“Our Rulers’ Building”: the EU Commission
In his essay in the paywalled DT Robert Tombs raises questions and makes observations which deserve a wide audience. The title couldn’t be more emphatic: “This Brexit election will decide if we can call ourselves a true democracy” (paywalled link). It is a proper tour-de-force, every paragraph screams out to be underlined and handed around. Firstly,Tombs gives a brief historical introduction to set the scene and then continues:
“The election of 2019 will decide whether that very democracy, created so slowly and so painfully, can still function in 21st-century Europe.
Many politicians and commentators are trying to minimise the importance of next month’s vote, claiming that it is about all sorts of other things than Brexit, supposedly more important to “ordinary people”. I doubt most of the electorate will be convinced. The issue that will decide the outcome is Brexit, and Brexit will show whether we are a true or a sham democracy.
All across the democratic world, more and more power has shifted away from elected national governments towards non-elected bodies – international organisations, law courts, treaties, quangos. Governments have voluntarily surrendered their own authority. But in doing so, they have limited democratic choice: voters are told that there are things they cannot do, choices they cannot make.
This has gone furthest in EU member states. A void has been created between rulers and ruled. Two networks of power, influence and patronage have grown up: one based on domestic politics, the other based on the EU institutions. These two networks – two establishments, one national, one trans-national, which include politicians, civil servants, academics, business lobbies, non-governmental organisations – overlap in every EU country.” (paywalled link)
Tombs next shifts his attention to the EU:
“We in Britain are not the first to try to prise them apart and take back control of our own rulers. The French and Dutch tried, when they voted against the EU draft constitution in 2005. The Greeks tried in 2015. The Italians are still trying. So far, they have all found it impossible: in the EU, voting no longer works.
Supporters of the EU proclaim that this is in the nature of things. We live, they imply, in a post-democratic world in which the realities of modern global power are beyond the control of nation states and their voters. So if people vote the right way – the way that the trans-national establishment approves – then their vote will be respected. Indeed, it will even be described as “final”. But if they vote the wrong way, their vote will be ignored or reversed. In the case of Italy and Greece, this was done through unvarnished threats of economic ruin.” (paywalled link)
Tombs gives this interpretation:
“As we have seen in those countries, and see in Britain, too, since 2016, the trans-national establishment inside the country will cooperate with the attempt to nullify a “wrong” vote. It may do so with the best of intentions: its members probably genuinely believe that their electors – ill-informed, prejudiced, backward – have made a disastrous choice. In Britain, a much tougher nut than Greece or Italy, the whole thing has dragged out over years of domestic and international wrangling, which has inevitably caused anger and created on both sides a sense of being disfranchised, even betrayed.” (paywalled link)
Next, his description of our own situation bears keeping in mind, especially where he points out the actual meaning of the Remainers’ “achievement”. The emphasis is by me:
“Let us look at the nature of the problem. I do not believe it is essentially a British problem, proof of our lack of national solidarity, of our xenophobic insularity, or of the breakdown of our “archaic” constitution. Indeed, I would argue the opposite. We have contained this crisis within our mainstream political institutions, and we seem now to be within sight of carrying out the legal will of the electorate as expressed in the 2016 referendum. I fervently hope that this will rebuild popular confidence in our democratic system.
Which other EU member state would be capable of this achievement? Ah, say Remainers, but none of them wants to. Well, this was not President Macron’s view: he believed that a referendum in France would have had the same outcome as here. But let’s accept the argument: none of them wants to. This is not, however, because of the overwhelming popularity of the EU. Rather it is because leaving now seems impossible.
The turmoil – largely self-imposed – that we have been going through has undoubtedly handed an immense propaganda victory to the EU: attempting to leave now seems clearly fraught with danger. But note what this means. Taking back control is no longer an option: democratic choice within the EU is now limited to what the EU permits.” (paywalled link)
His following remarks need to be taken up by us in any argument with Remain, be they Tory or indeed Labour:
“So our coming election, just as much or perhaps more than those of 1831 and 1910, is about how we are to be governed; or more exactly, whether we are to govern ourselves. The trans-national establishment scoffs that this is mere nostalgia. One of the world’s richest and most powerful states is incapable of doing what Norway, Switzerland and Singapore somehow seem to manage. Those taking this view have political attitudes that would have been familiar to Earl Grey in the 1830s: the common people are incapable of rational choice; they must follow the lead of the superior classes.” (paywalled link)
Indeed so! Tombs’ concluding remarks on the meaning of democracy are even more important, especially since our own contemporary ‘ruling classes’ are disregarding it in this GE’s campaign – the emphasis again is by me:
“But even if the superior classes today – or indeed in the past – had shown themselves consistently capable of ruling in the interests of all rather than in their own, this would be a complete misunderstanding of democracy. Democracy is not a system for discovering the “right answer” to political issues: we can rarely if ever be sure what the right answer is. Democracy, rather, is a system for creating consent and solidarity by allowing all to have an equal vote. For making people feel that the way they are governed, though not perfect, is at least one in which they are fairly consulted and their voices listened to. So that, even if they do not get their own way, they accept the outcome without trying to sabotage or evade it.
That is what we have come perilously close to losing. Next month we have the chance to regain it, with all the opportunities and risks that democracy entails.” (paywalled link)
I doubt very much that his words will be heard by the number-crunching ‘election specialists’ who regard us a pawns, to do as we’re told, being given the choice between one or the other shiny bauble of no real worth.
We however can and must use his arguments wherever we are. Slapping them round the heads of the canvassers coming to infest your doorsteps in the coming weeks would be a good start …!