Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Myth of Sovereignty

 The reasons people gave for voting “Leave” in the EU Referendum fall broadly into two categories - though they overlap and both can be characterised under the slogan “Take Back Control”. The clinching argument which gave “Leave” their narrow victory was concerns about “Immigration”. The other argument - the one given by the more sophisticated Brexiteers - was about “Sovereignty”. Those who personally voted “Leave” , giving “Sovereignty ” as the reason, also tend to deny that immigration concerns were the principal reason “Leave” won. They are squeamish about associating themselves with a position which could be borderline racist, Islamaphobic  or xenophobic and for which the main proponents were UKIP and its even further to the Right fellow travellers. In particular the campaign led by Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Kate Hoey. There is a strong dose of disingenuousness about all this. Some of the Conservative “Leave” campaigners jumped on the “Turkey  is joining the EU” meme - including the new Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt. The “Official” “Leave” campaign ran an advertising campaign saying this. It was, of course, a barely coded message about immigration, especially Muslim immigration. At least the advertising of Banks, Farage and co. was more open about its “Don’t open the floodgates to more migrants” pitch.

“Take Back Control”  was often linked to “our borders”. Essentially a positioning which says that “Freedom of Movement” - one of the “Four Freedoms” essential to the EU’s “Single Market” - meant that anyone from 30 countries (not just EU countries) could come and live and work in Britain as a right. And when here they would be treated as a British citizen in respect of (say) healthcare or welfare. The “Take Back Control” slogan and all its surrounding rhetoric implied that FoM is a bad thing and we should have full control of our borders again and not have who enters Britain decided but Brussels. In fact studies show that the presence of European nationals is strongly net positive to the UK economy. But such truths were casualties in the febrile and often squalid times of the Referendum.

A Sovereign nation certainly controls its border itself unlike the 28 countries of the European Union, along with Switzerland, Norway and Iceland which are open to citizens from across the continent. But it is surely the case that the 27+3 nations that will continue to be open if Britain leaves have made a conscious decision to do so. In effect they have pooled their Sovereignty on this matter.  And for good reason. The Single Market offers huge mutual benefits and the freedom of movement of two factors of production - Labour and Capital - is an integral part of this.

Those who voted “Leave” citing “Sovereignty” no doubt had control of borders as one of the reasons but, they argue, it goes beyond that. “Isn’t it better that Britain takes its own decisions rather than having slavishly to follow the same path as 27 other countries?” There is a strong nationalistic element to this reminiscent of Flanders and Swann’s “The English, the English, the English are best - I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest”. In essence where a decision needs to be made and who makes it is more important than the quality of the decision - or so this implies.

Rationally in most cases it really doesn’t matter where a decision is taken or who takes it so long as we perceive the outcome as being beneficial to us. To me two of the most important developments of the past decade or so were taken thousands of miles from Britain’s shores. Amazon and Apple launched products and service which literally changed my life. To be able to buy virtually anything online from  Amazon at a fair price and have it swiftly delivered to my home is a boon. And to be able to make this purchase lying on a hotel bed (as I am now) using my iPad?  Well ! Exactly the same applies to political decisions. If the European Parliament approves a regulation that benefits me does it matter that it was taken in Brussels rather than Westminster. Of course not. In a global, interdependent world the best decisions on crucial matters are better taken cooperatively. The English are not necessarily best.
The EU recognises that local matters should be resolved locally. “Subsidiarity” is a key EU principle. The idea that you take decisions at the lowest level practical is inherent in how the EU works  - far more so than in England where (unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) we have few political institutions below Westminster to devolve decision-making to.

The other benefit of joint sovereignty in certain areas is that there are more checks and balances .and greater pooling of experiences. If the EU proposes a new regulation there are 28 nations to consider it from their own experiences. If the British Government proposes a new law no such checks exist. It may take longer at an EU level, but any significant new regulation will have been considered from a broad not narrow perspective.

The mention of Amazon and Apple - and I could have chosen a hundred or more examples - was just to illustrate that 21st Century life is complex and major influences on our lives come from people or organisations we only engage with indirectly. This may seem a statement of the obvious - it is - but this fact is at the heart of any discussion about “Sovereignty” , or should be. At a basic level many of us would like the maximum of control over our own lives. It is possible to do this - perhaps by moving away from the complexities of modern living to some cottage in the country, growing our own vegetables and making our own entertainment. Even if we do that we cannot truly escape. We still have to pay our taxes and fulfil some bare minimum citizen obligations. The world is always with us.

In modern history some of the greatest horrors come from when peoples , or specific groups of people, are forced to do something against their will. Ethnic cleansing. Fleeing war or a natural catastrophe. It is natural to want to choose what we do and when we cannot do that for whatever reason we are aggrieved. And in a democracy it is likely that legitimate governments will pass laws that some citizens will object to. Here the concept of the “greater good” applies. You won’t please all the people all the time but so long as a particular law or regulation benefits significantly more people than those who object to it it’s probably worthwhile. So long as the democratic process was fair and followed and the consequences properly managed.

