Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

9 December 2011

For the sake of Europe, Britain should hold a referendum on the EU

Conservative politicians have been busy spinning David Cameron’s veto of a new EU treaty last night as indicative of a strong stand in defence of the ‘British national interest’. In reality, it’s a sign of the weakness of the British position. Cameron had no choice other than to veto a treaty because he knew that the political pressure for a referendum on it in the UK would have been irresistible, and that the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected by the British people. As a result, Cameron has jeopardised a deal that might – just might – have saved the euro, on which millions of UK jobs depend. The UK has ended up isolated, and it’s by no means clear that even the hallowed interests of the City have been safeguarded, as under the draft deal agreed last night, it appears that the EU will still be able to impose a financial-transaction tax on the dealings of Eurozone-based banks in London.

All of this could have been avoided if we’d been given an in / out referendum on the EU much earlier, such as when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. The fact that we weren’t offered this choice is the Labour Party’s fault, as it was they who reneged in government on their manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which is what, by common consent, the Lisbon Treaty was in all but name.

And while we’re on the subject of manifesto pledges, the Liberal Democrats, who more than any other party are desperate to avoid a referendum, ought really now to be demanding one. That’s because what was agreed last night is incontrovertibly a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, which is what the Lib Dems stated in their last manifesto to be the grounds for justifying an in / out referendum. But have we heard the Lib Dems making any such demands? Of course not. Instead, their leader Nick Clegg is said to be 100% behind the stand taken by the PM last night. Why wouldn’t he be? It was the only way to avoid a referendum.

So the Lib Dems will be going around saying that, as any stricter fiscal rules for the Eurozone will be agreed outside the terms of any existing or new EU-wide treaty, they don’t involve a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. And the Tories are saying no referendum is needed because no additional powers have been ceded to the EU, and no treaty has been agreed.

In reality, however, last night’s events have demonstrated the need for a definitive in / out referendum more conclusively than ever, and not just because last night’s deal involves a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Cameron wouldn’t have been in the position of falling between the two stools of trying to safeguard the euro while at the same time defending the ‘British national interest’ if an earlier referendum had resolved the question of whether the British people believe that even being in the EU in the first place, let alone the euro, is in the British national interest. The problem is the political and business elites want the UK to be in the EU, but the British people – probably in the majority – don’t; so we end up in the ridiculous position of trying to be at once in Europe but not of it.

A referendum would have presented the opportunity for the UK, once and for all, to decide whether we want to be committed members of the EU or to let the EU get on with all the political, economic and fiscal integration they like, but without the UK being on board. Not having had such a referendum means that the UK’s very participation in the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Consequently, there was absolutely no way Cameron could have committed the UK to yet another treaty without at last giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether we want to be of Europe as well as in it.

But that’s the clarity that’s needed now: not just for the UK and its people, but for the EU and Europe as a whole. The rest of the EU, with the possible exception of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, is understandably hacked off by David Cameron’s bulldog posturing. They’re defending their own respective national interests, too, after all, the difference being that they – or at least the French and Germans – view a successful euro and further EU integration as being in those interests. And they’re right that a successful euro is at least in the short-term interest of the UK, too, as the euro’s collapse would spell disaster for the UK economy just as much as it would for the Eurozone. So it’s not unreasonable for them to expect the UK to get behind their last-ditch plan to save the euro and to set aside ‘selfish’ national interest – such as protecting the City – in favour of the ‘common good’ of a prosperous Eurozone. It’s just that Cameron has no mandate to make such a deal, because the British political class has avoided seeking one for decades.

However, last night’s events have conclusively demonstrated the need for Britain’s position within, or outside of, the EU to be clarified once and for all, before we move irrevocably to a two-track EU with the UK on the margins. The British people need to know where we’re going with respect to the EU. And the other EU states and Europe as a whole need to know whether the UK is truly behind the EU project and the euro, or not.

Europe needs Britain to decide; the British people demand the right to decide. Will David Cameron finally demonstrate the leadership once shown by his role model, Churchill, and let Britain choose whether it is with or against an EU with Germany at its centre?

English parliament

5 August 2011

Are we off our heads? Capital punishment is back on the agenda

Judging from the hype, it seemed likely yesterday morning that the first e-petition to garner the 100,000 e-signatures required to qualify for a debate in Parliament, under the government’s new system, would be a demand to restore capital punishment. Specifically, the petition reads:

“We petition the government to review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of Parliament to restore capital punishment. Following this review, the Ministry of Justice should map out the necessary legislative steps which will be required to restore the death penalty for the murder of children and police officers when killed in the line of duty.

“The findings of the review and the necessary substantive legislation to be presented to House of Commons for debate no later than 12 months after this petition passes the acceptance threshold.”

This petition was set in motion by the blogger Guido Fawkes and has now been triumphed by the Daily Mail, that paragon of enlightenment.

I’d previously lazily assumed that the petition was calling for a referendum on capital punishment. Instead, as is evident from the above text, it calls for Parliament to decide on the merits of the case and to pass the necessary legislation. It’s somewhat ironic, to say the least, that a blogger who has devoted himself to discrediting Westminster and the political establishment – deservedly so, to a great extent – should now be crediting Parliament with the wisdom to decide on such a matter. Perhaps this is an example of the same sort of bad faith that Parliament itself displays when it sends young men and women into battle to kill on our behalf: transferring to the ‘professionals’ the dirty work it wouldn’t wish to do direct. Similarly, if it’s Parliament that restores capital punishment, not the people in a referendum, then Parliament can be seen to carry the ‘guilt’ for any actual executions, not the broad mass of people that has demanded those executions take place.

For all the ethical complexities surrounding the issue of capital punishment (capably explored elsewhere), for me it comes down to this: you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you yourself would be prepared to stare into the eyes of the condemned man, tie the noose around his neck, pull open the trap door and let him swing. If you thought it was right for the condemned person to die but couldn’t yourself kill them, then it is hypocritical to expect someone else to do the dirty work for you. And if you were willing to take on the role of executioner out of a sense of social responsibility, then I would doubt your humanity and capacity for compassion.

Similarly, if you yourself were condemned to death but were innocent of the crime attributed to you, you shouldn’t support capital punishment unless you believe it would still be right for your life to be taken under those circumstances.

I think many, perhaps most, of those who demand the restoration of capital punishment would be unwilling to apply the penalty to others – directly, face to face – still less to themselves.

