Saturday, 31 December 2016

It's time to get behind the leader

In 2015 after Ed Miliband resigned following Labour's defeat in the general election, I had been planning on voting for Andy Burnham as the new leader. However, after watching Burnham's slickly produced campaign video, with cheesy music and liberal sprinklings of the latest focus group inspired buzzword, "aspiration" (Yvette Cooper was equally guilty of this) and comparing that to Corbyn's straightforward and guileless performances at the hustings, I was quickly won over to the Corbyn cause (I admit there was an element of Old Labour nostalgia involved as well) even though his views are further to the left than mine and I don't share his unilateralism or his republicanism.
By the time of the 2016 Labour leadership contest I was far less sure about whether to cast my vote for Corbyn again. Labour were tanking in the opinion polls but it was difficult to say how much of that was due to lack of support for the leadership among the parliamentary party. I dithered for a while and I actually voted for the pro-Owen Smith slate in the National Executive Committee elections. In the end, two things made me decide to give Jeremy another chance. Firstly, I disagreed with Owen Smith's policy of wanting to hold a second EU referendum, and believed this could potentially alienate a large number of voters in a forthcoming general election. Secondly, I felt that the outcome of the EU referendum and the inexorable rise of Donald Trump in America showed that we were in a period of 'anti-establishment' politics whereby large sections of the public - often those who hadn't previously taken much of an interest in politics - were intent on confounding the media and bucking the opinion polls by supporting positions that went against the perceived 'script'. I felt that, in this kind of political environment, Corbyn's unpolished style and consistent track record of conviction politics might just be what was needed to strike a chord with voters and, like Brexit and Trump, defy the expectations of the bookies and the pollsters.
Since the leadership election I have tried to remain positive about Mr Corbyn's leadership despite the fact that Labour have not made much headway in terms of opinion polls. He occasionally does a good interview and seems (sometimes, at least) to be getting better at Prime Minister's Questions. As for those reasons why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the last leadership election, well, neither of them seems to be quite so applicable any more. Firstly, I now believe we should have a second referendum - not on whether to leave the European Union but on whether or not to remain within the European Economic Area. I believe the result would show that there is no mandate for a so-called 'hard Brexit'. This is not really that different from Owen Smith's position that we should hold a second referendum on whether or not to accept whatever deal is on offer at the end of the government's Brexit negotiations.
Secondly, what I now realise is that the current anti-establishment mood among large sections of the public is a very specific form of anti-establishment politics; it has an anti-globalisation, anti-'elite' element which might chime in with some of what Corbyn stands for but it is also essentially very much a reaction against political correctness and mass immigration and it regards the left and those who, like Corbyn and those around him, call themselves socialists, as brainwashed stooges of the hated liberal 'political class'. This may be an era of anti-establishment politics but, unfortunately, in some ways at least, Jeremy Corbyn is simply the wrong kind of anti-establishment. (I'm not suggesting Labour should pander to this populist mood, it's just that I no longer think it's something that Jeremy Corbyn can necessarily benefit from significantly.)
With an unelected, authoritarian Prime Minister apparently intent on taking the UK out of the single market without a proper mandate, and NHS and social care services struggling simply to stay afloat, I can't help feeling that the Tories are getting far too easy a ride at the moment. It's essential for those of us who value the NHS, good quality state funded education and the welfare state in general that the Labour Party functions as a strong parliamemtary opposition to the current Tory regime. It's even more essential that, when the next general election is called, Labour is in a position to take votes from all sections of the public including a significant number of those who have previously voted Conservative or Liberal Democrat.
My intention, however, is not merely to be negative and I'm certainly not arguing that there should be another leadership challenge. Jeremy Corbyn may not be the finished article yet, and a leadership team made up of the likes of Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott etc. is probably not best calculated to appeal to floating voters, but the blame for Labour's current predicament cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Corbyn and his supporters. Tony Benn once likened the Labour Party to a bird, pointing out that it relied on both its wings to be able to fly. If those on the centre left and the 'right' of the party would have another crack at working with Corbyn - however difficult he may be to work with - for the good of the party and, more importantly, the good of the country, then I believe the situation can be salvaged and the Labour Party could once again become both a formidable opponent to the current government and a viable, credible government in waiting.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Aside from all the xenophobia and misogyny...

