I COULD never be comfortable labelling myself as a “Eurosceptic”. When I picture a Eurosceptic, I see a pinstriped, pencil-necked, weak-chinned reject from the Young Conservatives moaning relentlessly about “red tape”, “Eurocrats” and the pound. A Eurosceptic wastes precious oxygen telling anyone who’ll listen that the metric system poses a greater threat to “our” liberty than Adolf Hitler did. It’s almost enough to make me rise to my feet and shout: “Viva Brussels! Viva red tape! Down with The Daily Mail!”
But when I was asked recently to help build a “radical” campaign in favour of the European Union, I had to respectfully decline the invitation. The EU is rotten and totally indefensible in its current form. From its subversion of democracy in southern Europe – particularly in Greece – to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Brussels has initiated some ugly manoeuvres of late. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot argues: “Everything good about the EU is in retreat; everything bad is on the rampage.”
Yet over the next few months, the entire Scottish political establishment, from the Greens and the SNP to David Mundell, looks set to campaign on its behalf. Indeed, for many nationalists, support for the EU is an article of faith; proof that our national identity is cosmopolitan, inclusive, and forward-looking. According to this mindset, Europhile Scotland is on the right side of history, while Eurosceptic England is not. Somehow, being pro-Brussels has become a measure of Scottishness and of Scottish modernity.
Loading article content
Do I accept this picture? In part, yes. It’s true that the British Eurosceptic political and media elite want “UK independence” for all the wrong reasons, from curbing immigration to enforcing tougher trade rules. David Cameron is using Eurosceptic sentiment to push European institutions further to the right (Britain is always a battering ram for Europe’s shifts to the right). And perhaps, if the EU didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. To some extent at least, we need institutions that attempt to solve problems above the level of old-fashioned national borders.
Unfortunately, that’s where the positive case for Europe ends. Beyond that, we’re into the politics of fear. Many on the left will campaign to keep the EU because they are terrified of legitimising Nigel Farage, not because they really believe in the project. It’s an example of how the centre-left can ally with the centre-right against the rise of the far-right, as we’re seeing in France at present, and as we’ll see in America if Donald Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination. It represents, once again, social democracy failing to provide a clear and independent agenda of its own. And it allows the hard-right to portray itself as a martyr victimised by the establishment.
I’m not telling anyone to vote against the EU. I haven’t decided how I’ll vote yet. Maybe an emerging progressive pro-EU agenda, led by Podemos and Yanis Varoufakis, can convince me that there’s something worth fighting for. But I’m not convinced that Scottish politics has thoroughly considered the issue. Until now, we’ve assumed that we’re on the right side by default, because we’re not in bed with Ukip. That’s not good enough. There are a raft of issues that need to be considered before we vote to stick with Brussels.
First of all, it’s worth noting that, not so long ago, Scotland was broadly anti-EU while England was broadly pro. When Edward Heath presented entry into the European Common Market to the House of Commons, a huge majority of UK MPs voted in favour of the idea but most Scottish MPs opposed it. The same thing happened when the issue surfaced in 1975. Crucially, all 11 SNP MPs at the time were anti-EU, in line with party policy. And Scottish public opinion was more hostile to the EU than English opinion.
This wasn’t because Scotland was full of mouth-foaming right-wingers. On the contrary, it was because Scotland leant more to the left. Back then, entering Europe was an essentially Tory cause. (There’s something of an irony here: the EEC was far more progressive in the 1970s than its successor the EU is today.)
Second, even now, large parts of Scotland aren’t convinced of the merits of the European Union. Polls show Eurosceptic sentiment in Scotland is as high as 49 per cent. Are all these Scots unreconstructed racists who want to take us back to the 1950s when everything was just tickety-boo and people never locked their doors? Of course not. Public opinion is complicated. Some people, like me, are leftists who resent the fact that European law will prevent us nationalising vital services and developing truly a democratic politics. They look at TTIP, and at the experience of Greece, and say: “Not for me, thanks”. Both leftists and liberals are also worried about the surrender of democratic sovereignty. Brussels is a quintessential example of “post-democratic” social control – distant, technocratic and barely accountable.
Others worry about straightforward things like having a job. And yes, some people do worry about immigration. But we live in a culture of daily tabloid scapegoating, and if we write off everyone who blames immigration for their problems, rather than engage them in discussion about alternatives, then the left is finished.
Third, in the rest of the UK, we can’t simply dismiss concerns about Brussels as a reflection of some sort of neurotic British racism. The situation is nuanced. Let’s distinguish two groups. At the top, there’s a thoroughly corrupt, crypto-fascist public-school class of Eurosceptics who dominate the British media and much of British politics. At the bottom, there’s confusion about the effects of globalisation. Liberals lecture this second group about the benefits of immigration. But many people conclude that globalisation isn’t working for them, and they are partly right. Clearly, curbing immigration isn’t a solution. Controlling the economy is the only way to safeguard jobs; controlling people at the borders is a distraction that threatens democracy. But we ignore the victims of free trade at our peril.
Last, most of the negative stereotypes about Brussels are true. It’s corrupt, undemocratic and potentially unreformable. The institutions that make up the EU – the European Parliament, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – are a major hurdle to any party or social movement seeking progressive change.
If you vote for staying in the European Union, that’s fine. But let’s not engage in myth-making. EU membership compromises our politics. Perhaps, for now, that compromise is better than any likely alternative. But if I vote for the UK to stay in the EU, I won’t do it with any enthusiasm, because everything about the EU stinks, and the stench will only intensify as David Cameron’s right-wing “reforms” – most of which are aimed at stripping away the few social protections the EU still provides – are slowly added to the whole rotten mix.