A triple-option EU referendum is the most logical, though unlikely, solution

David Cameron is due to make his long-awaited speech on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU later today. This was of course expected to be given last Friday but was cancelled owing to the hostage crisis in Algeria.

There are four main approaches the prime minister could in theory adopt, whose respective advantages and disadvantages I discuss below:

  1. Judging from the numerous pre-speech hints and briefings both last week and this, the option Cameron appears to be going for is to use the fiscal union of the eurozone countries, which will possibly require amendments to the Lisbon Treaty, as an opportunity to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU following a Conservative victory in the 2015 general election. The negotiation will aim to achieve the repatriation of certain powers, and the deal will be put to the electorate in what is being billed as an in / out referendum some time around, say, 2018. In other words, if the new relationship with the EU is rejected by voters, the UK will leave the EU.

Cameron’s intention here is clearly to transform the EU from an issue that could damage him and the Conservatives in the 2015 general election to one that could help him: ‘vote Conservative and you’ll get an in / out referendum’. In particular, he will argue there is no need for disaffected Tories to vote UKIP, as he has responded to their concerns by agreeing to renegotiate some of the key terms of the UK’s EU membership; and if they don’t like what’s on offer after the negotiations, they can vote to leave the EU in the referendum. Equally, Cameron hopes this will put an end to the squabbling in his own party on the issue so that it does not harm the party in 2015.

If, however, it is Labour that forms the next government – whether on its own or in coalition with the Lib Dems – they will almost certainly offer neither negotiations on a new deal nor an in / out referendum. This would let Mr Cameron off the hook, in fact, as he may in reality not be too keen on making significant changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU. If, on the other hand, Cameron does win a majority in 2015, he will then be in position to come up with only a relatively minor readjustment of the UK’s terms of EU membership and would probably succeed in obtaining the electorate’s consent for it in a referendum.

The problem with this strategy, if I’ve read it right, is that it makes Mr Cameron a hostage to fortune while also running the risk that the Europe issue will rumble on unresolved for years to come. For a start, it’s far from obvious that a commitment to renegotiate if the Conservatives are voted in to power in 2015 would neutralise the UKIP threat or satisfy the Tory eurosceptics. Recent polling, for example, suggests that the EU is only the fifth-most important issue for potential UKIP voters, behind the economy, immigration, unemployment and crime. Many Tory backbenchers and activists are also likely to be unhappy with what they would see as merely a vague promise to renegotiate the UK’s position.

And that is always supposing that the EU and its member states would be willing to enter negotiations on a looser relationship with the UK in the first place. This is far from clear. After all, they’ve got a eurozone crisis and fiscal union to be getting on with; and just because the UK doesn’t want to press ahead with ever closer union, that doesn’t mean the rest of Europe should entertain the UK’s demands to re-write Lisbon and loosen its ties with the EU. On top of which, there is in fact no provision within the Treaty of European Union for renegotiating a state’s membership of it. On the contrary, a state has to declare an intention to leave the EU altogether before negotiations can begin on what the new relationship between that state and the EU might be. As Article 50 of the Treaty – as consolidated within the Lisbon Treaty – states:

“A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”

Indeed, at the time that the Lisbon Treaty was signed by the UK, in 2010, the fact that there is no agreed mechanism for an individual country to renegotiate its terms was given by the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties as a reason why they would not be offering a referendum on it at the 2010 election. And this is also why both parties said they would offer a referendum on the EU only when further powers were transferred from the UK to the EU (i.e. not the case with the fiscal union), and duly passed such a provision into UK law. So to argue now that a renegotiation is possible without a prior intention to leave the EU having been expressed by the UK government is at best inconsistent, at worst disingenuous.

In other words, this option is all about politics: Cameron aims to paint himself as the champion of renegotiation, and if the other EU member states are unwilling to enter into negotiations, he can make out that the lack of progress is down to their intransigeance rather than his own unreasonableness. Cameron can always threaten the UK’s EU partners that snubbing the UK on renegotiation will only intensify demands for the UK to quit the EU altogether. But to be honest, our EU partners are more likely to call Cameron’s bluff – supposing he’s still in power at that point, that is. With Prime Minister Miliband in No. 10, there’ll be no bluff to call.

So this whole scenario has huge potential to unravel horribly: if it doesn’t satisfy potential UKIP voters or Tory eurosceptics; if the Tories lose the next election; and if the EU is unwilling to play ball.

2.    So what if, as some have suggested, the UK holds a referendum to obtain a mandate for renegotiation before kicking off the negotiations? This option involves two referendums: one at the beginning of the process and one at the end to ratify the deal.

The most obvious problem with this suggestion is that you might not actually get a mandate via the initial referendum, i.e. the renegotiation option would be rejected by the electorate. In addition, the ‘no’ verdict would be ambiguous, in that ‘no’ voters would be made up of both supporters of the status quo and supporters of the UK’s exit from the EU. In addition, even if the ‘yes’ side did win the mandate referendum, this solution would be subject to the same uncertainties and ambiguities of option 1 discussed above: would it satisfy potential UKIP voters and Tory eurosceptics? Would the EU play along and agree to negotiate? Would an incoming Labour government reduce the scope of any renegotiation? And would the British people endorse any agreement that was reached in a second referendum?

There are too many uncertainties with this option; and whether renegotiation was approved or rejected in a mandate referendum, nothing would be settled for several years to come on the big question of whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or not.

3.    So why not just get this question settled once and for all via an in / out referendum held as soon as possible, preferably ahead of the next general election? This might at least provide the UK government with the real mandate it requires to go to the EU and begin negotiations, as set out in the Treaty of European Union, discussed above.

A straightforward in / out referendum is the preferred option of those opposed to the UK’s EU membership, including UKIP. Many of them are clearly confident the ‘No2EU’ cause would win out in such a referendum, but I’m not so sure. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner pointed out last week, precedent would tend to suggest that the status quo would in fact win, even if the ‘no’ camp were ahead in the polls at the start of the campaign. And if a majority did vote for the UK to remain in the EU, that wouldn’t really settle the matter either, because there would be a sizeable section of the population that still wanted the UK to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU while remaining a member state.

