics in order to obfuscate the fact they had promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and were now trying to get out of sticking to their word (Helm and Kirkup, 2008). Sound familiar?
The Lisbon Treaty is not the only example of the political establishment distorting and inverting the truth about the EU and its impact on the UK in order to ensure a pro-EU outcome. It is a pattern that goes back to the very earliest years of the UK’s attempts to join the European Economic Community in the sixties (Booker, 2016). As the official advice given in 1960 to the then Lord Privy Seal leading the UK’s negotiations with the then European Economic Community, Edward Heath by the Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir highlighted:
‘…the Council of Ministers would eventually (after the system of qualified majority voting had come into force) make regulations which would be binding on us even against our wishes…’ and commenting on the role of the then European Court of Justice: ‘…the surrenders of sovereignty involved are serious ones…’. (Booker, 2001)
Yet, during the negotiations for entry into the colloquially named ‘Common Market’ the inevitable consequences for the UK’s democratic system of Government were flatly denied by those leading the charge to enter. The blatancy of the lying is aptly illustrated by the clear statement in the Government’s 1971 White Paper on the supposed ‘benefits’ of joining (The United Kingdom and the European Communities’) which went to every household in the UK. It stated that:
‘…there is no question of Britain losing essential sovereignty.’ (Booker, 2001)
Further, in a TV broadcast in January 1973, as the UK formally acceded to the then European Community, Prime Minister Heath said to the nation that:
‘…there are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified’. (Booker, 2001)
Avoidance of these most fundamental and uncomfortable of issues characterised the approach of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1975 referendum, too. Instead of being open and honest about what membership ultimately entailed they focussed on more ephemeral topics like the ‘popularity’ of the cluster of leaders of the two sides of the debate, prices as well as the use of misleading yet emotive fear-based lines of arguments e.g. ‘outside the European Community the UK will be ‘alone and isolated’’ (sound familiar?). And finally, they also utilised exaggerated claims about the faux re-negotiation of the Wilson Government. (Booker and North, 2005).
Therefore, perfidy by the political class and their hangers-on in business, media, the law and ‘big-charity’ among other vested interests over the EU issue should not be a surprise. However, despite this, the current situation is by a substantial number of degrees different. There has been a vote and the result of it was not the outcome the establishment wanted. Now they’re having to invent ways to prevent its implementation and eventually overturn it, which is much more difficult than denying a referendum in the first place, getting Treaty amendments past an ignorant Parliament or lying to win a referendum that was subsequently won. In order to avoid executing the result and reverse the outcome, the referendum, the voters and the remaining vestiges of British democracy are under attack from four sides:
First through control of the post-referendum national discussion, with a sympathetic media and interest groups like big business dominating and framing the discourse, variously, in favour of ‘voting again’, nullifying the 2016 result, a narrative of ‘catastrophism’ and a post-membership relationship so close as to be indistinguishable from partial membership.
Second, a cohort of MPs (in the context of a ‘hung Parliament’) repudiating their promises to the electorate and in ‘cahoots’ with the Speaker utilising, bending and even overturning existing Parliamentary processes in order to marginalise the ‘leaving on WTO terms’ default (in-law) option and to push for both ‘Brexit in Name Only’ future relationship options and another referendum with ‘staying in’ on the ballot paper.
Thirdly, through the direct influence of the permanent bureaucracy on the UK negotiating strategy and its implementation, which has its own institutional preferences regarding EU membership and corporate views on the supposed ‘benefits’ of it.
A cadre of ‘remain-iac’ politicians at the heart of Government who (unsurprisingly) intensely dislike the fact they lost the vote in 2016, are sympathetic and sometimes seemingly actively lobbying for another referendum and take steps (both formally through policy measures, voting behaviour in Parliament and Cabinet debate and informally through the media) to undermine an effective negotiating strategy. In some cases, a number appear to be running a parallel operation that is not aligned with the Government’s official policy position, pushing to over-turn the 2016 result with another referendum.
EU membership has resulted in British democracy and domestic policy-making structures gradually becoming more and more impotent over the last four and a half decades. The four prongs (described above) aimed at voiding the 2016 vote is the denouement of this multi-decadal process: the castration of the remaining vestiges of genuine democratic practice in Britain.
Why is the establishment so perfidious on the EU issue?
The key underlying question for Political Scientists is why the ‘establishment’ in the UK specifically (but the question could be asked about other EU countries too) behaves this way in relation to EU issues. Why does the EU seem to have a ‘mystic’ hold over those in political office in the Member States and the institutions of policy-making and the powerful lobby groups that orbit around the former and latter groups, such that it drives them to extreme mendacity and the deployment of anti-democratic and corrupt practices to defend UK membership, or at the very least keep the UK in (officially or unofficially) some of the institutions of the EU? A key part of the answer is that the legitimacy, identity and functionality of the political and administrative classes, as well as special interest groups that surround them, are intimately and intricately tied-up with EU membership. In other words, EU membership is existential for such groups. Operating outside the EU is inconceivable. Therefore, it is axiomatic that all possible measures (as they are being) will be taken to defend UK membership of the EU, no matter the final cost.
