When is a referendum wrong?
It seems strangely counter-intuitive that a party of democracy, as Labour claims to be, was against letting the people decide whether Scotland stayed in the UK, and whether the UK stays in Europe. And stranger still that a party of self-determination, as the SNP claims to be, stated that “we will oppose a referendum on the EU” (SNP General election manifesto), something Ivan McKee echoed here on Bella a few days ago.
But the positioning of both parties makes more sense in light of the fact that it’s less who wins the debate, than what debate we’re having, that determines our world.
If we are debating Scottish independence then it is acknowledged as a real option: an option with political will that can at any point be realised. Ridicule is no longer a viable option.
But if we are debating EU membership, then is this a question of self-determination in a different guise, or is it something else that is really being debated?
Much of the reason why the English press is knee-jerk against the EU is because being anti-EU is proxy for being anti ‘foreigners’, while the real debate stays below the surface, below the line. For the same reason many in Scotland are automatically pro-EU as a way of asserting a nationalism that is internationalist rather than xenophobic, one that seeks to build solidarity not racism.
And then there’s an issue of tactics:
The Tories used the radical nature of the Scottish independence movement to help them win an election in England. They threatened “You might get a real Labour party this time if you vote Labour and the SNP do as well as predicted”. What was a promise by the SNP to voters in Scotland became a threat used by the Tories against voters in England. But it was a threat that only worked because Labour had already failed to even enter the debate, and so the Tories could frighten those already battered by the austerity lie.
The austerity lie being:
(1) That we have to cut our way out of recession (with the rich getting the best cuts, viz RBS, as wealth is transferred from the rest of us upwards) rather than spend our way out of recession by investing in improving our social and economic infrastructure; &
(2) Labour didn’t even enter the election debate, because they had accepted that public spending had been responsible for the financial crash, rather than the greed of the financial elite and the relaxing of the rules on them by the Tories and New Labour.
But lying has consequences, as we’ve seen with the Vow.
The Vow was an extraordinary – and temporarily successful – attempt to utterly rewrite history in a matter of days. Having insisted on a simple independence or status quo, Yes or No, referendum, and having spent months criticising the Scottish Government’s White Paper for not being detailed enough, suddenly – as it dawned on them they were about to lose the referendum – the Vow appeared with its utter lack of detail and its last-minute claim that this was not about independence versus the status quo, but about independence versus even faster change. It may have won the vote but it simple delayed something it helped make inevitable. Its claim meaning that suddenly both Yes and No votes were supposedly votes for radical change; a change only one side is capable of even beginning to deliver on.
In terms of tactics, many who want Scottish independence hope that, since Scotland is pro-European, we will vote to stay in the EU, and since England is being persuaded to leave, it may do so. If this happens, so the thinking goes, it will trigger a second referendum and all the scare stories will turn against the UK (businesses leaving to stay in Europe, and where better to leave to than Scotland, etc.) and Scotland’s independence will be almost assured.
As a tactic that may seem to make sense, but as a strategy it may miss the point.
This is because if the debate over the EU was explicitly a debate over our internationalism, over our attitude to ‘foreigners’, then arguing “for Europe” would make sense. But, in terms of is practical consequences in the world, this is a debate over EU membership, and in that debate we may need to think really carefully about what side we take, and about how we can reshape the debate so that it is between two reasonable options, rather than – as Cameron aims to make it – between two appalling ones.
Cameron plans to negotiate away yet more social and environmental safeguards and human rights, and then get us to vote between options:
(A) Yes, stay in the EU under even more corporate control and with less democracy, or
(B) No, leave the EU so that we can have more corporate control, with less democracy.
As Seumas Milne points out in a superb article in the Guardian today ‘The case for radical change in Europe can’t be left to the nationalist right’.
Seamus Milne writes about a Europe:
“where privatisation, deregulation and lack of democratic accountability have been built into successive treaties. That’s epitomised by the secret EU-US negotiations over the TTIP trade deal – a debate in the European parliament had to be called off on Wednesday because of the scale of opposition – which would enforce “liberalisation” through corporate arbitration tribunals.
“It’s a long way from the days of former commission president Jacques Delors, when the European Union was sold to a British labour movement, punch drunk from Margaret Thatcher’s onslaught, as a “social Europe” that would deliver social and employment rights to sweeten the pill of the corporate-controlled single market.
Even some of the modest protections that were eventually delivered (the most dramatic was the guarantee of four weeks’ holiday) have since been watered down by the “free market” judgments of the European court of justice. But the corporate juggernaut has thundered on, driving the Brussels agenda”.
Seumas Milne goes on to point out that:
“the signs are that Germany and the troika are prepared to face the Greeks down. Despite overwhelming evidence that crippling austerity has led to a mushrooming of debt that can never be repaid, the EU elite will not even hear of a realistic write-off . . . What’s become clear in recent weeks is that the masters of the eurozone are not even prepared to provide Tsipras with a figleaf. From the Brussels perspective, Greece must cave and be seen to cave. Otherwise, other eurozone states that have suffered the troika treatment will get ideas. Even if the day of reckoning is postponed, Syriza must be seen to fail if the rise of other anti-austerity parties such as Spain’s Podemos is to be halted.”