Which brings us back to the decision-making process in governance. Can we accept that in principle it really doesn’t matter who takes a decision or where it is taken - only whether it was a quality decision? Are lower level decisions always better than higher level ones or does there need to be a pragmatism which accepts remote decision-making if the outcomes are desirable? I think the answer is obvious. Major social, economic environmental and other changes can only really be taken at a high level. You couldn’t have had London boroughs opting out of the “Clean Air Act” at will. There had to be a decision at a much higher level of Government if the fogs and smogs of 1950s London were to be eradicated. Which they were.

Politics has always been in part about the struggle between freedom and compulsion those polarising goals of the Right and the Left. The battleground is at the heart of political discourse. The gut cry “Too much regulation stifles our freedoms” is not a modern idea. In power parties of whatever political persuasion will always have to consider whether more or less regulation is desirable - there is rarely a credible ideological answer (or even guideline) to help resolve these questions. That regulation has generally increased in the post war decades is broadly true. This is in part a response to lifestyle changes and in part a consequence of having a better understanding of science. The “Clean Air Act” was necessary because people were dying prematurely and unnecessarily from pollution. The heavy regulations applied to smoking and tobacco were the same. Public health was the driver.

As citizens our first obligation is to obey the law. Even if we disagree with it. The “greater good” argument should persuade us if we take our citizenship seriously. But how the law should operate and what new laws should apply (or existing laws be relaxed or changed) can be contentious. Perceived fairness is crucial - are those to whom a new law will apply being treated “fairly” ? If we are non smokers we probably don’t care that much about tobacco duty increases. But, I would argue, we should care that smokers are being treated fairly - smoking is a legal pursuit. We accept discriminations across society that are for the “greater good”. The banning of smoking in public places was certainly discriminatory - but few or any would now argue that it was the wrong thing to do. My 40-a-day mother would be astonished if she was here. But she isn’t. She died prematurely of cancer in 1978.

Modern life is not only complex but we also live in a world of far greater interdependence than even our closest forefathers. “No man is an island entire in itself” wrote John Donne 300 years ago but the apotheosis of this appeared in the twentieth century and has grown exponentially. Even an island race is no more entire in itself, and certainly not one as large and diverse as Britain. The primary context in which we live and work is now a global one and, especially, European. The British economy is inextricably part of the greater European one. The drivers are freedoms that we and fellow Europeans have created for our mutual benefit. Crucially three of Adam Smith’s four “Factors of Production” can and do move freely across the 28 countries. Labour, Capital and Enterprise move according to classic economic supply/demand drivers. A Greek Bank can invest in a Swedish car plant without restriction if its sees a good return. A Swedish student can study in Athens. A Greek Doctor can work in Britain's National Health Service. And so on tens of thousands of times over.

Change can be stressful and some manage it better than others. Whilst Britain is certainly not a closed society it can be insular – more so, perhaps, than those among our fellow European nations with contiguous borders. The joy of driving across national borders without the need to stop for any customs or other checks has been a part of mainland Europe for decades. They don’t talk about “going abroad”  - that concept doesn’t exist. That doesn’t mean that going from (say) Germany to France isn’t noticed. Of course not. The distinctive cultures of the two countries is enjoyed, even celebrated but moving between them is no big deal. But those 21 miles of sea between Britain and “Europe” though no longer any sort of physical barrier thanks to the Tunnel are still a psychological barrier. We do go “abroad”.

The biggest divide in Britain is not North/South or even Class – it is between those who see nationality as horizontal – and those who see it as vertical and hierarchical. The latter group were the ones satirised by Flanders and Swann.  They are often older, less educated and far less travelled. They see nationalities as having a hierarchy with Britain at the top. They often put Anglophone Countries next -  indeed many  of the Eurosceptics who became Brexiteers are supporters of the mythical “Anglosphere” a concept not acknowledged by anyone in the countries like Australia or New Zealand who the Eurosceptics say would be part of it. It’s all bunkum. Those of us who see nationality as horizontal don’t deny differences of culture and behaviour – we just don’t think British culture and the way we behave are better than those who are different.

So “Sovereignty” or “taking back control” is a consequence not of logic but of bias. The idea that decisions that Britain takes on her own are likely to be “better” than those taken co-jointly with others is based on the same highly questionable ideological slant that sees nationality as vertical and hierarchical. It conflicts with the adages like “Two heads are better than one “ or “A problem shared is a problem halved”. It is proudly individualistic , even nationalistic, rather than collegiate and trans-national.

What we are dealing with in the “Sovereignty” question is not empirical. You cannot “prove” that “taking back control” will produce better outcomes (or that the opposite will for that matter). The issue amounts to this. Should Britain really become the only country in Europe outside the EU and it’s close associates like Norway and Switzerland in the Single Market because of some highly spurious claim that we need to “restore our Sovereignty”. Can we really be that foolish?


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