Sovereignty, Spite and Timing: Why someone who agrees with many of the arguments for Leave, would still vote to Remain
I struggle to relate to battles over “sovereignty”. For one thing, it is an amorphous term. It is also a meaningless one without being absolute in terms of expression. It always struck me as absurd to allow the Scottish people to elect their own Parliament, but then to to deny them the ability to advocate for preferred policy-ends through its use. As such, suggestions that somehow the 2014 Referendum was illegitimate or a one-time thing that settled the question of Scottish independence for a generation always struck me as nonsensical. If the Scottish people have a right to elect a majority of MSPs every five years who favor holding a referendum on independence, then there is no democratic basis to argue those MSPs cannot pursue that. And if one accepts the Scottish Parliament had the power to hold a referendum once, then it is absurd to try and claim they cannot hold one again on the basis of some sort of “commitment” that was never made, appears nowhere in law, and was rejected by voters when they reelected the SNP.
But if I believe implicitly in the SNP's right to hold as many referendums as the party may want, I do not believe the results must be honored or mean anything more than any other expensive opinion poll. Because while sovereignty is absolute, it is also not exclusive. The UK is also a sovereign state and that sovereignty is meaningless if UK voters as a whole don’t also have a right to an equal say about legal changes to the nature of the state. There are pragmatic and moral reasons why if there were a Scottish independence referendum that Westminster and Edinburgh might want to cooperate, work together and reach an agreement, but it would be a violation of UK sovereignty to allow any local body to unilaterally make decisions for the whole nation. Not to mention, an invitation to all sorts of trouble ranging from local councils nullifying laws they disagree with, to devolved authorities using such acts as a form of political blackmail, demanding payment from Westminster before implementing policies.
I think this is the best way to approach the EU, though obviously one of the major issues is the feeling of many that there has been a bait and switch, that the EU was never intended to be sovereign in any way. There are very good arguments for that being the case, but the correct answer is to work with other EU members in Eastern Europe to wind down the EU’s objectionable functions, blocking budgets, obstructing enforcement of court rulings and regulations, and curtailing German power until it is forced back into its “proper” role, not to walk out and leave one vulnerable to German maliciousness and EU vengeance. But those tactical questions are neither here nor there.
The bigger issue at stake is that whether as the result of a bait and switch or something that developed as much as surprise to the political elite as it did to everyone else, the EU has evolved in such a manner that it exercises “sovereignty” over all people within its borders. That “sovereignty” is sometimes weak, both in moral terms, and substantive ones - the lack of ability to tax is a major defect, the lack of a common language makes effective parliamentary institutions capable of standing up to bureaucratic ones a near impossibility, and requirements for super-majorities allow members, if they are willing to do so, to obstruct that sovereignty. Nonetheless, it asserts claims that mean that while national governments nominally can pass any laws, their inherent rights to enforce them are no longer unquestioned. They have to take account of the competing preferences of the EU, and when they legislate on migration, they have to take into account not just the interests of Britons but of Poles or Bulgarians. Because if they do not, there is another body that exercises sovereign power over Britons, Poles and Bulgarians and has an obligation to defend their right to be treated easily. Now it is easy, unresponsive, and ineffective for advocates of the EU to respond that there is no conflict, that immigration is a net good, and hence rather than a problem, this upward movement of sovereignty is a sign of progress towards global equality. Most who make such arguments would favor such policies anyway, so they are not the victims but beneficiaries of the limitations on the ability of the UK government to legislate with reference only to the preferences and interests of UK citizens since those limitations in practice restrict their domestic opponent’s ability to implement policies they dislike. Such claims also ignore that while migration may bring economic benefits to the population as a whole, it clearly hurts many individual people, and has non-economic harms which are real impacts on quality of life for many people perceptionally, even if it is easy to dismiss them as ignorant or racist merely because they are subjective. Some people for instance do not like living in multilingual communities and suffer a loss in quality of life. Yes, it is easy to respond that such feelings in abstract should matter less than the quality of life improvements of migrants, but that assumes that the interests of migrants should be things that are even weighed against the preferences of British citizens, and that, in a nutshell, is what debate over sovereignty is about. Much as whether Scotland should be independent is a separate, albeit linked question, to whether the impacts on Englishmen should be a consideration in such a matter, much less a sufficient one to grant English voters a veto over Scotland’s future, concerns over Eu migration can never be successfully rebutted by appeals to economic principles, academic literature, or attacks on anyone who feels them as racist. Because they come down fundamentally to the principle of who is sovereign. Not whether the UK should value Britons over Bulgarians, but whether Britain has the right to do so.
