Friday, 17 May 2013

A Sceptical European

I've been thinking a bit lately about the debate about the EU referendum.
My impression, for what it's worth is that the Labour and Liberal leaders are at a something of a disadvantage in the debate because, frankly, it's not terribly important either to them or their constituents, but they can't say that. On the whole I suspect, like me, they'd rather stay in but it's not exactly top of the agenda. But if they say it like that they'll be accused of being weak on Europe or whatever, and they can't have that, because the other side - UKIP and some of the Tories, are just so absolutely and completely incensed by the subject.

A lot of what I hear on the subject is economics - whether we'd be better off as a nation in or out, but I don't think that's the point. I really don't think it's about economics. For those of us who do feel at all strongly about Europe it's more a deep intuitive or instinctive reaction, both to the idea of being European, and to being British (or English). The people I know best actually sort of like the idea of being part of Europe. It makes us feel just a bit more cosmopolitan and sophisticated and broad-minded. We like the idea of being able to move freely about this huge area with it's languages and histories and cultures and to feel comfortable there and share in it. The Eurosceptics on the other hand (you'll have to excuse this if it seems like a caricature - I don't know many and find them hard to relate to. I'll try and be as even-handed as possible) have this deep commitment and loyalty above all to being British (or English). Our history and independent place in the world strikes some deep chord in them and merely being a part of Europe, they feel, dilutes or undermines that. To us Europhiles that feels a bit arrogant and insular, while to them, we look a bit effete and utopian. Does that seem fair? Eurosceptics don't necessarily dislike foreigners, but they do like them in their place.

The economics is vague to say the least. I'm no economist and I have to take the experts' word for it. My impression, not only about this, but about all the economic debates going on (most obviously how to deal with the financial crisis) is that you invariably have two equally well qualified, equally intelligent and equally convincing pundits coming out with two equally convincing but opposing arguments and offering two opposite plans of action (generally more public spending or less public spending). I suppose it might be like the climate change debate where the overwhelming consensus is for man-made climate change but the BBC just have to get a contrarian in for balance, but I don't think so. I liken it to my days of studying ecology.

Economics, like ecology (and psychology too) is what's known by some as a 'soft science'. That doesn't mean it's just so woolly that anyone can say anything they like and get away with it. It means that the factors involved are so many and varied that it is almost impossible to fully understand what's really going on, let alone make predictions. You can do statistics and try to work out some probabilities and trends, but that's about it. As ecologists we had to be extremely circumspect in our pronouncements. If you ask an ecologist to predict what will happen if, for example, you release a foreign species into the wild, or wipe out large numbers of a native species (badgers for example) most ecologists would be extremely chary of making any sort of prediction at all. And so it is with economists, except they have to make predictions. It's their job. And being in the businesses they are (finance and politics most obviously, where perception and confidence are everything) they have to sound like they know what they are talking about.
My impressions about listening to economists was confirmed by what I take to be the one reliable source of Truth available to the average layman on this kind of thing, that is More Or Less - a Radio 4 programme (backed by the Open University) about the use and abuse of statistics. They told us last week that in fact nobody really knows whether the UK (or England) would be better or worse off out of the EU. There are so many different factors to take into account. I take it from that that there's probably not a lot in it. Hence my feeling about The Opposition being relatively unmoved by the issue (compared to, say, unemployment, the NHS, or the tax evasion). It probably doesn't make that much difference.

Of course there are other reasons for being sceptical about Europe, and in some respects I share this scepticism. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to be worrying about the implications of Big Government. It's bad enough having to be being ruled by our own local government, but the European version is much larger and at least seems a lot more remote and a lot less easy to influence. Eurosceptics point to the waste and corruption, and what about all those idiotic regulations 'handed down from Brussels' (square bananas etc)? I suppose my first thought is to wonder if our own government is any better. I'm sure you could make up an equally ridiculous list of judgements passed by any government. This is one thing I definitely take issue with Eurosceptics over. They do seem to assume that without Brussels, the British government on its own would handle things so much better. Perhaps it's part of the pro European mindset I outlined at the beginning that I doubt this, but I suspect that even Eurosceptics would have to concede that the British government leaves a lot to be desired. 'They might be incompetent' they might say, 'but they're our incompetents.'
I think there's more to it than this though, because I think we pro-Europeans actually quite like European legislation, even if a lot of it is no better than our own government manages. We like the fact that when environmental issues, or human rights or employment law for example, come up, we're more likely to hear the kind of  things we like from Brussels or Strasburg than from London (which doesn't seem to be interested in anything but economics). And of course, those are exactly the kinds of things the Torys and UKIP don't want to hear so that's another reason for ditching the EU in their book. Too much woolly lefty thinking.

If I have one real concern about how the EU is run it is this perceived lack of democracy. This is certainly partly our fault. We do get to vote in European elections but most of us don't take much of an interest. I don't know who my MEP is or what he/she stands for. I should find out. But ok, maybe the EU should be more democratic. Fair enough. But again, this is not what the Eurosceptic wants to hear. I'm not saying the EU is perfect (how ludicrous would that be?) but I deep down I think it's basically a good idea, so my plan of action, as a member of the opposition (after I'd dealt with all the other, more pressing issues) would be to make it better. But the Eurosceptic won't have that. The EU is rotten to the core. It was a bad idea from the start. There is no point in trying to fix it.
So anyway, in the referendum, should it ever happen, I'll be voting to stay in.


paulgrand said...

