Later this week the British people will vote on whether to remain a self-governing democracy or to ratify their absorption into an undemocratic European polity. It may sound extreme to state the choice so bleakly, but that has been the immanent reality since 1950, when Clement Attlee, Labour’s greatest prime minister (and Churchill’s wartime deputy), rejected British membership in the proposed European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). In a House of Commons debate, he said: “We on this side are not prepared to accept the principle that the most vital economic forces of this country should be handed over to an authority which is utterly undemocratic and responsible to nobody.”
Attlee was more perceptive than he knew. The ECSC was designed to morph in stages from a limited industrial cartel into the present unified European “entity” of 28 member-states, which is supposedly neither a state (though it increasingly exhibits the attributes of statehood — flag, anthem, the power to sign treaties, etc.) nor a diplomatic body promoting cooperation and arbitration between independent states, but something new under the sun. Moreover, the lack of democratic accountability in its political arrangements underlined by Attlee was entirely by design. Its founders were suspicious of national sovereignty and popular passions, on which they blamed the recent war. They quite consciously set out to avoid submitting their grand design to democratic debate and the verdict of the voters. Instead it would proceed “functionally,” treaty by treaty, regulation by regulation, committee vote by committee vote, largely shielded from oversight, until one day the peoples of Europe would discover they were living under a new “European” government. That bright new day has now dawned.
Not coincidentally, their new government is one they can’t vote out. The European Commission, which has a virtual monopoly on proposing European legislation, never submits itself to elections. It is an appointed body of unknown bureaucrats and failed national politicians. Nor can British, French, or German parliaments reject or amend the Commission’s laws and regulations or the European court’s decisions. Nor can their voters repeal them. European law is superior to what are still quaintly called “national laws.” And if a national referendum (one of the few escape hatches in this panopticon) rejects a European decision, the voters are asked to vote again until they get it right. In short the EU’s defenses against democratic accountability are pretty watertight.
Increasingly, the Commission’s laws are defended with frankly anti-democratic arguments rather than covert maneuvers in the wilderness of committees that is Brussels. There is no right, said European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker recently, to vote against Europe. Similar statements by EU leaders could be multiplied to infinity (in innumerable languages). So the EU’s democratic deficit, long admitted, has not been cured but deepened. No leading EU figure now promises to eliminate it. As John Fonte argues, the EU is probably best described as a post-democratic entity.
Almost the only body that can override EU law is the European Union itself. Almost all the rules governing the operation of the single currency, above all the “No Bailouts” rule, were swept aside by the European Central Bank in the interest of safeguarding the euro against the currency crises it had invited. EU institutions backed by the French and German governments removed two democratically elected prime ministers under the thinnest veil of constitutionality. They replaced them with technocrats (one of whom, the Italian, received a derisory share of the vote in the subsequent election). Chancellor Merkel’s unilateral decision to invite the world to Europe broke the Dublin Accords on refugee reception. In a bow to German economic power, however, the EU endorsed Merkel’s move and embraced a scheme to compel all Schengen member-states (including countries that had kept the Accords) to receive quotas of refugees under pain of fines amounting to several percent of their GDP. So the EU is a lawless organization as well as an undemocratic one.
Why might the British people — who among their historical achievements are pioneers of constitutional parliamentary liberal democracy — wish to exchange their successful self-governing democracy for this constitutional abortion? What arguments is the Remain campaign able to mount in favor of doing so?
On this central question Remain has only lies and obfuscation to offer. It denies the plain fact that EU membership means a loss of sovereignty. When that proves unpersuasive, it argues that “sovereignty” is an outdated theoretical concept unusable in the modern world; instead the British should choose effective “power” over it. Scholars will recognize this argument as the typical socialist confusion, exposed by Hayek among others, between freedom and power, applied to relations between states. It’s odd to hear this classic socialist trope from supposedly conservative politicians such as David Cameron. But things are worse than that. In exchange for its democratic sovereignty, the EU offers Britain not power but a one-twenty-eighth share of collective decision-making with countries whose interests are badly aligned with those of the Brits.