If, on the other hand, the ‘out’ camp did win an in / out referendum, then negotiations for the ‘Brexit’ (British exit) could begin. What would probably happen then, in my view, is that the European Commission and our fellow-EU member states would scurry around in a state of panic, and would offer a series of substantive concessions allowing the UK government to achieve most of its policy objectives while remaining within the EU. This could include withdrawal from the Social Chapter and the repatriation of powers relating to freedom of movement (i.e. the ability to restrict immigration from EU countries), justice and policing, employment law, welfare benefits, and a host of economic, regulatory and environmental legislation.

Even if the eventual deal did involve a Brexit, the form this would take would probably not be very different from a package allowing the UK to remain in the EU but with more independence in the areas I have just referred to. In essence, both would be a form of associate membership or affiliation, allowing the UK to access the Single Market but without entering into the full political project of the EU, which is viewed by many as tending towards establishing a federal European super-state. Whatever deal was reached through negotiation, this would be put to the British people in a referendum.

This is not a bad outcome; but, as I say, it is dependent on the anti-EU side of the argument winning an in / out referendum, which is far from certain. In addition, if Labour did win the 2015 election, an incoming Labour government would almost certainly wish to negotiate a less radical separation from the EU, which would probably involve remaining in the EU and retaining the Social Chapter along with many other elements of the status quo. A Labour government would be honour-bound to offer a second referendum on whatever deal emerged, and it would probably win such a referendum, for the reasons discussed above: when push comes to shove, the British people are more likely to back the status quo, especially if some concessions have been made and a limited number of powers have been repatriated.

So even an in / out referendum now probably wouldn’t settle matters. And there’s another, unspoken, reason why the British government is reluctant to offer the public an in / out referendum now: its possible impact on the Scottish-independence referendum in 2014. First, there’s the obvious point that if the Scottish people were to vote for independence, it would no longer be the UK government that would be negotiating on its terms of EU membership but the governments of two ‘new’ states. The rump-UK state (rUK) would doubtless lay claim to being the continuity-UK and the inheritor of the present UK’s legal personality and international agreements, including membership of the EU. But regardless whether this blithe assumption is founded or not, an impending break-up of the UK would make the need for negotiations on rUK’s and Scotland’s EU status unavoidable, especially as it is generally accepted that the English are more inclined towards looser ties with the continent than the Scots.

This variation in attitudes towards the EU north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border is another reason why an in / out referendum now would be potential dynamite. Imagine a situation in which the Scots – and maybe the Welsh and Northern Irish, too – voted to remain in the EU but the English voted to leave, swinging the overall vote in favour of the Brexit! That would really add fuel to the fire of the Scottish-independence cause, just ahead of the crucial independence referendum. The SNP would be able to tell Scottish voters that if Scotland remained part of the UK, the English would take the UK out of the EU, notwithstanding Scottish opinion in the matter.

By contrast, imagine if the margin of victory for the pro-EU cause in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were large enough to tip the balance in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, against the will of the majority of English-resident voters! That would be a ‘West Lothian referendum’, in which the UK voted to remain an EU member while England voted to quit! Now wouldn’t that wake up the sleeping lion of English nationalism! Clearly, the UK government is just not going to go there, and so an in / out referendum before the Scottish referendum is a non-starter; and there is too little time between the Scottish vote (probably in November 2014) and the next UK general election, in May 2015, to hold an in / out EU referendum.

Of course, another reason why Cameron is unwilling to stick his neck out and offer an in / out referendum now is that he probably wouldn’t win support for it in Parliament. This is because neither Labour nor Cameron’s Lib Dem coalition partners would vote for it. Indeed, sizeable numbers of europhile Tory MPs would also reject the idea. In other words, this could easily lead to the break-up of the coalition and even the end of the present government if Cameron chose to make it an issue of confidence and was still outvoted. So if Cameron offered to hold an in / out referendum now, he could find himself having to go to the country in a general election in 2013 and asking the public to approve an in / out referendum that had been rejected by Parliament. So, rather than jeopardise his premiership now, he will instead offer the same choice at the scheduled election time instead. This means, of course, that the issue will not go away, at least until 2015. But it will probably rumble on for some time afterwards, given how un-straightforward the renegotiation in fact is, as discussed in relation to options 1 and 2 above.

4.    This leaves alternative No. 4: a three-option referendum, to be held as soon as possible. As the name suggests, this would canvass the public’s opinion on all three options: the status quo, renegotiation / looser relationship, or quitting. On the ballot paper, the question could be posed as follows:

With which of these statements do you agree the most:

a)        The United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, with the same balance of powers between the United Kingdom and the European Union as exists at present ;

b)        The United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, but should negotiate with the European Union to repatriate certain powers that have previously been passed from the United Kingdom to the European Union;

c)        The United Kingdom should leave the European Union altogether.

Clearly, one problem with a multi-option referendum is that you can fail to obtain a majority mandate for any of the options. However, in this instance, this can be overcome very simply by requiring voters to indicate a second preference. In the event that none of the options on the ballot paper wins a majority of first-preference votes, the second-preference totals for all of the options are added to the first preferences. This is different from the Supplementary Vote (SV) system, which is presently used for London mayor elections, and where only the top-two candidates go into the second round of voting, and only second-preference votes for either of these two remaining candidates are added to their first-preference totals.

The pitfall with using SV for the multi-option referendum is that it’s quite possible that option b above (renegotiation) would gain the lowest total of first preferences but the highest total of first and second preferences combined, as supporters of the status quo and the UK’s exit from the EU would mostly pick renegotiation as their second choice. For this reason, using this system, it’s almost inevitable that the consensus choice – renegotiation – would win comfortably in the second round.

It is of course an outside possibility that the status quo or the Brexit would win an outright majority in the first round of voting, in which case the mandate is clear: winning an overall majority when there are three options on the table is a far more convincing victory than when there are only two choices. On the other hand, it is distinctly possible that the option of quitting the EU would win the plurality – the largest number of votes but not a majority – in the first round. This, too, would send a very clear message to the EU and would put the UK in a strong position to negotiate a favourable deal: it would demonstrate that more people favoured leaving the EU altogether than any other course of action. Similarly, as the totals for all three options would add up to effectively 200% if the referendum went into a second round, it is quite likely that, even if it did not win, the Brexit would be supported to some degree – either as their first or second choice – by a majority of voters. This would orchestrate the UK’s clear message to the EU even further.