...Trump's policies will be bad for the US (and consequently the world's) economy. Protectionism can create jobs in the protected sectors but because those goods will then be more expensive, consumers have less to spend on other items, which means job losses for those who produce those items, as well as poorer consumers. Protectionism is robbing Peter to pay Paul and then robbing Paul as well! The markets are already reacting badly.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Has anyone else noticed...? (2)

Conservative MP and ardent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg and Irish Nationalist and strategic mastermind of the 1916 Easter Rising Joseph Plunkett.

I wonder if they could be related.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Everyday sexism and royal protocols

I have always tried to avoid sexist stereotypes or sexist language with my children. For example, I always use the expression 'human-made' rather than the term I was brought up with, 'man-made'. If someone in the house says, 'a man will be coming round to fix the boiler', I will always point out that we don't know whether it will be a man or a woman. My wife is now the main breadwinner in our family. Yet somehow sexist stereotyping still gets through, even with very young children. Recently I was having a conversation with my youngest children, who were then 9 and 10, about the royal family. I mentioned the fact that while the wife of a King is referred to as a Queen, the husband of a Queen who is the head of State (such as our own Queen, Elizabeth II) is not referred to as a King. I said I didn't know why this was the case and, without missing a heartbeat, my 10 year old daughter said, "It's because if they called the Queen's husband a King, it would make him seem more important than her." I was quite taken aback, as I realised she had somehow, at the age of 10, while attending a school where the vast majority of teachers were female, managed to imbibe the idea that a male is considered more important by our society than a female who does the exact same job.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

How Nigel Farage and Donald Trump persuaded me to vote for Jeremy Corbyn

I've been flipping backwards and forwards on the question of who to vote for in the Labour Leadership election ever since Owen Smith threw his hat into the ring but today my vote finally arrived and it was burning a hole in my email server, so I decided that today would be decision day. I would finally choose which side I am on. And, for a couple of reasons, I have found myself swinging back towards Jeremy Corbyn lately.
Firstly, as a member of the Labour Party I intend to help with campaigning in the run-up to the next General Election. That means that if Owen Smith becomes leader I would find myself campaigning on a manifesto which includes the staging of a second referendum on EU membership, something I am opposed to on principle as I believe to hold another EU referendum without ever implementing the decision of the first one would seriously undermine many people's faith in the democratic process in this country. Such a policy might well also alienate a lot of so-called 'traditional Labour voters'.
Secondly, while the main reason I have been seriously tempted to vote for Owen Smith is the belief that he's more likely to beat the Tories in a general election - a belief largely generated and fostered by the media and backed up by opinion polls - I can't escape the nagging feeling that maybe I'm allowing myself to be misled. After all, neither the media nor the pollsters foresaw a Tory majority in the 2015 general election and the polling companies and even the bookies were confident that the Remain campaign would win the EU referendum. Last night, in fact, Nigel Farage was in America giving a speech about "the Brexit story" to a rally of Donald Trump supporters - another politician who was initially given very little chance of success by the media, in his bid to win the Republican Party presidential nomination. 'Anti-establishment' politicians (of which, surely, Corbyn is one) seem to be doing better than expected at the moment. Perhaps the type of people who vote for such candidates and causes are less likely than others to respond to opinion polls. Jeremy hasn't been given much of a chance yet and I think he probably deserves at least one decent crack at a general election.
Maybe I'm guilty of letting my heart overrule my head, but - taking all the above points into consideration - at 9.40pm this evening I cast my vote for Jeremy Corbyn to remain as leader of the Labour Party.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Why I'll (probably) be voting for Owen Smith

