Alex Massie, Democracy, EU Referendum, Euro-Scepticism, European Parliament, European Union, History, Opinion, Politics, Rabaa Massacre, The Spectator, Tiananmen Square Massacre, Viktor Yanukovych, Young Voters
In the history of democracy, the rise of the European Union is probably the biggest step backwards. Previous movements such as fascism and Stalinism have been straightforwardly against democracy and they have been straightforwardly defeated. The EU, however, is robed in all of the garments of democracy, arriving complete with a parliament, elections, and a free press, but it is all a maddeningly empty appearance. The European Commission is never rocked by any pressure from the masses. The European Parliament is literally a PR exercise: for a start, it is not a parliament (it is a revising chamber); and the downward trajectory of the consecutive turnouts in its elections, to far below the standards in comparable national elections, confirms that most voters are voting with their feet.
The Parliament is so useless that it cannot even decide where it is physically based. In November 2013, they all voted (483 to 141) to meet in a single location. Without the requisite treaty change, though, they are still shuttling back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg every month, at a cost of over a hundred million euros of our money per year.
The European Parliament is not merely a historical anomaly. It is instead the almost perfect expression of a disillusionment with democracy which is currently sweeping the planet. With the rise of China as a global power comes the increasing normalisation of the assumption which the whole Chinese system is founded upon: that democracy is just disruption, or an unnecessary ornament atop a well-managed economy. More people may have died during the aftermath of the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état than in the violent suppression of pro-democracy forces in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and guess who was there to immediately volunteer as a consultant to Egypt’s new blood-caked rulers. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister (unelected), who announced that, “the European Union is a long-term partner and friend of Egypt… our support and friendship will continue.” When the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014, after coincidentally failing to sign a trade deal with the EU, Europe’s politicians did not allow the fact that he had been democratically elected to discolour what they saw as his country’s otherwise inspiring revolution.
When I was a student, my vaguely Trotskyite socialism was generally viewed by those who came into contact with it as admirable in itself, but ultimately impractical and potentially dangerous. Today, it seems, you can expect the same reaction when you tell people that you are a democrat. The campaign to extricate the UK from the EU is barely beginning to stir, and yet some of the responses to it are already startling and sinister. For me, this referendum will be an event of global significance, in which the ideal of democratic sovereignty, the ideology of the Chartists and the Suffragettes, is put on trial for its life. For many in the media, however, the referendum is simply a bore. It is apparently unwanted by the public and unfair upon our managerial political class. Earlier in the month the Tory cabinet minister Anna Soubry told Eurosceptics to “get a life” and this refrain was repeated by Alex Massie in this week’s Spectator: “Normal people, it should be observed, do not think Britain is no longer an independent state… Normal people have a life.”
For me, the same cold draught pours in a straight line all the way from the killings at Tiananmen to Alex Massie’s civilised boredom. When turning to the EU referendum, he envisages “a pale imitation of the Scottish independence referendum” and he observes that, “the trouble with remakes is they almost always disappoint… It won’t be great box-office.” He later tweeted that “Britain’s EU referendum is going to be rubbish.” For Massie, the same coat has been turned inside out, with Tories who were anxious to preserve the (UK) Union now agitating to leave the (European) Union. Once again, the same sovereignty-munching ideologues are ranged against humble people who care only about bread and butter. He duly shrugs his way through his analogy:
Was Britain loved? Not as much as Unionists might have liked. Was it irretrievably broken? Not as surely or completely as nationalists averred. Something similar may, in time, be said of the EU.
But unlike Scotland’s Yes campaign, the drive for Out has impeccable democratic credentials. In 2014 Scottish nationalists were in full retreat from a functioning democracy, snootily turning their backs on what they saw as irredeemably Thatcherite English hordes. They assumed that social democracy could never prevail in a UK General Election and so, like stroppy teenagers, they wanted to storm out. They implicitly preferred the Holyrood model, in which a supposedly left-wing administration had come to power in 2011 with a little help from a reassuring 50% turnout. Moreover, the flakiness of many nationalists on the topic of democracy was illustrated by their brainless infatuation with the EU. The whole point of being in the EU is that you have to chuck away your democracy but you get to keep the nation. It is rather like keeping your penis but being unable to get an erection any more.
You could, of course, make the argument that the Out campaign is rejecting the model of a European mass democracy. Yet in contrast to the rude health of UK General Elections, this model barely exists in theory and in practice it is actively deceptive. It is implied by the pro-Europe lobby that we should forget about our existing democracy and wait for a functioning European alternative to one day emerge from distant “reforms.” Why this European democracy cannot be immediate is never explained.
In 2017, pro-democracy campaigners may have to face yawns rather than tanks. “Get a life” is an alarmingly effective response to the Outers, in dismissing them as fixated fuddy-duddies who are fussing over an ideology which really belongs in the garden shed. These days young people, that glamorous stage army which no political campaign can afford to do without, are far more prone to be bored with democracy. Recent research indicates that today’s 18-24 year olds are ultimately a depoliticised generation. Dr Maria Grasso, Lecturer in Politics and Quantitative Politics at the University of Sheffield, reports that “the vast majority of young people in Britain have little or no contact with political bodies or political activities and only about 40 per cent turn out to vote.” Naturally, when polled, this generation is disproportionately in favour of remaining in the faraway European Union. In other words, they are happier when politics occurs somewhere else.
It would be wonderful to have “a life” and spend every evening sashaying through cocktail bars, or jiving in tropical nightclubs, or whatever having a life entails. But I’d still rather have a democracy.