So, should we be taking sides in a debate decided on by Cameron and co? ‘Yes’ and they win, ‘No’ and we lose?
Seumas Milne refers to the fact that yesterday the key European parliamentary vote on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was postponed until July. This was due to the groundswell of popular concern across Europe. Although this gives us only a few weeks more to pressurise our politicians to act to try and stop TTIP’s investor state dispute mechanism (ISDS) that would allow businesses to take court action against states with regard to legislation they say threatens current or future profits, it also points to the fact that there is a very different debate raging across Europe and across the world.
This is not a debate where the choice is between xenophobic and transatlantic brands of neoliberalism but between the inhumanity of neoliberalism and care for each other.
As Kathleen Nutt noted in The National yesterday:
“Campaigners are particularly anxious for the Strasbourg parliamentarians to throw out an aspect of the treaty which would allow large corporations to sue governments when they legislate on domestic issues such as the environment, workers’ rights and food safety laws.”
“The investor state dispute mechanism (ISDS) would allow businesses to take court action against states with regard to legislation they say threatens current or future profits . . . Law suits against a number of national governments have already taken place in other countries which have been the subject of similar trade agreements. Fracking company Lone Pine launched a $230 million lawsuit against the Canadian Government in 2011 following Quebec’s moratorium on fracking in 2011 because of environmental concerns.”
So should we even enter the debate on staying in or leaving the EU? Does an internationalist push for solidarity between peoples: prioritising people and planet over corporate profit led us to stay in the EU as a way of holding out politicians to account and ensuring they control they corporations, or have they already sold out entirely, and the EU is an arena where, because of its size, the corporations can exercise even more control over us?
Do the same arguments we were making for Scottish independence from a captured Westminster system also apply to independence from a captured EU system?
Cleary the UK is not the British Isles, and the EU is not Europe: Leaving the UK, or leaving the EU, does not mean lessening our solidarity with others and our belonging on this island, or on this ‘continent’.
But do we need to be asking ourselves deeper questions? Do we need to set aside political expediency and take the bigger view: We are pro-Europe, that’s for sure; but is the EU still the best way to care for this Europe of ours or is it doing the opposite of caring? The way the European Parliament votes in July will give us a clear indication of this, and we can write to David Martin and all our MEPs and see if they have the guts to stop TTIP.
The EU referendum may happen on the same day as the 2016 Holyrood Elections. Do we need to take a leaf out of our IndyRef1 book and reshape the debate so that it stops being a false one between two neoliberal options, but becomes a real one asking what kind of Europe do we want to make? Once the debate becomes worth having, then the debate can reshape the word for good whatever the outcome; but it is not worth falling into the trap made for us of debating ourselves into their ideological prison.
This has powerful echoes of IndyRef1 as pointed out by Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Greens, in the Scottish Left Review where she reflects on the way the 2015 Election result was a consequence of the way the Yes movement had changed the nature of the SNP offer:
“We, the radical movement of the independence campaign changed the framework within which the referendum was fought: from discussions of Scotland retaining NATO membership and cutting corporation tax of 2011 and 2012 to a Scotland fighting to save the NHS, introducing free childcare, and creating a new politics and a new Scotland.
“This gave the SNP the platform it needed to do so well. Labour was powerless in the face of such a vision of hope. In many ways, the election proved Ralph – father of Ed – Miliband right when he said that the left could never win through Labour because it has so bought into the Westminster way of doing politics. Ed Miliband became utterly incapable of offering the case for change: neither the economic nor constitutional change we all seek fits in with what Westminster wants. The SNP showed that, because it isn’t tied into the broken beast of Westminster, it could not only make the case for economic and constitutional change in the direction we all wish to see (even if it does not go as far as we might wish) it can do well and win.”
So, whatever the referendum, the question is who is the ‘self’ in ‘self-determination’.
Is it a neoliberal self, striving to bolster its position at others expense, or is it a self that cares?
Perhaps there is a real chance to change the EU debate here in Scotland, if our MEPs act on our concerns, so that we are arguing for a Europe that controls the corporations. Perhaps there is a chance to also push for a Scottish Parliament where the debate is not between tired Unionism and Independence, but is one that assumes and ensures independence is the way forward, by making the debate one between a re-elected SNP Government seeking to honourably change the system from within, and a Green Party in constructive opposition making the case for why we need to radically change the system itself if we are to flourish.
p.s. Seeking new ways to align those changing the system from within (the ‘realists’) and those pushing for radical changes to stop the impoverishment machine (the ‘realists’), is the surest way of ensuring we live in a society where all flourish, and is a huge part of what Bella does and enables. This is your last day to donate and ensure Bella continues to flourish.