If you are under the age of 35 and planning to vote Brexit then you are in a minority, polling suggests. Opinium found that just 29 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 backed leaving the EU, far lower than in any other age group. If you are even considering joining this minority then it’s likely that at some point in the last two months you’ll have found yourself in a slightly awkward conversation. Other participants will have assumed that nobody present is one of those swivel-eyed lunatics joining Farage on a march to Dover and you will be mulling over when to confess. I can confirm that the reaction when you do is incredulity. BUT YOU CAN’T!
I am by no means committed to voting Brexit; I am undecided. But neither do I find the Remain camp’s overtures particularly appealing. Social media has been particularly irritating and, in some cases, counter-productive. I am not going to be swayed by memes pitting Obama against Trump. Neither do I believe that a debate about the future of our country’s governance can be reduced to a conversation about the implications for the next four years in Westminster. Particularly odd is the suggestion that complaints about the democratic deficit in the EU are meaningless because our domestic set-up – the House of Lords, First Past the Post – has flaws. Why not reform both? Finally, I believe that the relentless focus on short-term economics is a mistake. It does very little to address the core anxieties underpinning Euro-scepticism, which seem to be rooted in concern about sovereignty and accountability.
Suzanne Moore wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian about instinct, and how hers is “pretty Brexitty”. She is right that concerns about democracy and sovereignty matter, and that those who believe they are misplaced need to do a better job of explaining why.
It is hard to argue that the EU has some pretty serious shortcomings when it comes to accountability. It is the unelected EU Commission that proposes legislation. Both the European Council and the Council of Ministers still hold many sessions in private, or only make some records public. Jeremy Clarkson suggested recently that concerns could be resolved by sending our “famously attentive media” to Brussels, but the reality is that the big decisions take place behind closed doors. Were he to be posted there, he’d probably end up daring Jonathan Hill to race penny-farthings to Bruges and back, just to pass the time.
Some of those in the driving seat are honest about the set-up – more so than those leading the Remain campaign. Here’s Jean-Claude Juncker, a self-professed fan of “secret, dark debates”, describing the system:
“We decide on something, leave it lying around, and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”
It’s a strategy – boring people into submission – that has been enormously successful, according to this journalist, who spoke of fears back in 2002 that the EU was regarded as “remote and overbearing”.
This is an organisation that, despite spending huge amounts on self-promotion – some of it utterly bizarre – that struggles to engender affection. I can’t count the number of times people have told me that they will be voting Remain “while holding their nose” or “with no great enthusiasm”.
I find this rather depressing, and an indictment of the EU’s drift, from an organisation with an inspiring moral vision to one whose strongest suit is fear or short-term economic self-interest. I highly recommend this Theos report by Ben Ryan which describes the folly of staking the identity and value of the EU on economic success. It also gives the lie to the suggestion that the decisions made behind closed doors are essentially benign, explaining what has been sacrificed on the altar of economic targets set by obdurate politicians. If a society is best judged on how it treats its most vulnerable, it is perhaps Greek pensioners that we should be studying.
This essay by the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in which he describes his interaction with the Troika is a chilling read. He describes how his “modest plea for a modicum of national sovereignty” was met with “astonishing brutality” (I was reminded a bit of Doon Mackichan’s obstinate receptionist. He is told by his German counterpart that “elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a member state”. Another minister urges him to understand that “no country can be sovereign today”.
This, or something like it, is being repeated by many in the Remain campaign. We are told that the world has moved on, that sovereignty is some romantic ideal to be cast aside. Varoufakis believes that this is “probably the most pernicious fallacy to have afflicted public debate in our modern liberal democracies” and goes on to explain the difference between power and sovereignty, arguing that even small countries must retain the ability to hold their elected leaders accountable for the decisions they have reached.
In the words of Tony Benn: “If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
Political legitimacy matters. People know this instinctively, and ignoring their concerns is dangerous. Political alienation is producing some alarming results both here and abroad. It is not enough to do things in the alleged best interests of people. You have to take them with you. I agree that the big challenges facing us require international cooperation, but this will not be achieved behind boardroom doors but through building solidarity on the ground. This is, of course, always difficult to build, but I can’t help but feel that the current system, as described by Juncker, actually militates against it.
Varoufakis argues that the UK must stay in the EU and join a pan-Europe movement for democracy. This appeals to me, as does this piece arguing that Europe needs the “insistent, contrary and maddening” voice of Britain. My fear is that a vote to Remain will be taken as a green light to ignore such voices.
Five years on, it is interesting to read the mea culpa by Andrew Gowers, former editor of the FT, who admitted that he was wrong to back the Euro. He describes how voices of caution were drowned out by “a tendency among euro supporters, including myself, to lump together the critics . . . under the prejudicial label ‘sceptics’.”
Whatever the result next month, I hope that this mistake will not be repeated, and that we are able to have a grown-up, honest conversation about democracy in the 21st century.
Editor’s note: Read the counterpoint – Why I’m voting to ‘remain’