Rethinking the European Question

15 May

Can there really be a valid case for Scotland not being in the European Union if it votes for independence?

Surely not. Surely the months of argument between both sides in the referendum debate over whether or not an independent Scotland would continue to be a member of the EU is evidence enough that the desirability of membership itself is beyond contestation?

Well, I wouldn’t be too sure about it.

Firstly, and this may seem like a blatantly obvious point to make, the whole point of voting for independence and the possibility to govern affairs differently in Scotland is exactly that – a vote to do things differently.

From a democratic perspective, EU membership necessarily entails the implementation of vast amounts of European legislation in areas ranging from environmental standards to consumer protection. As a result, a substantial proportion of the legislative capacity within a newly independent Scotland would be transferred to the European level and would be done, according to the SNP at least, without giving the Scottish people a say on the matter.

Independence would therefore be a vote in 2014 for absolute power in the Scottish Parliament only to then give a considerable proportion of that power away to Brussels. A swapping of being ruled by Westminster for being ruled like Westminster (in some respects at least.)  

The point here is not to irresponsibly brush to one side concerns about Scottish industry and jobs and the impact that not being in the EU could have in this respect. Instead, it is simply to call into question whether the Scottish people themselves deserve a say in how their newly independent state should be governed – particularly in light of the well documented democratic deficit in the EU legislative process.

This discussion becomes all the more pressing when one considers that an independent Scotland’s EU membership could come with terms and conditions that many Scots may not be too keen on. (See my previous blog post on Scotland and the EU) If, and it remains an if, Scotland had to adopt the Euro or join Schengen, for example, should the government of the day just sign up for membership anyway, as seems to be the SNP position, or should they ask the Scottish people first?

From a different perspective, there may well be good reason to question whether an immediate jump into the EU post-independence is as desirable as most seem to think it would be in light of some of the excellent proposals being put forward by various grassroots organisations on the Yes side of the debate.

For the most part, the bulk of proposals coming from organisations like The Common Weal and The Radical Independence Campaign have a social democratic foundation and therefore speak of a need for stronger trade unions, enhanced worker’s rights, public ownership of essential services etc.

The problem with the EU, though, is that it is structurally designed to undermine these goals with an unambiguous neoliberal agenda of trade liberalization that places the free movement of the factors of production above all other considerations. Anybody need only look up the negative impact that the European Court of Justice’s Viking and Laval line of case law has had on the regulation and protection of labour in the Nordic countries to understand that the law of unintended consequences may have a role to play should Scotland dive head first into EU membership as soon as possible.

Finally, and perhaps this is the most straightforward way of tying together the points made above, we may look to the example of Norway.

Often held up as a model example not just of how things should be done in contemporary Europe, but also a tantalizing glimpse into what Scotland could become in the future. Excellent public services, low unemployment, strong workers’ rights and a long tradition of nation state democracy that has put the question of EU membership to its people not once, but twice, in referenda since the UK launched its application to join the EEC (now EU) in the 1970s.

At present the overwhelming consensus on both sides of the independence debate is that EU membership is an absolute must for an independent Scotland. And overall this may well prove to be correct. On balance the arguments in favour of EU membership could well outweigh the negatives. What the above has attempted to do, I hope successfully, however, is briefly contribute to that balancing process.

 

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We Cant Go On Like This

9 May

The Status Quo in Contemporary Britain

Contemporary Britain is no longer fit for purpose. It has ceased to function effectively, failed to deliver, let down the people, become morally vacuous, is no longer supportable and has surrendered its right to be described as “Great” in any meaningful sense of the term. In short, it’s on its arse.

Observations of this nature have been commonplace amongst those immersed in the world of commentary and opinion for as long as anyone can remember, and there is certainly no shortage of enthusiasm for such sentiment today. Although worryingly prevalent, I am not referring here to the reactionary, daily mail subscribing lunatics who proclaim that all has gone to the wall, society has become bankrupt of all decency and that it won’t be long before dogs are throwing buckets of water on us in the streets. Instead, I am referring to the ever increasing number of everyday folk who share in the belief that something has gone horribly with the old country and that a fundamentally different approach to the nation’s problems is required.

Far from calling for some utopian revolution that would establish absolute equality for all, large sections of the population have simply come to the sober conclusion that the status quo is manifestly unsustainable and that “we can’t go on like this anymore.”

While there are of course numerous reasons why so many have come to express a desire for substantial change, the following provides a brief (but fair) summary of the situation:

– Britain is one of the richest countries in the world
– But Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world
– Today, the 5 richest families in Britain earn more combined than the poorest 20% in society.
– Of all the world’s developed economies, Britain is the second lowest pay.
– Income inequality among working-age persons has risen faster in Britain than in any other OECD country since 1975.
– The number of people seeking food from food banks has tripled since 2012. A large number of these people are in work and are therefore NOT unemployed.
– The rate of under-five childhood deaths is higher in Britain than any other nation in Europe except Malta.

When faced with such a depressing set of facts, one is immediately compelled to ask what can be done about this dire state of affairs. Unfortunately, the response from all sides of the political establishment over the years has been, to put it kindly, varying degrees of “not very much.” Worse still, there has been little indication that there will be any change to this scandalous level of complacency anytime soon – an austerity driven, low pay economy is the only model on offer from Westminster, with even the Labour Party agreeing in principle.

