FLC122, Washington and Brussels: Apology, Retraction, Clarification, Sean Gabb, 19th May 2004

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 122
19th May 2004

Washington and Brussels: Apology, Retraction, Clarification
by Sean Gabb

In my last Free Life Commentary, I said a number of things that, on reflection, I do not think well suited to winning friends or influencing people. While I try to be a clear and honest writer, I do have a taste for making outrageous statements. Add to this an obsession with the internal balance of sentences and their relationships with each other, and the result is that I sometimes say things that I do not really mean.

Though I will not give all my reasons yet again—at least, not for the moment—I am convinced it was wrong to invade Iraq. It was wrong for the Americans to invade. It was wrong for the British Government to join in the invasion. I also believe that the American Constitution is not presently the restraint on power and the impulse to virtue that its creators intended it to be. But this does not justify me in writing off the entire American people as a race of stupid, scum-descended barbarians.

I am still sorting though my mailbox for all the replies to the last Free Life Commentary. But, if there are several semi-literate death threats that might justify my opinion, there are several dignified rebukes that make me wish I had read the piece before sending it out on the Internet. And I have so far received nearly a hundred orders from America for my compact disk. A nation cannot be entirely bad when it contains so much fair mindedness as I normally find in Americans. Their system of government is corrupt. The nation itself still has far to go before it reaches the degradation that the Roman people achieved under the Caesars—and which we ourselves may be more rapidly approaching.

That is my apology and retraction out of the way. I now turn to a point of clarification. Some of my British readers were highly shocked when I seemed to waver in my dislike of the European Union. I said that the proposed European Constitution might not be so bad as the American alliance. I dislike both. Even so, I agree in my more settled moods—that is, when not carried away by my own rhetorical skills—that the European Union is by far the greater danger to this country, and that finding some means of exit ought to be our highest priority. Let me explain my reasons. Before then, though, let me explain what my reasons are not.

The European Union, as presently ordered, bears no resemblance to the old Soviet Union. Nor does it in any sense resemble the plans for a united Europe devised by the German national socialists. The other member states are not inherently more socialist than our own country. Their laws and institutions are not grossly more absolutist. In some respects, they are less free than we are; in others, more free. I have a strong preference for the traditional ways of my own country; but the French are not slaves because their law is based on codes and not on precedents.

The 25 member states are all liberal democracies. In all of them, the state is sufficiently limited to allow a degree of individual autonomy that is unmatched in most other parts of the world and that would awe any visitor from the past. Yes, the European Union is a bureaucratic nightmare. It is financially corrupt; and its agricultural and fishing policies border on the lunatic. But it is evident that at least 14 of the member states can afford all this - and probably much more—and that the others have freedom of trade, investment and movement of people that will soon allow them also to afford it.

Taken as a whole, the European Union is rich; it is at peace; it is an extraordinarily nice place to live. I know this because I have visited and even lived in other member states. I now have relatives in another member state—and they are not desperate to come and live here. I am proficient in French and Slovak. I can read Czech, Spanish and Italian. The Europe that I often see portrayed in some—not all —of the Eurosceptic literature is not the Europe that I know.

There is no burning passion in the other member states to destroy the United Kingdom, or to "bring us down to their level". There is no Franco-German conspiracy against us. There is no serious Catholic plot to undo the English reformation. As a nation, we are highly regarded for all the proper reasons. Our membership is welcomed by the French because we are a counterweight to German influence, by the Germans because we are a counterweight to French influence, and by the small member states because we are a counterweight to both. Over the past decade, we have nagged and pressured the continental member states into market reforms that they might not have had the will to make for themselves and that benefit all of us. In a sense, the admission of the 10 new member states at the beginning of this month was a diplomatic triumph for this country.

The problem for me with the European Union—in the short term, that is—is not what it is doing to us, but what it is allowing our own ruling class to do to us. Membership has disordered our constitutional arrangements. Sections 2(1) and 2(4) of the European Communities Act 1972 provide that:

All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties, are without further enactment to be given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom, shall be recognised and available in law, and be enforced, allowed and followed accordingly; and the expression "enforceable Community right" and similar expressions shall be read as referring to one to which this subsection applies....

The provision that may be made under subsection (2) above includes, subject to Schedule 2 of this Act, any such provision (of any such extent) as might be made by Act of Parliament, and any enactment passed or to be passed, other than one contained in this Part of this Act, shall be construed and have effect subject to the foregoing provisions of this section; but, except as may be provided by any Act passed after this Act, Schedule 2 shall have effect in connection with the powers conferred by this and the following sections of this Act to make Orders in Council and regulations.

All this makes hard reading on first acquaintance, but its effect is to allow the British Government to legislate by decree. So long as a law comes in through section 2 of the 1972 Act, there can be no meaningful scrutiny in our own Parliament, and our own rulers cannot be held accountable for it, and no election result can lead to its repeal or amendment. This allows our government to do things in the name of European integration that it could never hope to do by the old constitutional means.