Again, I think it’s rather ironic that this petition is being sponsored by someone whose historical predecessor – the 17th-century Guy Fawkes – was himself executed for high treason. Would the 21st-century Guido advocate the death penalty for a plot to blow up Parliament today? Presumably not, as only murdering children and police officers – not terrorism or murdering MPs – are on his petition as meriting the final sanction. Why this selectivity? If you’re going to bring back hanging, why not apply it to all murders, conspiracy to commit murder and manslaughter resulting from armed robbery? Why stop there? Why not terrorism? Why not the arguable treason committed by Parliament itself in handing over so much of its and our sovereignty to the EU without our permission?

The trouble is, where do you stop? Would Guido think that driving a man to suicide by ruthlessly exposing his misdemeanours and hypocrisy merited the death penalty because it constituted a form of indirect murder? Presumably not, as this is a ‘crime’ that he himself is perpetually in danger of committing. Ultimately, it’s pretty arbitrary which crime you feel does or does not constitute a capital offence, and society is effectively playing God when it ascribes to itself the right to take life in some grave circumstances but not others.

While we’re on the subject of God, I feel that, from a Christian perspective, one has always to try to imagine what Christ would want and say if he were walking among us as a man again. Would he be an advocate for capital punishment? Not likely. I couldn’t see Christ urging others to do something – kill criminals – he wasn’t prepared to do himself. And, lest we forget, Christ was that innocent man who was condemned to death and executed. Yes, he submitted himself to that ordeal and assented to his Father’s providential purpose in the matter. But that doesn’t mean he regarded his execution as just or right in itself, from a purely human perspective. Quite the opposite: it was the perfect expression and symbol of the injustice and sinfulness of mankind. And the crucifixion reveals the true meaning of execution: that it’s the deliberate destruction of the image of God incarnate in a human being.

But if the death of Christ is the archetype for all executions, could we not argue that capital punishment fulfils a redemptive, restorative purpose? Christ was crucified alongside two actual criminals – though thieves, not child or ‘cop’ murderers – one of whom expressed remorse for what he’d done and was told by Christ that he would enter paradise that very evening. Is not the prospect of being executed precisely what hardened criminals need to concentrate their minds on their misdeeds and to come to repentance: to offer their death, Christ-like, as an atonement for their sins and ours, and a plea for divine mercy?

Well, I do actually believe in restorative justice. Punishment for crime should be used not just to satisfy society’s need to avenge wrongdoing and protect itself from wrongdoers, but as a means to bring home to offenders the harsh reality of the suffering they’ve inflicted on their victims: to lead them to repentance and atonement, and to eventually encourage reconciliation and forgiveness between the perpetrator and the victim. But few of those advocating capital punishment today view it in that redemptive light: they want to restore it, but not because of any restorative purpose it may fulfil. It matters little to them whether the executed man is like the thief who comes to repentance or the thief crucified to the left of the dying Christ, who expressed no such remorse, and merely voiced anger about why Christ did not save himself and them. It does not matter to today’s supporters of capital punishment whether the condemned person goes to their death expressing genuine repentance and hope in divine mercy, or cursing God and society in a state of non-reconciliation: they should both die, and we should not concern ourselves with what happens to the condemned persons’ souls ‘beyond’ death, if there is such a thing.

This only goes to show how godless and mean-spirited we have become as a society; and those arguing in favour of capital punishment generally neither do so nor can do so out of Christian conviction.

In fact, there was a third man who was spared as a result of Christ’s crucifixion: Barrabas – an actual brigand and murderer – whom the baying masses had the chance to send to his death instead of Jesus. But under the instigation of their leaders, the people insisted on Christ’s execution, meaning that Barrabas was freed. This also expressed God’s providential purpose: Barrabas was in effect shown mercy by God, indirectly through the workings of imperfect human justice. Barrabas was given the opportunity and the time to come to repentance and reform his ways. We should do no different: lock murderers up, yes, to protect society and penalise wrongdoing; but use the punishment of imprisonment, and make that punishment as severe as necessary, to bring offenders back to their senses and repent of their sins.

Well, I can’t see our present-day penal system adopting such a Christian approach to punishment in the too-near future, either. But I’d still rather we showed mercy to murderers by sparing them the execution they meted out to their victims, whether they deserve that mercy or not – because God forgives the virtuous and evil man alike, and we should do no other. Fortunately, enough people seem to agree with me that, as I write, a petition to retain the ban on capital punishment is outpolling Guido Fawkes’ petition to restore it by over 80%.

Mercifully, perhaps, we are not as off our heads as a society as those who’d have murderers’ heads off.

5 May 2011

The mountain above or the town below: the choice for England

Not wanting to come across as too Martin Luther King, I did have a peculiar dream this morning. I dreamt that I was taking on the challenge of climbing a remote mountain in somewhere like Iceland. This involved jumping off a cliff into an icy fjord, swimming across it (braving the fish, which, I was told, liked to take a bite out of swimmers), and then climbing up the wooded slopes of the mountain on the other side, inhabited by wild animals such as wolves and wild boar that I might need to defend myself against. However, as I had started to climb the steep forest path, I turned to my right to look down at the view and found to my astonishment that there was a town immediately below. Indeed, one fork in the path before me led straight into a rather attractive road in the town, which was clearly a historic city somewhat like Oxford (or Reykjavik, to continue with the Iceland theme). A more modern, red-bricked building on the left-hand side of the road reminded me of a civic building such as a court house, university library or even a prison.

Coming at the start of the day when the first UK-wide referendum I’ve been eligible to vote in is taking place, this dream seemed rather allegorical to me. In brief, it seemed to pose the question: do I continue to take the potentially hard, isolated (‘Iceland’ = ‘isolation’) and dangerous road of no compromise with the British political system, and continue to climb my own particular mountain in the hope that I will eventually reach the sunlit uplands where the vision of a new English nation will become visible to all, rather like the figure of Christ in Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ transfiguring England’s green mountains and pleasant pastures with the radiance of his divine countenance? Or do I take the route of society and the polis (the city state): one of civilised debate and compromise between the red brick to the left and the blue sea I expected to see to my right? Participating in the referendum seems just like this choice: accept what the polity and what society is offering; choose between the rock of AV or the hard place of FPTP; and walk down the middle of the road of urban conformity. Or was the choice, rather, an impossible one between the ‘rock’ of the lonely path up the mountain to a new England, or the hard place of compromise with Britain?

