Britain’s Elites can no longer control our politics
It is impossible to understate the historic times we are witnessing – a British establishment and political elite no longer in command of politics and affairs of the state in a way they are used to. The Economist this week, well known for its advocacy of economic liberalism and the maintenance of the union of the UK, acknowledged that this vote was ‘not only the most crucial event in this Parliament but the most important in Europe in years’ (February 27th 2016).
What such mainstream accounts don’t say is that the nature of the UK, its component parts, how it does politics, and limited, truncated form of democracy, is being radically altered, and will be further changed by the Euro vote, in ways far reaching and in many respects unintended. Below are an exploration of some of the many ways this will happen at a British and Scottish level over the course of the campaign, the possible result and aftermath.
FOUR NATION POLITICS:
1. The end of British politics will be confirmed. The 2015 UK election was the least British on record. The EU referendum will show four very different versions of politics across the four nations of the UK.
2. This will be a very different pattern than 1975 – when England was the most pro-European (68.7% Stay) and Scotland the least (58.4% Stay).
3. Today Scotland will be the most pro-European (62:38 for Stay in YouGov) and England the most Eurosceptic (all three English regions apart from London for Exit on the most recent YouGov poll).
4. Euroscepticism isn’t just an English phenomenon. It isn’t even uniform across England, London being more immune than elsewhere (54:46 for Stay in YouGov), while Wales is also fertile territory for the Eurosceptics (55:45 for Leave on an earlier YouGov poll).
THE POLITICS OF LEAVING:
5. If the UK votes to leave, don’t rule out the prospect of a second referendum. This has been raised several times by Boris Johnson; and Cameron, aided by the French and Belgians, has stressed that is ‘the final word’ to try to diminish such an argument. This shows an element of panic by the Stay In camp which they never displayed until the last week of the indyref. Germane to this, Europe has established a pattern of arranging re-votes when it doesn’t like the result: Denmark and then Ireland twice. It could just happen.
6. If the UK votes to leave this will provide ‘material change’ for a second Scottish indyref. It would encourage a truncated timetable towards a vote – which would necessitate a rapid need to rethink the Scottish Government’s 2013 prospectus for independence – none of which is currently ongoing. It wouldn’t be simple and it would be messy, but fundamentally the nature of the union that is the UK and which Scots voted for in 2014 would have been radically altered and undermined.
THE POLITICS OF STAYING:
7. If the UK votes to stay in, it doesn’t necessarily decide once and for all the debate. It is 41 years since the last Euro vote; 18 years between Scottish devo votes; and could be a couple of years between indyrefs. Political change is coming around faster and faster. As in the indyref, the forces of change could win the argument and set the future agenda with a respectable 45%ish vote.
8. If the UK votes to stay the Conservative Party will within a few years in all likelihood become formally a Eurosceptic party pledged either to withdrawal or reducing membership to associate status. This vote doesn’t stop the Tories ‘banging on about Europe’ if the UK votes to stay.
9. A precedent for the Tories is what happened to Labour after the 1975 referendum – which occurred because of party divisions and influence of Labour Eurosceptics. Within five years, Labour was committed to withdrawal from the EU and went into the 1983 election with a manifesto pledge to withdraw without a referendum. Only electoral humiliation that year brought Labour back to Euro sanity. Potentially the Euro fringes await the Tories.
10. While Scotland could be dragged out of the EU by English votes – the opposite nationally is just possible. England could be kept in by a Scottish over-ride. It is much less likely as Scotland is a nation of five million in a union of 64 million, but a 58% Scotland stay vote could overturn an English narrow vote for exit.
UKIP AND SNP:
11. UKIP could be beneficiaries from the referendum, irrespective of the result. They are going to have four months publicly discussing their favourite subject, lots of press attention, and occasionally being taken seriously. There is the prospect of UKIP having a mini-SNP indyref effect, and they could poll respectably in the forthcoming Welsh elections, and even have a chance for representation in the Scottish Parliament, based on the high profile of the next four months.
12. Lazy comparisons between UKIP and the SNP will be shown as such. The differences between the two will be on full display in the referendum. For all the shortcomings in the SNP’s independence offer, the party conducted its campaign in an impressive and professional manner, with a focused, disciplined campaign which drew widespread plaudits. The referendum is the moment that UKIP have prayed for, and yet there is the likelihood that the Leave campaign will not be defined by the above characteristics. The SNP is a party of government and aspires to be one of statehood; UKIP is a party of protest.
13. Boris Johnson will have his public profile raised even more by the campaign. He will be the leading Tory Eurosceptic figure, and even if the vote is lost, he will have the prospect of being the candidate of this strand of the party in a forthcoming leadership election. Similarly to the SNP, and Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, a honourable defeat in the 45% range, would enhance Johnson. However, an emphatic rebuttal of the Exit case could harm him and his prospects.
