UK and EU: The Consent of the Governed?
Can the EU's impenetrable, paternalistic, technocratic model survive for much longer?
I am preparing a presentation for a school audience on the future (if any) of the United Kingdom in the European Union. The presentation by sheer chance is to be given soon after the Prime Minister's forthcoming speech on this very subject. I’ll have their rapt attention.
On such occasions I like to show the assembled throng how "Europe" has changed over the past 800 years or so, with empires, monarchies and other forms of government waxing and waning. The Euratlas website is a marvellous resource for this, giving maps of Europe every century for 2000 years.
Starting in 1200 AD the Holy Roman Empire is the dominant space on the map. By 1400 AD the first "European union" between Poland and Lithuania is growing fast. By 1600 AD the Holy Roman Empire area is fragmented and conflict-riven, while the Ottoman Empire is expanding. Fast-forward to 1800 AD and Poland has vanished; the Habsburg Empire is locked in rivalry with the Ottoman Empire, Russia watching on. And so on into more familiar modern times.
During this long historical journey something extraordinary happened: Belief gave way to knowledge. The idea that kings and queens had the divine right to rule was challenged by something utterly and bewilderingly different: the proposition that "all men are created equal ... Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".
Here in the United Kingdom we have never got round to accepting that proposition fully. Instead we have evolved down the centuries an eccentric private arrangement that brings together elements of monarchy with a strong parliamentary tradition, in ways never fully explained to the public or even understood by people who run the system. It's just there.
Back in the middle of the 17th century we briefly tried to manage without a monarchy, and then restored it. Despite the annoying breakaway by pesky ungrateful American colonists, the subsequent murderous events in France and Russia reinforced our opinion that our own measured, balanced, quixotic approach to government was supremely civilised – and supremely effective.
Hence, a question: Is it possible to continue indefinitely without some sort of clarification of how we are governed within the UK and as the UK within the EU, and what limits (if any) government at these levels is to have over us?
Over in the United States, the Constitution in principle solves these problems, although of course its interpretation is hotly disputed every day and generates philosophical questions of existential importance.
Thus to most British eyes the fact that US gun sales are soaring following the Sandy Hook school massacre is incomprehensible, if not revolting. Yet millions of Americans take their constitutional rights to bear arms very seriously indeed. President Obama has decided to have a publicly-funded armed guard for himself for life. Fine, but if he is entitled to armed protection against gunmen paid for by taxpayers, what then is the moral basis for moves by him to limit the right of citizens to fork out their own money to protect themselves with whatever guns they like?
Can the US government demand by force (as it demands by force in the UK) that citizens outsource their personal security almost completely to the state? Hell no!
Back in Europe the many issues arising from the UK/EU debate are no less far-reaching, and boil down to this 'consent of the governed' question:
- To what did the British public consent back in that 1975 referendum?
- If the UK loses out systematically to the Eurozone majority across the policy spectrum under EU Qualified Majority Voting, is that democracy? Or tyranny? Who decides where the line between them is drawn?
- When the Eurozone states move to a radically centralised monetary and banking union run by intrusive technocrats in Brussels, at what point does the consent of the governed become so attenuated that we conclude that the EU system is no longer substantively democratic at all?
- And if we do conclude that the system is no longer substantively democratic (or even if we are not sure), are we not obliged to withdraw our consent if we want self-respect?
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the looming debate is the sense of Euro-collectivist menace that lurks behind some of the rhetoric. For a sizeable core of people the EU is not mainly an economic or political project – it’s a moral imperative. The Union represents Peace and Justice in their highest evolved forms, so anyone calling into question the Union’s existence even obliquely is undermining Peace and Justice. British calls for repatriating powers are intrinsically contemptible if not openly wicked.
Few European politicians want to stand out against this crude bullying even when they recognise it as such: the sheer intensity of the pro-EU-at-all-costs tendency funded lavishly by member states’ taxpayers’ money makes them look the other way.
This explains why the UK is now losing ground even with most of its supposedly natural partners (Danes, Dutch, Poles, Swedes) in the whole discussion. We come across – perhaps not inaccurately – as being not interested, non-committal in the whole thing for purely self-absorbed, banally utilitarian reasons.
Raising fundamental issues of democracy and the consent of the governed is seen as a self-serving distraction, the more so when the Europhiles have the glib answer ready to roll: more decisions taken in Brussels by politicians elected on an EU-wide basis, fewer pointy-headed anachronistic powers at the so-called nation state level.
All of which might have kept things under control not so long ago. But now across the planet hundreds of millions of people are arming themselves with cheap mobile technology, becoming highly networked, empowered swarms whose allegiance to government now has to be earned by that government, not assumed or even demanded. From China via Russia down through the Middle East into Africa and back up deep into Europe, Consent of the Governed is back on the agenda.
Faced with this pell-mell global transformation of citizens and citizenship into something far less passive and ‘manageable’, the bland Eurocratic elite have good reason to be nervous. Can their impenetrable, paternalistic, technocratic model survive for much longer, whatever the malevolent Cameron might say later this week?
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford
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