Of course, if the voting system I propose is used, it’s entirely possible that all three options would obtain the support of a majority of voters on first- and second-preference votes combined. However, for the reasons given above, it is likely that renegotiation would get near to 100%, so long as it is mandatory to indicate a second preference on the ballot paper (which is the only way to ensure that at least one option does win a majority). Another way of putting this is that renegotiation would be unacceptable to only a very small percentage of voters (100% minus the share of first and second preferences won by the renegotiation option); whereas the status quo or the Brexit would be unacceptable to considerably more people. And as a very high percentage of voters would have supported renegotiation to some degree, this is something the country could unite around.

Incidentally, this way of conducting a three-option referendum makes it very unlikely that England would vote differently from the UK’s other nations: the consensus option would almost certainly win through consistently across the whole UK. It’s possible that leaving the EU would gain the plurality in the first round in England but not in the UK’s other nations; but then renegotiation would win comfortably in England, too, in the second round. This makes a three-option referendum viable ahead of the Scottish-independence referendum.

When it came to ratifying the eventual deal reached in any negotiations, there would be a need only for a two-option question: ‘do you agree to the new terms of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union that have been negotiated by the United Kingdom government?’. Answer: yes or no. If the country has indeed got behind the negotiations, thanks in part to the three-option referendum showing this course of action commands the strongest support of any of the alternatives available, then it is unlikely the deal reached would be rejected in the second referendum.

The three-option referendum would, then, be the most logical and the least divisive course of action. However, it would also rely on Mr Cameron being able to pass the measure in Parliament. The saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ could perhaps apply here: this much more reasonable, balanced approach could obtain the support of the Lib Dems, so long as Cameron was prepared to make concessions to the Lib Dems in other areas, e.g. resurrecting Lords reform.

But probably Cameron is ultimately not really interested in bringing about any radical changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU, still less in risking the UK’s departure from the EU. So he will undoubtedly go down the ‘political’ road of option 1, if the pre-speech briefings are to be believed. In other words: ‘vote Conservative if you want the chance to moderate or terminate the UK’s membership of the EU’. But if the Tories do win an outright majority in 2015, don’t expect or fear anything too radical.

Plus ça change, as they might say in certain parts of the continent!

PS. Cameron duly gave his EU speech, starting just after 8 am this morning (Wednesday 23 January 2013): a lot earlier than I expected.

He did indeed set out the much-briefed option 1: taking victory in the 2015 general election as conferring a mandate to re-negotiate the UK’s position in the EU, including possibly via a new treaty relating to all 28 members (including Croatia, who will have joined by then); and then offering a straight in / out choice between accepting the new deal or exiting the EU.

My first reaction is that using the general election as a mandate referendum is entirely illegitimate. For a start, even if the Conservatives do succeed in winning an overall parliamentary majority, this will be on no more than around 40% of the popular vote. By contrast, Labour and the Lib Dems – neither of which are likely to include a referendum in their manifestos – will almost certainly win a larger combined share of the popular vote than the Conservatives, as they have done in every election since the Lib Dems’ formation and even earlier, in the days of the Lib-SDP Alliance. Therefore, using the election as a mandate referendum is a way to circumvent the requirement to gain the support of a majority of voters for re-negotiation, and robs the process of the democratic legitimacy that the contrary process – greater EU integration – has suffered from over so many decades.

In addition, presenting the public with only two choices after the negotiations have been completed – assuming negotiations will even take place – is also unfair. The British people will be forced to choose between staying in the EU on the terms that a Conservative government has negotiated or leaving altogether; but we won’t be offered the choice of remaining in the EU on the existing terms. Therefore, pro-EU voters will be forced to accept the new parameters of Britain’s relationship with the EU, based largely on neo-liberal economic principles: the Single Market at the centre of the whole EU exercise, but with the UK free to determine its own industrial, labour and welfare regulations, with fewer protections for British workers than are enjoyed by workers throughout the rest of the EU. (Never mind the paradox that this freedom of British industry to be more ‘competitive’, as Cameron would say, actually undermines the Single Market, because the Single Market is based on everyone playing by the same rules.)

In other words, the whole process would be skewed in favour of a Conservative ideological agenda, and the British people will not in fact have the choice they deserve, which is between three options: the status quo, and potentially the UK participating in even greater EU integration at some future point; a looser relationship, based mainly on economic competitiveness and free trade, as set out by David Cameron this morning; or a UK exit. Only a triple-option referendum, such as I set out above, can deliver that full choice.

Advertisements

If Cameron doesn’t want to be “Prime Minister of England”, he should resign as PM for the UK

In his ‘playing hardball on Scottish independence interview’ with the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, David Cameron repeated his oft-quoted, infamous remark: “I don’t want to be Prime Minister of England, I want to be Prime Minister of the whole United Kingdom”.

Of course, what Cameron is alluding to is a scenario for when Scotland has gained its independence; and it’s interesting in itself that he thinks his post as UK PM would then evolve into one of “Prime Minister for England” (as opposed to, say, Prime Minister for the ‘United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’).

But that aside, should we be surprised that Cameron is displaying such unashamed contempt for the idea of being an English prime minister for England? Not only contempt, but ignorance of his present role, because he already is effectively a prime minister for England in all the devolved policy areas: those mere bagatelles of education, health, social care, communities and local government, planning, housing, transport, the environment, etc., etc.

The question is, does Mr Cameron want to be a prime minister, or should we say ‘First Minister’, for England in all these policy areas? If not, he should resign as UK PM, because that post involves a dual responsibility: for reserved, UK matters and devolved, English matters. If he doesn’t want to provide national leadership, vision and responsibility (his favourite word) for England in these areas, he quite simply isn’t fit for purpose in his present job.

English parliament

UK-government referendum on Scottish independence: bring it on, Mr Cameron!

Given the almighty mess he is in over the ‘Hackgate’ scandal, and the all-too cosy relationship he has cultivated with Rupert Murdoch and his News International organisation, I can’t think of anything more bonkers that David Cameron could do than force an early referendum on Scottish independence, as he is reported to be considering.

