I know when I’m wrong

I seem to be disagreeing with WorldbyStorm quite a lot lately. Here’s WbS on the Lisbon Treaty:

I’d tend to the view that it is difficult to see how 26 countries won’t move forward. Why shouldn’t they? There’s no advantage to the status quo.

I was once, in a fairly received way, quite wedded to the federal model. Result? Supportive of the EU. But now I’ve shifted much more to an intergovernmental viewpoint. Result? Critically supportive of the EU, and consequently a Yes vote yesterday. The thing is that I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side. … So, while an EU wide vote on a Treaty is a great idea on one level, I simply don’t believe it will happen, that there is any political or popular will for it and therefore have put it out of my mind.

In similar vein, my old Socialist Society comrade John Palmer comments at CLR:

The best way forward would be for the other 26 Member States to complete ratification (18 already have). Then the Irish government should agree to the provision which allows the treaty to come into force if there is at least two thirds in favour. Dublin could volunteer to resile temporarily from involvement in those areas of decision directly affected by the Lisbon Treaty provisions at least while a solution is found within Ireland itself. I acknowledge this will not be simple. But this would be better than an Irish veto (made possible by c100,000 Irish voters) which prevents all the rest of the European Union (250 million people) going ahead. It should be remembered that the peoples of Spain and Luxembourg have already voted in referendums to ratify the original Constitutional Treaty but there votes now count for nothing.

What seems to emerge from these arguments – perhaps more clearly from WbS’s post than John’s comment – is an assumption that the project represented by the Lisbon Treaty is good in and of itself, whatever the actual people of Europe may think about it. Without some such assumption, John’s comment doesn’t make much sense – apart from anything else, it’s not at all obvious to me why the Irish No vote should be seen as any more trifling numerically, or any less valid politically, than the Luxembourg Yes vote. If you do make that assumption, on the other hand, the Irish plebiscite is an embarrassment twice over: you don’t want the Irish to say No, but on the other hand you don’t really want them to think you need them to say Yes. In this sense the EU project isn’t so much undemocratic as anti-democratic. I don’t think ‘inter-governmental’ is the word: the EU’s long gone beyond de Gaullean intergovernmentality to build its own European governing institutions and its own European bureaucracy, which have developed very largely in their own sphere, with their own rules and under their own momentum. Endorsement from below is an optional extra; it’s nice to have, but not getting it shouldn’t slow things down too much. (Consider John’s ‘best way forward’. If the rules under which the project is currently working say that 100% consent is required for ratification, and if 100% consent has become impossible, surely any best way forward has to begin by acknowledging that ratification isn’t going to happen?)

As progressive as EU influence on Britain has sometimes been, I find it very hard to see EU integration in terms of Jacques Delors vs UKIP. Socially progressive it may be in some respects, but economically the EU’s centre of gravity is well over on the Right. (Flash back to an old Communist couple I bumped into in Croydon some time in the 70s. We got talking about the EEC, as it then was, and I mumbled something about how I was concerned that it was better for, er, business interests… than it was for, er, the trade unions… The old bloke cut me off – “Well, it’s a capitalist club, isn’t it?” Yup – capitalist, that’s the word I was looking for. It’s a good word.) More to the point, the main polarisation that seems to be emerging isn’t between Left and Right, but between a pro-EU establishment and a large proportion of the people they purport to represent – and the issue on which it’s emerging is, precisely, representation. On one side, WbS (I’m simply not concerned about issues of ‘democratic’ legitimation that seems to exercise federalists, or the more starry eyed on the No side). On the other, Splintered Sunrise:

The Lisbon Treaty may not be quite definitively sunk – these Euro-treaties have a habit of coming back from the dead – but yes, it’s definitely holed beneath the waterline, thanks to the one EU state where the constitution requires the plebs to have their say, much to the frustration of both the Eurocrats and the Dublin political class. This is all to the good.

And my new favourite political blog, Obsolete:

primarily it was a vote against something which only judges, bureaucrats and lawyers can understand and a vote against the politicians who didn’t even attempt to help those voting understand. … If you don’t understand it, vote no. Who could possibly argue with such basic logic, or blame them for doing so?

Something similar seems to be happening around David Davis. My immediate reaction, before I’d seen the next day’s press, was:

Given that it’s a safe Tory seat, it puts Labour in a very difficult position. If they don’t stand a candidate, Davis will win the argument. If they treat it like a normal by-election, they’ll get flattened and Davis will win the argument. If they fight really hard and dirty – painting Davis as soft on Al Qaeda & essentially going for the core Tory authoritarian vote – they’ve got a chance of getting a respectable vote, but they’ll alienate historic Labour voters still more. And shaking up the Labour vote is always a good tactic for the Tories – it’d be nice to think all those people would either stay loyal or wait for a socialist party to come over the horizon, but they’re more likely to drift over to the Tories on the general principle of giving the other lot a chance. (I wonder if Davis would have had this idea if it hadn’t been for Crewe & Nantwich.)