That is why Britain is continually outvoted in Brussels even when its major national interests are at stake. Far from being an outdated theoretical concept, sovereignty has been shown in the campaign to have very serious real-world consequences. Loss of sovereignty inside the EU means, among other things, that Britain is not free to control immigration. Official figures released in the campaign confirmed this, showing that immigration has been far higher than the government had realized and that as a result its target for reducing immigration levels had fallen short by hundreds of thousands. Given the disparity between standards of living in Britain and Eastern Europe, this inflow would be potentially endless if the country were to remain in the EU. Remain’s response to this massive embarrassment has been, first, to obfuscate, suggesting that small and temporary changes in welfare policy would deter future migrants. When that argument was laughed out of court, Remain suggested that those opponents who raised the issue were racists or, as Chancellor George Osborne put it, “Nazis.”
One of the less noticed aspects of the referendum campaign has been the extent to which Cameron has had to rely more and more on fundamentally left-wing arguments to make the case for the EU — and, indeed, to rely more and more on Labour and trade-union organizations, too. He removed from the government’s program some items of legislation that were especially offensive to labor unions in return for the unions’ spending more on campaigns to arouse their apathetic members (many of whom are in fact Euro-skeptic). That oddity has gradually revealed two hitherto unseen truths about the campaign: First, the EU is essentially a left-wing corporatist cause that is hard to support on conservative grounds; second, the traditional Tory arguments of patriotism and free enterprise not only can’t be appealed to, but would arouse emotions on the right that would weaken Remain’s entire case, including its only positive argument for staying in.
That argument is that Britain would face ruin outside the EU and prosperity inside, as all “experts” know. Those experts turn out to be (some) corporate businessmen, the leaders of international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, and heads of governments such as President Obama. Delegations of all three have been turning up in London and issuing grave warnings about Brexit at regular intervals. Small businesses and native entrepreneurs such as inventor James Dyson apparently don’t count as experts, but they have been speaking out in favor of Brexit, as have a significant number of leaders of both British and multinational corporations. What is emerging as a fault line is that this battle is between Davos Man and the rest of us.
Both halves of the Davos argument are false, however. To start with, experts differ. And when they do, the rest of us are liberated to choose which experts seem to be most persuasive and most in accord with our own general outlook. Thus, the present governor of the Bank of England is a passionate opponent of Brexit; his predecessor is a moderate Brexiteer. All the organizations cited in opposition to Brexit have supporters of it in the research departments where most of the thinking is done. Their bosses usually stopped thinking years ago and are influenced by what is the respectable view about Brexit in the groupthink of the Davos World. Besides, they all supported the euro — which in a rational world would impose a vow of silence on them forever. And finally, in the scales of expertise on the EU and the U.K., former Australian prime minister John Howard and former Czech president Vaclav Klaus, both of whom favor Brexit, would outweigh all the mouthpieces of Davos orthodoxy.
The second half of the argument — Brexit would be ruinous — is transparently silly. Economically speaking, leaving the EU would mean that Britain was outside both a customs union with an average tariff of 3 percent and a system of massive and intrusive regulation. The first would be a trivial disadvantage, the second a strong positive benefit. Britain is the fifth-largest economy in the world. If Britain cannot survive outside the EU, what on earth are 150 or more other countries doing? In fact, comparable countries — Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia — are doing much better than those in the EU. Countries in the euro zone are doing worst of all. And Britain’s trade is already being diverted from Europe to the Americas and Asia because that is where the growing markets are. In other words, even if leaving the EU were to produce transitional market disturbances, the long-term fundamentals for Brexit would be fine.
