Sovereignty and Nationalism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? – Joe Winter, Year 12

So far, those arguing for us to remain in the EU have come up with many well thought out arguments, but it is the argument concerning British democracy and sovereignty, argued by those wishing to leave the EU, which has, in my opinion been put across most eloquently.

“Sovereignty” has become, for the Brexiter, his or her battlecry, their final knockout-blow to show what a supposed sham the EU truly is. The argument appears to run something like this. Why should the British people hand over power to a group of unelected bureaucrats, who aren’t even British? We should have British laws for British people and what’s more the number of people in the EU means that our voice simply isn’t being heard.

We need only dig a little beneath the surface to see the truth of such arguments; that they lie upon treacherous foundations – foundations of nationalism, a shaky understanding of democracy and at worst plain racism.

To make clear my point, imagine that Lancashire wanted to become an independent nation, separate from the rest of the UK. Why, they could ask, should Lancastrians be forced to comply with the will of the South East? Surely it should be Lancastrian laws made by Lancastrian people. Obviously, such an argument is ridiculous, because in a democracy we accept that our voice may not always be heard, and the reason the South East dominates British politics is because it has more people (7.9 million compared to Lancashire’s 1.4 million) and in a democracy, like it or not, that means more votes and more power.

This may seem like a bizarre tangent but my point is this: the same applies for Britain within the EU. When complaining that Britain’s voice isn’t being heard, what people are really complaining about is the nature of democracy. I should suggest, to those who wish to experience the alternative, a trip to North Korea, where the voice of Kim Jong Un is clearly heard despite all those pesky views from other people.

Worse than this misunderstanding of how democracy works is the idea that British people should make British laws. This is fundamentally xenophobic, in the same way that if I (as a white male) claimed I only wanted laws made by other white males, this would be racist and sexist. We are all humans. Whether British or French, Italian or Belgium, we share our humanity and so to claim we are in some way so different that any laws created by anyone not of the same nationality will be in some way of lesser quality, is a denial of our biology, as a species.

Not only that, but it shows a clear lack of understanding concerning what Britain and being British are. The dominant image of the standard Briton that racists portray is the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (or WASP), yet not one aspect of this typical Briton is British. Being white is a matter of climate and evolution and obviously not uniquely British, furthermore the Angles, Saxons and Protestantism are all of German origin. Britain is, and always has been, defined by multiculturalism and diversity and so to claim that there is some distinctive British identity is simply nationalistic.

Some would claim that Britain leads the world in areas of democracy and human rights, and this is what they mean by ‘British values’. And yet, in Britain we use an outdated, unrepresentative voting system (one which most European nations have soundly rejected) and we have elected a government who is trying to scrap the Human Rights Act. Once again these are foreign imports, democracy comes from Greece (‘demos’ and ‘kratos’) and, I would argue, human rights belong to us all and so to claim a monopoly on the idea is truly ludicrous.

One key historical event repeatedly lauded as an example of British initiative are the actions of William Wilberforce, who led the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain, over 50 years earlier than in America. However, this action certainly is not in line with the dominant pattern regarding Britain’s attitude towards liberty and democracy. British history is one of conquering and flag planting (indeed only 22 nations on earth have not been invaded by the British), genocides (for example, the Tasmanian Aborigines or over 10 million Indians) and slavery; as well as one of democracy and human rights.

We must not embrace the negative past which we Britons inherit and claim that for some reason British lawmakers will make better laws than German, French or Greek, or that the British are in some way innately better than other European nations, and so deserve to have a louder voice than democracy warrants. We must accept that within a democracy we cannot expect special treatment, neither can we demand that all our representatives share our views or background.

But, claims the Brexiter, the EU is not a democratic institution. I will concede that it has a democratic deficit, undoubtedly; but this is not a good reason for rejecting such an institution entirely. Every democratic institution has imperfections, and I would argue that the EU’s are less glaring and damaging than those present in Westminster.

When analysing a democratic institution I would suggest four main criteria which we can analyse –  these are: its ability to represent the views of its electorate; whether it allows for pluralism and debating of ideas; transparency and accountability. Westminster is less representative than the EU because it uses a simple plurality system (better-known as First Past The Post – FPTP), which causes the current government to wield effectively 100% of the power with just one quarter of the electorate’s vote (meanwhile UKIP and the Greens who collectively have around 11% of the electorate’s support) have almost no power whatsoever. In contrast the European Parliament is elected using Proportional Representation systems, making it more representative and allowing for a greater degree of pluralism than we enjoy in the UK. The European Commission is, unfortunately, unelected but it is fully accountable to the European Parliament. Furthermore, all member states are represented on the Council of Ministers. In comparison, the UK’s Parliament has the entirely unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, which is therefore entirely unaccountable.

Admittedly, the EU does do badly regarding transparency, with Council meetings usually held behind closed doors. While not ideal, this could and should be remedied by national governments holding their ministers to account regarding their discussions in Brussels.

Overall, I would say the EU is more democratic than Westminster and yet (to my knowledge) the Brexiters are not also calling for the abandonment of the UK’s Parliamentary System. Instead, they may say it requires reform. I see no reason why we should treat the EU differently in this regard. We can see that there are issues and so we campaign for reform. This is the reasonable response to a democratic deficit within an institution, not abandoning the institution in its entirety.

