In, out, or shake it all about?

‘Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, [David Cameron] said voters would be offered “real choice” on this at the next election.’

There’s something I’d like to see, but I won’t hold my breath.

As I have said before, I am extremely sceptical of any political party offering any modicum of “real choice”. Whilst he was at pains to keep his hand concealed on the subject of a possible referendum on EU membership before 2015, the Prime Minister did say that ‘any vote would happen within five years.’

There was no mention of what form this officially-sanctioned Question would take, nor was there any clear indication as to whether he’d wait until the Government has prevaricated over how to secure some token concessions on sovereignty from Brussels before that would happen. Instead he focussed his energies on defending Britain’s right to be truculent.

It’s an interesting rhetorical trick that Dave uses in this interview, as it neatly glosses over a glaring logical inconsistency. He starts by listing sub-treaties to which the UK does not subscribe, such as the Eurozone and Schengen, and infers an “opt-in” approach to international legislation, which (he implies but deftly avoids stating) gives the UK a certain licence to cherry-pick its own way through the European buffet.

Both the Eurozone and Schengen agreements are opt-in (at least as far as the UK is concerned; let’s not discuss countries applying for EU membership just yet). The UK chooses not to be a part of either, yet by being a member of the EU and ratifying its various treaties it agrees to suffer any potential fallout – be it from common market economic ties or the free movement of the European labour force.

Cameron alleges that the Eurozone states have “got to change [their internal economic policies in an externally concerted effort] to make their currency work” but that this changes “the nature of the organisation to which we belong.” This is like saying that changing (for example) Dutch citizenship eligibility will affect UK immigration beyond our control. In an indirect way, both of these statements may be true, but this nonetheless makes Cameron’s distinction void. The choice in either case is “lump it or leave”, as with many other consequences of treaties we have signed in order to be the constituent member that Cameron so readily champions.

But not opting into Schengen and the Euro enables us to control our own interest rates and external immigration policies, right? So why should we be necessarily tied down on other issues? Because, Dave, these are subsequent undertakings not explicitly covered by the various binding European treaties like Maastricht and Rome that we signed.

Cameron fishing

If we use this premise as a precedent to unpick the unfavourable aspects that happen to underpin the entire European initiative, like the free movement of peoples, or common fisheries policy, why not rethink other treaties? We could rethink the Treaty of Amiens, put the fleur-de-lis back on our royal standard and reclaim northern France! We could decide that too many people are voting the wrong way and revoke universal suffrage!

Yes, I agree; it starts to get a little bit silly, really. And people wonder why other European states see the Coalition as the political equivalent of a petulant three-year-old in a tantrum.

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I’ve just got to get this one off my chest

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was my fury at the way in which the Yes To Fairer Votes campaign threw away the most (and possibly only) promising opportunity to effect meaningful political change in the UK. Their failure at the AV Referendum in 2011 pretty much sealed my disaffection with party politics, and here I explain what could have happened.

Armando Ianucci, the heroic genius mind behind The Thick Of It and In The Loop, wrote a marvellously impassioned treatise in the Independent’s election issue. Katie Ghose could have used it in her campaign months earlier instead of going negative (turning the entire referendum into a political mud-slinging match). Unfortunately for sane liberals everywhere, it was published in a newspaper whose readership was – in all likelihood – going to vote yea anyway.

During the 2010 general election, there was really only one question to be answered: ‘which party/leader is most capable of dealing with the economy?’ That was it. The economy. It was undoubtedly important – and the various parties did indeed have differing views as to how to solve it – but nowhere in the leaders’ debates was anything else mentioned unless it was ancillary to reducing the national debt. Healthcare, currying foreign investment, transportation and Trident were all discussed, but only through the lens of how much they would cost. I don’t remember the foreign ministers having a debate – anybody catch it? Aspiring home secretaries didn’t duel it out on TV over prisons and sentencing policy, nor can I recall seeing prospective environment ministers holding forth about our ratio of renewable energy. Now we have a coalition government for which no one directly voted (one vote each, chaps and chapesses) claiming a wide mandate pieced together from their respective manifestos, when all The People actually did was answer, “whose numbers seem to add up the best?”

I am sick and tired of being offered the choice between a meagre handful of parties on just one particular issue: that which has been deemed the most salient topic of the day come a general election. Subjects declared to be of lesser significance are merely side effects of choosing between representatives based on the single major issue. In 2005 it was the war in Iraq. Back in 1992, the electorate went to the polls to say whether or not it approved of John Major’s leadership. Elections throughout the 1970s were dominated by miners’ concerns and discussions of the relative bargaining rights of trades unions.

The two or three major parties are typically either united on a given issue, giving no freedom to disagree and still make one’s voice heard, or so wildly divergent on entire groups of issues that voters must choose the least unattractive package deal. I am passionately in favour of a more proportionally representative electoral system, as it would allow so-called ‘factions’ of the three major parties – who agree on most issues (those governing their party allegiances) but who ‘rebel’ as their Whips order them to vote against their personal principles – to decentralise into separate parties.

Just as the world is made up of more than three colours, so should be politics. The dividing lines that so often cause tensions, rebellions, resignations, expulsions or even defections within a party would instead become the decisive factors upon which the electorate should be allowed to make an informed choice. Who can honestly say that they have always agreed with every single policy of a given party throughout their voting lifetime? Elections would be very different and drastically duller affairs if that were the case.

How many people feel trapped between two or more parties, agreeing with the economic policies of one party with the social policies of another? How many people wished they could vote for a party if it weren’t for the personal philosophies of that particular candidate?

Imagine what it would be like with more than one party on the left, middle and right. Imagine having the choice between, say, five parties you could generally support but who differ on the very so-called ‘minor’ issues you feel strongly about, that are never discussed under FPTP? You could vote for all five, and rank them in order! Wow, no more tactical voting! It wouldn’t matter that one party never reaches an absolute majority – in fact it would be marvellous. Governments would have to justify their policies to secure the votes of their allies, rather than relying on their Whips to call their backbenchers to heel. Bloc majorities would exist for certain ‘important’ issues, but would not guarantee any dominion over ancillary debates.

Europhile Conservatives would bloc vote with other Tories on issues of justice or education, but would be heard in chorus with liberals on issues of EU integration. As such, liberally minded, fiscally conservative voters would no longer have to decide between economics and foreign policy.

Equally, gone would be the days of Old Labour disenfranchisement with the post-1994 face of the political left: socialists would be free to advertise themselves as such, Marxists could come from the woodwork and expound the theories they really believe, the centre left would not feel constrained by trades unions dictating policy where they would rather listen to the voters, and the rife Brownite/Blairite factionalism that continues to besmirch the party image would be an irrelevance; a dispute deferred to the electorate.

Liberals, for their part, would no longer feel the need to align themselves on the left/right spectrum – instead, those for whom liberalism represents a social philosophy that transcends other political considerations could freely associate with members of the left or the right, without being defined by them: no more permanent slant from Social Democrats or role of political flak jacket for a Conservative-led ‘coalition’.

And finally, the voter would have more of a choice than the least of three evils on a single, pre-determined issue.