The democratic argument for leaving the EU.

To the horror of some of my friends and family, I think I’m going to vote for Brexit on June 23rd. I thought that – just in case any of the horrified friends and family want to read it, but mostly for my own entertainment – I would write down my main reason.

My main reason is that leaving the EU would probably be a good thing for democracy.

More specifically, it would improve accountability in the sense of the ability of the people to remove their leaders from office when those leaders have done something the majority of the people disapprove of.

The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system and its ‘almost no checks and balances’ style of parliamentary government are terrible democratic procedures in a number of ways. The electoral system means that about 60% of people live in a safe seat where voting is either pointless or has some sort of symbolic value. And the free hand given to ruling parties make it possible to enact dramatic policies which might have serious negative consequences. (The 40% cut to higher education funding in the 2010 budget springs to mind, possibly because it helps explain why I’m doing the PhD in Canada.)

But one thing we do have is a system which makes it relatively easy for us to see who is responsible for enacting a policy we don’t like or failing to take actions we think they should have taken. When the US government shut down in 2013 because they couldn’t agree to pass a government budget (!) the president and Congress could both blame each other. The houses of Congress, because both have some power, could have blamed one another if they had wanted to. And parties could also have blamed their own legislators, who are much more independent than our tightly-whipped MPs. In the British system these strategies of blame-avoidance are either never or only rarely available. The party controlling the executive also controls the Commons, the Lords rarely interferes with important legislation, and MPs – with some important (normally Tory) exceptions– can be relied upon to kowtow to their bosses. And in contrast to places like Norway and Sweden, where minority or coalition governments have to rule through bargaining and consensus-building between parties, British ruling cliques have nearly always governed alone, which make attribution of responsibility to certain key leaders even easier.

Of course, it is always hard to assess whether government is performing badly because of bad decisions or because of circumstances beyond their control. And nearly all of the real work of policy-making work is conducted by bureaucrats in Whitehall consulting with small networks of experts.

But when British citizens dislike a policy they can normally identify someone who was responsible for its enactment and who they can try to punish. If lots of them dislike lots of policies then they really can throw the government out the next election. The nature of our political system means that British citizens can (when and if they want to) hold their leaders to account through elections more easily than any other set of citizens in Europe. Our electoral system is probably one of the most friendly to electoral accountability in the world, even if in practice money (and other things) blunt the power of the accountability mechanism.

This kind of accountability is not all we want from democracy by any means. For example, we might prefer a PR electoral system which is not so great in terms of accountability but because of the way it promotes a consensual, class-compromise kind of rule which tends to result in more generous welfare systems.

But the decisive result in the 2011 electoral system referendum means that we are, for the time being, stuck with the system we have. That means we should try to make the most of the specific kinds of political virtues it can provide for us. And accountability does have some value. More than nearly anyone in the world, we really have the power to throw people we don’t like out of office. That power has important positive consequences and is at least one reason for preferring democracy over the alternatives. And, while the capacity to hold political leaders accountable won’t necessarily make the world a much better place, the absence of accountability makes it much easier for political elites to simply cater to economic elites rather than bother thinking about the rest of us.

The EU is not the most accountable of bodies.

There is no governing or opposition party in the European Parliament and hence no way for voters to hold MEPs accountable through party turnover. When winning candidates go to Brussels they join ‘party groups’ and then are tightly whipped to vote as the leaders of that group command. The average MEP has no say in the policy process at all and policy-making in the Parliament consists of behind-the-scenes bargaining between the leaders of the different groups. Moreover, the party groups form coalitions with one another. In fact, the outcome of most votes in the European Parliament (69% of them) is determined by a ‘red-black’ cartel which sees the biggest left and right wing party groups – the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and the European People’s Party (EPP) – agree to vote together. This collusion between opposing party groups means that although 2/3 of People’s Party MEPs oppose redistribution they tend to end up voting for it. And although ¾ of in their party manifestos and the kinds of socially illiberal policies that ¾ of Socialist and Democrat MEPs oppose socially conservative policies they tend to end up supporting them. If you vote for, say, a Labour candidate for the European Parliament because they are a social liberal you are making a mistake: because Labour are in the S&D group your MEP will vote for socially conservative policies most of the time.

Of course, the European Parliament is not main place in which European legislation is made. It can’t initiate the legislative process. Instead it must take its lead from the European Council and Commission. These two bodies are relatively insulated from any sort of popular oversight. They are staffed by people nobody has heard of who are appointed by the leaders of national governments. Most of their decisions are taken by consensus or a ‘voice vote’, which means that nobody records who voted to accept or reject the decision. That means voters back home – and even (most of the time) politicians in national parliaments – cannot know how their appointed ‘representatives’ in those bodies voted and cannot punish them for voting in ways they don’t like.

In short. Westminster, for all its faults, is a relatively accountable democratic institution relative to others, while accountability in the EU is extremely low. That means that, as more and more of the rules that govern our lives are made in an office in Brussels, those we are ceding power to distant technocrats who it is almost impossible to monitor or try to punish if they do things that cater to, say, business interests rather than normal people.