The risks in so doing would be huge, and the chances are that the Scottish people would give Mr Cameron a bloody nose and vote for independence, especially if the referendum were billed as a ‘consultative’ poll: a vote on the principle of separation, with the fine details to be decided in subsequent negotiations between the UK and Scottish governments, while the eventual deal would be submitted for the Scottish people’s endorsement in a second referendum.

Mr Cameron might be tempted to call Mr Salmond’s bluff in this way in order to make a stand for the legitimacy and authority of UK governance at a time when these are being called into question as never before. This is almost a classic case of scapegoating: projecting the threat to the established order onto an easy external target and scoring a quick victory over it, rather than addressing the root causes of the body politic’s internal malaise. If Cameron lost his referendum, then not only the moral authority but the very existence of the present UK system of governance would be in doubt. This is because Scottish independence effectively brings Great Britain (the product of the 1707 Acts of Union) to an end, and opens up the possibility of fundamentally redesigning the UK or scrapping it altogether. Mr Cameron would then have doubly undermined the British establishment’s claims to legitimacy: firstly, by allowing a corrupt, venal and ruthlessly neo-liberal media organisation undue influence over policy and government appointments (a failing his government shares with those of his predecessors); and secondly, by putting the whole UK state on trial in Scotland and being found wanting.

Even if Cameron won his referendum, this would be only a pyrrhic victory because Alex Salmond would still go ahead and hold his own referendum asking a question or questions of his own choosing, and at a time that suited him. Salmond would quite justifiably be able to claim that the SNP had been elected into government in Scotland on the promise that it, not the UK government, would organise a referendum towards the end of the Scottish government’s present term in office. If, for example, Cameron’s referendum offered a choice between full independence – however defined – and the moderately beefed-up form of devolution that is presently going through Parliament in the guise of the Scotland Bill (i.e. essentially the proposals of the Calman Commission), Salmond could design his referendum around a more subtle, fine-grained set of options, ranging from Calman (i.e. the status quo) via devolution max to independence lite (full sovereignty for Scotland while retaining a social and economic union with the rest of the UK).

Hence, by organising his own referendum, Cameron would also be calling the UK government into disrepute, potentially heaping even further humiliation on itself. The referendum would be a redundant, vacuous exercise that would only have to be re-done further down the line, making the government itself look undignified and desperate – which I suppose it is.

Cameron’s premature referendum would therefore solve none of the present crisis of legitimacy at Westminster while potentially making it a whole lot worse. On top of which, News International’s final act of revenge against the British establishment it despises could be to use the Scottish Sun newspaper to whip up resentment in Scotland towards the arrogance expressed in Cameron’s referendum. After all, the Murdoch paper has already supported the SNP in last May’s elections to the Scottish parliament.

So I would just like to say one last thing with regard to Cameron’s bluff and bluster about an independence referendum. I’d like to throw back in Cameron’s face the words with which he taunted the new prime minister Gordon Brown at the Conservative Party conference in 2007 and dared him to hold a general election: ‘bring it on!’. Or is he going to bottle it, as did Brown?

So yes, bring it on, Mr Cameron!

Parliamentary sovereignty won’t protect us from the EU, because it’s already dead

So I didn’t call it right: I thought David Cameron would at the very least call a referendum to give a Conservative government the mandate to re-negotiate some of the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU. In the event, today, he merely committed to a pledge that there would be a referendum over any further proposed transfer of powers to the EU (a so-called ‘referendum lock’). In addition, he promised a Tory government would enact a ‘United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill’ guaranteeing that the UK Parliament would retain ultimate sovereignty in the governance of the UK.

However, as Cameron acknowledged in his speech, the Lisbon Treaty contains provisions enabling national vetoes to be abolished and further powers to be transferred to the EU without requiring additional treaties. This means that the ‘referendum lock’ is null and void: by virtue of the same principle making a post-ratification referendum on the Lisbon Treaty pointless (the fact that it has already passed into EU law), referendums on subsequent transfers of sovereignty could also be futile, because the same EU law authorises those changes.

Cameron referred to these provisions in the Treaty as ‘ratchet clauses’ and indicated that they should not be used to transfer additional powers to Brussels: “we would change the law so that any use of a ratchet clause by a future government would require full approval by Parliament”. So, in practice, any future transfers of power to Brussels would not be submitted to the people in a referendum but would be decided by Parliament: the same Parliament that voted to ratify the Lisbon Treaty in the first place, in violation of the Labour Party’s manifesto promise and in defiance of the people’s wishes in the matter. So how can we be confident that a Conservative or subsequent Labour government, commanding a parliamentary majority on the basis of a minority of the popular vote, would not mobilise its whips to rubber-stamp a further EU appropriation of UK sovereignty if it felt this were in the ‘national interest’. Clearly, the Conservative leadership feels it is in the national interest to remain very much committed to EU membership, notwithstanding the considerable erosion of UK sovereignty brought about by Lisbon. Would similar considerations regarding the overriding strategic importance of Britain remaining in the EU be used to justify further transfers of power should they be demanded by our EU partners?

Effectively, all that Cameron’s speech offers us is a reaffirmation of UK-parliamentary sovereignty, both in the form of the proposed UK Sovereignty Bill and the insistence that any use of ‘ratchet clauses’ in the Lisbon Treaty would require parliamentary approval. The referendum pledge isn’t worth the manifesto paper it’s written on, not just because there won’t be any further treaties on which to hold a referendum, nor because it’s hard to trust an incoming Tory government’s promise on this after the Labour government’s breaking of theirs; but because the principle of parliamentary sovereignty itself is being held up as supreme. Therefore, if Parliament decides that something is in the national interest, it regards itself as the ultimate arbiter in the matter without recognising any legal, let alone moral, requirement to seek popular consent for its decision through a referendum.

In other words, the real problem with Cameron’s assurances is that he is basing his defence of the UK-national interest on the supreme sovereignty of Parliament at the very moment at which the legitimacy of that sovereignty is being called into question as never before.

In a sense, Cameron is merely offering us parliamentary business as usual. He refers to a Conservative victory in a general election as sufficient to give him a mandate (without a referendum) to re-negotiate certain aspects of EU law that Britain has signed up to (e.g. the Social Chapter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and areas of jurisdiction over criminal law) over the first five-year term of a Tory government. Then, if Britain has still not succeeded in re-negotiating these things, a tougher series of measures could be presented to the British people in the Conservative manifesto for a second term in government – but still without questioning the fundamental commitment to EU membership.