And so, with voters across the UK fast approaching another general election utterly devoid of genuine alternatives, the future political direction of the country is once again to be left to those who can convince the largest number of people that they are the least bad option or – in what is without doubt my least favourite of all electoral propositions – the lesser of two evils.

What’s on Offer?

Thankfully, for the first time in many people’s lifetimes, there exists the possibility of bringing about some kind of substantial change to such a sorry set of circumstances in September this year.

The first point to make here is that whether one is in favour of independence or against it, the very fact that the option is even on the table at all conclusively proves the diagnosis that what we have right now simply isn’t good enough. After all, if everything was going along just fine, or even if things were just a tad unbearable, there would have been no need to pose the independence question in the first place.

Now, to be fair to the variety of different elements that make up the Yes campaign, they have at least put forward different packages of proposals that merit consideration as possible solutions to current levels of inequality and injustice. Whether it’s the plethora of policy papers from the Common Weal dealing with things like energy and industrial democracy, or the proposals for a living wage and enhanced childcare provision that are espoused by the bulk of those involved in the Yes campaign, there can be little doubt that there exists a variety of possible alternatives to the status quo that COULD help to bring about a more just and fair society.

The same cannot be said, however, for those on the other side of the referendum debate. For them, the entire line of argument rests on the proposition that independence will only make matters worse.

In making this point, the Better Together side have tended to focus entirely on proposals from the SNP and tried to point out that either the sums don’t add up or that the proposals leave too much down to wishful thinking.

While I believe this to be absolutely fine as a starting point for discussion in this debate, I am convinced that it is nowhere near good enough given the magnitude of problems faced by a great number of people in Scotland today. Surely they deserve more from those in favour of keeping Britain together than a semi-measured critique of one party’s specific vision for independence?

Perhaps I am misjudging the situation here, but I would guess that the grievances of the Scottish people will not be placated following a No vote in September by Westminster politicians telling them that they should just be thankful for what they have and that the alternative, a Yes vote, would have made things much worse.

And yet, despite it being abundantly clear to anyone with a pulse that things cannot go on as they are, those opposed to independence have been able to entirely side step the fundamental problem at the core of this debate – the disastrous status quo. As a result, they have offered absolutely nothing in terms of how they would do things differently after the referendum in order to alleviate the genuine hardship of millions of citizens.

I’ll say it again: the only reason why we are having a referendum in the first place is because the current situation is simply not acceptable.

It is therefore only logical that when asking why they should reject Yes as a solution to their problems, the Scottish public should also be entitled to ask how endorsing No will make things better.

The above statistics alone surely mean that a vote against independence cannot possibly be conceived as a ringing endorsement of contemporary Britain.
To treat a No vote as an acceptance of rampant levels of inequality would be simply absurd.

So what do we do now?

In light of the above, the question “so what do we do now” that Scotland will wake up to on the 19thSeptember – a question that is widely considered to be reserved for those in favour of independence – must surely be equally applicable to the other side in the debate.

And here we have a problem: except from one paper from the Scottish Labour Party, I have not seen or heard any proposals for a change in direction from those opposed to independence.

Instead, the main political parties in Britain have opted to bury their admittedly small differences and ram home the message that independence would make matters worse, rather than offer a frank and open critique of Britain today coupled with proposals for change.

It surely cannot be the case that everyone opposed to Scottish Independence fully endorses the devolution commitments of the Labour Party – particularly with regards to their commitments on issues like taxation and welfare policy that could make a difference to inequality.

So why are they not saying so?

We can all be certain that if the Labour party produced a policy paper on anything from education to energy there would be Tory and Lib Dem ministers queuing up to take a pop at it. But when it comes to setting out a plan for moving the nation forward following its closest shave with dissolution in 300 years, the Labour party’s devolution policy just sits there unchallenged.

While this may have made sense from a short term, tactical perspective earlier on in the campaign, there can be no doubt that it has now hit the point of diminishing returns. This is because evading the “what next” question not only leaves the Scottish people somewhat in the dark about the consequences of a no vote, it also, more importantly, is really starting to irritate people.

To start with, if we really are Better Together to such an extent that there is not even the slightest hint of contestation and debate between the 3 main political parties in the UK on the future of governance in Scotland after a No vote, what is the point in voting for any of them at all? And how come the 3 main Westminster parties can work together perfectly well when it comes to telling Scotland what it CANT have (e.g. the pound) but are all over the shop when it comes to telling Scotland what it CAN have if its votes No (e.g. specific commitments on devolution)?

I am in no doubt that as we get closer to the referendum the No campaign’s message of “vote to stay but we can’t tell you too much about what will happen if you do” is really starting to backfire. It is backfiring because those in favour of staying in Britain are now beginning to attract the very same criticism that the Yes side has been subject to all along: “we can’t vote for it, we just don’t know enough about it.”

With the people of Scotland going to the polls in September to vote in a referendum that would never have arisen in the first place had successive UK governments not failed so comprehensively on inequality and social justice, it is only right that those with a vote be given a genuine choice between competing visions of how best to address the magnitude of the problems faced by its citizenry today.

Should this not materialise, votes will have to be cast in the knowledge that there is only one side offering an alternative to our currently dire state of affairs.

A continuation of the status quo after September is not possible.

We can’t go on like this anymore.

Scotland and Europe Explained

8 May

In his speech to an audience in Bruges recently Scotland‘s First Minister Alex Salmond set out his vision for an independent Scotland’s future relationship with the European Union. In so doing he made what would appear to be a rather plausible argument about how and why an independent Scotland would begin life as a European Union member state.