Both choices are ambiguous: the lonely path is, on the one hand, a warning against vanity, obsession and solipsism, dangers which I personally could all too easily succumb to. But, on the other hand, it is potentially a spiritual path inviting me to rise to the challenge, confront my demons and follow my destiny. Similarly, the urban path could be that of ‘easy street’ and of a cop-out: being prepared to play the political game, and climb not a mountain but the various ladders and greasy poles that society offers to one: career, housing, political and personal advancement. But also, the social route is perhaps one of belonging, contentment, security and sociability: not making oneself out to be different from or better than one’s peers, and being prepared to go along with the consensus and majority view.

What route should I take? I’ve already forcefully advocated non-participation in today’s referendum elsewhere on the grounds that it contemptuously ignores England’s claims to self-determination. I couldn’t now ‘climb down’ and say, well, it’s OK to vote for AV (which I do think is marginally better than FPTP) and play the British game. In reality, though, there is a ‘third way’ and a third option in the referendum that is not the middle-of-the-road compromise that is AV, and enables you to choose England while participating in the British political process. You can do your civic duty and turn up to vote; but simply not vote for either AV or FPTP, and spoil your ballot paper by writing nothing on it or, alternatively, writing your demand for an English parliament or a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The real alternative vote here is not to accept either of the alternatives on offer but to demand a different choice: a choice for England.

In reality, the choice between the mountain above and the town below is not as extreme as my dream depicted it. Every day, we make little choices that determine the course of our lives as individuals and as nations: sometimes leading us along a path of isolation, and sometimes binding us closer to the community of our peers and to the community of nations. Sometimes, it’s better to take the lonely path, and sometimes it’s better to go with the mainstream. Both are alternative options, depending on circumstances, for advancing the cause of English self-determination.

In any case, which is a more isolated view, and which is the more commonly held perception, today? The number of non-voters – including those who spoil their ballots – could well exceed that of either the Yes or No sides in the referendum. In which case, England will have spoken by its unwillingness to choose between two means to disenfranchise her. Sometimes the lonely path is the road well trodden.

31 October 2009

EU conspiracy update: Blair out; Plan B (Miliband) kicks in

Further to my previous post on this topic, it would appear from reports emerging out of this week’s EU summit that Peter, Gordon and Tony’s little plan to shoe Tony into the EU top job has been scuppered. Too bad for the Eurosceptic cause in the UK!

So ‘Plan B’ has kicked in: to get David Miliband – the present UK Foreign Secretary – into the post of EU Foreign Secretary High Representative. Apparently, he’s the ‘favourite’ for the job: meaning the most likely to be cherry-picked by the EU elite, not actually the candidate favoured by any electorate. I must admit I didn’t see that one coming up on the blind side; but it’s an obvious stitch-up. I can’t believe Miliband’s undeclared ‘candidacy’ did not emerge as a result of squalid trade-offs at the summit: ‘OK, so we can’t have Tony; but at least give us David (Miliband): he’ll support Britain’s entry into the Euro, and he’ll also help to sell the Lisbon deal to the British people, and we can hopefully get away without any sort of referendum’.

This is perfect for Mandy, too: get a potential rival for the soon to be vacant position as Labour Party leader / PM out of the way (assuming Brown steps down on the grounds of ‘illness’ before the election, and they find a way to enable Mandelson to be elected as an MP and then as Labour leader) while placing a grateful yes man in one of the top EU-State ministerial jobs who’ll be happy to execute Mandelson’s plan to lead Britain into the Euro and help set up a new G3 or G4 of the leading global economies – the US, China, the Eurozone and possibly Japan. At the same time, Miliband can indeed be sold to the British public (or the gullible members of it), perhaps more effectively than could Tony Blair, as ‘our man in Brussels’: batting for the British national interest in a post-Lisbon world in which the EU-State increasingly comes to take the place of former ‘nation states’ (as Britain is sometimes referred to) at the international top table, and in which real power no longer resides in the discredited Mother of Parliaments.

The Mother of all conspiracy theories, indeed. Watch this space!

5 October 2009

The mother of all conspiracy theories: Blair for president, Mandelson for PM and Britain for the Euro

If you’re one for conspiracy theories, here’s one to keep you awake at night.

It’s already practically certain that Tony Blair will be appointed as the EU’s first president as soon as all 27 EU states have ratified the Lisbon Treaty. After the ‘yes’ vote in the got-it-wrong-do-it-again Irish referendum on Friday, only the Czech Republic and Poland have yet to sign above the dotted line, and this is expected to happen before the British general election, scheduled for May or June 2010. President Sarkozy of France is reported to have given his blessing for Blair to be shoe-horned into the post; and Angela Merkel is thought to be resigned to the idea.

Thinking about why Sarkosy would endorse Tony as president, it occurred to me that the plan might be to replace the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US with a new special relationship between the EU (headed up by the darling of the US political class, Tony Blair) and the US. In other words, Blair would be the ideal candidate to give the new EU job real clout in the international community, positioning the EU to become a global player in its own right.

Then I came across an article in the Mail Online that suggests that President Obama and other world leaders are planning to set up a new club of the world’s leading economies called the G4, comprising the US, Japan, China and the Eurozone countries. This certainly fits in with the idea that other EU countries want the EU itself to be elevated into a major world power in its own right.

The final piece in the jigsaw was suggested to me by a report in the Mirror, which indicated that Jack Straw’s House of Lords-reform bill will indeed remove the existing ban on lords becoming MPs for five years after resigning as lords. It had previously been mooted that this bill would remove the last impediment to Peter Mandelson’s glorious return to the House of Commons, and here was the confirmation.

So here’s the scenario: Mandelson is found a nice safe Labour seat at the general election as the heir apparent to Brown in the likely event that Labour loses. Or else, more sinister still, an incumbent Labour MP for a safe seat falls on his or her sword before the election allowing Mandelson to become an MP and then mount a coup to oust Brown; so we’d have Labour being led into the election by Prime Minister Mandelson. This would coincide with Tony Blair’s elevation to the EU presidency. If, by that time, the plan to form the G4 is on the way to fruition, the Labour Party would have a much stronger argument at the election for saying that Britain needs to remain at the heart of the EU in order to continue to have a powerful voice in the key economic decisions. They’d be able to claim with some credibility that a Mandelson premiership would be best placed to achieve such results given his long friendship with Blair, and his EU contacts and experience as the EU’s Trade Commissioner. They would certainly argue that a Euro-sceptic Tory government intent on renegotiating the terms of the Lisbon Treaty would marginalise Britain still more at the EU and global top tables. Indeed, Mandelson would be able to push for Britain’s entry into the euro, making it part of the Eurozone group of economies represented in the G4. Certainly, if the value of the pound continues to fall, thanks to Gordon Brown’s borrowing on our behalf, and drops below the euro, the economic arguments in favour of Britain joining the euro could become compelling.