However, all of this is predicated on there being no fundamental changes to the way Britain itself is governed, let alone Britain’s relationship with the EU:

  • Cameron’s serene confidence, as the leader of one of the two governing parties, that the absurd electoral system will afford him at least two terms in government despite securing less than half of the popular vote even in England, let alone in the other countries of the UK
  • those ‘terms’ themselves being extended at the government’s choosing to a full five years rather than fixed terms of, say, four years, which would probably be approved by a majority of the electorate if a referendum were held on it . . .
  • the insistence on the ultimate authority of the UK Parliament both as a general principle and in the particular matter of our relationship with the EU: as much as to say ‘Parliament knows best’; and the only ‘referendum’ the people are going to be offered in reality is a general election whose result doesn’t even reflect the will of the people, but on the basis of which the government ascribes to itself a mandate to do as it chooses.

Parliament proved itself to be unworthy of the British people’s trust by surrendering our sovereignty to the EU without seeking our consent. Now we’re supposed to base our entire confidence that further erosions of our sovereignty can be prevented on the same Parliament.

The point is sovereignty doesn’t even belong to Parliament, whether in the act of giving it away or in the act of exercising it in the supposed defence of our national interests: it belongs to us, the people. Indeed, you could even argue that the venality and spinelessness with which Parliament surrendered our sovereignty to the EU by agreeing to ratify Lisbon without our consent demonstrated the nullity of the very parliamentary sovereignty through which those powers were given away. This was not only a case of ‘you can’t give away what you don’t have’ but ‘you can’t keep what you don’t have’: Parliament’s ‘letting go’ of our sovereignty illustrated the fact that it had already lost it
and any valid claim to it.

So, on the specific matter of Europe, nothing less than a referendum on whether Britain continues to be a member of the EU will do. This will be an exercise of true, popular, not parliamentary, sovereignty. But beyond this particular matter, it’s time that UK-parliamentary sovereignty became truly subordinate to the will of the people, and more specifically, the will of the peoples of the different nations that make up the UK.

The days of a single UK parliament claiming sovereign jurisdiction over every aspect of the British people’s lives are numbered. But it’s up to us, the people, to ensure that we take it back from the EU ourselves and do not leave it to Parliament to do so in our name. Because Parliament has already lost it.

Could a vote for the BNP be a good thing?

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not a BNP supporter. I despise their racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. However, I agree with some of their key policies: restrictions to immigration, withdrawal of the UK from the EU, withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and more accountable local and regional democracy. Yes, those last two items are official policies.

For the former reasons, I would not vote BNP. For the latter, I would not be unhappy to see them doing reasonably well at the general election. What would constitute ‘doing reasonably well’, for the BNP? An article on the BNP website discusses the opinion polls conducted since last week’s appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC1 Question Time political discussion show. It cites the YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, which “found that 22 percent of voters would ‘seriously consider’ voting for the BNP in a future local, general or European election. This included four percent who said they would ‘definitely’ consider voting for the party, three percent who would ‘probably’ consider it, and 15 percent who said they were ‘possible’ BNP voters”. In reality, if the party managed to convert the equivalent of all of the ‘definites’ and ‘probables’ into actual votes – making 7% of the vote in the UK general election – they would probably regard that as a considerable achievement, given that they obtained ‘only’ 6.2% of the vote at this year’s European Parliament elections, which tend to produce more support for minor parties than general elections. Nonetheless, according to the same BNP article, an ICM poll last weekend indicated that “54 percent of voters say there are too many immigrants” and that “43 percent . . . said that, while they shared some of [the BNP’s] concerns, they had ‘no sympathy for the party itself'” – which goes for me, I guess.

What would be achieved by a 7% BNP vote at the general election? Well, this would scare the liberal establishment so much that the incoming government – probably led by David Cameron – would have to do far more than is presently being done to stem the flow of net immigration (let alone, overall population growth), currently running at around 237,000 per year. Secondly, the new government would be under no illusion that it needed to address people’s concerns about the ceding of UK sovereignty to the EU; and if this is a Tory government, it would be more difficult for them to avoid giving us a referendum of some sort on the Lisbon Treaty, even if it has already been ratified, which will probably be the case.

I say if this is a Tory government, because a 7% vote for the BNP might help to bring about a hung parliament – but only if the BNP derives enough of its support from people who would otherwise have voted Conservative, thereby reducing the Tories’ margin of victory and making it less likely for them to win an outright majority. However, at the moment, the BNP appears to be gaining most of its support from disaffected white working-class Labour voters who, quite understandably, feel the Labour government has failed to look after their interests. If a substantial BNP vote serves to reduce still further Labour’s share of the vote at the election, this could turn the tables in favour of a Tory victory.

Personally, a hung parliament would be my preferred election result; so I’m hoping that increasing support for the BNP will somehow help bring this about. Given the absurdities of our electoral system, anything’s possible. Why do I want a hung parliament? This is because it offers the best prospect for constitutional and parliamentary reform. The mere fact of a hung parliament could create something of a constitutional crisis, as there are no hard and fast constitutional rules for dealing with such a situation in the UK; although the precedent is that the queen should ask the leader of the largest party to form a government. Imagine a situation in which the Tories were the largest party but did not have a majority, and in which Gordon Brown refused to resign (as Edward Heath did in 1974) until he’d attempted to build a coalition government. Given how he’s desperately clung to power for so long, you would almost expect him to behave in this way.

Regardless of whether the end result were a Tory- or Labour-led coalition or minority government, the Liberal Democrats would end up holding the balance of power. And unlike either the Tories or Labour, the Lib Dems are genuinely committed to constitutional reform – if not specific proposals for English self-government – including the idea of holding a constitutional convention to come up with the blueprint for a written constitution. It’s debatable how much of this agenda they’d be able to push through in the circumstances of a hung parliament; but at least, there’d be more possibility of movement than under majority Conservative or Labour governments.