That is why the principled and moral arguments of the Remain campaign not only never resonated during this campaign, but in my view, resulted in a situation where Leave gained support whenever they predominated. Contrary to the idea that they involved responding to, addressing, or discrediting the arguments of those who had different views on immigration, they all presumed that British sovereignty should be balanced against EU sovereignty, and that the interests of anyone living anywhere in the EU, of Germans in Hanover as much as Germans in Hackney, was a premise that was the debate itself. Once you accepted the principle that the EU was sovereign, then complaining about the exercise of that sovereignty to enforce equality became incoherent.
There was something noble about efforts to engage in this debate on the part of Remain. But it was the nobility of the Light Brigade at Balakava, well within the traditions of British culture as much as Leave might charge otherwise, but sharing with such futile endeavors as sending troops forward day after day at the Somme a determination to make things harder for its practitioners then they needed to be. It identified the heart of the Leave case and the debate and sought to fight there, but it avoided engagement. And as it was based upon a fundamentally different view of the nature of the UK and the EU, what they were, what they should have been, it could never have been effective or persuasive to those who accepted the premises behind the arguments. What it could do, and did whenever temperatures rose, and those on Remain became frustrated with the refusal of Leave supporters to accept their world view, was backfire as Remain supporters all too often fell back on personal attacks on Leave voters. They were racists, cultivating an environment of incivility, they were populist rabble, promoters of lies, comparisons of Nazis citing a photo-shopped image have been the cause de jour of the last 10 days. Leave has also used negative language, but their targets, with a few exceptions have not been voters they are trying to persuade. Leave have attacked people they do not believe should have sovereign claims or rights in the UK because that is the logic of their campaign. Remain has launched general attacks on the intelligence, integrity, and morality of the electorate as a whole for rejecting the idea that citizens of other EU states should have equal rights with UK citizens, or for expressing other concerns premised on the idea that UK sovereignty was a finite concept. These attacks hit not just Leave voters, but implicitly anyone who would consider being one or would even share such concerns.
That is how I, someone who if I had a vote would cast it for Remain, perhaps after the intake of some alcohol to fortify my courage, someone who is a migrant in the UK on a Visa, who has faced the consequences of British xenophobia first hand, has nevertheless managed to be on a personal level more offended by the Remain campaign by far than that of the Leave effort. Because in fighting the issue squarely on sovereignty, and defining that in terms of democracy — attacking the right of individuals to have preferences, the legitimacy of them expressing them in public through a referendum — they have attacked both the concept of sovereignty in general, and anyone in particular who has any of those concerns.
The problem is that outside a small liberal elite, the vast majority of people have at least some of those concerns. They rarely share all of them, and often come down on a wide spectrum on each. But they accept the premise that the UK should have the right to consider the impact on UK citizens as a primary consideration when considering policy.
Take for instance the issue of refugees, a the major issue of contention currently. Many voters may not fear refugees in general, but may worry what will happen to an EU where Germany unilaterally takes 1.2 million of them in a year, none of whom speak German, but many of whom speak English, and who will be legally entitled to enter the UK if Germany grants them a Visa. Perhaps in the case of Syrians today it is justified, but what of mere economic migrants? What if it were six million? Twelve? The issue is not even purely one of the policy itself, but of the unilateral way in which Germany is able to implement it. There is a point where concerns about the system in place, and the way in which EU sovereignty implicitly gives German voters sovereignty over the UK without reference either to British voters or those in any of the other 27 EU member states over take the individual merits of the situation. I do not believe the solution is less EU integration but more. In a world where EU free movement will always exist, it has to be the other EU states which need to make clear to Germany that Germany is itself not totally sovereignty, and that it shares sovereignty over the German immigration system with Britain, Hungary, Poland, and Italy. But such a movement can only be manifested through the institution of the EU, and it is why I personally believe the solution has to lie there and not through walking away, leaving Germany with even more power. Rather it needs to come from building an EU efficacious enough that the democratic institutions have ability to utilize a numerical electoral majority to counter the coercive institutional power of German economic strength. That Germany’s economic strength allows it to run roughshod over political majorities within a majority of EU member states is not a sign that the EU is too strong, but rather that its institutions are not robust enough. Its legal and economic institutions have outrun its political ones, such that economic power counts for more than political, something that would only be made worse by a British departure, which would leave Britain even more at the mercy of German economic coercion without the limited(and vastly insufficient) political power over German policy the EU currently provides.
But that is not the Remain argument. The current Remain argument is that such views on refugees are immoral, implicitly racist(that is what comparisons to the Nazis are) and the fact that people feel free even having them or expressing them in public is somehow the fault of the Leave campaign and a reason morally to vote Remain. It is an attack on the legitimacy of the argument, not the merits. And it establishes the referendum as one on whether an individual can morally raise the above concerns, something that in my view places Remain in the wrong, rather than making the much easier argument that even if Leave is justified in raising them, that the solution offered would make the problems worse.