And what of Gordon Brown himself? Perhaps he could then become the Eurozone’s special representative in G4 negotiations and day-to-day co-ordination of economic affairs: a reward for having damaged the British economy so much that it had to join the euro.

Even if Mandelson doesn’t succeed in ousting Brown before the election, as leader of the opposition, he could greatly reduce Prime Minister Cameron’s room for manoeuvre in his dealings with the EU, especially with his mate Tony in the hot seat there. And if Brown is given an influential role in the G4 or G20, it could make it very difficult to hold a referendum on Britain’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Apart from anything else, it could be argued that we need big hitters like Blair and Brown batting for Britain at the heart of the EU and the G4 grouping; and if Britain withdrew from Lisbon, or even from the EU, then not only would Blair have to resign as EU president, but Britain would have no influence whatsoever.

But what those idiots don’t realise is that were they to achieve, or even just attempt to achieve, these objectives through such machinations, this would only demonstrate still more the importance of Britain, or at least England, pulling away from the EU, as this is the only way to preserve our sovereignty and freedom from an unaccountable EU and corrupt, power-hungry politicians such as Mandelson, Blair and Sarkozy.

The stakes could not be much higher. What prospect would there be of establishing self-government for England as a distinct nation if Britain itself loses control over the management of its economy and signs away its sovereignty through the Lisbon Treaty / EU Constitution, which contains an in-built mechanism for transferring ever greater powers to the EU Parliament and Council of Ministers?

All the more reason to vote for a party that will give us a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty at the very least, if not EU membership. But are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who, as far as I can tell, still support a referendum on British membership of the EU) going to stand up and be counted?

11 May 2008

The UK After Britain: Who Decides?

All of a sudden, the landscape seems to have shifted. Within the space of a month, two at most maybe, England appears to have come back into fashion. It now seems acceptable, in ‘progressive’ political commentary in the official press and on the blogosphere, to talk about what kind of England ‘we’ wish to create after the demise of the Union. It’s taken the realisation that the Conservatives will probably win outright at the next general election – a conclusion formed by many, including myself, after Labour’s disastrous local-election performance last week – to finally take on board the fact that the days of the Union are numbered and we’ll have to start talking and thinking about a separate England whether we like it or not. Welcome to the fold of sanity, one is tempted to say in greeting of the new converts!

Why is the break up of the Union so likely under Cameron? Well, it would only be hastening the inevitable, in any case. The reason, of course, is that if the Tories do win a comfortable parliamentary majority (albeit on a minority of the popular vote), this will be almost entirely on the basis of votes cast and seats won in England, while they have practically disappeared as an electoral force in Scotland and aren’t doing that much better in Wales. The prospect of living under a hated ‘English’ Conservative UK government, opposed to granting more powers to Holyrood, and perhaps reducing the influence, number and hence relevance of Scottish MPs in the UK parliament while forcing down the public-expenditure budget for Scotland, would almost certainly provide the final push and persuade a majority of the Scottish people to vote for independence – a referendum on which the SNP plans to hold in 2010. And if a referendum at that time were blocked by the other parties at Holyrood, then the next Scottish general election in 2011 would effectively be turned into a referendum in all but name.

In any case, it’s hard to see Scotland surviving in the Union till the end of a Cameron government unless the Tories come to their senses and realise that if they want to preserve any sort of Union, they’ll have to grant equal nation status and representation to each of the nations of the UK under a federal system, including England. As I’ve suggested before, maybe Cameron will do a deal with the SNP to hold a referendum after the 2012 Olympics – giving him two years to concoct a plan to save the Union.

However, rather than trying in vain to save the Union, would it not be far more sensible and show more foresight to start planning now for the future for all the countries of the UK after the end of the Union? The federal option is one such possible future. If, on the other hand, Scotland decides to go it alone, as now appears more likely, what then for England – and for Wales and Northern Ireland? Shouldn’t we start thinking and talking about the future for these countries (and also for Cornwall) – whether we stay together under new constitutional arrangements or whether we, too, go down the road of independence? Such ‘national conversations’ in each of our countries – mirroring the national conversation the SNP government has got going in Scotland – would provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have an input and try to get their voice heard, offering a chance to prevent the process being run by Westminster politicians seeking to preserve their privileges and their power.

The window of opportunity to hold these conversations is the period running up to a Scottish referendum on independence. Indeed, if we do not start working out what sort of future we want as nations after the Union, we could end up having that future dictated to us by the outcome of the Scottish vote. There’s a strong argument for saying that the people of Scotland alone do not have the right, at least morally, to determine the future of a union that involves many more people than just the Scots. (Last week, the Scottish Labour Party may already have conceded the constitutional principle that Holyrood has the ‘sovereign right’ to call such a referendum on its own initiative, as Anthony Barnett observed.) We’ve already seen the destructive effects of letting the Scots and Welsh vote on devolution without giving the people of England a say on whether they wanted the same constitutional arrangements for England; so we should not wander carelessly into a repeat of the same sort of mistake, but this time one with potentially even more drastic consequences.

In a comment on the OurKingdom blog last week, I argued that it would be illogical to extend a referendum on Scotland’s independence to all the citizens of the UK, in that only the Scottish people could be said to have a moral or constitutional right to vote on their nation’s status. The only way to give the other nations a say on the matter of independence at the same time as the Scottish vote would be ask the same question of voters in those countries; i.e. to ask the English whether they want an independent England, and the same for Wales and Northern Ireland (and possibly Cornwall).

In other words, a Scottish referendum on independence is asking voters there to answer essentially two questions rolled into one: 1) do you want the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as presently constituted to come to an end? 2) do you want this end to come in the form of independence for Scotland? If Scottish voters are entitled to determine whether the UK breaks up, then it should be self-evident that people in the other nations of the UK are entitled to the same choice. That’s the first of the two questions. In relation to the second, it’s unworkable and inequitable to ask the Scots if they want independence while asking the rest of the UK if they want something else, such as a federal UK, or a re-design of the devolution settlement creating English and Welsh parliaments, for instance. We should be asked the same question, and be given the same choice, as it relates to each nation in turn. And if the Scots voted for independence, this could simply invalidate referendums in England and Wales asking a different question, as the whole constitutional set up would have be re-evaluated and renegotiated as part of Scotland’s secession.