In what has become the SNP’s customary approach to all matters EU, however, the speech was far more problematic when one considers the magnitude of things that were left out.

Here, then, is my attempt at offering a step by step guide to the situation. The first section consists of bullet points setting out the fundamental principles behind the problem and also how things may proceed following a Yes vote in September 2014. It is a bit legalistic but I think it gives a fair summary of the overall picture in about two A4 pages.

The second section consists of my thoughts on the matter.

The referendum is months away yet so plenty time to try and get your heed around it. Gee it a bash.

The fundamental principles

• By voting for independence, Scotland would begin life as a new state under international law.

• This is because the decision to break away from an existing state under international law (The UK) and create a new state (Scotland) would be classified as an act of secession.

• This means that Scotland would begin life as a brand new state free from the rights and obligations of its predecessor state (the UK.)

• This would also mean that Scotland would no longer be a member of any international organizations that the UK is a member of.

• Scotland would however, contrary to its previous position as part of the UK state, now be free to apply for membership in any international organization that it liked on its own behalf.

• As a result, any attempt to join the EU or any other international organization would, from a purely legal perspective, be exactly that: an application to join.

• Whether a new Scottish state would be accepted to those international organisations following an application as an independent state, however, would be a matter to be decided by the rules and procedures of those international organisations themselves.

• The position of a seceding state with regards to international organisations is matter of near unanimous agreement between scholars of international law from around the world.

The ambiguity surrounding Scotland and the European Union

• What may complicate the picture above, then, is what the legal status of Scotland would be during the period in between a Yes vote in September 2014 and Independence Day proper at some future date (suggested to be March 2016).

• This is because if Scotland votes Yes in September, it will not immediately become an independent state. There will be a transitional period during which negotiations will take place with the remainder of the UK about Scotland breaking away from a 300 year old Union.

• It will only be once “Independence Day” (predicted to be in March 2016), arrives that Scotland will legally be a new state under international law.

• Article 49 of Treaty on European Union states that “Any European State” that respects certain values and meets certain requirements may apply to join the European Union.

• As is mentioned above, Scotland would not actually become a state until Independence Day proper (2016) and therefore, on a strictly legal interpretation, Scotland would not be able to apply for EU membership until it became a “European state” in 2016.

• The Scottish government has recognized this and in response continually makes the point that it would be during this transitional period(September 2014 – 2016) that Scotland could ALSO negotiate with the EU so that on Independence Day proper Scotland would begin life as the 29th member state of the European Union.

In light of this, we now come to 3 possible scenarios that could play out following a Yes vote in 2014.

Hang in there…

Scenario 1

• The first route available would be for Scotland to be treated “as if” it were an independent state from the moment it votes yes in September – even though under a purely legal interpretation Scotland would not be an independent state until Independence Day proper at some future date (2016).

• Although somewhat problematic from a theoretical perspective, the great practical advantage here would be that Scotland could begin its application process to the EU immediately.

• This process would be done in accordance with the aforementioned Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union.

• The hope here would be that given that Scotland already implements European legislation and has been a part of an existing EU member state that has been a member for over 40 years (the UK), the usually protracted process of negotiating and preparing an applicant country for EU membership (e.g. Croatia), could be completed rather swiftly.

• This would then result in Scotland being able to begin life as an EU member state on Independence Day proper following a transitional period (2016).

Scenario 2

• The strict legal interpretation mentioned above would be taken and Scotland would NOT be treated “as if” it were an independent state immediately after a Yes vote.

• This would mean that Scotland would be unable to apply for EU membership until Independence Day proper (2016) since article 49 of the Treaty on European Union makes it explicit that only a “European state” can apply for membership.

• This approach certainly seems the most conventional under a pure legal analysis given that Scotland would not be a fully independent “European state” on the 19th of September 2014.

• Scotland would therefore be unable to apply for membership to international organisations including the EU until it became a fully-fledged independent state (2016).

• This would of course be disastrous for Scotland as it would mean that it would only be able to begin negotiating its EU membership following Independence Day proper (2016).

• A period of time in which Scottish citizens would no longer legally be European citizens, and Scottish businesses would no longer have direct access to the European market, would thus ensue.

Scenario 3

• As another possible solution, it has been suggested that Scotland could seek to negotiate with current EU member states during the transitional period (September 2014 – 2016) to amend the EU treaties.

• This avenue would entirely bypass the formal application process as set out in Article 49 Treaty on European Union and would instead be done, according to the Scottish government, under article 48 of that treaty which concerns amendments.

• If successful this would then simply lead to the treaties being amended so as to say that Scotland was the 29th member of the European Union.

NOW

If you have managed to keep up so far then here is the good news – it gets very easy from here on in.

Whether one adopts scenario (1), (2) or (3) above, there is one fundamental point that must be kept in mind at all times – EVERY EU MEMBER STATE WILL HAVE TO UNANIMOUSLY AGREE TO IT.

Remember that: They all have to say yes.

In one way then, this is pretty much the end of the discussion and one can draw whatever conclusions they like from it.

For those who would like to know what I think about it and can handle a wee bit more of the banal world of Scotland – EU relations, carry on reading.

My Thoughts on the Matter

The fact that all 28 EU Member States have to say yes raises a great number of questions.

The first of which is by far the most important – what if somebody says no?

So far, every time this has been put to the SNP they have refused to give an honest answer.