It’s good tactics in support of a sound political principle, and a timely challenge to a tired and arrogant regime propped up by a whipped majority. Just a shame it’s a Tory who’s doing it, really.

So I was a bit shocked by the press reaction (Obsolete again there) – repeatedly shocked, in fact (“I guess the Graun‘s a bit New Labour, but surely they’ll… oh. The Telegraph‘s made it lead story, and they’re Tories, they’re bound to… oh. What about the Indie, they’re pretty sound on civil liberties, surely they’ll… oh.”) Shocked all over again – and dismayed – by the Labour Party’s intention not to stand a candidate, and more particularly by their apparent determination to brazen it out on the grounds that… actually, what were the grounds again, other than not wanting to have the argument? WorldbyStorm puts it well, again – in a post which I’m afraid takes the anti-democratic side of the argument, again:

Well, that it would be – if anyone turned up. But there in lies the rub. No one appears to want to. After all, why try to contest a safe Conservative constituency? What political percentage is there in that. So the Liberal Democrats have announced they’re not in the running, while giving rhetorical support for his stance, and Labour will presumably follow suit – without the support rhetorical or otherwise.

Fight a by-election? What political percentage is there in that? To say I don’t often agree with Bloggers4Labour would be an understatement – I don’t think it’s ever happened before – but I thought this post was excellent:

If initial reactions are anything to go by, Labour’s big guns are going to take a depressingly contemptuous line … Equally tawdry, I feel, would be the decision not to field a Labour candidate at the forthcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election. That would be a decision bound to salt the earth for the local CLP and the PPC, who might well pay the price at a local level for years to come. Whatever our individual views, Labour, nationally, has made its decision, and so it must stick up for its policy, whether that allows it to hold its vote, or costs it a deposit. The Lib Dems are entitled not to stand if they fully support the Conservatives, but Labour can’t withdraw too, leaving one side of the argument/electorate with no (mainstream) representative.

Labour may not have many supporters in David Davis’s constituency, but there are some. What are they supposed to do, abstain? The Labour Party – a Labour government, as Neil Kinnock might say – advising its supporters not to vote? As with the Lisbon Treaty, what seems to emerge here is an instrumental attitude to democracy – democratic accountability as a means to an end, or rather one of a number of possible means to an end – which is ultimately rather hard to distinguish from simply not believing in democracy. And, as with the Lisbon Treaty, I suspect that the establishment which believes it can substitute assumed consent for democratic endorsement has misjudged the public mood: many of those whose consent is being assumed may feel inclined to withhold it, or at least to be given the option to do so. (A particularly scummy aspect of Labour’s strategy is that it’ll be hard to count a Davis vote as a vote against Labour if Labour don’t stand.) As with Lisbon, finally, we can look to see this by-election producing some strange bedfellows.

It’s true that Davis doesn’t have anything to teach the Left about civil liberties, but that’s not really the point – the lesson isn’t in the importance of civil liberties but in the fact that people value them, and it’s not the Left that needs to learn it. And I suppose it’s true that there’s something backward-looking, even vaguely Norman Yoke-ish, about upholding the common law rights of the freeborn Briton against managerialist incursions, from London or Brussels. But that’s not really the point either: if a bad law is passed, giving the state still more power or still less accountability, thinking we were better off before that law was passed doesn’t make you a reactionary.

Would I vote No to Lisbon? Like a shot – as I wrote somewhere else, “any time those people give us a vote I’d be inclined to vote No – particularly in a case where the vote’s called to ratify decisions that have already been made without any real attempt to explain their implications, let alone to allow input from below”. Would I vote for Davis? That’s a bit harder – I vote Green, I’ve voted Lib Dem in the past (I was young), and I can imagine myself voting Plaid Cymru, but if I’ve kept anything from my Labour upbringing it’s a conviction that you don’t vote Tory. Let’s just say that I believe, with B4L, that we should battle illiberal and conservative ideas and values, with liberal, cooperative, and socialist ones – and that, on that basis, I’d very much welcome the opportunity to vote against Labour.