So if an independence referendum in Scotland now appears inevitable – whether it comes in 2010, 2011, 2012 or whenever – the people should demand equivalent referendums in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (and maybe also Cornwall). It’s not just up to the Scots to strike the final nail into the Union coffin; and if they get the option of voting for independence, so should the other nations of the UK.

And in the meantime – in the two to four years running up to a likely Scottish vote – it’s time for the people of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall to take charge of their future by starting to really reflect and debate what they want that future to be: a federal UK whose constitutional framework and institutional structures could be the same whether Scotland were included or not? Independence for each country? A new state of England and Wales, with devolved parliaments for Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland becoming part of a united Ireland with strong guarantees for the rights of the Protestant community? A separate England with the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles joined together into a new confederation?

It’s time to get those ‘national conversations’ going in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall. The future is ours, and the people – not the politicians – should decide.

Subsequent to this post, I’ve started a new blogsite intended to kick off just such a national conversation for England.

29 January 2008

Gordon Brown and the Appropriation of Britain

There’s never been a Nation of Britain. That this is true is suggested by the very incongruity of the phrase ‘nation of Britain’; whereas ‘nation of England’, ‘nation of Scotland’ etc. come across as no different from, say, ‘nation of France’ or ‘nation of Russia’. That’s why people tend to say ‘British nation’ instead; or, preferably, just ‘Britain’ or ‘the nation’ on their own: avoiding the awkward coupling of ‘nation’ and ‘Britain’.

This is just playing with semantics, though, isn’t it? Well, as they say, yes and no. Is there really a difference between ‘nation of Britain’ and ‘British nation’? Yes, a nation of difference. ‘Nation of Britain’ implies that the nation is Britain: people and state as one – a true nation whose name is Britain. ‘British nation’, on the other hand, implies that the nation belongs to Britain or is an attribute of Britain. It implies a similar sort of relationship as in ‘British state’, ‘British royal family’ or ‘British Empire’: these are things that belong, or belonged, to Britain but are not identified with Britain. We did not, for instance, call our former worldwide dominion the ‘Empire of Britain’, which would have meant that the whole empire had been merged into a greater Great Britain and become indistinguishable from it. On the contrary, the colonies were viewed as British sovereign possessions – the British Empire – not as part of Britain itself.

In the same way, ‘British nation’ (if we can accept the concept at all) implies that the nation belongs to Britain but is not identified with / identical to Britain. The two words ‘Britain’ and ‘nation’ are not co-terminous or interchangeable. What then is the Britain that owns the nation, and what is the nation that it owns? One way of looking at it is that Britain is the state and the nation is the people; in which case, the people are not the possession of the state as such but an attribute of it: that without which the state would not exist as the apparatus for governing the people, and for constituting the people as a nation as a corollary of that process of governance. Yet, at the same time, Britain is a name for the people who, properly speaking, own the state and decide whether they want to consider the state to also be a nation: their nation.

In other words, the British state is responsible for and, at the same time, answerable to the British people; while the British people own the British state and decide whether they want that state to also be their nation: a nation of Britain. So long as Britain is not such a nation-state, then Britain (the people), Britain (the state) and Britain (the nation) are overlapping but not synonymous terms. Once Britain becomes a nation (once the British people decide to make Britain the name not just for their state but their nation), then there is just One Britain: people, state and nation as one.

This is how Gordon Brown [GB] and his fellow Britologists would like things to be. But if they achieved their objective, it would constitute an appropriation of Britain. By this, I mean both a transformation of Britain into a proper nation for the first time ever; and a theft of the Britain that has existed up to now and of the nationhood of the British. GB and his chums at the (English) Justice Ministry are embarked on a process of fundamental constitutional reform that is intended to result in things like a British written constitution, a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, and a formal Statement of British Values. What documents such as these would do, if they were endorsed in a referendum, would be to radically alter the relationship between the British people, nation and state. They would in effect form a covenant of equal significance to something like the Magna Carta: a set of formal, legal documents that define the people and the state as a single united entity, or nation – the state as the people, as its appointed representative acting in its name, with the head of the government (if not the actual head of state, in the British context) being effectively the personification of the people.

People and state as one in a new nation of Britain. It’s a republic, in its principles if not in name. That is, the state is the people; it’s a res publica: a thing of the people. Whether or not it’s part of GB’s plans to establish an actual Republic of Britain is one of the great unspokens of this whole affair. What is for sure is that his constitution for a new nation of Britain lays down all the foundations for a situation where the abolition of the monarchy becomes eminently thinkable because the proposed constitution changes the whole basis of rule in ‘this country’. It would be a fundamental departure from the current establishment, in which the executive and parliament act in the name of the Sovereign, and have inherited the prerogatives of the Sovereign, albeit that they act on the basis of popular mandate, in theory, as determined through democratic elections. The state therefore rules over the people in the place of the monarch; while the people own the state to the extent that they determine which party or parties should exercise the levers of power and, ultimately, they are free to reject and change the state as currently constituted. Under the proposed new constitutional set up, the state no longer belongs to the people as something separate from it but is the people: the people and state are one; sovereignty of the people. And the executive and parliament no longer act in the name of the Sovereign – supposing there still is one – but, supposedly, in the name and place of the people.

There are of course many people in Britain who support such essentially republican principles and regard them as a prerequisite for full democracy. But what I’m saying is that this is not Britain: not Britain as we have known it, that is, which has been a constitutional monarchy since its foundation as the Kingdom of Great Britain through the Union of England and Scotland in 1707. It’s an appropriation of that Britain: Britain becomes a proper, true nation for the first time; people and state as one. But it’s also a theft of that Britain: GB and his government stealthily removing from us a Britain that we own (our Britain, our state, our constitutional monarchy, our royal family, our Kingdom) and replacing it with a Britain that we ourselves are; with which we are identified. The New Britain (New Labour, New Britain) that could ensue from a constitutional settlement might retain a monarch as an empty figurehead, giving people the misleading impression that nothing fundamentally had changed. But there would in reality no longer be any effectual place for the monarch within the constitution. And so a monarchy that currently stands as a guarantee of our freedoms and of the separation of people, nation and state would be no more.

