I have avoided blogging on the EU referendum up to now. I would love to claim it is so because of some deeper virtue to stand apart from the debate but, in truth, it’s mainly because lots of other people have said most of what anybody is ever likely to say on the issue. I am here simply going to outline why I am choosing to vote leave. I shall leave it up to you, dear reader, to consider whether you find my reasoning credible or not.
There are three fundamental reasons I want to vote out:
Regardless of how you care to spin it, the EU is not a democratic entity. It was established on undemocratic terms and it continues to function in an undemocratic way. Unelected commissioners draft laws, bring them onto the agenda and propose future amendments. Our elected representatives have no right to draft wording or bring up existing legislation for amendment. They may vote on revisions and amendments to laws but only those the commissioners wish to bring before them. Our elected representatives can be entirely by-passed altogether.
The only people who really believe the EU is democratic are those who believe, because we cast a vote for someone to do something, it must be democratic. The truth, however, is that we neither elect the lawmakers nor do we even have a say over who sits in the elected revising chamber. Unlike the UK parliamentary elections, in which we vote for an individual constituency MP, the EU elections run a party list system. Thus we vote for a party, not an individual. It is the party leadership who appoint the MEPs, not any vote of the party membership. This means we do not elect the people who make, draft or propose EU law and nor do we get any say over those we do elect into the revising chamber.
Beyond this, the more centralised power becomes the less direct democracy results. Given that EU commissioners – those who propose and draft EU law – are appointed and our supposedly elected representatives are actually appointed via a party list system, the individual voter has no credible say in who makes and creates EU law. We similarly have no mechanism in place to remove any of those same people. The will of the people is little more than a footnote in the process.
A related issue is national sovereignty. It is the case that national governments provide manifesto pledges that are then voted on by the people. If we like those promises, we may elect them. If we believe they have failed on their promises, we may remove them. Whatever we may feel about them, the collective will of the majority may reasonably assume that their elected representatives will enact the promises they voted for.
In the EU, however, our national government may be overruled. If an EU directive is issued, national governments must incorporate it into law. This means the collective will of the people within one national entity may be superseded by a handful of unelected officials. It renders our national democratic process utterly superfluous. The number of times this has actually happened (a point of debate throughout this process) is, frankly, irrelevant. The very fact that this can, and does, happen at all makes a mockery of democracy.
I am highly in favour of immigration to Britain. I do not believe the country would function without it and, in the most part, immigration has been incredibly beneficial. The period of mass immigration in the 1950s and 1970s were typically a response to worker shortages in our own indigenous population and were vital for us to sustain industry. So, to be totally clear, I think immigration has been a force for good. If anything, I would like to see looser (not tighter) restrictions than we have at present.
Why, then, do I favour leave on this basis? First, I find the free movement of workers principle fundamentally racist. At present, if you hold a European passport you are entitled to move anywhere within Europe. In practice, this means if you hold a non-EU passport you are subject to stricter controls. A policy that discriminates based on nothing more than your passport is, in my view, racist. What about white, Western Europeans makes their coming to our country inherently more beneficial than non-white East, South and West Asians? Look at those beneficial periods of mass immigration – predominantly made up of black Caribbeans in the 1950s and South Asians in the 1970s. The existing rules would have made those fundamentally beneficial and valuable influxes nigh on impossible based on little more than their being the wrong nationality. This is surely wrong.
Second, I suspect our approach to refugees and non-European migrants is tighter because we are unable to control immigration within the EU. Whilst this may be an issue of political will, it is almost certainly true that when immigration levels from within the EU begin to rise governments seek to reduce non-EU migration levels. Once again, this means if you hold the wrong sort of passport you are bound to face tighter controls. Similarly, if you are seeking asylum, it is much easier to turn you away (despite the credibility of the position in reality) with a wistful reference to European migration.
Control of our borders does not necessarily mean a tightening of borders. It means the ability to accept migration from wherever we please. It means, rather than being open to Europe at the expense of everyone else, we may open up to the entire world. It means rather than turning away asylum seekers on spurious grounds of immigration overload, we may reduce economic migration at our own pleasure and bring in as many people fleeing persecution as we will. It makes possible the benefits of the mass immigration that previously served our country well during times of need. Sovereignty and control of our borders will give us the right and ability to be more, not less, open to migration.