Update 16/6 The response to the 42 days proposal by the soft-left Compass group caused a bit of a storm: the group campaigned against, but then both Jon Trickett and Jon Cruddas, its parliamentary spokesperson and leading figurehead respectively, voted in favour. Trickett has since resigned his position, albeit with a remarkably bad grace. Emily Thornberry has been cited as a Compass MP who voted against, and as a potential future leader of the parliamentary group. So who’s this

lectur[ing] us that:
• The Irish didn’t really mean resounding ‘no’ (didn’t understand what they were doing, poor loves) delivered to the EU treaty last week and that Europe should find their way round this inconvenient legal fact.

• That it is impossible that an MP might put his career on the line, resign and seek re-election on an issue like civil liberties on principle.

Why, it’s Emily Thornberry.

Back in my Socialist Society days I once suggested to a friend that the Society ought to line up with the soft Left – which back then meant the likes of Robin Cook and Clare Short, ILP, the pre-Twigg LCER and maybe Chartist at a pinch. My friend demurred & said the trouble with the soft Left was that, like other soft things, they were liable to get squashed. OK, it’s not Oscar Wilde, but I think there was a lot of truth in it.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 16 June 2008 at 14:53 | Permalink | Reply

    Depressingly, the predominant view in (anglo-american analytical) political theory seems to be that democracy is at best an instrumental good: a ‘the worst sort of government, except all the others’ justification, usually based on some kind of epistemic argument; more sophisticated versions of Condorcet’s jury theorem, basically. The thought that people who don’t get to make the laws they live under aren’t free seems to have been lost. I’m not sure I quite agree with you about the Lisbon Treaty: that prisoners should get the vote doesn’t imply they should get to pick their governor, or, less obliquely, part of the point of selecting rulers is that they get to rule; but the reaction to David Davis is pretty depressing.

  2. Posted 16 June 2008 at 17:46 | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, I hope we actually don’t disagree as much as you think… my piece on Davis was as follows, that in the context of his constituency with the LDs dropping out, and he seemingly assured of victory there was no political percentage in NL contesting it. I wasn’t suggesting that was a good or a bad thing, merely suggesting that that was the party political angle on the matter. What I then went onto say was that in my opinion had Davis resigned simultaneously to another Tory MP in a much less safe seat and they had – as it were – swapped constituencies with Davis fighting the much less safe one then at least there would have been a genuine contest because the political logic would have drawn both LDs and NLs in. So I certainly wasn’t trying to say Davis shouldn’t run, but that a genuine contest would be better than the fairly charade-like one we’re presented with, although the entrance of MacKenzie more than complicates things – who’d thunk it, right and always wrong competing. That said, I share your aversion to voting Conservative in any circumstances. However, MacKenzies vile comment about 420 days not concerning him is a tricky one… Tom Griffin raised a similar point to you in the comments and I think I addressed it reasonably….

    Re the EU. I take a different line to John Palmer and that is that the intergovernmental aspect is much more important to me. I see where you’re going and of course you’re right, this isn’t the De Gaulle period, but consider that the EU has about 25,000 civil servants, whereas the US has 4 million federal employees in federal executive departments alone. Or consider it on the legislation axis where even now national law outweighs EU law (dependent upon taste anywhere between 25% – to under 50%). Or consider the derogations and opt outs of national parliaments/governments over EU legislation. The EU is far from a federal structure and that’s the way I like it. But, there is a trade off. We can have more federal/democratic structures or we can have national government/representative democratic structures, or a blend of both, but to some degree they’re incompatible. I tend towards the national government/rep dem not because I’m anti democratic but because at this point in the development of the EU – which I obviously support in a critical way – I want to ensure the retention of ultimate national sovereignty. That was one of my basic pillars of analysis in coming to a Yes vote, because reading the Treaty, parsing out the implications, etc, I couldn’t see a problem there, or rather the benefits appeared to outweigh the negatives.

    There are, as you say problems about interpreting democratic votes within national polities and applying them to the EU. I’m not averse to ratification proceeding not least because I believe each nation state has the right to express a view on it even post the Irish decision. It is clear now that Ireland will be outside the Lisbon Treaty arrangements short of another referendum (a situation I think is unlikely to happen due to the internal politics here). But that doesn’t predicate against the other 26 or however many ratify it working together towards certain ends collectively as long as it is within the clearly defined limits of Nice, not Lisbon.

    A further point. The two of the three main bodies on the No side argued that Ireland had to go back and ‘renegotiate’ the Treaty. Not dump it entirely. I’m not sure how that particular nuance works, but the issues raised, tax, abortion, loss of Commissioner, etc would be easily resolvable (indeed on the first two they already are covered by opt-outs, but perhaps more specific ones would be better again). It does suggest that it is a bit more complex than a simple No to Europe or to the EU as is.