There are important considerations in favour of staying in the EU too, of course.

The EU might make us richer (though the Guardian’s economics correspondent is for Brexit). There may be some situations in which it might make sense to trade off democracy for wealth, but I don’t think we are a poor enough country to make this one of them.

Voting to leave may put Boris in office. But I think that this issue should probably be made as more on the basis of principle rather than short-term party-political considerations.

Voting to leave the EU might make the already sickeningly nationalist Brits even more sickeningly nationalistic. I’m not sure whether being hitched to a European project run by an unaccountable elite will make us love other Europeans or resent them. But I accept that it might be worth trading off democratic accountability for a chance to promote cosmopolitan attitudes.

Maybe we should stay in the EU simply because it redistributes cash from richer to poorer European countries. We should be aware  that the poorer countries lose control over their political leaders in exchange for getting richer, but perhaps that is not so bad.

If we think that another war between, say, France and Germany is a serious possibility, then perhaps we value the EU because it will promote peace. But that kind of war is not a serious possibility. More importantly, while the European Community may have helped secure peace in the past, the rolling-back of democracy that its growth has entailed is one of the reasons for the renaissance of fascism on the continent. If the EU is bad for accountability in the UK then it has been terrible for accountability in Central and Eastern Europe, where its promotion of elitist technocracy has encouraged the predictable populist response. If elites stop feeling as though they need to justify themselves to the people then the people may even forget why they should support a political system which ignores their interests and undermines their self-respect, they may long for the vicarious pleasures of charismatic leadership. The sacrifice of accountability to peace may, in the longer-run, make war more likely.

Despite all the features of the British political system which make the British political leaders accountable in principle – the features mentioned above – I am not very optimistic about their accountability in practice. The times are not particularly good for democracy, with mid-century gains being rolled back in the rich world and some important democracies in and around Europe (Turkey, Hungary, even Poland) shading into authoritarianism.

Voting to leave the EU would be one way to defend democracy. If Britain left the EU there would be some negative consequences. But leaving the EU would strongly promote accountability and would probably be a good thing for democracy in general.

This is not supposed to be a decisive argument in favour of Brexit. Accountability is just one political good amongst many and my preference for it is partly for idiosyncratic reasons. I probably like it because I spend lots of my time thinking about ways to improve democratic systems and this is one available opportunity to make a substantial improvement to the British democratic system.

That is why I am currently planning to vote to leave the EU on 23rd June.

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4 thoughts on “The democratic argument for leaving the EU.

  1. So this argument makes some general sense, but it lacks any specific legislative examples that could convince me that certain types of decision making would really be done better and more democratically in a post brexit Britain (and Europe). Presumably, post brexit, there will be various new powers our government will have over things like labour laws and internal market regulation, while in other cases our hands will be tied in order to meet certain standards so we can still trade with the EU etc, except now I, as a British citizen, wont have any democratic voice in those European decisions that will still affect me, although perhaps more indirectly.

    Leaving aside the confusing issue of all the different treaties we will and wont still be entangled in and what powers we will be giving up in Europe, (or even if we cause the EU project to fail, what opaque, elite, and undemocratic trading alliances and councils will replace it?), a question is: will devolving certain EU powers to our government really be more democratic and in the general public’s interest?

    Our politicians maybe more ‘accountable’ as you put it, (although I remain unconvinced), but as you point out they are dangerously powerful with the lack of democratic checks and balances in the UK. I think this makes our current political system far more open to corruption and serving the self interest of elites than the vast european monolith. Partly because of a matter of scale; the social and financial networks of the UK bankers, businessmen, PPE graduates, and newspaper moguls, are big enough and powerful enough to hold full sway over our puny political system. As we are a country without a true constitution, if they all agree with each other these powerful people can change the laws effectively as they see fit. The EU though has a very clear constitutional framework and while I’m sure that it is open to corruption, as well as being slow and sometimes ineffective, it does have clear foundations and nice things like the human rights act, which, as one of the little guys, I feel far more reassured by than the magna carta.

    Also the massive scale of the EU may limit the power of these elite networks, as to fully hold sway over the EU you need many many more rich and powerful egotists (who speak different languages and are from different cultures) to cooperate and conspire with each other, for long sustained periods. Unless you are very convinced by international ‘Illuminati’ style conspiracies, I think this is less of a threat.

    • Hey Ian. Great to hear from you! This is really interesting.

      So as I read your argument it is something like this:

      British politics is, partly because of its lack of checks and balances, capable of being captured by a horrible little elite who you wouldn’t want to leave your kids with. And the EU, in part because it is simply more check-and-balance-y and more tightly constitutionally regulated, is less prone to capture by elites and better at preserving the rights of the little guys. So it would basically be better for the little guys if the EU had more power over British citizens.

      I think it’s a really great point, I certainly would have agreed until very recently and maybe I should still agree.

      (And the Human Rights Act is nice!)

      But I did learn one thing this year which is worth thinking about and which makes me less sure of this kind of argument than I once was, which I will trot out here because it is pretty interesting.