However, even if the election results in a majority Conservative government, a large vote for the BNP would probably advance the constitutional-reform agenda. This is again because it would scare the main parties and would be seen as a reflection of people’s disenchantment with mainstream politics and with Parliament. Ironically, then, a strong showing by the racist BNP could become one of the most powerful voices for democratic reform, and the need to make government more accountable to and representative of the concerns and wishes of the people. This is a huge paradox and is to the great shame of the self-serving political elite.

So I won’t be voting BNP at the general election; but, though I find their racial politics abhorrent, I hope they do quite well. The establishment needs the kind of kick in the teeth that perhaps only the thuggish BNP are in a position to deliver. And if, in the eventual shake-up, we get an English parliament, that will be an outcome that I personally will be delighted by – even if neither the establishment nor the BNP will be.

The Labour Party will never fulfil its calling with Gordon Brown at the helm

This article is cross-posted from Labour Home. Accordingly, it is orientated towards Labour Party members and sympathisers. I am not myself a member of the Labour Party. But I would like to see the Labour Party evolving into a movement focused on the needs of English society and people, which it has clearly failed to be during the New Labour period:

When New Labour came into power in 1997, it had huge ambitions to reform and invest in public services and the social-security system. In the event, much of that investment was indeed put in. Many improvements have been made to public services; the benefits system is now more tailored to the needs of the most disadvantaged sections of British society, while also offering more incentives and assistance for people to get back into employment; and the minimum wage was a long overdue reform that has helped end much of the wage exploitation of the Tory years.

And yet, in the present fin de régime atmosphere, it is hard to escape the feeling that Labour could and should have done much more given the broad centre-left consensus that swept it into power with such huge majorities in 1997 and 2001. Similarly, if Labour were re-elected next year – which hardly anybody in the real world regards as likely – would the Party have the ideas and vision to bring genuine progressive change and renewal to the country? Indeed, the apparent absence of any coherent and credible vision going forward is the main reason why the default option of a Cameron-led Tory government is the one the British (or rather, English) electorate is likely to choose.

One of the main reasons why Labour has failed to deliver an agenda of radical, popular socio-economic reform for Britain as a whole is that it spent half of its first term in office dismantling the governmental apparatus necessary to achieve it. Having, for once, secured a comfortable parliamentary majority across the whole of Great Britain – England as well as Scotland and Wales – Labour set about devolving responsibility in all social-policy areas apart from social security to separate administrations in Scotland and Wales. Doubtless, the Party expected to be able to continue to rule Scotland and Wales as its fiefdoms: exercising control over policy from London and being elected into power in perpetuity, having ‘seen off’ the nationalist threat through devolution. But it has not worked out that way, as we know, making it increasingly problematic to formulate and implement genuinely Britain-wide social policy.

The Labour government did, however, retain responsibility in England for areas such as education, health, local government, justice, transport, housing and planning: all key planks in any potential social-democratic programme of national social and economic development. But Labour has shown itself to be unable and unwilling to transform itself into a progressive movement and government for England. The Party is unionist in its traditions and outlook, and is rooted in ideas of UK-wide, or at least Britain-wide, social solidarity and the exercise of centralised power in pursuit of a common, ‘national-British’ social agenda. But post-devolution – or, at least, after asymmetric devolution as introduced by New Labour – it is no longer possible to deliver a consistent set of social policies for the whole of Britain directed from the Westminster centre. And Labour has failed either to adjust its vision of ‘the country’ for which it is in a position to pursue a progressive agenda, or to adapt its methods to the new realities of life at Westminster, which are that only some of the levers of power are now effective across the UK, while most social policy relates to England only.

So if the Labour government has not succeeded in carrying through a joined-up programme of progressive social reform for the country, this is because the ‘country’, in the social-policy area, has changed from Great Britain to England; and because Labour did not want to be a government for England only. The Labour-led coalitions in Scotland and Wales (up to 2007) were able to pursue traditional social-democratic agendas not only because they had a genuine electoral mandate to do so, but because the very rationale of the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government is to develop and execute social policy for those countries (and also, it has to be said, because they enjoyed very generous funding arrangements, arguably at England’s expense). By contrast, the Labour UK government and the Whitehall establishment have held on to the view that it is their job to be a government for ‘Britain’, and not to develop and implement a distinct social agenda for England, for which they do not in any case have any electoral mandate. Consequently, Labour’s agenda has been driven by the areas of government for which its responsibilities have remained genuinely Britain-wide: the economy; benefits and social security; defence; and foreign affairs.

In particular, under New Labour, social policy (in England, that is) has been subordinate to economics; or, put another way, in the Whitehall corridors of power, departments whose responsibilities are now limited largely or exclusively to social-policy areas relating to England only have been subordinate to the big, cross-UK-power-wielding departments such as the Treasury, the DTI (and subsequently, BERR) and the DWP. In part a consequence, and in part a cause, of this governmental prioritising of (UK) economics over (English) social policy, New Labour’s very ideology, as expressed in its management of the economy and its direction of social policy in England, was based on an economic model of society itself, rather than a model of society of which the world of economics and work is seen as an expression and support. In essence, New Labour viewed a progressive society in terms of an efficient market economy: the more efficient and productive the economy, the more integrated and wealthy is society as a whole, as people are enabled to participate to an ever greater extent in society-as-a-market. This means that, in theory, people can fulfil their aspirations to self-improvement and social mobility at the same time as working to improve the efficiency and productivity of the economy – with the circle squared through the idea that a true market should naturally develop products and services that a society needs; so that economic growth, and ever greater social inclusion, opportunity and wealth creation / distribution are co-terminous.

It is this ideology that has underpinned New Labour’s reforms of education and the NHS in England. In essence, these have involved introducing ever more market mechanisms, not only through direct investment by business into the public education and health systems in England (e.g. in the form of academy schools or PPPs to construct and run new hospitals), but also through the setting up of internal education and health-care markets. These have involved individual schools, universities and hospital trusts competing for public and private funding, and for the best staff; and the use of centrally imposed targets to replace the profit motive in driving efficiency savings (often involving privatisation, contracting out or even total elimination of ancillary services) and performance improvements. But performance has tended to be measured largely in quantitative terms, e.g. based on exam results in the educational context, rather than how the schools contribute to building up and maintaining cohesive communities, and developing happy, rounded individuals equipped to go out and help make a better country: a better England, that is.