I don't agree with all of Jeremy Corbyn's views and policies. I am not a Republican (at least not in the British context), I'm not sure about unilateral disarmament and I'm certainly dubious of his (past?) support for organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor do I agree with all of Owen Smith's proposed policies. I don't, for example, support a second referendum on the U.K.'s membership of the European Union. But, although I haven't made up my mind 100 percent yet (there are still over three weeks to go), I am increasingly coming to the view that in the Labour leadership election I am going to vote for Owen Smith. This is for one reason and one reason only. I think he is more likely to win a general election than Jeremy Corbyn is. That belief is based partly on intuition about who is more likely to win over vital swing voters, and partly on evidence such as this poll.
As a low paid, public sector worker and council tenant with children, some of whom are unemployed (between zero hour contracts) and some in state education, perhaps one day to go on to university, and various family members who suffer from chronic illness and are dependent on the NHS and social care, I need there to be a Labour government. I have worked for the National Health Service for 15 years and I have never seen it as on its knees as it is right now in terms of staffing levels. The NHS badly needs there to be a Labour government ASAP.
Corbyn may have a more ideologically pure political history but that counts for nothing if Labour cannot win power. Whatever happens, there will be a mountain to climb but I increasingly believe that Owen Smith is Labour's best hope of winning the next General Election.
At one of the recent hustings, the candidates were asked what they listened to on their iPods. Owen Smith mentioned some pop or rock group whose name I can't even remember. Corbyn (who I like to think doesn't own an iPod) professed to be a lover of classical and folk music. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn has much better taste in music than Owen Smith (in my opinion, anyway). Sadly, however, if, as a musician, you want to get to number one in the charts you're probably going to be better off with a catchy, slickly produced and well marketed pop song. That's just the nature of reality.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Paul Weller knew a thing or two about old Etonians

"What a catalyst you turned out to be. Loaded the guns then you ran off home for your tea." (Eton Rifles, The Jam)

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Has anyone else noticed...?

Actor Charles Dance and early 20th Century Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson.

I wonder if they could be related.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Brexit and the Irish Civil War

The pro and anti treaty debates and subsequent civil war in Ireland redefined the whole landscape of Irish politics for at least 70 years (in some ways they are still a defining factor today). The way the recent referendum has split our country into two opposing camps around a single issue has, in a small (and thankfully less bloody) way, helped me (as someone who is interested in early 20th Century Irish history) to understand how such a lasting re-entrenchment could have occured.

The new divide in UK politics

I've long been uncomfortable with the distinction in politics between the traditional categories of 'left' and 'right'. In the aftermath of the referendum it seems to me that a new political divide is becoming apparent, one that is perhaps more visceral or emotional in character yet in many ways more relevant to the current political scene. I would characterise the two camps on either side of this divide as follows.
On the one hand there are those who believe representative democracy is superior to direct democracy (which is really just a vehicle for populism); who tend to - as Michael Gove might put it - trust 'experts' to make the right decisions and who believe strongly in the importance of international and intergovernmental cooperation.
On the other, there are those who believe that the public as a whole is more qualified to make political decisions and judgements than any individual or select group, however apparently well qualified; who are more likely to question the opinions of experts however well educated or well established in their fields they may be and who are mistrustful of people or institutions weilding large amounts of power.
Although I think that most of the people who voted the same way as me in the referendum probably fall into the first category, I have to admit that I am not sure which of the two groups I would most readily place myself in.

My thoughts on A.C. Grayling's letter to Parliament

A friend today drew my attention to this article by the philosopher A.C. Grayling. Below are my comments on the article:

Interesting article but I would want to question a few of Prof Grayling's premises, eg.
1) Is membership of the EU actually a term of the UK constitution (such that we have one)?
2) Should the judgement of elected representatives be given superior weight over that of ordinary citizens even when those citizens have had months to independently study the relevant facts? If so, what does this imply about the intellectual capabilities of 'ordinary people'?
3) The fact that a majority of the electorate didn't vote for Brexit is a good point but people have a right to abstain from taking part in the decision making process and to trust those with stronger views to make the decision on their behalf. Does this really invalidate the decision of the majority of those who did vote?

I did not want our country to leave the European Union but, now that the majority have voted to do so, I think that to ignore their wishes would set a dangerous and highly divisive precedent. Far better, in my opinion, to try for a post-EU deal that sees the UK retain free movement and membership of the single market, thus keeping the best aspects of EU membership while assuaging the concerns about sovereignty held by many of those who voted to leave.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