This is because the answer is that there is nothing Scotland can do.

If Latvia, Malta or any other EU member state, for whatever reason, says that it’s just not happening, then there is nothing Salmond and Co. can do about it.

Of course, there may be good arguments as to why it would be in every EU member state’s interests to ensure that an independent Scotland begins life as an EU member state; but this is NOT the same thing as being able to guarantee that all 28 EU member states WILL agree to it.

I have read and listened to numerous arguments about how Scotland is simply too resource rich and too important for whatever reason for the EU member states not to facilitate their transition to an independent EU member state. And this may very well be true. There are also of course numerous reasons why it would be good for all parties involved to reach some kind of agreement to ensure that a minimum level of disruption was caused for both Scots and Europeans following Scottish Independence.

I would also be sympathetic to the argument, often made by SNP politicians and supporters, that it would be against the principles of democracy and respect for self-determination that the EU is based upon for EU member states to vote against Scotland’s EU membership for reasons of national self-interest.

As this argument goes, it would be somewhat at odds with the spirit of the EU treaties for Spain or somebody else to oppose an independent Scotland’s EU membership solely on the grounds that it did not want to encourage separatist movements (e.g. Cataluña) in its own country.

Like I said, I can see some merit in this line of argumentation. But this is NOT the same thing as saying Spain, or any other country, could be COMPELLED to voting in favour of an independent Scotland’s EU membership by virtue of its own membership of the EU.

For a start, how would one go about compelling Spain to vote in a particular way? If an EU member state was to vote against Scotland’s EU membership, this may very well bring about some political condemnation; but this is a far cry away from being able to compel a sovereign state to admit Scotland into the EU against its will. Who would do such a thing? How could it possibly be enforced? Would the European Commission really tell the sovereign government of Spain or any other EU member state that they MUST admit Scotland to the EU? Come on now, that would simply be absurd.

And so, in short, the answer to the question surrounding Scotland’s future EU membership is incredibly simple: If the other 28 EU member states unanimously agree to reach a political settlement that would allow for an independent Scotland to begin life as an EU member state then it will happen. If there is no unanimous agreement, it will not be possible. No ifs, no buts.

The SNP Tactic

Given this state of affairs, then, one would be correct to assume that any discussion between Scotland’s representatives (the SNP) and representatives from 28 European member states following a Yes vote will require a certain amount of poise and a willingness to reach a compromise. (Unless of course Scotland is simply told “you are not yet a state, come back after 2016”, but I do not personally think that is likely.)

What is likely to be of little use, in contrast, is exactly what we have been getting from Salmond and the rest of the SNP leadership so far.

To name but a few, Scotland’s leaders believe not only that EU membership is all but sewn up, but also that we won’t be joining up to the Euro, won’t be entering Schengen, will continue to opt out from measures on Justice and Home Affairs and will continue to opt out from the legally binding effect of human rights treaties.

The belief therefore seems to be that we will go to the negotiating table with representatives from 28 European nations, tell them exactly what Scotland will and will not be signing up to, and then everyone will shake hands and sign on the dotted line.

Now, I do not say that this is not possible. It could well happen.

BUT

I’ll repeat it again just so there’s no doubt whatsoever: what happens if somebody, anybody, says no?

Furthermore, even if the Yes side are right and every EU Member State does see the value in accommodating Scotland and ensuring that on Independence Day 2016 they become the 29th member state of the EU, does anyone seriously think this will come without conditions?

In 2004, 10 new states joined the European Union. They were followed in 2007 by Bulgaria and Romania and then by Croatia in 2013. This means that 13 of the current 28 EU member states have, since 2004, gone through a long process of application, evaluation, concession, compromise and final admission.

Now I am not saying that Scotland will definitely be expected to go through such a process.

All that I would ask, though, is how likely it will be that all of these countries will allow Scotland to come to the negotiating table during a transitional period after independence (September 2014 – 2016), demand that they be exempted from the kinds of concessions and compromises that they all had to make, and that in the end ALL 28 OF THEM WILL UNANIMOUSLY AGREE TO SCOTLAND’S DEMANDS?

I would submit that this would be highly unlikely.

The SNP are of the belief that this is not only simple to bring about procedurally, but also that it would be madness for any one of 28 EU member states to stop it from happening. Put another way, the Scottish government is 100% certain that none of the politicians from 28 other countries will ever ask at any stage “Hang on, how come you are getting a much better deal than we got here?”

Once again, I do not say that the SNP’s stance is definitely wrong or impossible to achieve.

As I have tried to demonstrate above, hopefully with some success, though, is that it is out with the realms of reasonable expectation to believe that it will be as easy as they continually say that it will be.

Is Britain really a Christian country?

17 Apr

According to the latest census figures, the number of people in England and Wales who are not religious has rocketed to over 25% of the population while the number of people claiming to be Christians has continued its downward trajectory and now sits at just below 60%. In Scotland, the number of people who stated that they had no religion was even higher than in England and Wales with 36.7% of the population north of the border ticking the no religion box.

As some have pointed out, there would most probably have been an even greater increase in the number of people stating that they were of no religion throughout Britain had the question been phrased more neutrally as “Do you have a religion?” instead of “What is your religion?” More interestingly, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, only 32% of those who ticked Christian in the census believed in the resurrection of Jesus and only 35 per cent could pick out the correct answer to “What is the first book of the New Testament?”  When asked why they had ticked the Christian box, only 28% of those who did so said it was because they believe the teachings of Christianity. The most popular answer to the question was, “I like to think of myself as a good person.”