And, as was remarked above, this would be a theft not just of our Britain and of our monarchy but also of our nationhood. Along with the separation of people and state, there has existed a separation of state and nation: the state has been Britain (which up to now has technically been shorthand for ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland’, or the UK), while the nations with which the people have identified have been England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland. In reality, however, this identification has never been simple and straightforward. There has always been a blurring of the boundaries between nation and state, and the English in particular have traditionally seen England and Britain as interchangeable: Britain as the proxy-English state (an extension of English dominion and nationhood to the whole of the British Isles) and as another word for the nation of England.

So British people have always had dual nationality or more, if they are of mixed British parentage (English-British, Scottish-British, etc.). The extent to which they considered one of the polarities to be their more fundamental identity has been variable, and the boundaries between the two have been blurred. In the post-devolution, European-federalisation and globalised Britain of today, there has been a well documented shift towards British people identifying with one or more of England, Scotland, Wales or (Northern) Ireland as their national identity, while they see Britain increasingly as just the name of a state from which they feel alienated, which they feel has lost touch with the people and is increasingly irrelevant and powerless in any case as more and more powers are transferred to the EU, and as Britain’s fortunes depend on global economic and political trends.

GB has set out to oppose not just the break up of the state of Britain into its constituent nations but the disintegration of the British national identity as such. The constitutional establishment of a nation of Britain would be an amazing coup (in the sense of tour de force but suggesting also political force majeure) creating, for the first time, an official, unified British national identity. The British people (meaning the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people living in the British Isles) would be formally identified with, appropriated to, the nation of Britain: One Britain – people, nation and state. It would all be official and legal, spelled out in a British Constitution; with a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities pertaining to the mutual, interdependent polarities of the people and state – nation – of Britain; and a Statement of British Values that would serve as the basis for a sort of Rite of Britishness.

You can see it now: British people (the people of the four nations living in Britain), once they’ve supposedly endorsed these measures in a referendum, being obliged to sign up to the Statement of British Values as being the code that constitutes their new civic national identity as Britons; or else, they’re free to leave the country. Think that’s fanciful? Just listen to the words of Michael Wills, the ‘Constitutional Renewal Minister’, in the Putney Debate on British values organised by the BBC Radio Four World Tonight programme last Friday: “if you don’t like it, you can leave. There’s nothing stopping you leaving . . . . You choose to stay here. You choose to be British”. Choose to be British, to accept the Statement of British Values and a new British constitutional settlement, or else ‘choose’ to live elsewhere.

And the rest: new national holidays and civic rites to celebrate our shared Britishness (see the new IPPR report The Power of Belonging: Identity, Citizenship and Social Cohesion), including secular rituals taking on the character of traditional religious rites of passage, in which the state is intimately associated with the most sacred acts and duties of individuals (marriage, raising children, etc.). And those same children no doubt lining up in class to proclaim an oath of allegiance to the flag (the Union Flag, of course) before and after school, to make sure they’re fully indoctrinated into their new civic Britishness and forget that there ever was an England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

But hang on, GB’s plan isn’t to undo the devolution settlement, and to abolish the separate ‘national’ parliaments and systems of governance for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s only the nation of England and the English national identity that GB is planning to fully erase from the constitution and the statute books. Replace a constitutional monarchy in which it is the historic King or Queen of England who is the head of state and the head of the Church of England with a British constitution with no real role for the English monarch, and no established religion or even faith (multi-culturalism, don’t you know), and then you really have appropriated the nation to Britain – and away from the English. The British nation then ceases to be what it has effectively always been: the English nation, the English realm, the possession of the English in the person of their Sovereign. For Britain to become the One Nation of Britain, it must cease to be the English-British nation. Indeed, England itself must cease to be but must, like the ‘rest’ of Britain, be appropriated to, and identified with, Britain. No English nation owning Britain; but England merged with, and absorbed into, a nation of Britain once and for good.

It’s this idea of a proper nation of Britain into which England has disappeared that makes sense of GB’s stated conception of Britain: “where Britain becomes as it should be – a Britain of nations and regions where there are many and not just one centre of initiative and energy for our country”. The way in which the separate devolved administrations and identities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be accommodated within an overarching integral nation-state and national identity of Britain is through this combined appropriation of England to Britain (the abolition of England), and subsequent establishment of devolved government for those ‘regions’ of Britain that do not yet have it (i.e. England). So it’s not the regionalisation of England alone that abolishes England. The creation of regional ‘English’ administrations is part and parcel of the establishment of a new nation of Britain that requires England to no longer exist as a nation in order to become a nation itself, rather than what it currently is: the possession of the people of Britain, and primarily the English.

First you abolish England in a new British constitutional settlement; then you consolidate that abolition and wipe out any popular English aspiration for national status and political institutions by imposing regional devolution. This then enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to continue to refer to themselves, informally, as nations; whereas, constitutionally, they are technically just British regions, like those of the territory previously known as England. But if England were to continue to exist as a nation, with its own parliament and government, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have to be formally recognised as nations, too: with an equivalent constitutional status to the English nation.

So the idea seems to be: if England isn’t the dominant nation within the Union as now, then the other nations won’t feel the need to break away from the Union, eventually seeking full independence. Better still, if what you want is a united nation of Britain, what you have to do is find a way to abolish England altogether; so that all you have is equal regions. The ‘English’ regions won’t want to call themselves separate nations, as they aren’t; the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish can call themselves nations if they want, but they’ll be happy to be part of the unified nation of Britain because there will no longer be a big English nation to dominate them but just British regions of similar size and power to their own.

So GB’s new constitutional settlement is part of a plan to appropriate the English nation to Britain, and create a new nation of Britain and integral national-British identity. No more England.

But there are two major obstacles that could yet thwart these ambitions. First, the government has committed itself to seeking approval for any new constitutional arrangements in a referendum. How solid is such a commitment, though? After all, the Labour Party did promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution and has now reneged on that pledge on the false claim that the revised European Reform Treaty is not the same thing (something that even the architect of the original constitution, Giscard d’Estaing refutes, having said that the two things are substantially identical). So the government could find a way to wriggle out of holding a / several referendum(s) on its new constitutional measures.

