By David Price
1992 saw the largest ever single transfer of power from British voters to unelected elites – when the United Kingdom left the friendly embrace of the European Community to try our luck as part of the supranational European Union. As we now know, it did not end well. Reel through the years – past Oasis, The Spice Girls, New Labour, the Iraq war, the credit crunch and a Tory toff-led coalition government – and here we are at yesterday’s 494 to 122 House of Commons vote to trigger Article 50, finally grabbing that sovereignty back.
If we’re honest, it hasn’t been a happy marriage. Like many dalliances it seemed fun at the time for many, yet we finally realised we were never really in love. Britain may have a political class that lives high on the hog, sashaying around the continent, glad-handing their opposite numbers in glamorous European resort hotels, but the people’s heart was never really in it. Like every arranged marriage, it was only ever going to work if both sides profited – but instead the dominant partner took advantage.
After years of internecine war on Tory benches, it’s now Labour’s turn to be convulsed by Europe. The Conservative Party has always been pragmatic; its sole motivation was always to achieve power and then retain it. Every decade or so, its grandees reach into their desk drawer, pull out a revolver and duly despatch their leader for angering or boring the voters. Labour however has always grappled with principles, washing all its dirty laundry in public. Right now, Brexit is putting the party in peril. MPs are wrestling with their consciences and careers, all too aware that the ten most pro-Remain constituencies in the UK have a Labour MP, but so do the ten most Leave…
In the great scheme of things, Labour’s love affair with Europe has been brief. It all started in 1989, when the President of the European Commission presented a draft of the Community Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers – or ‘Social Charter’ – to the European Council of Ministers. It proposed a wealth of legislation on living and working conditions, workplace health and safety and gender equality. British Labour, traditionally fiercely opposed to ‘the European Project’, swiftly pivoted. From this point on, many in the movement began to equate workers’ rights with Europe, and a socialist case was made for more of the same. It was a gift to rising stars in the party like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who began making Jacques Delors’ case for a ‘social Europe’…
We have come a long way since then, however. While EU social law may have helped the plight of some, the European Union has presided over disaster in many of its southern member states since 2008. Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter – with many families having only one member able to pay the bills. Stories abound of pharmacies relying on donations from drug companies to keep shelves stocked, and the country’s social services are reeling from the double whammy of a quarter of the adult population being unemployed, and the migrant crisis. Amazingly, Italy’s economy is now back to the same size as it was in 1994, and its normally volatile politics are in utter turmoil. Far right parties are growing in popularity everywhere from Hungary to Germany. Even EU leaders – not exactly famous for having their fingers on the pulse – are now admitting that things are getting worse.
The left’s response has often been to insult people who draw attention to this, rather than trying to think of a way out. In days like these, Labour would do well to look to its grandees for an answer. Were Tony Benn still alive, he would be preaching the sanctity of democracy. All his life, he argued that this was key – trusting the collective wisdom of our people. Famously, in his final speech to the House of Commons, he came up with five questions for the powerful. “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?” If you cannot sack those who govern you – he concluded – you do not live in a democratic system. Take a bow, Jean Claude Juncker…
Democracy has always been the answer, and always will be. Tragically though, Brussels was never built around it, viewing it instead as an annoying distraction to its grand schemes. The United Kingdom is testament to the system’s success. True, it’s often glacially slow to deliver, yet deliver it does – be it 1945, 1997 or 2016. British people go into our future sure of one thing – that unlike the European Union, if enough of us don’t like the direction of travel, we can change it.
Labour Leave shares a number of viewpoints from external commentators, both Leave and Remain, without necessarily endorsing any of the viewpoints therein.
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