THE BIG ISSUES: SOVEREIGNTY, BRITAIN’S PLACE IN THE WORLD AND AFTER EMPIRE
14. The key issues of this campaign will be the economy, immigration and Britain’s influence in the world. A fourth strand will be competing interpretations of sovereignty. The Exiters will emphasise an absolute reading of sovereignty, an all or nothing approach. Cameron has tried to have his cake and eat it, citing ‘the illusion of sovereignty’ of Exiting, while reifying parliamentary sovereignty. All of this is smoke and mirrors, and doesn’t acknowledge the increasing practice of shared and pooled sovereignty (a bit like the ‘idea’ of the UK) which is increasingly national and international practice.
15. An alternative ‘sovereignty’ tradition is ‘the sovereignty of the people’ argument found in Scotland (and in the US and French revolutions). This is a mixture of myth and truism: on the one hand, sovereignty of the people is an abstract which doesn’t inform the political and public policy choices of Scotland; yet, popular sovereignty as an illusive concept is not only modern folklore north of the border, but has replaced as popular mood, public opinion and attitudes towards Westminster and most modern politics across the West.
16. There will be a whiff of Great British powerism in the referendum from all sides. This will be expressed even by nominally intelligent people. One example was Jeremy Cliffe, The Economist’s ‘Bagehot’ columnist who recently claimed that ‘The EU is Britain’s to run, if only it could overcome its insecurity about scary foreign bullies’ (February 21st 2016).
17. There is a degree of British exceptionalism in all this thinking that we are in completely uncharted waters. There have in fact been three Exits from the EU: one nation-state and two territories: Algeria 1962 (which was a member due to the French Union which meant it wasn’t notionally a colony), Greenland 1985 (after a narrow Exit victory referendum) and the French overseas territory of Saint Barthelemy which left as recently as 2012. The UK debate is about an Exit of the first member state.
18. Finally, welcome to the future. More referendums. When the first votes took place: the 1973 Northern Ireland ‘border’ poll and 1975 poll, all sorts of political and constitutional experts got huffy and called such things ‘unBritish’ and the sort of thing dictatorships do. Now there have been eleven national and sub-national votes (3 UK, 3 Scottish, 3 Welsh, 2 Northern Ireland). This is the politics of popular sovereignty and will be more likely, rather less likely in the future.
There will be a lot of over the top rhetoric these coming four months. Expect to hear a lot about the UK as ‘the fifth richest economy in the world’ – and then the same politicians turn around and in the next sentence argue that the UK cannot afford a decent welfare state, benefits or pensions.
The legacy of Empire and imperial arrogance will be on full show. This week, former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson commented that he hoped a Brexit would lead to the Republic of Ireland realising it had ‘made a mistake’ and ‘come back within the United Kingdom’ (newstalk.com, February 25th 2016). Tory Outer and future leadership candidate Boris Johnson posed that a UK leaving the EU would find it easy to make a large number of international trade treaties on the grounds that ‘we used to run the biggest Empire the world has ever seen’ (Daily Telegraph, February 22nd 2016).
The British Labour Party (meaning the English and Welsh parties) will have a central role in the outcome, which doesn’t auger well. The Labour Party is bitterly divided between its members, parliamentarians and leadership, and seemingly bereft of a coherent collective position on anything. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were withdrawers in 1975 and Eurosceptic since; upon his elevation to the leadership Corbyn came out for remaining in the EU, but there seems little chance of any real enthusiasm for campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU.
The Euro vote could go either way at a UK level, but the contempt which the Westminster political class is held in by the public will be a major factor in the debate and result. The narrow contours of the official debate will confirm that the UK does not at an elite level see itself as a fully-fledged European country, whereas Scotland has in the last couple of decades increasingly seen its future as an unashamedly European nation. One problem north of the border this throws up is that what the EU stands for is no longer an unproblematic good, with austerity, neo-liberalism, and a virtual European coup against Greece’s government; where does that place Scotland and what do we do about it?
The difference between the Europe many of us want to live in and the reality of EU elite rule will be central in the referendum, as will that between Scotland and the rest of the UK. This will be magnified by the fight for the soul of Tory England between the Cameroon Tories and Boris Johnson, the impact of UKIP in England and Wales, and the pro-European position of the SNP and most of Scotland’s parties. Whatever the ebbs and flows of the next couple of months, Scotland’s emergence as an autonomous, distinctive and increasingly self-governing nation will be further encouraged by the Euro debate.
This is an age of disruption and indignation, of anger and angst, of arrogance and over-reach by elites and popular revolts against them, not all of which are progressive and edifying. The EU referendum is an opening and a moment of uncertainty, where difficult questions and issues can be brought to the fore. What is British ‘sovereignty’ for and whose interests is it acting in? How can anyone invoke parliamentary sovereignty with an expression of popular sovereignty? And could Scotland in the real world really be dragged out of the European Union against majority public opinion?
The Economist concluding its assessment of the cost and prospect of Brexit summed it up: ‘Referendums are always unpredictable: a sudden shock in the markets, or even a terrorist incident, could swing voters. There is all to play for’ (February 27th 2016). The next four months will see bitter divisions in the British establishment, the Tories, Labour to a lesser extent, business and the City of London, and numerous market and financial panics, and even, runs on sterling. Britain’s elites are unsure of their future and that they have complete control on the political debate. That is a wonderful sight and opportunity.