Friday, January 25, 2013

EU referendum also about who rules Britain

In raising questions about Britain’s membership of the European Union, the leader of the Tory Party has put constitutional questions about the state and democracy on the agenda. While David Cameron would like to confine these to the EU, we should make how Britain itself is governed the main question.

Naturally, as a ruling class politician, the prime minister is mostly concerned about prospects for the City of London and the major corporations when eurozone countries hand tax and spending policies to the European Central Bank – without the people of Europe having a say. Countries outside the eurozone – like Britain - could find themselves at a disadvantage.

And obviously, from a political point of view, he is keen to outflank the right-wing  populism of Ukip, whose fear and loathing of foreigners in general and Europeans in particular knows no limit, and bring his own eurosceptics into the fold.

But in his long speech, Cameron was also compelled to cloak himself in the language of democracy and emphasise the right of people to decide for themselves. In doing so, he opened up a can of worms for the ruling class because voters are also deeply troubled by a self-evident “democratic deficit” in Britain as well as the EU.

One of Cameron’s stated reasons for announcing a referendum on the EU in 2018 if the Tories win the next election is the “gap between the EU and its citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years”. He says that this “represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent”.

But his remark that the “EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf” puts him on dangerous ground. Because while this is true, it also applies to the electorate’s relationship with the state and political institutions in this country.

When he points that “people are increasingly frustrated that decisions taken further and further away from them mean their living standards are slashed through enforced austerity” he wants to confine this to countries like Spain, Greece, Italy and Ireland.

But this could and should be extended to what’s going on in Britain. The vicious austerity drive imposed on working people, which has seen a massive transfer of wealth to the rich, may appear as the result of decisions taken at Westminster.

But in reality, the policies flow from the ConDems’ slavish commitment to maintaining the status quo of corporate and financial power. Their source is equally as “further and further away” as those carried out in the eurozone. No mandate was sought for the cuts before the last election – by any of the parties.

The deficit was so huge as a result of the global crisis that, from a capitalist point of view, it had to be cut. And that meant taking the axe to public spending to persuade the financial markets not to impose exorbitant borrowing costs. Not much democracy at work here Cameron!

So we should extend the debate about democracy. We should make the central issue who rules Britain and by what means. Have, as Cameron claims, the people actually lost control and their voice to Brussels? Or, as is the case in practice, they never had either in the first place?

The British state and its institutions rule for the powerful, the elites, the rich and the establishment in general and a referendum on membership of a crisis-ridden EU that is beyond reform won’t change that.

Labour certainly won’t raise these fundamental questions. They are solely concerned that a referendum might undermine the “national interest”, by which they mean those of business and finance. Hell would freeze over before Ed Miliband talked about anything else.

A campaign is gathering pace around the project for an Agreement of the People for the 21st century. It proposes a new constitutional settlement in Britain that would spur democratic transformation everywhere and lay the basis for a Europe where powers rests firmly in the hands of the people. Lend it your support.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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