With this in mind there is surely something just a wee bit off about the way in which the Prime Minister can proclaim to be the leader of a Christian country.

“I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives” is how David Cameron chose to word his most recent assertion about the religious nature of our country.

From a constitutional perspective he would of course be correct to label England as an officially Christian country given the Church of England’s absurd role as established state religion, but this categorization would certainly not be true for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The problem with this is that not only does our country, Britain, not have an established church of its own, there can also be no doubt that an ever increasing number of citizens who make up British society do not adhere to the Christian faith.

The next problem is Cameron’s preaching about the need for Britain to do more in promoting its supposed Christian beliefs despite admitting that he isn’t quite so sure about them himself. In the same speech referred to above, the Prime Minister said that he was a classic member of the Church of England, “a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of that faith”, but insisted the church “really matters” to him.

This is barely serious. Not only is he insisting that Britain, as a nation of Christians – a large proportion of whom have never read the bible or only claim to be Christians because they think they are good people – should be more confident about its status as a Christian country, he is also at the same time openly saying that he isn’t too sure about which aspects of that faith Britain should be so confident about.

Briefly put, we have a Prime Minister claiming to be a sort of pick and mix Christian with some reservations, urging a nation in which the number of people claiming to have no religion is continually rising, to be more confident about its status as a Christian country, despite there being no nationwide established church.

And once you have got your head around that, the next logical question is to ask why? Why should we be more confident about our imaginary status as a Christian country? What good would it serve us as a society if we were to do more to expand the role of faith based organizations and be more evangelical about the Christian faith? Incredibly, from what I can gather from the interview anyway, Cameron concedes that there is nothing particularly special about it all anyway. “The Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none – and we should be confident in standing up to defend them” and perhaps even better still: “Of course, faith is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality.”

So hang on a minute. We have to do more to promote a set of values that stem from our status as a Christian country, despite all the evidence suggesting that we are not a Christian country, because the Christian belief contains a set of values and principles that people of other faiths and no faiths possess anyway? Or, to put it differently, the British should be more proud of their status as a Christian country and do more to promote their faith despite its superfluous character given that one can lead a perfectly moral life without it?

Perhaps it’s just me but I really don’t understand what the man is going on about here. Either he is a believing Christian and genuinely wants the teachings of his religion to take a more prominent place in British society or he does not. This sort of halfway position of saying “I am a Christian, sort of, and think that we should do more to expand the role of faith based organizations, so long as they leave out the more difficult parts of the faith, because as Christians we believe in principles that are held by perfectly moral non-Christians anyway” is just absurd.

Not only does such drivel infuriate those who do not wish to be labelled as citizens of a Christian country; it must also surely disappoint the very Christians he is reaching out to by offering such a qualified and watered down proclamation of his faith.

In trying to keep a foot in both camps, the Prime Minister has pulled off the rather impressive feat of further alienating large sections of the population who are not Christian and who already consider him to be out of touch, while at the same time undermining his case for more Christianity in society by claiming to be uneasy about aspects of it himself and conceding that British citizens can lead perfectly well principled and moral lives without it.

If there is any good to come out of this truly woeful attempt at courting the Christian vote it is that it has at least kick started a wider debate about the relationship between Church and State in Britain. One gets the feeling, though, that despite the vast majority of the population being in favour of separation – and thus releasing Britain from the burden of being the only country in the world except Iran to have unelected clerics to sit in its legislature – the old establishment will once again refuse to take heed and, like Cameron, insist that Britain is a Christian country.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

10 Apr

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” is the famous rhetorical question posed by Reg during his impassioned tirade against the Roman Empire in Monty Python’s masterpiece The Life of Brian. In response, members of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea begin to rattle off a comprehensive list of Roman innovations: the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads, irrigation, medicine, education, the wine, public baths, public order… forcing the questioner to reluctantly concede that the Romans had in fact contributed a great deal to their everyday lives.

For all that is farcical about this sketch one cannot help but draw attention to the way in which it has come to resemble much of what currently underpins the debate surrounding Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. On the one hand, beneath their seemingly never ending list of grievances, one can often detect the very same “what have they ever done from us” sentiment being expressed by those of a Eurosceptic persuasion. On the other, in attempting to emulate the People’s Front in all but attire, the response from pro membership figures has been to furnish a list of Europe’s achievements to date.

In contrast to the precision of the People’s Front, however, those who support British EU membership have tended to regurgitate predictable and wholly unimaginative arguments about free markets, the free movement of people, foreign investment and environmental cooperation in an attempt to substantiate their cause. Far from having the desired effect of persuading the population that the EU has done much that is to be commended, the pro membership tactics of promulgating the feeble and promoting the banal has resulted only in further disaffection. (Anybody in need of an almost perfect example of what I am talking about here need only refer to the performances of Nick Clegg in the recent Farage v Clegg debates.)

One will recall from the Monty Python sketch that Reg is willing to accept all of the achievements of the Romans until someone suggests that they have also brought about peace. Visibly frustrated, Reg replies sarcastically “Oh peace, Shut up!”