A primary reason behind why EU membership is so essential for the British state has been outlined by academic Christopher Bickerton. He points out how, what once were Nation States, have as the result of the establishment and evolution of the EU become a different category of polity: a Member State. The latter are ‘…a distinctive and standalone form of state’ (Bickerton, 2012). A state that is ‘…less a political community and more a bureaucratic machine’ (Faure, 2015).
Bickerton’s thesis is that the permanent apparat and political class have willingly help build what might be crudely described as a ‘new-system of governance’ with the aim of divorcing government (i.e. policy) from democracy (direct accountability and autonomy). As he states:
‘European states are member states, and their membership in the EU plays a critical role in their existence. In particular, national governments and national bureaucracies see their authority as derived from their belonging to the EU policy-making process’. (Bickerton, 2016)
Further, the legitimising discourse of this new form of governance reflects this re-orientation away from serving society and electorate and towards finding validation in, impetus and licence to act from the other constituent parts of the new system:
‘The preferred legitimizing discourse is that of…the more abstract language of collectively agreed rules whose validity holds regardless of political life and its multiple competing interests’. (Bickerton, 2016)
The consequence of this shift in the nature of the state in EU member countries has been de-politicisation, which has helped further propel EU integration forward:
‘…[and] lessened the power of legislative assemblies…[notably]…leave[ing] national political elites more reliant on their European counterparts for support and legitimation…[and]…less so on the mandate of their domestic electorate and political parties’ (Heartfield, 2013).
It seems undoubtedly true however, that in addition to the ‘push’ factors driving EU integration from ‘below’ i.e. from within the member countries’ political and bureaucratic apparat and elite interest groups, there are also powerful ‘pull’ factors at work too in the overarching institutions of governance that have been established. In other words, in concert with ‘push’ ones, ‘pull’ factors have helped enormously in the construction of the EU’s ‘…complex legal framework…[which]…has created an intricate and largely self-standing decision-making system’ (Fromage and van den Brink, 2018). One consequence of this process for example has been the emergence of ‘…an educated quasi-imperial elite…in Brussels and other European capitals…that will defend the existing power structures…’. (Klinke, 2007). Not only will this cadre defend the institutions from attack but where they are able, they contribute to the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that extend the authority of the EU legal order. A good example of this ‘push’ and ‘pull’ interaction is the role interest groups have played. By seeking policy-advantages they have helped construct the EU. By aligning their policy goals with those of the EU and taking advantage, through lobbying and litigation (Stone-Sweet, 2004), of the central institutions and their policy and legal authority (e.g. the Commission and Court of Justice) and ‘legitimacy’ (among the political and bureaucratic classes in the Member States) they have pushed for the EU to take positions on a wide range of policy issues and the EU has gratefully taken up that ‘gift’ to ‘acquire’ further control and influence.
It goes without saying that the current situation is a mess and the Government have made an almighty ‘balls-up’ of the negotiations. However, the situation is worse than just an ‘almighty balls-up’. What has become ‘plain as a pikestaff’ in the last 6 to 12 months is the lengths to which the political establishment will go to, to keep the UK ideally part-of but at least as close as possible to the EU. What has therefore become obvious is the extent to which EU membership has corrupted the UK’s polity. EU membership has left the UK with (at best) a residual democracy. However, the ultimate threat to continued membership that has resulted from the 2016 referendum has shown that even the remaining vestiges of domestic democracy – that many assumed clung-on despite EU membership – are swiftly disappearing into a dark pit.
While the process of EU integration and the emergence of this supra-national form of governance is complex, a convincing argument has emerged which explains a good deal of why the political establishment (and its allies in the bureaucracy and powerful interest groups in the media, law, ‘big-charity, business and culture, etc) are putting up this fight against the principles of fairness and democracy. It is because the British state and the establishment who run it have been transformed, such that the UK is now a Member State and no longer a Nation State that happens to be part of a multi-national organisation. Consequently, no longer being a member of the EU is existential for the political class and their allies. No wonder they are prepared to go to any lengths necessary.
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Bickerton, C. ‘From Nations States to Member States: European Integration as State Transformation’ in ‘Europe and its nations: Politic, Society and Culture. (2016). Available at: https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/economy/geopolitics/europe-and-its-nations-policy-society-and-culture/
Booker, C. ‘Nine deceptions in our history with the EU’. (2016). Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/12176234/Nine-deceptions-in-our-history-with-the-EU.html
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