    Indeed Declan Ganley of Libertas, the economically right wing anti-Lisbon group and one of those three bodies I mention above, writing in today’s Irish Times argues that

    I personally believe that the idea of an EU president is a good and sound one, but only if that person is democratically elected by Europe’s citizens, has a much stronger EU parliament to act as a check on his or her power, and is forced to submit him- or herself to the people at agreed intervals for their record to be judged. Member states must have permanent and credible representation on a commission that respects the principle of subsidiarity. I am not advocating a European superstate; I am, however, suggesting one possible way to begin the process of creating a pan-European polity, wherein people are given a meaningful say in the process that now generates a majority of most member states’ laws.

    It’s all great, isn’t it? Not least because the Commissioner was lost during the Nice referendum, not Lisbon. But he’s actually arguing for a nascent superstate. And I’m sure he knows it. The more power the parliament has, the more direct representation, the less the national parliaments and governments will have which strikes at the heart of national self-determination.

    And while you, and ejh as well who put it rather well, are correct that referendums are often not used due to a fear of the result, the opposite dynamic is also evident, where people have an expectation on the other side that a vote will go a certain way, i.e. No. But, truth is that we’ve seen referendums (as with Ireland in the past) go both ways on these issues. I’m in favour of a UK referendum, as it happens, simply because NL promised there would be one, not because of the issue itself per se. I suspect that would be lost. Well, so be it. Perhaps it would be 25 +2 then.

    As regards a ‘capitalist club’. Surely, no argument there. And I live in a capitalist nation, but, I’ve always had the attitude, perhaps stemming back to the Workers’ Party days that we work with what we’ve got (after all, that’s what SF split over in 69, entry or abstention to Dail Eireann), that at the very least we try to divert these projects in a more left wing direction. As it happens I think the left has been more rather than less successful with the EU,.

    Part of the problem, returning to the democratic/national issue is one that exercises the left more and more. Where to make distinctions, etc.. etc…

    Anyhow, I hope that gives a clearer read on my thoughts and my apologies for seeming to be saying something which I hope I’m not.

  3. Posted 18 June 2008 at 21:16 | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for that, WbS, although I don’t think it gets us much closer to agreeing.

    On Davis, the point I’d make is that the descriptive and the normative are never far apart when you’re talking about contemporary politics. And it’s a two-way street: moral gestures may have tactical meanings, but tactical moves don’t exist outside a moral framework. A cynically self-interested tactical response from the Labour Party may have been entirely predictable, but it’s also wrong – and wrong in ways that have real effects on the way politics is conducted from then on (see the quote from Bloggers4Labour). The media’s “dear oh dear, the silly man, what is he playing at?” response struck me as coming from within a political mindset that’s acclimatised to cynically self-interested tactical thinking – and I see that mindset & its reproduction as a continuing debasement of democracy. (A further debasement of a never-particularly-advanced realisation of democratic ideals, I should say.)

    On the EU, increasingly what interests me isn’t the precise shape of the emerging polis but the scope the project offers for a certain kind of managerialist politics – or political managerialism. I come back to democracy as an end rather than a means; to put it another way, how you respond to the proposition that measures affecting how people live should, in principle, be grounded in those people’s informed consent. A lot of the commentary has seemed to consider it something of an embarrassment that changes to Ireland’s constitutional arrangements have to be ratified by plebiscite – why can’t we just get on with it? In Henry Farrell‘s words, it’s an “as long as it doesn’t frighten the servants and horses” mentality – people should delegate the discussion of detailed questions of institutions and policies, such as those involved in EU Treaties, to political elites who can understand them much better. I think this is a real and significant strand in the thinking about the treaty, and I think it’s tendentially anti-democratic – to caricature slightly, a move away from requiring democratic ratification isn’t seen as a regrettable local necessity to be limited as much as possible, but as a blessed relief from all that bickering. That’s the side of the fence I felt you were coming down on, which is why I reacted as I did.

  4. Posted 19 June 2008 at 15:47 | Permalink | Reply

    For me, Phil, it’s a simple issue: Direct democracy v Representative democracy. All of the angels are on the side of the latter. The Irish vote had no democratic legitimacy, even if it was the product of an otherwise legitmate constitution. The same constitution that denies women the right to choose to have an abortion or not. Direct democracy *always* leads to illiberal outcomes – and when politicians play the DD card (DD – David Davis – I just noticed that!), look behind it. You always find an anti-immigration hanger.

    And it is as legitimate as the attempt by some Swiss DD-ers to have *every* application for citizenship subject to ratification by plebiscite.

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    […] improvement? Clearly not. Perhaps quite the opposite (and Phil at The Gaping Silence had some good points on the dangers of viewing politics through a prism of party advantage…). But then the […]

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