Most people miss the point about the EEC it was set up as a way of never having another world war and in this it succeeded admirably, or at least whist Germany had America's guilt money rolling in until quite recently.

The EEC has been wonderful for Britain, it opened the door to the sun, it helped modernise and liberalize Britain's outdated laws and created huge new markets for our goods.

But the fear of mass immigration, without even realizing that it was Britain that pushed for the over-expansion of Europe into the East to try and weaken the Franko-German axis/monopoly and welcome all that lovely union hating, cheap Polish labour, thus Britain is now reaping what it has sown, unable to cherry pick the immigrants, they dont want to play any more...

UKIP is great, they will help get rid of the Con-Dems!

Steve Law said...

I concur with every word...

Vincent said...

I like your even-handed eloquence, Steve. Altogether a most admirable piece, though I am of the opposite persuasion. As a deep-dyed Eurosceptic I accept your description with pride, even if it is a caricature.

But the referendum had better happen! And the Government of the day, whichever party or coalition is in power, had better abide by the democratic will of the British people. As will I, in the event of a No vote.

Vincent said...

PS: I'd never vote UKIP though.

paulgrand said...

Lol, they wouldn't dare actually have a referendum because the result would be a disaster for London Banking with the US. Britain makes most of its money by being the shabby middle man broker between Europe and America, if Britain pulled out, America would go straight to Germany, bypassing London. A London banker friend told me this years ago.

The Con Dems can promise what they like because they know they wont get in next time, and in any case, they'll say anything to usurp UKIP's popularity as bare faced lying means nothing any more, they all do it now.

Steve Law said...

This is really interesting. I think it shows up the huge gulf between Old and New Conservatism that I wrote about here ( I don't if you can put links in comments. Anyone?) in that the old-style conservatives want traditional values with everyone knowing their place and the New Conservatives just want to do whatever makes most money. I've never understood how the two manage to coexist in the same party and now I guess I'm getting my answer.
Of course the same split happened in the 90s and they managed to limp on, but UKIP didn't exist then. Much was made of the rift between the Old Clause-4, Looney-Left, Michael Foot type of Labour and the New so it's about time.

Vincent said...

on the technical matter of how to put links in comments, or indeed in posts, this is the way you do it using html. It seems complicated at first but is actually quite straightforward.

In the example below, you would need to substitute "[" by "<" and "]" by ">":

... that I wrote about [a href=""]here[/a] in that the old-style ...

Here's how it looks and works when I make those substitutions:

... that I wrote about here< in that the old-style ...

paulgrand said...

I dont think any of the 3 main parties want to pull out or let the great unwashed vote because they know it will ruin both the economy and the relationship with America.
Britain is the only country in Europe, no, the world to have a foot in both markets, for Britain to flush this huge business advantage it would be akin to turkeys voting on Christmas being a good idea.

It wouldn't be so bad if Britain still made things to sell, but thanks to Thatcher destroying and selling off everything, the only viable industry is now banking, step out of Europe and the city of London would probably go broke. Its a leap of faith that shouldn't be handed to an undereducated voting population who given the choice would also bring back hanging, which is also why it's never been put to the vote.
Some things are just too risky to gamble with.

Steve Law said...

Thanks Vincent - I'll have a go at that next time. I was sure there must be a way.
Re referendums - I note that the traditional Right are now wanting one on gay marriage. It's a horrific can of worms. I think my original point was that I suspect these causes are the preserve of a fulminating ('swivel-eyed'?) minority (sorry Roger - another caricature) and not The Silent Majority they profess to be, but It forces the rest of us (if they get their way, which I agree, they probably won't) who have an opinion but not necessarily such an all-consuming one, to try to come out looking equally irate. I'd like to think that more referenda would be a good thing but I'm not so sure.

paulgrand said...

Steve, if only it were the 'swivel-eyed minority' wanting to stop people doing things they find objectionable!

Make no mistake, this was labour's doing from the last election with Brown's disastrous off the cuff;
"Some kind of Bigoted woman" remark, which I believe lost them the election, and quite rightly, because ignoring this hushed-up problem that people feel they are being taken-over by stealth
isn't going to win any votes next time round..

Europe wide liberalism is years ahead of little englanders, and its a European wide edict that people should be allowed to marry whoever they like without being discriminated against. France has had to allow it, much to the chagrin of their 'swivel-eyed minority'..

The only way to stop modernisation would be to leave Europe and become a landlocked backward looking 1950's kind of 'Jersey' type island, perhaps a
offshore tax haven come duty free stop-over?

Britain doesn't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater by leaving the EEC, if they dont want to be flooded with Albanians etc, they can just treat them the same as France does and make it so difficult for them to settle that they will go elsewhere. Its difficult and messy but not impossible to get around this cherry picking problem that Britain has created for itself.
They just need to deal with it , wake-up and stop blaming everything on Europe!

Steve Law said...

Yes - I agree with what you say on Britain's (or England's really) relationship to the rest of Europe, but I think I might do a separate Witter on immigrants. It's such a huge topic.
My initial reaction, as I know I've said before, is that we need to stop blaming everything on foreigners...

paulgrand said...

I wasn't going to add any more, but after this weeks S. London beheading I think another blog on 'the last labour taboo' would be prescient?
The blanket coverage on all the news channels, whipping up fear and hatred, is something to behold, Mr Murdoch would be proud!