If Yes Scotland Had Focused on Immigration

I won’t be the only person seeing a lot of comparisons between the Scottish independence referendum two years ago and the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.  Here’s another, played out as a hypothetical scenario:

So, roll-back to 2014.  A referendum has been called on Scotland’s membership of the UK in which only those born in Scotland have the right to vote, disenfranchising 400,000 fellow British citizens born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.  The pro-independence campaign, Yes Scotland, losing the economic argument, believes it can instead deliver a victory by focusing on the threat of immigration, allowed by the freedom of movement within the UK.   It berates the Scottish government for allowing 33,000 British citizens to enter the country each year, claiming the country is too full, or that Scottish culture is being eroded by these incomers, who don’t even bother to learn Gaelic or Scots.  Many Scots no longer feel as though they recognise their own country anymore.  Yes Scotland argues that the campaign does not have a problem with immigration in principle, but do we really need so many British people entering Scotland?  Furthermore, their religion is incompatible with Scottish values.  Anglicanism is too foreign for this Presbyterian nation, and the presence of Anglicans in our country will result in greater social upheaval.

Yes Scotland hopes the economic argument will prove their greatest asset.  They argue that the Brits who are crossing north of the border are too unskilled, taking all our Scottish jobs, deflating prices, and bringing unsatisfactory social conditions with them – like, say, HIV infections.  They argue Scotland should be able to take in only those who will contribute to society, which only coincidentally happens to be the wealthier Brits earning a certain income.  It does not seem to matter whether these immigrants may be married to Scots, or have family in Scotland.  Relatedly, they seek to make the case that leaving the UK will help Scotland’s public services.  Despite the fact several of the leading figures in Yes Scotland are on record for seeking public spending cuts – some of them actually oversaw such cuts – and the end of public welfare, they argue that British immigrants put too much strain on these key services, such as healthcare and schools.

The natural conclusion, then, it to vote Yes so Scotland can regain control and take its country back.  Ordinary Scots have had enough of the Scottish Government doing nothing to stem the endless flow of migrants entering our country through England.  We can only achieve this by establishing an Australian-style points system, placing illegal Brits into internment camps for years before forcibly deporting them south of the border.  Scotland is a great country, and will be greater if we vote Yes.

*

This sounds absurd, and outright offensive, right?  So how come it’s seen as acceptable by a vast proportion of people when we use these terms and style of language to talk about fellow Europeans?

 

 

 

Who are the Nationalists in Scotland?

Like most people in Scotland, I have been thinking a lot about nationalism over the last few years.  Scottish politics has been dominated by the independence debate, a state of affairs which shows no sign of receding; last week’s election merely confirmed this trend, seeing the Scottish Parliament dominated by the Scottish National Party and the unashamedly pro-British Conservative Party.

I am particularly interested in the positions taken by parties with a clear stance on the debate yet who do not identify as nationalists – most prominently, Labour and the Greens.  Most Green activists recognise they are allied to a nationalistic cause in pursuing independence, but justify this ambition by emphasising the possibilities for social justice and decentralisation independence could bring.  Labour, however, has seemed to portray itself as fighting against an exclusively nationalistic cause. Their support for the Union rests on the possibilities of pooling and sharing resources and workers’ solidarity across the British state.  This is a completely valid and perhaps even noble outlook – although not one I find very convincing – but it is not, at its heart, anti-nationalist.

To be anti-nationalist, the British state the Labour Party supports would have to be a non-nationalistic identity, whereas it instead, like most states, derives legitimacy from continually-enforced state nationalism.  The only difference is that this nationalism is British rather than Scottish.   Many in Labour pretend the debate in Scotland is between nationalism and anti-nationalism rather than between two competing nationalisms.  This is why I have found Labour’s position so unconvincing and disingenuous in recent years; they have presented the Union as an entity which supersedes ‘petty nationalism’ rather than advancing its own variety of it, while the Greens on the other side of the debate have had to constantly defend their association with a nationalist cause.  If you support either an independent Scotland or a British state you are supporting a nationalist cause, even if for non-nationalistic reasons.  The only anti-nationalist position would be to advocate a stateless society – or, perhaps, a federal European/world state which dissolves national boundaries.