Indeed, Labour has lost sight of the country for which it is equipped, in government, to shape a better future. This is not Britain any more, but England; although, of course, in the present lop-sided condition of the UK’s constitution, any would-be government for England would also be the UK government and would have to operate within a dual- or even triple-focused framework: developing a socio-economic vision for England while looking towards the strategic and economic interests of the UK as a whole, and also trying to co-ordinate economic policy for the UK with the varying social policies of the devolved administrations. It is arguable whether such a system could ever work, either in the sense of delivering social policy that really addresses the needs of the English people, or in terms of its asymmetry and democratic discrimination towards England: refusing to allow the English people the same democratic input to social and economic policy for their country as is afforded to the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish.

But one thing that is clear is that Labour will not reverse the steady erosion of its support from both the middle class and its core working-class constituency in England unless it can transform itself into a progressive party for England. That means facing up to the fact that the old unitary Britain for which Labour used to be able to implement holistic, nationwide social policies no longer exists – by Labour’s own actions. But there is a whole country out there – England – that is crying out for better education, health care, social care, and more cohesive and less crime-ridden communities, and which needs a strong Labour Party to speak out for it, and offer a more hopeful and egalitarian vision of society than the discredited market-centric ideology of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But this is never going to happen with Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader. Irrespective of whether the Party has now come round to the view that there’s no alternative to Brown as leader until the general election, he has to go if Labour is to assume its moral responsibility as the socially progressive party for England. This is not purely because Brown is Scottish and represents a Scottish constituency, with the consequent problem for democracy that many of the policies implemented by the government he leads do not affect his constituents but do affect people who can’t vote him out. The real problem is that Brown quintessentially represents the denial of the post-devolution truth that most social policy for which UK governments are responsible relate to England only, not Britain. Brown takes flight from this reality into an economics- and world affairs-centric ‘Britain’. Everything is only ‘Britain’ for Brown, even what is in reality England only. Just listen to his keynote speech at the Party conference this afternoon. I guarantee that it will be a litany of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’, even though over half of it will effectively relate to England alone, including the reported emphasis it will place on anti-social behaviour and crime (well, that relates to Wales as well as England, but not ‘Britain’).

All this talk of ‘Britain, Britain, Britain’ increasingly rings hollow and no longer chimes with voters in England. And that’s because it actually isn’t real: social policies as carried out by UK governments are not British but English. And if they’re not real, how can they also be realistic and joined up: not just isolated reforms introducing even more market-orientated mechanisms into English social services, but part of an integrated vision for England’s future offered honestly and openly as such to the English people, and enlisting their ideas, participation and support? A true popular, progressive movement, in short.

Indeed, ultimately, all this incessant intoning of ‘Britain’ is an insult to the people of England: insulting their intelligence (because increasing numbers of English people realise that the present Labour government can’t and won’t deliver an integrated socio-economic plan for England), and insulting their national pride – shoving ‘Britain’ down their throats in a denial of England’s very nationhood. And this is because Brown’s British obsession expresses more than merely a denial of the contemporary national-political realities, but an actual pathological aversion towards the very idea of ‘England’. The man can hardly bring himself to utter the ‘E’ word, even though he’s effectively the English First Minister. But the English people are not going to vote for an England-hating Scot for PM at the next election. Sorry, but that’s the painful truth.

But over and above the issue of personalities, the Labour Party cannot hope to be, indeed does not deserve to be, a popular, mass-movement, progressive party for England until it is reconciled to England: reconciled to the fact that ‘national’ social policy now means English social policy. And reconciled to the English people as the people it is its duty to love and to serve.

Regrettably, I’m voting UKIP

Never thought I’d say that! I don’t consider myself to be politically right-wing and I’m certainly not a Unionist; so UKIP is far from being a natural political home for me. I don’t like UKIP’s simplistic, black-and-white presentation of the case against the EU and open immigration policies, even though I myself am in favour of the UK’s – or at least England’s – withdrawal from the EU, and of more restricted immigration. And I certainly don’t like UKIP’s defence of the integrity of the UK as a quasi-nation state, governed in a more unitary manner than now from the Westminster centre. I’m an English nationalist not a British Unionist.

So why vote UKIP in the elections for the European Parliament on Thursday of this week? Well, the main reason is to register an anti-EU vote. I don’t think the EU is all bad, and I don’t accept UKIP’s analysis that membership simply costs the UK £40 million per day, for which we do not see any benefit. Being part of the EU has created huge opportunities for trade and business, and has enabled thousands of British people to live, work and prosper in other EU countries, just as it has allowed thousands of people from throughout the EU to come to our country and help create our wealth as well as enrich our culture. But unfortunately, I do believe that the EU is an inherently federal project: that it has an in-built dynamic towards ever greater political as well as economic union. Unsurprisingly, this is not compatible with an English-nationalist position: I want greater political autonomy for England, let alone for Britain; and membership of a sovereign, federal, European super-state that might well see England split up into a number of faceless British ‘regions’ is hardly consistent with that goal.

So why not vote English Democrat? They support both withdrawal from the EU and tougher immigration controls, with the extra positive that they’re (supposedly) a civic English-nationalist party that supports the establishment of an English parliament. I would have liked to be in a position to vote EDP this time. However, I’ve been put off by their links with the racist English First Party (for which they still haven’t come up with a justification), and by the unseemly and childish spat between EDP lead candidate for the South-East Euro-region Steve Uncles and the blogger John Demetriou. These are not, methinks, the mark of a credible political party with a coherent, inclusive vision for a self-governing, multi-ethnic English nation inside or outside of the EU, and inside or outside of the UK.

I also had a short email correspondence with EDP chairman Robin Tilbrook, in which I asked him what the EDP intended to do in the European Parliament if any of its candidates were elected. But they had not thought about this, merely using the European elections as a chance to mount a (much-needed) campaign for fair treatment for England within the UK. But I don’t think that’s good enough: you’re putting forward candidates for a parliament; and, however illegitimate you may think that body’s powers are, you should at least have some idea how having people from your party serving as members of that parliament could be leveraged as an opportunity to provide a distinct voice for England within an influential international forum, and to press the cause of democratic justice for England.

