Tuesday, 3 May 2016

EU Referendum

I’m not particularly enamoured with the EU. The institution suffers from a democratic deficit, with a lot of decision making done by appointed officials who are very tenuously accountable to the people they serve.

Nevertheless, I’m entirely unconvinced by those who support Britain leaving the UK. For the most part, they strike me as a mixture of fantasists and xenophobes.

Just as the SNP promised to be everything to everyone in the Scottish independence referendum, so it is with the campaign(s) to leave. The campaigners tend to hold extreme views and do not like the EU as it blocks them from obtaining the outcome they want. These are usually right wing views but in some cases far-left views too.

Despite some strong beliefs to the contrary, I'm doubtful that the UK would be turned into a goods-exporting, innovative tax-haven socialist utopia if we could only be free of EU shackles.

It is much more likely that leaving the EU would cause huge economic disruption and diminish the place of the UK in the wider world. Some supporters of the EU might legitimately claim that this would be a price worth paying for greater self-determination and democracy. This is one argument I can respect, but I’m not sure how many anti-EU campaigners would really believe this.

This is because I don’t think the political system in the UK is a particularly good version of democracy. Our system of local representation was no doubt the best feasible one in the 17th century but it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny in the 21st century. Instead of horse-drawn carts and mass-illiteracy we now have instantaneous communications and political parties (with their whips).

If the leave campaign were really interested in democracy I would expect the campaign to coincide strongly with those who also campaign for radical changes to our electoral system. To the contrary, I don’t get the impression many anti-EU campaigners really care about democratic legitimacy.

One problem with the democracy-based leave campaign is that if you leave the EU you can’t influence it any more to make it more democratic. Furthermore, the challenges facing the world are increasingly ones that require international agreement and co-operation, such as combating climate change.

I also wouldn't be convinced because I think it is sensible to limit what can be done in the name of the people, whether this would be suppressing the rights of individuals or minority groups, or, in making decisions that will be hugely counterproductive and self-defeating.


There is a pro-democracy argument for leaving the EU. However, I don’t think it is the one that motivates most anti-EU activists and nor is it one that convinces me.