I’ve a horrible feeling that there will be a few of these over the coming months – primarily because so much nonsense is going to be talked and so few facts will be checked.
The practice of calling a referendum (or plebiscite) to resolve major political questions via a direct expression of democratic will has a surprisingly brief history within UK government. Only two UK-wide referenda have ever been held: the first was the 1975 vote on membership of the European Community (“Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”), and the second was the 2011 vote on changes to the voting system for general elections (“At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?”).
A third referendum will be held on 27th June this year, again on European Community membership (“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”).
So, in UK politics we tend to call nationwide referenda when:
- one or more parties are hopelessly split at an existential level.
- This issue at stake is so obscure and complex that only a very small number of wonks will understand it.
In the past everyone has taken the opportunity to air whatever prejudices they happen to have before the status quo option prevails and a significant number of UK politicians enter a decades-long sulk. The political mainstream will then take the result as a mandate to carry on doing whatever they were doing anyway, and the whole thing will be a massive waste of time, money and air.
There’s no real reason to suppose anything different will happen this time. But it’s fun to take the opportunity to nail some common myths being bandied about, and hopefully add a small leavening of fact to the huge number of words that will be deployed for very little purpose.
Myth 1 – “Brussels Bans X”
Easiest one first. Starting in the 80s, initially in one Boris Johnson’s columns for the Telegraph, it became fashionable to make up outright lies about “barmy Brussels” and supposed EU “diktats” or “laws” that stopped honest, brave, British folks from doing – well, anything. Because only about 100 people in the UK actually pay any attention to what the EU does on a day-to-day basis, these are repeated and embellished rather than fact-checked. The whole genre exists as an insight primarily into the often vivid imaginations of UK journalists.
The London office of the EU has painstakingly refuted pretty much all of these stories (latterly the preserve of the Express, Mail and Sun) on their superb “Euromyths” blog. Here’s an A-Z list that covers everything from 1992-2015. It’s at once impressive in scope, and depressing as to how much nonsense has been passed off as news and how much the heirs to Boris (and Boris himself) continue to dissemble. You can follow their day to day struggle on the blog.
Myth 2 – “… unelected bureaucrats…”
I mentioned “barmy Brussels” above – to any lover of British tabloid journalese the full phrase is “barmy Brussels bureaucrats”. The idea of the EU as the last repose of the earlier meddling, lazy, civil servant stereotype is difficult to shake off.
Allow me to drop some legislative process on those assembled. Like our own dear Westminster Government the EU has two legislative chambers, a presidential role and a civil service. However, in pretty much every way the EU is more democratic and more accountable than the Westminster equivalent.
- The Lower Chamber. In the UK we have the “House of Commons”, full of our representatives (MPs) that we vote for every five years. In the EU we have the “European Parliament” full of our representatives (MEPs) that we vote for every five years. (we do ruin this somewhat by voting for UKIP people who take all the expenses they can but don’t do any actual work). In Westminster there are political parties who generally vote as a block and ensure the government gets their way. In the European Parliament there are loose groupings which change in every parliament, but MEPs generally vote independently.
- The Upper Chamber. In the UK we have the “House of Lords”, made up of people who are appointed there primarily by dint of their birth, penchant for arse-licking or job (if they happen to be a Bishop in the Church of England). It’s probably the least democratic legislative body -outside of actual dictatorships – in the entire world. By contrast, the EU has the European Council of Ministers (not the European Council or the Council for Europe), which is made up of the Ministers of State from each member state who have responsibility for the topic in question. (So if the topic was, say, immigration the UK would send Teresa May. Yikes.) This reflects the actual government of each country, voted for by popular vote.
- The Presidential Role. In the UK we have the Queen (gawd bless her) as the titular head of state. She basically waves at things, and rubber-stamps laws passed by parliament. Once a year she makes a speech (written by “her” government) that sets out what “her” government will do. The only way you get to be the UK head of state is to be born by the previous one. The EU has the “European Council“, which does have a president (rotating every six months) but is made up of the heads of the constituent state governments – so David Cameron in our case. The European Council acts as the leadership of the EU, you become a member by being prime minister of an EU member country and then become president by waiting your turn.
- The Civil Service. Dead easy – we have the Civil Service, the EU has the European Commission. Both help the legislative bodies and leadership in drafting and implementing decisions. The UK Civil service is led by the Head of the Civil Service supported by Permanent Secretaries (24) and employs some 447,000 people. The European Commission is led by a president, supported by a College (28 senior staff) and employs a little over 23,000 people.
- Other bits. The UK has a Supreme Court, the EU has a Court of Justice. The UK has an Audit Office, the EU has a Court of Auditors. The UK has a central bank that controls the pound, the EU has a central bank that controls the euro.
So to summarise, the EU has the same legislative and executive structures as the UK, except the EU ones are – in general – more democratic. Indeed, a recent ERS investigation into the state of EU democracy concluded with a set of recommendations… for Westminster!
Myth 3 – TTIP
If you’re on any form of social media, or if you read George Monbiot in the Guardian you’ll have heard something of these trade agreement negotiations. These are some things you think you know about TTIP:
- It’s secret
- It’s an EU plot
- It’s a way to destroy democracy, sell off the NHS, and make kittens look sad.
- If we leave the EU then TTIP will go away, somehow.
None of these things, in the grand tradition of EU journalism in the UK, is actually true.
Here’s the EU TTIP twitter account – have a read down it. (That’s just one of the many ways they are communicating – here’s the main website, here’s the complete set of negotiating texts, here’s a statement from the chief negotiating officer on the last (12th) round of talks. There’s even a snapchat channel (!)) So it’s only a secret in the sense that very few people are reading it.
As for being an EU plot, you may have spotted that the EU are negotiating on our behalf with the US. We can see, read, and comment on the EU position – a recent speech by EU Trade Minister Cecilia Malmström suggests that these are taken into account in developing the EU position. For instance, concerns about secret (ISDS) courts are addressed in the EU position – they won’t be secret, they’ll be live streamed and led by an actual real judge. Concerns about public sector bodies like the NHS are written into exemptions that are negotiated for.
The alternate (“brexit”, or “flexit”) position is that something very like TTIP would be negotiated between the UK and the US, and the UK and EU (and the UK and Canada). Rather than the fairly sensible Malmström (a centrist, vaguely New Labour-sh, Swedish politician) these would be led by Sajid Javid – a man who freely admits to the central place Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” has played in his life. For those who want to preserve the NHS as we know it, it would seem that the EU negotiating team would get a far better deal.
There’s so much more to go into, but generally you are more likely – it seems to me – to be misinformed by our press than the EU.