A possible way forward for our divided country

Here's my humble suggestion for a possible way forward for our rather bruised and divided country post-referendum: With the tory brexiters apparently rowing back (at least a bit) from the pre-referendum anti-immigrant rhetoric (and the, admittedly remote, possibility that the tories might not even be in power in a few months) it seems very possible that we could end up with the so-called 'Norway Option' - membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which is basically the single market, without full membership of the EU. Rather than agitating for a 2nd referendum or for the government to simply ignore the referendum result - which will only lead to further division and bitterness - perhaps the best thing would be for those who voted remain and those who voted leave (apart from those whose leave vote was purely motivated by anti-immigrant feeling which - Jeremy Kyle-esque news interviews with white van drivers in pie and mash shops notwithstanding - is undoubtedly nowhere near all of them) to push for EEA membership as a compromise. Remain voters would surely be pleased that we would get to retain the EU's 'four freedoms' (freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and people) - at least to the same extent that the remaining 27 EU member states do - and those on both sides of the divide with concerns about sovereignty or the so-called 'democratic deficit' would surely be pleased by the fact that the UK would no longer be under the direct jurisdiction of Brussels. True, we would no longer have a vote in the Council of Ministers and we would have no MEPs, but we would undoubtedly still have a pretty significant influence over EU policy due to the size of our population and (once it gets back on its feet) our economy. Those who are obsessed with keeping immigrants out of the UK would not be happy but, considering the leave vote was only 52%, such people are without doubt only a minority of the electorate. I would, therefore, argue that the referendum result does not have to be interpreted as a mandate to reject freedom of movement.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Initial thoughts on the Brexit vote III

I voted (and campaigned) to remain in the EU but I think that holding a second referendum because we didn't get the desired result would be a dangerous affront to the whole concept of democracy in this country, so I will not be signing any petitions or supporting any moves to overturn the will of the majority of the UK electorate.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Initial thoughts on the Brexit vote II

Once the parties have sorted their leadership issues out I think we should have a general election so the public get to decide the government that negotiates the terms of the Brexit.

Initial thoughts on the Brexit vote

I think there are potentially a lot of bad consequences of yesterday's vote. But hopefully President Obama meant it when he said we would be "at the back of the queue" for a trade deal with America. At least that way we might now have seen the back of TTIP as far as the UK (or whatever's left of it) is concerned.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The EU is no threat to UK sovereignty

Here's another analogy about the European Union and sovereignty.

Many people would argue that, in a representative democracy, sovereignty ultimately lies with the people (at least with that part of the people that comprise the electorate). Yet the people do not directly formulate every policy that a national government introduces, nor do they get to vote on every piece of legislation that is proposed in a national parliament. However, if a significant number of constituents are unhappy with the way their government is operating, the latter must take notice of that because otherwise they run the risk of being voted out at the next election, when the people exercise their sovereignty in its most direct sense. When the election comes, if the people are still not happy, the government will fall.
Likewise, the UK electorate do not get to formulate EU law or to vote in the European Parliament. But if a majority of us are happy with the broad sweep of current EU law then we will, democratically, choose to remain a part of the European Union, much like an individual in the UK voting for a political party, whose manifesto she is in general agreement with, to form the domestic government. Similarly, if enough of us are unhappy with the consequences of EU membership, we will democratically elect to leave, either in the upcoming referendum or at some point in the future (as I pointed out in Chapter 1, there is no reason why there can't be another referendum on EU membership in the future - if enough people want one, they will elect a government that offers one), in much the same way that people will vote to depose a domestic government with which they are unhappy.
The foregoing analogy shows that, no matter how democratic or otherwise the internal institutions of the European Union may be, the UK's membership of the EU is no more of a threat to popular sovereignty than is our own national system of representative democracy.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Yesterday's Daily Mail headline

It's a good thing the NHS is able to recruit nurses from abroad as the Trust I work for finds it extremely difficult to recruit and retain nursing staff at the moment and I believe that is true for most, if not all, NHS Trusts. Without nurses from overseas the already seriously overstretched health service would probably collapse. As for the accusation that bosses are using cheap labour, I wouldn't disagree. Those 'bosses' are the Conservative government so beloved of the Daily Mail, who have held down public sector pay for the last 6 years and now even removed bursaries from student nurses. It's good to know the Mail has finally seen the light and decided to speak out in favour of a decent pay rise for our longsuffering NHS nursing staff!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Just in case you are interested... are the links for my other blogs:

"Free Armenian Lessons" (short lessons in both Eastern and Western Armenian).

"Andrew's Art" (drawings and paintings including a few home-made greeting cards).

"Luther's Marbles" (a blog about the Doctrine of the Trinity).