What about the mainstream political parties? The biggest problem I have with them in the context of the Euro elections is that they are all strongly committed to the UK’s continuing membership. On the one hand, the Lib Dems are closest to my position, in that they at least support a referendum on that membership; although, on the other hand, they are far too pro-EU for me to consider voting for them. And they seriously let themselves and the UK down by not sticking to their general-election commitment and voting in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when Parliament decided on the matter last year.

The Tories did vote in favour of such a referendum, and all credit to them for that. But the Tories are interested in only limited political and constitutional reform, at both EU and national-UK level. They’ll use a vote for them in the Euros as backing for their call to hold a UK general election now, under the existing defective electoral system (they’ve explicitly asked people to vote for them for that reason). And despite Cameron’s claims last week that a Conservative government would introduce radical constitutional reforms, these would not include two of the most vitally needed components: proportional representation and an English layer of governance – English matters to be decided on by English-elected representatives only, whether those of a UK parliament or of a separate English parliament. And the reason why Cameron’s proposals did not include these measures is that they would prevent the Conservatives from ever again being able to gain an absolute UK-wide majority based almost entirely on the way the First-Past-the-Post electoral system transforms a large minority of the vote in England into a large majority of seats in the UK parliament.

Think about it: the Tories’ proposals for ‘resolving’ the West Lothian Question, dubbed ‘English pauses for English clauses’ (English-elected MPs only to be involved at the committee stage of England-only bills), are predicated on the assumption that power will continue to be bestowed to the governing party in a disproportionate way. For example, there could be, as now, a larger Labour majority across the UK as a whole than in England only, taking into account Labour’s comparatively stronger electoral performance in Scotland and Wales. English pauses for English clauses is therefore conceived of as a ‘corrective’ for this imbalance, in that the Tories will be in a smaller minority or hold the balance of power in England, and will be in a better position to influence bills at this crucial stage of their passage through parliament. Under the other, now more likely, scenario, the Tories gain an absolute majority that is greater in England only than in the UK as a whole. In this case, English pauses for English clauses is a concession to the idea of greater responsiveness to the wishes of the English people, as expressed in the ballot box, that costs the Conservatives absolutely nothing. But in either of these instances, the shares of parliamentary seats involved are unrepresentative of the will of English voters and are to a great extent merely a product of the distorting electoral system. So this is ‘reform’ that is designed to maximise the undue, unrepresentative power over English affairs that the system gives to the main parties, and particularly in this instance the Conservatives.

Under a proportional electoral system, on the other hand, assuming that English matters continued to be run by the UK parliament as a whole, the Tories and Labour would simply not be able to carve up English governance for themselves in this undemocratic way. English pauses for English clauses would never get off the ground because the way things would probably resolve themselves is that a new politics of changing cross-party alliances and deals on different issues would emerge; and it’s quite likely in this scenario that a consensus would develop that it was simply inappropriate for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs to be involved in working out these deals on English-only matters.

Such a way of doing things would also nullify the morally bankrupt whipping system, which is also predicated on parties maximising their unrepresentative seat counts in an adversarial contest that bears little relationship to the way MPs’ constituents might actually think about the merits of individual issues. Little wonder, then, that Cameron’s supposedly radical constitutional reform programme (in reality, merely a bit of tinkering to parliamentary procedure) advocates restricting the role of the whips at the committee stage only: that single part of the parliamentary process where English MPs, supposedly free from the power of the whips, will now be intended to act as a discrete body, but in a way that is in reality calculated to maximise Tory influence); but not at the introductory and final stages of a bill’s passage, where the full weight of the UK-government’s disproportionate allocation of seats across the UK will be wielded to force through legislation that may command little popular support in the country that it actually affects: England. Under PR, the whole rationale for whips dissolves, because there are no disproportionate party-block votes to be wielded and there is much more cross-party collaboration.

But I digress. As for Labour in the European elections, they’re completely beyond the pale in my view: the architects of asymmetric devolution, and the government that has presided over the unprecedented meltdown of the financial system and the general economy that we have experienced in the past year, while also being vehemently pro-EU. Say no more: they’ve got to go.

I thought about voting for the Greens. I think that the EU has played, and could continue to play, a vital role in co-ordinating measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce other harmful environmental impacts. Therefore, it’s important that there is a strong Green contingent in the European Parliament; and there certainly should be much greater emphasis on investing in renewable power generation and energy efficiency as part of the efforts to stimulate economic recovery in the UK. But, much as I would like to support the environmental agenda, the Greens go and spoil it all by not only being 100% behind the whole EU project, but also advocating a range of policies that I can only call ‘progressive-British-republican’, including regional devolution within England (absolutely no interest in national-English governance as such), a classic socialist-type commitment to fostering social equality, and abolition of the monarchy. Now, we can argue about the intrinsic merits of equality and how to promote it, and the pros and cons of monarchies versus republics; but I just can’t put my cross next to a vision of a British republic complete with Euro regions (but no England), be that vision e’er so green. An English Republic maybe, in time; but let’s have English self-governance within the United Kingdom first or, failing that, within a restored Kingdom of England!

So I’m left with UKIP as the fall-back position: in favour of EU withdrawal; and punishing the main parties for their pro-EU stance, their failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the expenses fiasco, and their woefully inadequate and self-serving advocacy of parliamentary and constitutional reform minus an English Parliament. At least UKIP does support some form of English parliament: a system not hugely dissimilar to my previous ‘blueprint for a federal UK‘, whereby there would be a single proportionally elected UK parliament that would split for part of the time into separate bodies for each UK nation (including England but minus Cornwall) – although UKIP’s vision is both more unitary than mine, and involves less change to the structure and procedures of the established Westminster Parliament. But in any case, if the party-political establishment does ever concede the need for an English parliament, I doubt very much that it’s the UKIP model (or mine, for that matter) that they’ll be turning to. It’ll be whatever version allows them to preserve as much of their privileges and unrepresentative power that they can hold on to – unless we stop them.

But on Thursday, it’s about Europe. And I reckon that UKIP is the best of a bad lot. At least, a vote for them signals an unambiguous demand for a referendum on Britain’s, and England’s, membership of the EU. The mainstream parties won’t listen to that call if you vote for them, that’s for sure.