So what about peace then? You will notice from the aforementioned debates with Farage that Clegg barely mentioned what has unquestionably been Europe’s most remarkable achievement to date. But it’s not just Clegg who seems to have neglected the point about peace. Pro Europeans of all stripes seem somewhat reluctant to stand up and show their admiration for a process of European Integration that has not only prevented what were once seemingly perpetual enemies from re-engaging in hostilities, but also enabled the great states of Europe to cooperate on an unprecedented scale. This was perhaps most evident around the time of the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 2012 when pro Europeans everywhere seemed to go into hiding rather than challenge those who scoffed at the award and even suggested that Europe had done little for peace.

The greatest failure therefore is not that pro Europeans have failed to invoke the establishment and maintenance of peace in Europe to support their cause; it is that they have not yet tried.

Allowed to ramble unopposed, the Eurosceptic movement has yet to be confronted with a coherent and, more importantly, compelling argument in support of the European Union. Mr. Farage and his group of self-proclaimed defenders of nation state democracy have not yet been forced into a moment of reluctant reconsideration; thus effortlessly avoiding the prospect of having to concede anything to the pro European side.

Now, given the truly dire circumstances that those of a pro-European persuasion currently find themselves in, I would contend that as an absolute minimum anybody seeking to make a positive case for the EU must, as a central part of their argument, include its massive contribution to the spread of peace, democracy and the rule of law.

For those who, like me, were fortunate to have been born in Western Europe in 1989 and thus enjoyed a relatively safe and secure upbringing, the struggle undertaken by citizens of Central and Eastern countries to break free from one party rule and secure a better future for their children born that same year is rarely appreciated. As those nations sought to distance themselves from the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, the European Economic Community of the day was by no means neutral with regards to the fate of those who wanted to make the turbulent transition from communist dictatorship to liberal democracy.

Today, 25 years on from those revolutions, it is surely to the immense credit of the most successful association of nation states in the history of mankind that countries like Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania did not descend into chaos or revert back to one party rule but instead joined a progressive union of what is now 28 exclusively democratic states. Indeed, it would not be inaccurate to claim that many taking part in the immense struggle for independence and democracy in those countries were spurred on by the prospect of one day joining the European club and taking up a seat as an equal partner in the world’s most prosperous international organization.

In more recent times, there can be little quarrel with the point that the chance of a future re-run of the bloodshed that engulfed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s has been significantly reduced given Croatia’s recent accession to the EU and Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro’s applications to join pending.

In other words, in my lifetime, Europe has transformed from a radically divided, conflict ridden continent to a state of affairs that may broadly be defined as a union of peaceful, democratic states. The drastically reduced possibility of armed conflict between various peoples in Europe who had for millennia been at each other’s throats is not something to be simply brushed aside, laughed off or, worse still in Nick Clegg’s case, barely mentioned at all. What we have witnessed in Europe over the past sixty or so will, I am convinced, come to be regarded as one of the most significant periods in the history of our continent.

The first question to be put to the “what has Europe ever done for us” brigade therefore is whether or not they believe democracy and binding human rights commitments would have come to nations from the Baltics to the Balkans had it not been for a concerted European effort to promote such aims and welcome those who sought to further their advance on board?

The answer is blatantly obvious to anyone with even a scintilla of common sense and yet everyone knows that Farage and Co. couldn’t possibly be seen to be conceding anything to the pro- European side. And this is why it is simply bizarre that nobody ever seems to put Farage under pressure to admit that without a united Europe much of what we take for granted today would simply not have been possible.

So far, all that we have learned from this self-appointed crusader for nation state democracy when put under the spotlight on matters of foreign policy is that he is a supporter of the Putin way of doing things. Yes, that’s right, the same Putin who is nostalgic for a Russian imperialist era in which those same Central and Eastern European states that now sit at the EU table were so desperate to see the back of. So much for nation state democracy eh Nigel?

Looking forward then, given the unarguable level of success to date, and despite enduring the worst financial crisis in many decades, can there really be anybody out there who seriously believes that the challenges of the next 25 years will be best met by reverting back to the parochial, national self-interest model that UKIP so openly champion? Can it really be suggested with a straight face that a world in which borders are re-instated and compromise and cooperation is shelved is the best way to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous continent?

According to the a-historical Farage it certainly is. In fact, he would go even further and state that not only would Britain fare much better economically on its own, it would also be safer on accounts of it breaking free from the perceived dangers of a united European response to international crises. Quite how retreating into a single nation shell instead of speaking in concert with 27 other nations will make one safer vis a vis acts of aggression around the world is beyond me. But then again, in Farage’s Britain there would be no need for a response to international events of note ever again. Britain would adopt what appears to be his default position on all matters of foreign diplomacy – just do nothing.

The idea of peace was what mobilized the peoples of Europe over 60 years ago and the truly astonishing manner in which it has been achieved has led many to observe that the EU has been a victim of its own success. The horrors of war have lost their poignancy with a younger generation who grew up in a Europe of nothing but peace and stability and this has inevitably raised the question of what Europe is for today in 2014. Rather than battering the disaffected younger generations with mind numbing anecdotes about the free movement of goods, those who want to see Britain remain in a successful Europe must build their case upon the successes of the past and look to the challenges of the future.

Farage cannot accept the former and has no answer for the latter.

10 Apr

Slightly off the topic of independence and integration but something I wrote elsewhere concerning Brandies University’s recent decision to remove Ayan Hirsi Ali from its list of honorary degree recipients.

For the background to the story check here:

Here is the letter from Brandeis Muslim student association:

And here is the University statement.