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Another analogy about the EU and the 'sovereignty issue'

If I decide to give up going to work, I'll have a lot more personal sovereignty - I'll be able to decide for myself, without any outside interference, exactly what I'm going to do with my time all day long, seven days a week. The downside, though, is that the company I currently work for will undoubtedly cease to pay my wages and that would be something of a disaster for me, since I would no longer be able to pay my rent or even afford to eat. So I suppose I had better carry on going to work, while maybe agitating for better terms and conditions - and, of course, should the time ever come when the benefits of going to work are no longer sufficiently appealing to outweigh the attraction of being able to do my own thing all day long, then I know I will be free to simply hand in my resignation and walk off the job. If that were not the case then I would be no more than a slave.
Similarly, were the UK to leave the European Union, it would notionally regain a certain amount of sovereignty but it would lose the undoubted benefits of full access to the single market (unless it agreed to obey nearly all of the EU's rules - although now with a much reduced say over what form those rules take). However, should the time ever come when the benefits of participation in the single market are no longer considered by the UK public to be worth the price of having to adhere to EU legislation then the country will be free to exercise its ultimate sovereignty and leave the European Union - because that Union is, in the end, a freely made, democratically mandated one and not some kind of old style Empire which forcibly denies independence to its constituent nations.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Brussels hold 'em

Essentially, my view on the question of whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union boils down to this: at present, there are no significant EU laws that I strongly disagree with. Should that situation change and the EU introduce legislation that I consider bad enough that it is not worth the benefits of EU membership (eg. direct access to the single market) then I will not hesitate to switch sides on the issue and go back to being opposed to UK membership of the EU.
The other day I heard someone on the radio point out that, were the UK to leave the European Union it would probably be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to rejoin; whereas if we remain in the EU for now, we can always leave at a later date if need be. I totally agree with that analysis.
To put my view as succinctly as possible, for anyone familiar with the rules of poker - why fold when you could simply check?

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

EFTA/EEA (or, can we afjord to take the 'Norway Option'?)

In a previous post I explained how, from initially holding quite strongly Eurosceptic views, I had come to believe that membership of the European Union does not, so long as the UK is free to leave the EU at any time should it so wish, represent a diminution of the overall sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. It merely involves a pooling of sovereignty in specific areas of policy in order to facilitate a sovereign decision to be part of a 'club' which brings with it the benefits of free trade within a single market.
Recently, however, I have been looking into the possible arrangements being put forward by those campaigning to leave the EU. One such option is for the UK to apply to become a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and so continue to trade within the European Economic Area (EEA). I have to confess that until fairly recently, although I was aware of the existence of EFTA and the EEA, I did not know much about how they worked, or, to be honest, which countries were involved.
I now know that the EEA countries - Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein - while not being members of the EU, have an agreement which allows them pretty much full access to the single market. In return they are obliged to mirror most EU legislation, including the requirement for freedom of movement for EU citizens. If this option were on the table at the referendum as the form that a 'Brexit' would take, I can see that it might be very tempting for those like myself (and, I believe, a large proportion of the UK electorate) who are in favour of the single market and open borders within Europe but wary of the more political aspects of the EU and of the concept of 'ever closer union'. (As things stand, most ‘leave’ campaigners seem to be of the view that the UK should negotiate its own specific trade arrangements with the EU rather than take advantage of the existing arrangements within EFTA and the EEA.)
However, as far as I can see, the only real advangtage of trading with Europe through the EEA would be that the UK would retain the ability to negotiate its own Free Trade Agreements with other countries - a role that it currently has to leave in the hands of EU trade negotiators. And some might say that this is not an advantage at all, considering the number of seperate trade deals that the UK would have to negotiate from scratch. There are a few aspects of EU law that we would not be required to implement but, it seems to me, the only particularly significant opt out is the fact that EFTA countries are not part of the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. (I must admit that, as a former Londoner who now lives in the Home Counties, about as far from the sea as it's possible to be in Britain, I really don't have much experience of farming or fishing although I understand that there are both advantages and disadvantages to EU membership for those engaged in these industries.)
The downside of EEA membership is that, although EEA countries are consulted about potential new EU legislation, they do not have a 'seat at the table' when such legislation is made. As one country in 28, the amount of clout that the UK has when it comes to decisions about the final form of new EU laws and directives is debatable but as one of the more economically powerful of the EU countries and with the financial importance that the city of London has, I suspect our influence is very significant. There is no doubt that there is always a danger of increasing centralisation with a supranational body like the EU. There is a kind of gravitational pull exercised by larger political entities over smaller ones, where the powers of the latter are always in danger of being sucked up and taken over by the former. However, to attempt to address this problem by leaving the club is not, in my opinion, the appropriate solution. As we have seen, unless we want to do serious damage to our economy by excluding ourselves from the single market, we will still have to abide by most EU laws whether we are members or not. The best way to ensure that the principle of subsidiarity is adhered to and that the EU does not encroach on areas that are best left to national governments is to foster a strong culture of democratic engagement amongst domestic populations, so that national governments know exactly how much power their home electorates will tolerate being ceded to Brussels and that they will be punished at the ballot box if they do not stand up to the EU where necessary. Without a strong democratic culture, it makes little difference whether we are in or out of either the EU, EFTA or any other political organisation - economic and political elites will have a free hand to act as they wish without any fear of being held to account.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Sardarapat guitar chords (also called Sartarabad / Sardarabad)