I did once approve of this fact—I and many other liberal conservatives. We doubted if the will existed for a purely domestic policy of market reform. This may or may not have been the case. It is undeniable now that the constitutional disordering allows the making and enforcement of often highly illiberal laws. For the enrichment of a few special interests—largely in our own country - much of our agriculture has been regulated into bankruptcy. The same is happening with industry, and may eventually happen with financial services.

Of course, there have been offsetting benefits. The judges have become far more powerful than they were in the past, and have now even taken to themselves the power to set aside Acts of Parliament. There are dangers in this, so far as it encourages the wrong sort of judicial activism. On the other hand, bearing in mind the personal quality of our elected politicians, being ruled by judges is not the worst likely form of government. Moreover, the need for common action throughout the European Union has forced our own rulers to proceed more slowly to a police state than they might without this restraint have proceeded. Membership of the European Union has set our money laundering laws in stone—they are made pursuant to a European directive, and cannot be repealed so long as our membership continues or the directive remains in force. At the same time, our obscene publications laws cannot be tightened by domestic means, and we cannot have those biometric identity cards over which the Ministers are now slavering until a common format has been agreed by all 24 other member states.

On balance, though, membership is bad for us at present; and it will be increasingly bad for us—and for all the other peoples of Europe. It is possible that the next generation will see the emergence of a European ruling class. Local constitutional arrangements will be increasingly drained of force as both real and formal power move to the centre—constitutional arrangements that, however imperfect they may be thought, are organic to the nation in which they arose. The European Constitution seems to provide for a federal government. This may be subject to a federal parliament. But this cannot be a parliament in other than name. Where there are no common bonds of nationality, there cannot be a common electorate. There cannot be a common debate of issues and a common public opinion. Where they have been created from above, and are in no sense part of national identity, common institutions cannot really exist to restrain abuses. It is increasingly regretted in this country that fewer and fewer people vote in elections. This is partly because the politicians no longer wish to offer clear alternatives to each other, but also because they cannot. When 80 per cent of all new laws originate via section 2 of that 1972 Act, there is no point in attending to the predetermined ratification process. One result will be political quietism interrupted by often irrational and sometimes violent outbursts. Another will be the ability of a common ruling class to localise dissent in any one part of a common state, and to rally the nationalities elsewhere against it.

We are not perhaps looking at a tyranny. But we are looking at a recreation of the Habsburg Monarchy, which lasted generations longer than it might by dividing the subject nationalities all the better to rule them—and by infantilising them as it did so. This is not to denounce the Habsburg Monarchy. In its final century, it provided the only means by which a patchwork of mutually hostile nationalities could be held together in reasonable peace and cooperation. Compared with what followed its dissolution, the Monarchy was beyond reproach. But the order it provided was always brittle, and always dependent on a ruling class that was largely detached from any one nationality. I still wish that some federal equivalent of the Monarchy could be recreated in Central Europe, and I regret that I was able to intervene to so little effect in 1991-92 when chance allotted me some small opportunity to hold Czechoslovakia together. But what may be necessary in Central Europe is not necessary in Western Europe, where demography and political geography so neatly coincide. It is certainly not necessary that Britain should be joined in such a federal project. Our own interests are to live at peace with all the nations of continental Europe, and to be linked by economic cooperation and by social intercourse—but not to be joined with them in any formal political union.

My apparent wavering in hostility to the European project is, oddly enough, because I am a nationalist. Most of my Eurosceptic friends are also Atlanticists. They see membership of the European Union as a wrong turn in our development—which is to be part of an "Anglosphere" led by the United States. For them, every step away from Brussels ought to mean a step closer to Washington. I want Britain—or, perhaps, just England—to be independent of both. I do not regard political isolation as a calamity, but as an essential interest of our country. Even among the giant political blocs of the present century, we are big enough and rich enough and powerful enough to remain aloof, and to work out our own destiny. Philip Chalston says against me somewhere that England is all I really care about. He is right. But what makes my narrow focus legitimate is that England and all it has stood for and can stand again are preeminently worth caring about.

Sadly, there is almost no support for this kind of isolation; and even my attempts to argue for it that do not involve exaggeration or gratuitous insult are misunderstood. I do not think that leaving Europe ought to mean our joining with America, but I do think that it probably will mean this. Given that I am so scandalised by the invasion of Iraq—and I do think it both a crime and a mistake—it is only to be expected that I should be a trimmer. I am hostile primarily to Brussels when the Europhiles are in the ascendant, and primarily to Washington when they are not.

So, whatever I think about their government, I will try in future to be more polite about the American people. I think it was Disraeli who said "Never apologise, never explain". I suppose I have just done both.