Assuming they don’t avoid a referendum, however, there is one important way in which they could totally rig the vote: as the referendum would be about establishing a British constitution, then it would have to be up to the whole of the British nation to decide whether they wanted it or not. But the ‘British nation’ as the ‘nation of Britain’ would only be constituted as such after such a constitution came into effect. It would be up to the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have the say about whether they wanted to become citizens of a new nation in which only Britain and Britishness had any official status as the national identity and state. It’s up to the English people to decide whether they want England to be abolished by a definitive merger into Britain. But the will of the English people could well be overridden by the collective decision of all the people living in Britain, which could include millions of recent migrants who have been encouraged by the government and media to identify as British rather than English, even if they live in England. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for the government even now to refuse to acknowledge England as a nation and the English as a people: not referring to policies, laws and government departments that relate to England only as being English; but pretending that they are UK-wide or British – which, of course, they will be once England is finally abolished. So if England doesn’t exist, even now, the government could deny the validity of separate scrutiny of the will of the English people concerning a new constitution. British vote on a British constitution, and as it’s the government’s position that the nation of England doesn’t formally exist (and post-constitution, definitively won’t exist), the idea of asking the nation of England whether it wishes to cease to exist is a non-sequitur.

The other way in which GB’s ambitions could be thwarted is if the new constitution is rejected by the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This seems in some ways to be the most likely route to seeing off the spectre of a nation of Britain. This is because the Scots, in a clear majority, now see themselves as Scottish in the first instance, not British. It’s hard to imagine that, having obtained a measure of national self-rule and pride, the Scots would also vote themselves out of existence as an official nation. Unless GB is hoping he can play on the desire of some Scots to finally defeat the auld Enemy by voting it out of existence and breaking it up into units as small and dependent on the British state as itself; while playing on Scottish patriotism by maintaining devolved government as part of the new mix and allowing the Scots to still call themselves a nation, even if they technically wouldn’t be under Brown’s new unitary nation of Britain.

So GB’s solution to the threats posed to the Union by the asymmetrical devolution settlement he helped to bring in is not to maintain the status quo but radically change the Union itself. He wants to make it what it’s never been but what he thinks it should be: a nation of Britain – underpinned by a British constitution, Bill of Rights and Statement of British Values – in which what we now know as the nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cease to have any formal constitutional status as nations. England ceases to exist altogether and is broken up into devolved regions of comparable size to Scotland and Wales. As the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – unlike those of the territory formerly known as England – cover the regions that have traditionally been known as nations, they can continue informally to consider themselves as such. But technically, there’d be a new unitary nation of Britain. This would no longer be the property of a people separate from it, to be ruled over by a state also not identified with the nation(s) and people of Britain. Now, people, nation and state will be one and will form one Britain: a secular European republic in fact if not in name.

Perhaps then we’ll finally be able to drop the ridiculously long name of our country: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Let’s just call it the Kingdom of Britain; better still, the Republic of Britain. Either way, it won’t be Britain as we’ve known it. And it certainly won’t be England.

13 November 2007

Brown’s Red Lines: An Alternative Take

Further to my previous post, Between E and U: Brown’s Red Lines and the Break Up of the UK, it occurred to me that I missed what now seems to be an obvious point about GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] so-called red lines: the areas of government where GB claims Britain has secured guarantees enabling it to get out of transferring sovereignty to the EU under the EU Reform Treaty.

Let’s recap what those red lines relate to: the justice system; foreign affairs; tax and social security (including all work, pensions and benefits matters); and the fundamental human rights framework of the state. In the earlier post, I argued that these guarantees were primarily intended to appease the English electorate, more Euro-sceptic than their Scottish and Welsh counterparts. A more straightforward interpretation would be that these areas represent virtually the entirety of the policy and legislative responsibilities that have remained the preserve of the UK government after the transfer of powers in so many other vital domestic matters to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In other words, if substantial powers in these domains were transferred to the EU, there would be virtually nothing left of the UK government: the only real powers would be those of the devolved administrations and those of the UK government relating to the corresponding policy areas in England. Hence, any remaining rationale for a UK-wide government implementing policies and laws relating to England only but pretending that these still relate to Britain as a whole would be completely discredited: as there was very little UK-wide governance for the parliament and executive to attend to, they would effectively be dealing almost exclusively with England-only matters. It would then be only a matter of time before the need for the anomaly to be corrected became so pressing that an English parliament could be established.

What a strange state of affairs this is then: the UK state relying for its preservation in its current form on a European constitution from which the UK has derogated in its most fundamental areas! There should be no doubt now that the Reform Treaty is the European Constitution in all but name: last Saturday, Giscard d’Estaing, the author of the original Constitution, himself said on BBC Radio Four that the Treaty was substantially the same as the Constitution – he should know. Another way of expressing the irony of all this is to say that the red lines that are supposed to be guaranteeing UK independence from the EU are in fact making the very survival of the UK as we know it dependent on the EU; the UK constitution is shored up by the European Constitution.

Does this mean that supporters of English devolution or independence should back the EU Reform Treaty on the basis that, over time, GB’s red lines will be subverted and there will be less and less actual real UK government, enabling the emergence of an English parliament in the manner described above? Doubtless, there will be some English nationalists that would support such a strategy; but it’s a risky one: if real sovereignty were transferred from the UK to the EU, would the people of England then be allowed to decide for themselves whether they wanted an English government or not? Perhaps, on the contrary, the nightmare scenario of a break up of England into a number of ‘EU regions’ of comparable size to Scotland would then occur, and England as such would be no more.

As I stated before, England has the right to decide how deeply involved or not it wishes to become in the Euro-integrationist project; and, eventually, to decide whether it wishes to be an independent nation: independent of the UK and of the EU. The EU Reform Treaty / Constitution, which risks being ratified without the agreement of the people of England and, indeed, of the UK electorate as a whole, risks foreclosing such an option. We could then be left with a UK government that is increasingly toothless within Europe but which still pretends to have legitimacy as a British government, even though its real powers are limited to England. For this reason, the Reform Treaty should be opposed.

26 October 2007

Between E & U: Brown’s Red Lines And the Break Up of the UK

The trouble with the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union (EU) is that it wants the EU to be like the UK; whereas the EU sees itself as more like a European version of, or counterpart to, the USA. If the EU were like the UK, it would see itself as a sort of commonwealth (indeed, Common Market) of separate nations agreeing to abide by common rules and loose conventions designed to promote the fair conduct of international trade, economic development and cultural understanding.

But the EU isn’t like that. The EU sees itself as the expression and as yet only partial realisation of a will to forge a united Europe: one that definitively overcomes all the divisions and conflicts that have pitted European nations against each other throughout the millennia. The ultimate manifestation of this victory over divisions between nations will be when all fundamental legal and political differences between the nations of Europe are abolished, and they freely unite – ‘pool their sovereignty’ – within a new supra-national European sovereign body or state with its own parliament, legislature, judiciary, monetary system, social policies, bill of rights and . . . constitution – among other things.