I was trying to find the guitar chords for this patriotic Armenian song about a great military victory in 1918 which basically preserved the existence of the Armenian nation. I was unable to find the chords (in spite of the fact that it's been covered by Armenian-American band System Of A Down!) so I worked some out for myself:

(Dm)Երբ չի մնում (F)ելք ու (Dm)ճար,
(F)Խենթերն (Dm)են գտ(G)նում հ(C))նար.
(F)Այսպես (Dm)ծագեց, (G)արե(Em)գակեց
(G)Սարդարա(Am)պատի (F)մարտը (Dm)մեծ:

Զան(F)գեր ղողան(C)ջեք,
Սր(F)բազան (C)քաջեր(Dm)ին (C)կան(F)չեք
(G)Այս ար(C)դար մար(F)տին:
Սե(Bflat)րունդներ դուք ձեզ (F)ճանաչեք

Ավարայրից ջանք առանք,
Այստեղ մի պահ կանգ առանք,
Որ շունչ առած, շունչներս տանք
Սարդարապատի պատի տակ:

Զանգեր ղողանջեք,
Սրբազան քաջերին կանչեք
Այս արդար մարտին:
Սերունդներ դուք ձեզ ճանաչեք

Բայց մենք չընկանք,
Մենք միշտ կանք,
Մենք չհանգանք դեռ կգանք,
Երբ տան զանգը, ահազանգը.
Որ մեր հոգու պարտքը տանք:

Զանգեր ղողանջեք,
Սրբազան քաջերին կանչեք
Այս արդար մարտին:
Սերունդներ դուք ձեզ ճանաչեք

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

EU thought experiment

Imagine that the European Union does not exist, and never has done (a nightmare scenario for some, a beautiful dream for others!) Now imagine that another country (let's say Switzerland, for example) offered to pay the United Kingdom £70 billion per year on condition that we copied all of Switzerland's laws and implemented them into UK law - but only in certain fields (say, human rights, health and safety, immigration, employment rights and VAT) and that, following a referendum, the UK agreed to enter into such an arrangement, on the understanding that our parliament could vote to break off this arrangement at any time.
Now, it is perfectly possible that a majority of people in the country might not like one - or even all - of the laws made for us by Switzerland but still choose to retain the arrangement in order to receive the £70 billion annual payoff. And it is equally possible that a majority could decide that the Swiss-made laws were too onerous and no longer worth the money, in which case they would elect a government to take us out of the arrangement with Switzerland.
The point of this analogy is not to argue that the UK benefits financially from the EU (although I am pretty confident that it does, through the single market and its associated advantages) but to show that at no point in the scenario described above, whether the UK public like or dislike the legislation imposed on them by Switzerland, whether choosing to retain or abandon the arrangement with Switzerland, does the Westminster parliament cease to be the sovereign decision-making authority for the UK and at no point does democracy cease to operate or the will of the UK electorate cease to be implemented.
What this shows is that by 'contracting out' some legislative powers to the European Union, the ultimate sovereignty of the UK parliament in Westminster is in no way negated or diminished.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