      Checks and balances in democratic systems – and ‘another layer of government’ can count as a check for what I’m about to say – are normally associated with a greater ‘status quo bias’ in the sense that they make it harder to do radical things. This has lots of good effects and there are loads of good reasons for both constitutions and checks and balances. But the status quo (i.e. ‘what rich educated people like’) is economical and social liberalism. Social liberalism = yey! Economic liberalism = I’m not so sure. Checks and balances are certainly not all good: the status quo bias they introduce may systematically bias policy towards that favoured by the rich.

      And this effect is likely to be greatly amplified when vertical accountability (between citizens and politicians) is very low, because most policy makers don’t have to worry about being removed by angry citizens if they stray away from mass policy preferences!

      So the status quo biased introduced by the EU is likely to be one that tends to punish countries pretty hard from deviating from market-pleasing economic policies even when those countries are – in the medium run – highly detrimental to the lives of the little people.

      Greece is obviously a case in point here.

      Of course, in the long run, the pretty brutal policies which the EU forced Greece to adopt may actually benefit the Greeks, including the little ones. That seems like a reasonable position to hold.

      But even when the Greeks have got their inflation under control, etc., there will be another set of rich people in Brussels imposing the kinds of economic policies rich people like. And it will be extremely hard for the Greeks to do anything about it, in part because of the difficulty in holding EU policy makers accountable!

      There is an important sense in which I might be wrong here: there is debate within the EU about whether a more ‘liberal market’ or ‘social market’ model is more appropriate. I tend to see the former as winning: look at the way German economic policy has shifted towards deregulation, etc., over the last decade or so. But I lack knowledge here and may be totally wrong about that! If the EU went down a strong social democratic route then it would probably be way better for the masses.

      And – much more importantly – I don’t want to push the ‘status quo bias’ argument too hard. It’s more just a ‘here is something interesting’ than a disagreement – you may well be right. I know the status quo bias is a pretty well established empirical phenomenon, but I don’t know much about it beyond that! So I need to try to find out how Brexit-relevant the status quo bias actually is.
      And Britain is pretty extreme on the elitist front (Lowest social mobility in the OECD anyone?) So maybe nothing could make the UK worse than it already is!

      I think your comment has just made me think that I really am not sure about whether the little people should love the EU.

  2. Thanks for this Danny, this is about as cogent and compelling an argument for Brexit I have read. I particularly like the last few paragraphs, where you go through the alternative arguments and offer sound reasons as to why you are unpersuaded. I don’t agree with your conclusion, though as much as anything I suspect this is because I have a more instrumental view of the value of democracy than you.

    Nevertheless, I think one of the most compelling arguments against leaving thee EU is that it is unlikely that things will change as much as people think, and so many of the supposed benefits will not materialise. I think this might apply to your notion of accountability, too.The EU is just one body that limits the accountability of the British Government. For example, the WTO and European Court of Human Rights can both restrict the government’s room for manoeuvre, and would continue to do so without the EU.Indeed, under the Norway or Switzerland options, the UK could be bound by regulations that are made by member states only, and so exclude the elected representatives of the British people.

    • Hi Aveek. Hmmm…. I like you’re comment. It opens up some pretty tricksy questions about accountability which I haven’t thought about before so this is a rambling response which may not get anywhere – and I’m tired so sorry if this isn’t very clear:

      My initial thought was this:

      Let’s assume we go down a Norway-style route and end up adopting very many EU directives without having any formal influence over the processes through which those decisions are made. In that case leaving the EU, by taking more policy-areas out of the hands of British politicians (and handing them to an EU we are not a member of), would effectively increase the constraints British leaders face when choosing between policy options. That wouldn’t make them less accountable (in the sense of their vulnerability to punishment by citizens), although it undoubtedly would limit their scope of policy-making competencies.

      The in / out decision could then be cast as a choice of whether we want to trade off accountability (which would increase in Brexit) against the scope of policies our leaders could realistically pursue (which would decrease). (And of course all the other unappealing trade-offs would remain – cosmopolitan values, etc.)

      But there is a problem with my reasoning here.

      Let’s say that accountability is a matter of ‘ease of punishment’ of politicians by citizens. Lets assume that we leave the EU and that voters come to think that it would be unreasonable to punish politicians for playing the ‘lets adopt EU directives anyway to continue trading with them’ game. Then leaving the EU would have narrowed the range of issues which it is reasonable for voters to hold politicians responsible for and have effectively decreased the number of available opportunities for punishing them. And hence leaving the EU would have reduced accountability.

      Perhaps that is how you were thinking about it.

      And from this perspective the in / out decision could be cast as a choice of whether we would rather have ‘fewer opportunities to reasonably punish politicians but a more credible threat of punishment when those opportunities arise’ (Brexit) over the status quo.

      Its too late at night for me to start trying to analyse the value of Brexit through the value of opportunities to punish versus credible threat. And I’m getting tired so I’m going to stop here.But this has opened up a nice big set of problems I hadn’t thought of before about the different components of accountability, problems I should have already thought about!

      Maybe we should continue this when I’m back in London at Christmas…

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