Many people in EU member states share this vision in its broad outlines without always realising the extent to which its logical outworking will be a complete political union, most likely in the form of a federal state. I say this based on the fact that several countries voted in favour of the EU constitution, either in uncontroversial parliamentary votes or in referenda – when we were still allowed to call it a constitution, that is. It should be borne in mind that many European countries were part of, or made up of, European empires, or confederations of nations or regional principalities, until a relatively recent period in their history: until the First World War in many instances. This applies both to many smaller states, such as Ireland or the Central European nations that were part of the Habsburg Empire, and larger ones such as Germany and Italy: made up of a large number of distinct principalities until as late as the second half of the 19th century. For these countries, then, the idea of a Federal Europe not only does not seem a disturbing prospect, but probably seems like the most rational, inevitable and comfortable arrangement to govern the relations between European states that, in the absence of such a Union, have too often pursued their rivalry with each other through military means.

By contrast, the nations that rejected the EU constitution in referenda – France and the Netherlands – are countries with a long tradition of unified, centralised states that were also at the heart of global empires, again until recent times. The UK, which would certainly have rejected the constitution (and almost certainly would reject the present Reform Treaty), is another case in point. Perhaps the French and Dutch people rejected the constitution ultimately because they felt it was moving too far in the direction of creating a European federal state that would do away with their cherished independence and national political institutions.

In the UK, we like to think that things like the abolition of trade barriers; the free movement of goods, services and people between nations; and the harmonisation of regulations, social policy and environmental action that the EU has brought are the real benefits of EU membership: that they’re what the EU is for. But in reality, these things flow from the core project behind the EU, rather than being the things that in themselves define what the EU is and should remain; and they are but stepping stones towards the complete realisation of that project. In other words, as the real goal is the political and legal unification of Europe, then the abolition of trade barriers, geopolitical borders and differential treatment of (discrimination towards) citizens of other member states compared with one’s own nationals can all be seen as integral, necessary characteristics that a supra-national Euro-state would have to have. It’s because the aim is to bring about the unification of European nations in a super-state like this that these things have been introduced, and not simply because the goal is to create a . . . Common Market for the promotion of trade and economic growth on fair competitive terms.

This core EU project is advanced by gradually extending the areas in which national sovereignty is ‘pooled’ at a European level, i.e. that sovereignty is effectively transferred to EU institutions. The current Reform Treaty is a big step in that direction. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a constitution or not. This is not only because it has substantially the same effect as the ‘abandoned’ constitution, but because it is working towards the same end: the establishment of united and effectual EU-wide governmental institutions and processes.

The very nature and scope of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] much-vaunted red lines, which he brings forward as proof that the UK is not entering into a constitutional arrangement (viz a Federal Europe), ironically demonstrate the extent to which the Treaty does represent a radical move in the direction of a European state. What are the areas of UK ‘competence’ these red lines are supposed to preserve from the Euro take-over? No less than: the justice system; foreign affairs; fiscal autonomy and social security (social policy, and employment and labour affairs); and the fundamental human rights framework of the state. These represent basically the three core pillars of the executive (the Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury) plus the judiciary. And the Treaty is also creating the EU as a distinct legal entity (‘state’ to you and me) at the same time as instituting a European President and a de facto Foreign Minister, albeit that the powers of those two individuals and their office will be limited, at least initially. Brown’s red lines may well signal that we are not entering into this constitution-in-all-but name; but all our fellow EU members are, and how long will be really be able or allowed to hold out and resist not only these moves but subsequent additional initiatives working towards ever closer integration?

But there’s another purpose – closer to home – that the red lines are serving. They are a means by which GB is attempting to strike a compromise between two contradictory pulls – integrationist and separatist – that threaten to pull that other Union, the UK, apart. As I explored in my previous post on this subject, the integrationist cause would be likely to command a majority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while the separatist cause would almost certainly be backed by a majority of the English electorate. By attempting to avoid a referendum on the Treaty, GB aims to fend off a vote that might reveal and open up still further a profound schism between England and the rest of the UK, with very different cultures, political philosophies and opinions about the direction in which ‘the country’ (i.e. the different countries of the UK) should be heading. GB hopes that the red lines will constitute [sorry, used the C word there!] a sufficient balance between the UK continuing to participate in the ongoing process of euro-integration and England retaining control over its own governance, which is essentially what is meant by the red lines: the UK, in political terms, being primarily a synonym for England in this post-devolution era.

But England deserves better. England has the need and right to make its own decisions about the extent to which it wishes to participate in the Euro-project. In essence, if the UK parliament decides to ratify the Treaty, this may well come down to the votes of Scottish and Welsh MPs swinging the decision in favour of the integrationists. But the will of the English people, which is so distorted by the composition of the UK parliament, will not have been sounded out. And this can only contribute to further bitterness towards the UK establishment and the EU, and further demands for independence.

All of which gets in the way of what could and should be a serious process of reflection for England about what its international future should be now that Imperial Britain is no more, and Scotland and Wales are increasingly following Ireland in breaking away from the Union (UK) and moving towards the Union (EU). What kind of role in Europe and the world can and should a separate England pursue? Do we have to go along with what I’ve described as an inexorable progression towards a Federal Europe? Is the English idea of a free-market Europe of distinct but closely interconnected nations (somewhat like the ideal of what the UK has been and could be again) now just a pipe dream?

We had a referendum 34 years ago on that particular vision of Europe, known then as the Common Market; and we endorsed it. But we’ve never had the chance of a free, properly democratic, representative vote on what the EU has become (because it was already pre-programmed to follow this course): a proto-Federal Republic of Europe. That’s the kind of referendum we should have; but failing that, let’s at least have a referendum on the Reform Treaty. And please let the will of the English people, as distinct from that of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, be allowed to be heard and taken into consideration.

But between E (England) and U (a United Europe), how long will that other U (the UK) be able to hold together? Brown’s red lines may prove to be a thin Euro-blue line that breaks up the UK.

18 October 2007

Who doesn’t want a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty, and why?

OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.

If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.

So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:

  1. He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
  2. It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.

On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.

3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.

4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.

So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.

This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:

  1. They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.

  2. This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.

In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.

In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.

So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.

Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:

“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .

“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:

‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.

Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.

And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:

“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .

“Plaid Cymru will:

  • Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
  • Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
  • Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
  • Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.

No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!

What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.

We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.

Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.

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