Now the economics of this issue cannot be ignored, as they are what will affect people on the most basic level. I will not, however, dwell on this, for it has so far been the focus of the debate and is not – to me –  the essential issue. I would only say that we must not ignore the academic consensus concerning the economics. The International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Trade Organisation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the G7 finance ministers, President Obama and the Governor of The Bank of England have all said leaving would be bad for the British economy.

Meanwhile, the leave campaign often cites eight economists (which unlike many of those listed above are not internationally respected and recognised institutions) who, by the way, used the now widely discredited ‘Liverpool model’. For just one example to show how poorly designed it is, it predicted that the minimum wage would create 3 million unemployed people (economists now agree it had almost no effect in this area). The reasons these economists gave for leaving being economically beneficial for the UK, were worryingly scrapping; environmental laws, laws which enforce gender equality and laws designed to limit working hours. So, even if the internationally recognised independent bodies are all wrong and these eight economists are correct, they will only be correct if the government scraps our fundamental workplace rights and stops caring about the environment.

This is precisely the opposite of what we want our governments to be doing. We want our governments to be protecting our rights and working to tackle climate change (the importance of which cannot be overstated, as we near levels of warming which could lead to irreversible permanent effects, as well as the deaths of millions). In addition, we want governments which tackle tax avoidance by huge multinationals, and governments which can root out international terrorism and keep us all safe.

These four issues; human rights, climate change, tax justice and international terrorism, are issues that we can only face effectively if we work collectively with other countries. The world we live in demands that we cooperate efficiently with other nations. While cooperation is not impossible outside of the EU, it is undoubtedly easier if we are within it. The EU is a gift to Britain offering a platform for international agreements with an efficiency unimaginable without political union. Britain cannot isolate itself and expect to address issues, such as climate change, issues which are only solvable in large political units, not as individual nations.

There has been fear mongering on both sides of the debate and I have intentionally strayed away from this kind of argument. I would urge you instead to consider what the EU has the potential to be, and what Britain’s future could look like within it. The EU is the largest economy in the world and so wields immense power internationally. While Britain could survive alone, the idea that we would be better off alone than with 27 other nations is nationalistic and nonsensical. Britain joined the, then EEC, because we saw then that we were no longer a great empire and we saw then that many issues demand international cooperation. Let us not blindly reverse the efforts of so many, smothered by our flags and fear of the other. Let us instead abandon the old ways of nationalism and prejudice and choose to work together, as fellow humans, for the good of Europe, for the good of the planet we call home, and for the good of humanity.

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4 thoughts on “Sovereignty and Nationalism: Two Sides of the Same Coin? – Joe Winter, Year 12

  1. Lynda Semans

    Well analysed and well written, well done!

    Having studied British social history to postgrad level,I would add to your paragraph on William Wilberforce. I entirely agree that actions such as the campaign to abolish slavery, while entirely laudable, are not typical of the “dominant pattern regarding Britain’s attitude towards liberty and democracy”. My studies comprised looking closely at social reform such as poverty, working and housing conditions in the 1800s, the so-called century of reform. Every victory of the reformers had to be dragged, little by little, from the reluctant hands of – what I will call for ease – the establishment, who saw merely a threat to their profits and way of life, and could blithely ignore the mass of human misery. Of course we should be proud of the great strides forward we made in social reform, but let us not forget too how hardly they were won, with how much opposition and for how long it took.

    Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Georgina Newcombe

    Brilliant!! Nice to read something with a focus on democracy- a topic generally ignored by both sides of the debate. Really well written too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m a big admirer of yours Joe and enjoy hearing what you have to say/reading what you have to write, but on this article I’d have to fundamentally disagree.

    Firstly, wanting British laws to be made in Britain is not xenophobic at all. I struggle to make the same connection you do, and I don’t believe you’re analogy of a white man saying they wouldn’t want any laws made by anyone other than white men. The point Brexiters make is not inherently patriotic, it’s practical. We elect our government to pass legislation, govern us and protect us. The issue here is that our legislation, which our government has been elected to pass by British people (nobody else), can be overruled by EU legislation.

    In addition, one of the greatest issues with the Remain argument has been this weird fascination with the UK democratic deficit. There is nobody, and I mean nobody, arguing that the UK system is perfect. I’m a huge proponent of electoral reform, but that doesn’t mean I’m hypocritical when I speak out against the EU and claim I want our laws to be made in Britain, not Brussels. We elected this government (not myself, I must admit, I voted Labour) and therefore we are completely within our right to kick them out in 5 years time. This is simply not the case when it comes to the European Union, so whatever deficiencies we have in Westminster (of which you have rightly pointed out many) that is a battle for another day. If you care about democracy, as it’s clear you do, I believe you should be more accepting of this argument in particular rather than trying to claim it’s a lesser of two evils, therefore the Brexit argument is invalid.

    As a last point, I’m far less optimistic about the reform you seek within the EU. David Cameron’s ‘deal’ is nothing, hence why it has not played a part in this debate. Reform is incredibly hard to achieve within the Union, and perhaps the best way for us to achieve reform at all is to actually leave the Union and force it to change. The way I see it, a vote to Remain is a British endorsement of the EU in its current state, and I can’t in all good conscience allow myself to vote for that.

    Hope you’re well, good luck with the DM national finals!

    Stuart Mercer

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Charlotte

    This is a very insightful piece of work. It covers a lot of things I had not considered and yet I have chosen to remain in. The talent this school holds is phenomenal. You are all very intelligent young people, your teachers and parents should be proud x

    Liked by 1 person

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