And now me…

The recent decision by Brandeis University to withdraw Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s name from a list of honorary degree recipients at this year’s commencement raises a number of issues. Whilst the decision to offer or revoke honorary degrees is entirely a matter for the University, it is quite clear that the reason given for revocation on this particular occasion is quite simply disingenuous.

In Brandeis University’s public statement on the matter it was noted that “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values. For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

This simply cannot be true.

As anyone who is familiar with the work of Ms. Hirsi Ali will confirm, her views and opinions on matters such as religious extremism, the oppression of woman and female genital mutilation are to be found throughout her books and various other works. Indeed, as the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University has pointed out “in Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel, she states, “I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that Islam is peace and tolerance.”” The same student paper also notes that she has at various times called Islam a “backwards religion” and a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that legitimizes murder.

Accordingly, given that her views are so widely known and understood by both Brandeis’ student population and the wider public (her aforementioned book Infidel was a New York Times Bestseller), it is deeply troubling that the University claims to have not been aware of her views earlier.

From this one can draw two possible conclusions:

The first is that Brandeis University awards honorary degrees to individuals without bothering to study and consider their body of work beforehand. Whilst this would seem to be entirely inconsistent with the very ethos of an institution of higher learning, it is certainly possible that this is the case here. By publicly stating that it was unaware of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views at the time the honorary degree was first announced, the University is in effect admitting that it did not go to the bother of reading Ms. Hirsi Ali’s New York Times best-selling book Infidel, or anything else she has written, before deciding to award her an honorary degree.

If this is not the case, and Ms. Hirsi Ali’s work was indeed studied prior to awarding her an honorary degree, it must mean either that those involved in the procedure for awarding honorary degrees are deficient in reading and comprehension to such an extent that they are unfit to hold a position at such a reputable institution, or that they did not believe that any of her views, however disagreeable, were not inconsistent with the University’s core values.

The second, and in my view more probable, reason for the decision to withdraw Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name as an honorary degree recipient is that the University had come under immense pressure from certain student organisations and/or members of staff. If true, the University should have the integrity and common decency as an institution that promotes free thinking and enhanced learning to admit that an otherwise rigorous process of consideration and decision to award honorary degrees is susceptible to intimidation from pressure groups who disagree with the views of proposed awardees. To simply claim that her views had not been known prior to the decision to award her an honorary degree is nothing more than a cop out.

If the fear of giving offence to one group or another is the threshold at which Brandeis University now intends to begin reconsidering its decisions to award honorary degrees then it may as well cease the practice entirely. You will find that no previous recipient of an honorary degree at Brandeis University has agreed with everyone and offended nobody and there will certainly not be such an individual available for consideration in the future.

The Farage Phenomenon

26 Mar

With UKIP predicted to do well in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections in May, the exponential rise of Nigel Farage looks set to continue. Whether one considers his emergence onto the political scene as a welcome alternative to the entrenched 3 party establishment, or the recrudescence of that ever troubling mixture of right wing populism concentrated within one charismatic individual, the fact that his ideas and motives come in for far less scrutiny than others in the world of British politics surely merits further consideration.

Central to the Farage phenomenon is an ever-present disgust with all things European Union. Regardless of the subject matter of debate, the UKIP leader inevitably puts an anti- European spin on things with the result being that interviewers simply fall silent on accounts of having “heard it all before” and thus fail to press him further. Watch any interview you like of Farage and you will see the same tactic deployed with unfailing success. When he brings up Europe – as he is bound to do – interviewers seem to just switch off, allowing him to bang the same old drum unchallenged in the hope that they can move on to something else soon.

But why should he be let off the hook so easily? Surely any government or opposition politician who so blatantly regurgitated the same banal arguments at every possible opportunity would eventually be pressed further on his or her viewpoint? And yet, despite offering nothing but pseudo – intellectual babble at the best of times, the central tenets of Faragism seem to have all but escaped further scrutiny.

The first observation here is that when one whittles down all the inflammatory rhetoric, the fundamental point being driven by UKIP is that the institutions of the European Union are unfit for the purpose of regulating daily life in Britain. In their view, the British Parliament must be restored to its former glory, taking decisions for the people of Britain that are untainted by the unwelcome meddling of Brussels bureaucrats. Absolutely crucial for all those of a UKIP persuasion, therefore, is the notion that the will of Parliament is sacrosanct: if the British Parliament wishes to prevent prisoners from voting, or suspend migrant’s rights to benefits, it should be able to do so without any outside interference.

Likewise, then, if the British people elect a government next year that is opposed to a referendum on EU membership then surely UKIP, that last great bastion of parliamentary democracy, will have to unreservedly accept this outcome. After all, it would be beyond even the most incoherent and inconsistent of political parties to lament Westminster’s lack of power on the one hand and then claim that the legitimate will of that institution is somehow deficient on the other.

With this in mind, I have for some time now been at a loss to explain why Miliband and Clegg don’t just come right out with it and say that there will be no EU referendum under a Labour or Lib Dem government, instead of this “in the event of a substantial transfer of powers” nonsense. After all, such a move would be unlikely to diminish Labour’s lead in the polls to any appreciable extent (and it couldn’t really get any worse for the Lib Dems) given that the European question is unique amongst contemporary issues by being of immense importance yet of minimal interest to the average voter. Those inclined to vote Labour will do so regardless of whether it opts to continue supporting the EU or not.