Admittedly, it is true that both the British and the world economies are suffering from a serious attack of nerves about growing debt and, in the case of the U.K., a balance-of-payments deficit equal to 7 percent of GDP. When markets are nervous otherwise, modest problems can send currencies spiraling upward or downward temporarily. In such circumstances, governments should stress the transitional character of any change, pointing out that currencies and other indicators quickly adjust to the economic fundamentals. While the pound was inside the fixed exchange-rate mechanism, for instance, it led to market disruption and massive interest-rate hikes; when it left, the more entrepreneurial post-Thatcher British economy immediately began a long boom. Instead of soothing the markets, however, almost all governments and international economic bodies now exaggerate the financial risks of Brexit. That is deeply irresponsible, of course, but it also invites the observation that the current debt levels and higher risks of the world economy are the result of policies pursued by the very authorities that now use them as bugaboos to frighten the voters.
It would be easy to continue rebuking the alarmist scare stories from Remain — and distinguished economists, including two former British finance ministers, have been doing so with zest. What is more important is to realize that they are designed not to persuade but to instill a sense of defeatism in the British people. Their consistent message is that the Brits are rubbish, can’t hack it, need the protection of Europe, and that anyone who differs from this masochistic view is in the grip of an imperialist nostalgia.
That is nonsense. The Brits are an unusually influential middle-ranking power in military, diplomatic, and intelligence terms. Culturally speaking, they are a global superpower. And — to repeat — Britain is the fifth-largest economy in the world, a leading member of all the main international bodies and likely to remain so, and a country which is a byword for effective democratic constitutional governance. It is — or ought to be — shocking that a British government should seek to instill a false sense of failure and dependency in its citizens in order to win a campaign they can’t win on the intellectual merits of the case.
Which forces us to answer a question we sketched earlier: Why do the Remain advocates want to exchange their successful self-governing democracy for the constitutional abortion that is the EU? None of their arguments examined above hold water. That being so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are inspired by passions that they either don’t fully understand or refuse to admit to themselves. Let us suggest three such unacknowledged passions as they emerged in the debate:
First, snobbery. That has been rampant from the Remain side ever since Mathew Parris of the London Times (usually the most amiable of writers) denounced the voters of Clacton (UKIP’s sole constituency) for being common, vulgar, and left behind in a seedy Britain that should itself be left behind by a progressive Britain in Europe. Other commentators have been denouncing the referendum itself as granting the power of decision on the country’s future to the ill-informed hoi polloi (the voters). Yet the questions asked by these low-browed types in the television debates have usually been sharper, better informed, and more interesting than the lazy formulaic replies of the politicians. They took the real issues of debate seriously. Too many ostensibly smarter people treated the same issues as an opportunity for status signalling: We’re not from Clacton.
Second, a neo-imperialist nostalgia. Though this is a standard charge against the Leave campaigners, it is in fact far more characteristic of the politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and bureaucrats in both public and private sectors who see Europe as a larger playing field on which to compete. When asked why he thought the Foreign Office was such a passionate advocate of British EU membership in the first referendum campaign, the late Enoch Powell explained its rationale as follows: “We were big once; we want to be big again.” Readers of John le Carré novels may recall this attitude, married to anti-Americanism, as something that shapes his traitors. It goes without saying that even if EU membership did make the Foreign Office “big again,” it would not change the stature or status or psychological comfort of the people of Clacton.
Third, and above all, a half-conscious rejection of democracy. For the EU is a mechanism that enables the political and other elites in Britain to escape from the constraints of democracy. It removes power from institutions subject to the voters in elections, such as the House of Commons, and vests it increasingly in courts and bureaucracies in Brussels that are effectively free of democratic control and even of democratic oversight. As a result, the EU is seductively appealing to those who want to exercise power and who believe they would do so more responsibly and successfully if they did not have to account for their decisions to . . . well, ordinary people like their relatives.
All three passions are temptations to the power-hungry, and they have shaped a Remain campaign reflecting the interests and values of post-national, post-democratic elites. Once we step outside the moral universe of these elites, however, there is no case whatever for Britain to surrender its self-governing democracy to Brussels.
With the due deference of outsiders, we urge the British people, our friends in peace, our allies in war, to be true to themselves and to their democratic traditions on Thursday. That should be more than enough.