Given the value of immigration to our country, if we leave the EU it is highly likely that the government would seek to reduce net migration to its stated target for a short time – just to prove that they are able to do so – before allowing it to rise again. The reason for this is simple: immigration has broadly been a force for good in this country. If we leave the EU, it is highly unlikely any government would therefore seek to reduce it drastically. The only benefit of doing so is political, satisfying the desires of a small section of society who do not understand the benefits of immigration. It is, therefore, inconceivable any future government would likely seek to reduce net migration. What a leave vote would do is allow the benefits of immigration from across the world rather than based on spurious grounds of race and nationality.
The alternative case
The arguments for remain, in my view, revolves around one of two things. For many, it is economic. They argue the benefits of staying in the EU are primarily financial. They appeal to our economy, our standard of living, trade and money received from the EU itself. What is troubling about this line of reasoning is that is effectively boils everything down to earnings. It is the unfortunate view that markets are über alles and money is all that matters. What is particularly troubling, given the undemocratic nature of the EU and its ability to overrule national democratically elected parliaments, is that this effectively says our democracy and sovereignty is for sale. If we feel the economic benefits are good enough, we are happy to sell our democratic rights. At best, I find that very sad.
The truth is there is likely to be some economic turmoil regardless of what we do. Markets do not like uncertainty and both positions will bring their fair share of that. It does seem likely that a vote to leave will lead to an initial downturn but I am fairly sure the economy would recover. But even if it does not, even if we do remain a bit poorer, given that people died to give us the democratic rights to vote and have direct representation, it seems ever-so-slightly-more expensive goods might be a price worth paying to keep it (if, indeed, we become any poorer at all).
Alternatively, the argument advanced revolves around rights. The fear, ironically, is that a vote to leave will means the end of human rights, workers rights and other such things. First, it is highly unlikely such things will be rolled back. Dennis Skinner argued here that ‘the Tories would have a hard time shifting them’ and it can’t escape your notice that we often hold better benefits and rights than the minimum requirements set in place by the EU (see, for example, maternity leave/pay).
Second, it is painful to hear fellow left-wing democrats ride roughshod over the democratic will of the people. I think Brendan O’Neill is absolutely right that most pro-EU arguments boil down to ‘not being able to trust the plebs’. If we leave we can’t be trusted to vote for people who will support the rights we want to secure. If we leave, we can’t be trusted to vote out those who endanger those rights. The thrust of the argument is that we cannot be trusted and, instead, should entrust ourselves to unelected commissioners who surely have our best interests at heart.
Third, despite what we may think of [insert your least preferred party here], it is surely not credible to want to remain in the EU because if the collective will of the British people votes for [insert your least preferred party here] they might do what we don’t like. If you value democracy at all, I trust you will wash your mouth out with soap if you have ever voiced such sentiments. If you think your views are worthy of a hearing, you must permit others the same. To do otherwise is to say ‘don’t trust the plebs’.
So for those reasons, I will today be voting leave. I think democracy is too important to sell off, sovereignty too valuable to give away and immigration too beneficial to cut ourselves off from most of the world and deny access based on nationality.
I strongly share Tony Benn’s view:
We have confused the real issue of parliamentary democracy, for already there has been a fundamental change. The power of electors over their law-makers has gone, the power of MPs over Ministers has gone, the role of Ministers has changed. The real case for entry has never been spelled out, which is that there should be a fully federal Europe in which we become a province. It hasn’t been spelled out because people would never accept it. We are at the moment on a federal escalator, moving as we talk, going towards a federal objective we do not wish to reach. In practice, Britain will be governed by a European coalition government that we cannot change, dedicated to a capitalist or market economy theology. This policy is to be sold to us by projecting an unjustified optimism about the Community, and an unjustified pessimism about the United Kingdom, designed to frighten us in. Jim quoted Benjamin Franklin, so let me do the same: “He who would give up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither safety nor liberty.” The Common Market will break up the UK because there will be no valid argument against an independent Scotland, with its own Ministers and Commissioner, enjoying Common Market membership. We shall be choosing between the unity of the UK and the unity of the EEC. It will impose appalling strains on the Labour movement…I believe that we want independence and democratic self-government, and I hope the Cabinet in due course will think again.