Us, them and Europe

Britain’s membership of the European Union used to command almost universal assent from the country’s intellectuals. Just how far this has changed was made clear to me by a recent BBC Point of View talk by the philosopher Roger Scruton. He concluded a thoughtful series of talks on the nature of democracy with what amounted to a diatribe against the European Union as an “unaccountable empire”. Mr Scruton is a serious man, and his criticism of the EU needs to taken seriously by supporters of Britain’s membership like me. .

The essence of Mr Scruton’s talks is that democracy is based on a series of institutions that allow opposition and argument. He criticises Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for claiming that its attempted imposition of a theocratic regime was democratic, when they were undermining the very institutions on which any democracy has to be based. Mr Scruton goes on to say that these institutions can only be sustained where a country has a sense of “us”, of identity that tolerates opposition with a sense of it being all in the family. But “there is no first person plural of which the European institutions are the expression”. He goes on to suggest that this because the EU is based on an international treaty that supersedes elected legislatures, and becomes incapable of being modified. He uses the EU’s free movement of peoples as his prime example, as many Britons are unhappy with so many people from other EU countries taking up residence here. He goes on to say that “democracies need boundaries, and boundaries need the nation state”, painting a picture of nation states coming together from a bottom up sense of togetherness and neighbourliness, shaped by shared language and culture – which the EU lacks.

I have two immediate reactions to this. Firstly I am very uncomfortable with the suggestion that our feeing of “us” and “them” are simply matters of historical and geographical fact that we should adapt to – and the all Britons are “us”, while Brussels bureaucrats are “them”. To me this has a rather scary overtone of the 19th Century idealisation of the nation state, based on language and culture. This movement led to the unification of Germany and Italy, and myriad calls for self-determination which led to the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. It helped usher in, from 1870 to 1945, 75 of the most disastrous years of war, conflict, forced migration and genocide in our continent’s history. Unscrupulous politicians played up on peoples’ sense of “us” against “them”, and tried to impose this on the continent’s tangled patchwork of languages, cultures and nationalities.

And if we think that Britain is exempt from all these continental complexities, I wonder if a Northern Irish person of Catholic heritage really thinks that government from Westminster is by “us” rather than “them”. And Scotland’s most successful political movement is based on the idea that Westminster is not “us”, and poses a threat to the country’s coherence. The first person plural is not a matter of received fact, but has to be built patiently out of liberal principle. And in the modern, highly interconnected world we must be inclusive. It is not as if Britain’s history is that of being an isolated island nation: we have been a hub of European and world politics; the country used by a the pinnacle of an empire that covered a quarter of the world’s surface, and for two millennia it been part of a highly interconnected European history. Britain is a trading nation and an international hub; we have to accept the responsibilities that go along with that or we will not appreciate its benefits.

As it happens, since being a teenager I have felt a strong affinity with the European project, and have ever since felt that the European institutions have been a political expression of my first person plural. And neither is it true that the European treaties have been fixed and unchanging; they have been subject to democratic pressures from below.

My second reflection is that the European Union is something of a lightning conductor of political discontent – and that removing it will not actually remove the discontent. When I look at technically fully independent countries like Australia, I don’t see places at are any more at peace with themselves and the world around them than we are. True, Australia has recently benefited from a good run of economic prosperity – but at the cost of big mining corporations running riot across the countryside (for people worried about wind turbines, just look at the open-cast mines marching across the Hunter Valley in New South Wales),and  who have such political clout that they are able to overturn tax proposals that they don’t like. And the politics of immigration are just as toxic.  Australia (and I could also use those other Anglo-Saxon bastions of New Zealand or Canada) finds itself at the mercy of an interconnected world, and it is by no means clear that they are better off outside an international federation like the EU. Britain’s problems would not go away, or become any more tractable, if it left the EU.

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit that Mr Scruton has put his finger on a real problem, which is that EU institutions have lost popularity, and often seem beyond political accountability. His use of the free movement of people as an example is very telling. This idea lies at the beating heart of the European Union, but it creates a lot of tension. And unlike many supposed EU generated problems, like over-regulation, it’s for real. In Lincolnshire, where Mr Scruton was born and where support for the anti-EU Ukip is high, there have been real impacts from the influx of east European migrants in search of work. And yet freedom of movement has had real economic and personal benefits. And it is not just in Britain that anti-EU feeling, in large part directed at free migration, has been building up. This is all hobbling areas like energy policy where EU level action is increasingly warranted.

In the long run the answer is for Europe to develop a stronger sense of “us”. This may already be better developed than Mr Scruton allows, but it remains very patchy. I believe that there is enough of a sense of common values and history to provide a basis for this. One of the best ways for a Briton to feel European is to travel to a country like U.S. or, for slightly different reasons, Australia. But it needs to be promoted by liberal politicians, and is the work of generations.

A referendum on EU membership, the policy of our Prime Minister David Cameron, remains an enticing idea. The consequences of a “no” vote would be disastrous, but the pro-EU forces need to be rallied, and the institution’s legitimacy must be reaffirmed. I am also coming round to the idea of another of Mr Cameron’s ideas: a British Bill of Rights. This would mainly give a British label to core European principles, but it could also set clear British constitutional limits to European power, much as Germany’s Basic Law does.

But the bigger truth is that we must move on from the 19th century idea of an all-powerful sovereign nation state. We have to develop the legitimacy of multinational bodies like the EU; we also need to devolve power to more localised levels, especially in bigger states like Britain. This requires fresh thinking on the institutions of democracy. Roger Scruton is right to remind us that democracy is about more than voting, and requires a sense of common identity, but in the end he is not helping us to adapt the world where humanity now finds itself.