Saturday, 11 November 2017

Brexit: a new battleground


Democracy is of intrinsic merit. It doesn't need to be defended any more than freedom does. Societies which are democratic honour the value and contributions of citizens. Democracy restrains power systems with checks and balances and provides individuals with the necessary mechanisms to pursue justice, equality and their own creative participation within policy domains. 

It sits at the core of my politics, which I admit have become increasingly difficult to define, given that I now assess the political landscape almost exclusively through the prism of Brexit. I have written very narrowly in the past about the value I place upon democratising the information burden. This, I rather think, has been the major success of the blogosphere, despite its ongoing uphill battle with media giants for audience and authority. A belief in democratising efforts like this are of huge comfort and importance to me. 

I thank 'MagicAldo' for leaving the following comment underneath yesterday's post. He sheds light on what could possibly be the updated intellectual battleground in the Brexit debate. His retort is very interesting and worth exploring in more detail.


Those who are observant will notice how stark the change in tone of this debate has been. Negotiations have not been successful, there is no sign that adequate scoping (assessing of our options) took place prior to the invoking of Article 50 and even less evidence that David Davis and his department understand to any great length what becoming a third country to the European Union means in practice. We now find ourselves staring down the barrel of a no deal. I now see no better reason to take seriously the EFTA option, making sure we use Article 112 (explainer here) in order to leverage a better deal on free movement, and take valuable steps towards separating the EEA acquis from the EU. 

One gets a sense that Britain's attempts to re-learn self-governance are rather like that of a newborn deer's attempts to stand up on all fours. I think this is analogous of our current struggles and coincides with the theme struck by the above comment. This is now the battleground on which Brexit debate is currently being fought. As a country we are asking ourselves a very important question: are we actually capable of reviving our democratic integrity and ability to govern ourselves? Can we rise to the challenge of self-determination? 

Yesterday I had quite an illuminating discussion with Roland Smith, who has also made his name advocating a softer Brexit position. He appears to be thinking along the same lines. Assessing our capacity for self-governance is, at this early stage, mere speculation. We will struggle, but ultimately that baby deer needs to learn how to walk. Without doing so, he will not survive.  


My vote in last year's referendum was, I now realise, an expression of my belief in the country's ability to meet this task head on. Re-learning how to govern at home is an opportunity, but will be a huge challenge. We will need to re-organise our civil service at departmental level, reintegrating expertise and facilitating modern approaches to administration and bureaucratisation. Some ministerial departments, such as those of trade and international development, may need to be merged together. We will need to re-coordinate links between universities and industry, ensuring that research and policy guidance is aimed at domestic sectors, rather than outsourcing technical assistance and advice to Brussels. 

This blog has made several references to the democratising core of the eurosceptic argument without going into more specific detail. Increasingly I sense a certain confusion on the part of Remainers who do not feel they have had the purpose of Brexit properly explained to them. Whether they agree to it, of course, is a whole other matter. My fingers and keyboard are not used as tools to convert others. Since the referendum, my mindset has been: 'we have our mandate, now let's focus on issues of withdrawal'. But it doesn't do anybody any harm to pause for a few moments and reflect upon the goals we are reaching for. 

Here we turn away from the world of economics and the neoliberal obsession with growth, and focus on the state of our domestic democracy. We could easily have ignored the issue for another forty years, but at what cost? Trade must always come second and democracy must always come first. An increase in non-tariff barriers is a small, though undoubtedly troublesome, price to pay for the rejuvenation of the democratic process. Our reluctance to take part in ever closer union and our lack of care for eurofederalism to me highlights just how inappropriate a supranationalist model of governance is for Britain. 

Brexit must be a means to an end rather than an end. I fear the government is treating our withdrawal (with electability and public opinion in mind) as if it is purely the latter. Brexit cannot be done for its own sake; it must be a part of something much wider and more profound. Even the pursuit of self-determination, or as great a measure of it as we can recover, which is intertwined with democracy, needs some kind of purpose. There is value in bringing policy closer to people, but it must be met with efforts to innovate, to be creative and to instill confidence in consumers, banks and foreign markets that we can hold our own. 