Down the line I could go. On every single issue, the Remain campaign has defined the choice in a manner which makes the vote a judgement on the existence of problems with the EU rather than on whether any of those problems can be fixed by leaving. And as those problems almost all exist to some degree, even if Leave campaigners occasionally exaggerate them, Remain, which on a policy level has the facts overwhelmingly on its side, seems determined against all odds to define itself in terms which puts it in the wrong. Ultimately, my backing for Remain comes despite, not because of Remain.
I would vote against Leave not because I disagree with them. On most of the problems they cite I agree with them. Rather I would vote against Leaving because across the board it would make almost all of them worse. Economically and in terms of trade, the EU is a dreadful organization, but precisely because many EU states would like to either cut deals with an independent Britain, or to cut similar deals themselves, the EU will have to be intransigent on any terms. Terms will be dictated not by economics but by the imperative of intimidating other EU members. Regarding Free Migration, because it is not London alone which is concerned, but a dozen countries which have issues with EU free movement, and probably more than 20 with serious issues with German behavior regarding refugees and migrants, the UK cannot be allowed to escape it. Any deal which even allows Visa-on-arrival to the EU for British citizens is likely to require the most objectionable aspects of EU membership, albeit without the ability to reform from within. Anyone who thinks that Germany is going to give the UK access to the European market without having to take migrants from poorer countries has either a higher opinion of the moral caliber of the Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Austrian, and even German electorates, or a lower opinion of their intelligence, than Remain campaigners have of the British swing voter. Any such move would be an invitation for every high income nation in the EU to pull the same referendum stunt to achieve the same deal, with a consequent collapse in the EU. The EU could survive Britain leaving. It could never survive Britain leaving and being allowed to get all the benefits of membership without any of the costs. Simple sanity dictates that Britain will not be allowed to free-ride no matter how much the financial sector may demand it.
If none of the democratic problems will be solved, and leaving will make it harder to solve the migration ones within the EU, then the economic arguments are also stark. The UK likely would have done fine if it had remained outside the formal EU structures. It is easy to think that had Britain been willing to stay more aloof in the 1970s or 80s, or been louder on eastward expansion in the 1990s, that it could have gotten a much better deal, one with access to the common market, the right to make deals outside the EU, and limits on migration. But whether the UK could have done fine never having joined, which I think is defensible, is very different from whether it could function if it left now. As noted the political stars are inauspicious for a deal with the EU, and EU hostility will also mean pressure on China and other states not to rush into deals with London. Ultimately leaving the EU, if it is going to happen, will come down to the attitude of the United States, and just as the EU will place politics above economics, London needs a US government that will do the same. The UK can only viably eave the EU with a Republican president int he White House, one ideologically committed to British departure from the EU such that it will place support and encouragement for such a course above economic sense. That is almost certainly not the case with Barack Obama in the White House who does not share the Anglophilia of much of the American elite, and it is unlikely even with Hillary Clinton who might be marginally friendlier. Leave lost viability when Marco Rubio lost the Republican nomination, and it is an act of common sense to recognize that, both in one’s vote, and in the realization that it means nothing more for the future than that the time is not right. It might never be right, it might be, but it almost certainly is not right now.
Voting to Leave would not improve the migration situation but worsen it. It would weaken EU reform by strengthening Germany, when any truly democratic reform of the EU would require muzzling German unilateral influence. It would lead to an isolated UK, not because Britain is not “great” but because self-interest would lead others to try to “punish” it. For reasons entirely domestic in America, the international outlook is highly unfavorable. All in all it is an easy choice.
One compelling reason to vote Leave still exists for many. It is the Remain campaign itself, the tone, the condescension, the desire to see its representatives humbled and prostrate. That is especially true for those who see it as a general attack on the legitimacy of right of center politics on anything but economics, where it is always socially acceptable to be rich and greedy about it if you are otherwise liberal. But as enjoyable as scheudenfreuden is, it is a bad reason to trigger disaster on everyone. Not least because for anyone who does not buy into the Remain campaign there will be plenty of opportunities for vengeance, whether internally within the Conservative party, or in domestic politics. When the viciousness of the campaign has to do with wider cultural fissures in politics, they will not vanish but grow. They show up on debates over “safe spaces” on campuses, over immigration, over education, over the direction of the Conservative and Labour parties. Campaign to remove Cameron, campaign to repeal the Human Rights Act, but for the love of god don’t make every problem worse out of spite. It is occasionally tempting but likely to end badly.