Additionally, short of an outright Tory majority in 2015, both Labour and the Lib Dems pledging not to hold an in out EU referendum would all but guarantee that none will take place for the next 5 years, thus forcing UKIP to either come up with a new strategy or discredit the very parliament in which they seem to place so much faith.

The fact that nobody ever bothers to ask what UKIP’s response would be to a government directly elected on the basis of a manifesto that excluded an EU referendum is the first great mystery here.

The second is the complete lack of follow up questioning and analysis of UKIP’s immigration policy. Farage and his followers are adamant that unrestricted immigration from Eastern Europe has placed tremendous strain on public services and infrastructure in large parts of the country and that a controlled system of immigration is needed in response. “Our local authorities are under increasing pressure to deliver more services for less. How will they cope with another major increase in demand?” claimed Farage in a 2013 UKIP policy paper. In order to achieve this control, that all-encompassing solution of a withdrawal from the European Union is advocated.

While this all may sound reasonable given the free movement of persons inside the European Union, one often forgets to factor in the great number of Brits who are working or living in other European countries. Estimates vary from anywhere between 1 and 2 million as to the number of British citizens currently living in other EU member states. Now, even if one were to take the lowest estimate of 1 million, what would these people do in the event of a UKIP backed UK withdrawal from the European Union? Well, for a start they would no longer be European Union passport holders and thus face the prospect of requiring visas to travel to the continent. While there is every reason to believe that the re-introduction of visas would apply to everyone, there can be little doubt that those working in other EU member states would definitely be required to obtain some form of working permit or visa given that they would essentially be third country nationals from a non EU member state.

Although this possibility is likely to be laughed off as scaremongering – one would readily admit that there would probably be some way of reaching an agreement with our European partners about British nationals abroad should Britain leave the EU – we should still be asking Farage how this would be achieved in practice.

To make a comparison with the Scottish independence debate here, it has long been alleged by the SNP that an independent Scotland would automatically retain EU membership post-independence and this assertion has prompted many to question the leadership of the Yes campaign on how exactly this could be achieved. “What is the legal basis for this assertion?”; “Do you have it on good authority that this seamless transition to continued membership is so definitively guaranteed?” and “Have the heads of state of other EU member states expressed their consent to this continuation of membership for Scotland?” are all questions that are commonly asked of Salmond and Co.

And yet, on the issue of a UK withdrawal from the EU, that would at least raise the prospect of visa requirements for British tourists and workers abroad, there seems to be a complete lack of will to ask the most obvious of questions. Just how would we continue to travel and work in the EU as nationals of a non EU Member State? Wouldn’t we be in a similar position to the Serbs or the Turks in this regard? Wouldn’t the price for keeping Brits abroad visa free be that we keep Europeans in Britain visa free too? And if reciprocity is indeed the solution, what is the point in leaving in the first place? These questions should at least be posed.

Looking inwards, what would happen after a UK exit from the EU if say 5- 10% of all Brits living in Europe decided to come home for various reasons. The probability of this taking place may not be so far-fetched, particularly when one considers the administrative burden and/or financial loss that may be incurred by those living abroad who have their status as EU citizens revoked. Well, even by conservative estimates, that would be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 Brits coming back home after the UK left the EU. How then, exactly, would public services and infrastructure that is already under immense strain according to UKIP cope with an influx of tens of thousands of people? Surely the fact that they are British is irrelevant to this debate: a person using public services or travelling on public transport does so irrespective of their nationality.

Is it therefore official UKIP policy to discourage Brits from coming home too quickly after the UK leaves the EU? How long would it take to filter 100,000 Brits back in to the country in a controlled manner? What number of Brits coming back home post EU exit would place an unmanageable burden on public services?

Now, to my knowledge at least, these sorts of questions have only been put to Nigel Farage on the odd occasion here and there and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why they are not fired at him relentlessly. Surely if it is appropriate to ask the SNP about possible border controls with England then it is worthwhile asking Farage about a potentially large number of Brits flooding their own country after we leave the European Union? Remember, we can’t possibly cope with another influx of people to this country. So why hasn’t anybody asked him?

The great failure with regards to scrutinizing UKIP can thus be condensed into two as yet drastically under-asked questions:

1.) If the British public voted to stay in the EU by electing a government that explicitly excluded the possibility of an EU referendum, what would UKIP’s future entail now that the European question had been put to bed for the foreseeable future?
2.) What would happen to both Brits abroad and Brits seeking to come home in the event that Britain left the European Union?

When reading the seemingly endless droves of commentary and opinion that bang on about the need for the main 3 political parties to respond effectively to UKIP I am almost entirely without explanation as to why these two elementary points are almost always neglected from the conversation. If EU membership really is in the national interest, as the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships say it is, then why don’t they unreservedly commit themselves to it by rejecting an in out referendum, thus stopping UKIP in its tracks. And if public services and infrastructure really are as bad as Farage says they are, surely the only sensible thing to do would be to discourage or even stop thousands of Brits from coming home if we did leave the EU. Unless of course Mr. Farage believes that we can cope with any number of British people pouring into the country, just so long as they are British.

Regardless of the probability of the abovementioned scenarios ever occurring, it is surely in the interests of holding policy up to practical scrutiny to ask the self-proclaimed non racist party that brought you bongo bongo land these sorts of questions.

And so, with the stage set for tonight’s big debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on Britain and the EU, it is hoped that the pro-European leader of the Lib Dems will at least be able to put the central policies of UKIP under the kind of scrutiny that they deserve.

Then again, it is Nick Clegg….

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