The United Kingdom has been crying out for stronger degrees of localism. All politics is local and people care more about issues which touch them, not grandiosity and ideology. Instead of a top-down structure of government, whereby local councils lack any tangible flexibility or independence, we ought to be looking at devolving powers which do not necessarily need to reside with the European Commission or Palace of Westminster. At some point, sovereignty must find its home with the people it concerns, not just regalia and suits. 

Brexit is the first, brave step towards this process. We need substantive reclamation of competencies which have been handed to Brussels, largely behind the public's back, for centralised administering. This, remember, has also not been done for the sake of it. Supranationalism has been the necessary prerequisite to the formation of a United States of Europe. And in this we have seen immense power seep from our increasingly hesitant island. If we are to take the meaning of 'democracy' literally (and by this we mean rule by the people), we need to begin by relocating powers, such as those governing energy and the environment, agriculture and rural development, fisheries and employment law, to jurisdictions which can be influenced by the citizens they have effect on. 

Three years ago I asked myself a very simple question. How do I, an EU citizen, influence EU policy? I came quite quickly to the conclusion that I couldn't, and I have not veered from this analysis. This realisation initiated a whole trail of thought, from which I am yet to emerge. Brexit has evacuated British politics of any semblance of normality, but luckily, I have managed to retain strong faith in nation state democracy. In some ways I feel like a religious man. It has been a testing process which for others would have been great cause for retreat. But I am above all else comforted by a belief that we are doing the right thing. 

4 comments:

  1. Since the referendum, my mindset has been: 'we have our mandate, now let's focus on issues of withdrawal'. But it doesn't do anybody any harm to pause for a few moments and reflect upon the goals we are reaching for.... finally a touch of sanity.
    In some ways I feel like a religious man. It has been a testing process which for others would have been great cause for retreat. But I am above all else comforted by a belief that we are doing the right thing .... followed by the usual dash of blind optimism .

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  2. I like the idea of increased localism. The problem is that if you don't do politics it gets done to you. In this more connected world (trade now = 60% of world GDP vs 6% 100 years ago), if you lose influence internationally, that is akin to losing sovereignty. We may gain more control over fisheries etc but we will lose influence over EU law and in international bodies, but will still have to abide by whatever comes out of them. This means we lose sovereignty. Overall, will this be a net gain or net loss? That is difficult to say. But the EU debate is not as simple as saying we gain sovereignty and democracy by leaving. We also lose.

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  3. The assumption behind this post is that the UK's involvement in the EU has somehow diminished its ability to be democratic in the UK. I do not see that as a valid assumption: the tendency in the UK not to devolve power and to limit opposition within the UK Parliament is a domestic issue that has not been imposed or influenced by the EU. Indeed, if anything (and on the contrary), the EU with its principles of "subsidiarity" could provide a useful framework for the UK to revitalise its democracy and governance.

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  4. "Three years ago I asked myself a very simple question. How do I, an EU citizen, influence EU policy? I came quite quickly to the conclusion that I couldn't"

    You could just as easily ask the same question but replace the EU with the UK. The fact is as a single citizen of a democratic country your influence is massively diluted, the only way to change the ratio is to either be incredible wealthy (and have a disproportionate influence over power as a result, something we are seeing now Vis-à-vis the funding behind the "think tanks") or give more power to local government but local government was eviscerated in the 1980's by the Grantham Grocers Daughter.

    And speaking of Margaret Hilda Thatcher, you're no doubt to young to have had the opportunity to have voted for her but had you then you would have been in the position to say that you contributed to the Single Markets creation and the enlargement of the EU into eastern Europe, at least two EU projects the UK was, for good or ill, instrumental in pushing forward.

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