This week I am mostly voting to remain in the European Union

I used to be very opposed to the UK’s membership of the European Union for reasons that I outlined in this post back in May 2013. However, over the last couple of years I have become more sympathetic towards the EU and, as things stand, I intend to vote to remain within the European Union when the referendum on UK membership takes place on 23rd June this year.
In the post linked to above, I gave two main reasons for being opposed to the European Union: Firstly, its size, and the concomitant diminution of my power as a voter (as well as the fact that the size of a government may be inversely proportionate to its efficiency of operation and may also make it more liable to 'capture' by corporate interests which are more capable of lobbying etc. compared to members of the public, for whom a continent wide government seems - and in many ways is - distant and remote). I still think this is a problem, and national governments should, in my opinion, work hard to push back against the inevitable gravitational pull of a large, centralised EU and try to make sure that only those powers which are relevant to the continent as a whole are retained by that institution. However, one of the big issues of our time is the increasing power of transnational corporations and the best chance that people have for holding these institutions to account is through a continent wide approach. The EU population (and therefore the number of consumers in the market) is nearly eight times larger than that of the UK. This means that the EU has eight times the bargaining power (and eight times the clout) of the UK when it comes to negotiating with - and regulating and taxing - the financial powers that be. Also, a united front among European countries when it comes to minimum levels of taxation, health and safety standards and workers' rights is the best way to prevent a race to the bottom as individual countries fight to retain profitable businesses within their own borders. At one time it may have been possible for governments to provide public services by taxing workers’ incomes in order to pay for them. However, over the last 30 years, an increasingly high percentage of the profits of industry and commerce has gone to owners and shareholders as opposed to workers, which means that in order to continue to provide good quality services it will increasingly be necessary for governments to be able to tax companies’ profits at a reasonable level. At a time when the power of corporations is growing, then, transnational unity among governments is surely a rational response.
The second reason I gave for being against the EU was the fact that there is no common language for Europe, which limits the possibilities for continent-wide public debate, so making it harder for the EU electorate to hold the EU institutions to account. I still think this is an issue, but a far less serious one than I used to think. This is because, as long as the UK parliament is the sovereign body in this country, then there is no actual threat to democracy from the EU. If we, as a country, choose to pool some of our sovereignty with other European countries then that is a decision that has been democratically arrived at through our own national institutions and one that we could reverse at any time - again through our own democratic institutions - should we, as a national electorate, so wish. Notwithstanding the fact that George Osborne recently described the upcoming referendum as settling the question of the UK's EU membership (or non-membership) for 'a generation' (and I have heard other politicians describe it as settling the question 'once and for all'), the fact is that even if the forthcoming referendum results in the UK remaining in the EU, should a majority of the UK public decide at any point in the future that it wishes to leave then there is nothing to stop it from voting in a government which would take the country out of the EU. What I am trying to get at is that it is okay to 'outsource' some of the functions of government to an institution which is perhaps less than optimally democratic, provided the decision so to do is arrived at democratically and that there are democratic procedures in place for reversing that decision. (To put it bluntly, if the United Kingdom’s domestic political system is sufficiently democratic that the ‘public will’ is reflected in government policy, then should the majority of the UK electorate at any given time wish to leave the European Union, the government will respond accordingly and implement that wish. In such circumstances, membership of the EU cannot be construed as any kind of threat to the sovereignty or self-determination of the UK and its citizens. However, if the UK’s domestic political system is not sufficiently democratic that the ‘public will’ is reflected in government policy, then to leave the EU with the intention of returning to a more democratic, responsive and popular form of government would be an exercise in fantasy and futility.) Incidentally, I think it is this non-compulsory aspect of EU membership that differentiates the EU from the traditional idea of an Empire and also helps to ensure the principle of subsidiarity – that is, the principle that the EU should only intervene in matters where national governments acting alone would not be sufficiently effective.
The advantages of EU membership in terms of free trade and a single market (and of having a seat at the table that decides on the rules of that single market - rules which are necessary to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of health and safety and working conditions) and in terms of encouraging inward investment into the UK are so great that, in my opinion, it is worth pooling a certain amount of our sovereignty in the manner described above, in order to retain these.
Finally, there are two additional reasons why I would like the UK to remain in the EU. Firstly, I have friends (and will soon have a relative through the marriage of one of my nephews) who are legally resident in this country because of the freedom of movement that our EU membership brings. Even when I was opposed to the EU I was not against the freedom to live and work in the country of one's choice, but I fear that should the UK leave the EU there could possibly be a threat to the right of these friends and relatives to remain in the UK or to become UK citizens should they so wish.
Secondly, there is a very real possibility that, should the UK withdraw from the EU, Scotland would vote to leave the UK. Not only that, but if Scotland were to be admitted to the EU as an independent country while the rest of the UK was outside of the EU, then there could be an actual border complete with customs and the need for passport controls between Scotland and the rest of Britain. A similar situation could obtain with regard to the island of Ireland, where a vote for the UK to leave the EU could result in the reinstatement of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic, undoing one of the achievements of the peace process.