By writing this short ramble I don’t mean to argue there is no valid basis for support of the Union, just as I believe there is a valid basis for supporting Scottish independence.  What is not valid is to contrast this debate as one between the forces of nationalism and of opposition to nationalism; whether we like it or not, two nationalisms are in fierce competition for Scotland’s future.  Each side is supported by genuine non-nationalist arguments and viewpoints, but it is dishonest to claim these avoid propping up a nationalist vision for statehood.

Am I a Terrorist?

The UK’s Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offence to:

(a) distribute or circulate a terrorist publication;
(b) give, sell or lend such a publication;
(c) offer such a publication for sale or loan;
(d) provide a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale or loan;
(e) transmits the contents of such a publication electronically; or
(f) have such a publication in his possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (e).

This is almost certainly the reason that the British Library has decided against including Taliban documents within its archives, as reported by Al Jazeera.  Despite the Library believing there is a clear academic value in these documents, it has engaged in an act of self-censorship over fear of prosecution, whether for itself or for researchers accessing these documents.

This is a problem.  I have always known vaguely that the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, introduced during Tony Blair’s Labour government following the 9/11 attacks and subsequently strengthened since, are stringent and widespread.  I have only examined the law in depth, however, after being alerted to it by that Al Jazeera article.  It also brought my attention to the case of Rizwaan Sabir, who writes here of being arrested in 2008 as a masters student for downloading a document titled ‘An Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ from the US Department of Justice website to aid his research.  The case against him collapsed and he was rightfully granted compensation, but this case highlights the how these laws are open to abuse.  I have no doubt that similar instances have since occurred.

I’m beginning to wonder whether I myself might even have accessed documents for research purposes which would come under suspicion.  Earlier this year I wrote an essay for a Middle-Eastern History undergraduate course at university in which I examined the Islamic State’s development in the context of historical jihadi movements.  To do so, I cited official IS press releases in order to provide evidence of the group’s ideology.  Is this an act of terrorism?  What if I were to have gone further and explored more jihadi works – say, of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leading jihadi theorist who has influenced many movements in Iraq during the last decade?  I would be reading these sources purely out of academic interest with no intention of becoming a jihadi myself.  Would that be an act of terrorism?

Let’s go even broader.  I have a downloaded copy of The Communist Manifesto on my phone I’m reading through out of historical and ideological interest.  Is that terrorism?  For another university essay last year, I consulted a copy of Mein Kampf to gain an insight into National Socialist ideology.  Was that terrorism?  Under UK law, certainly not – these documents, even Mein Kampf, are understood to have academic value.  So it’s clear that, in the UK, ‘terrorist documents’ can be narrowed down generally to those which espouse violent Islamism.

Of course, as Sabir mentions in his article, there’s a strong element of ‘racial discrimination’ here.  As a white British citizen with no Muslim or Middle-Eastern ancestry, it is likely that I could get away with accessing jihadi documents for the purpose of academic research as I don’t fit the profile of an Islamist terrorist.  Indeed, in the unlikely event I would be charged, I’d be protected under the Terrorism Act which states that individuals charged can be defended if:

(a) the statement neither expressed his views nor had his endorsement (whether by virtue of section 3 or otherwise); and
(b) that it was clear, in all the circumstances of the statement’s publication, that it did not express his views and (apart from the possibility of his having been given and failed to comply with a notice under subsection (3) of that section) did not have his endorsement.

I imagine this is what protected Sabir, as well as the fact he accessed the documents from the US government.  I would hope this clause has protected most people who have been charged with terrorism for conducting legitimate academic research.  Nevertheless, as the British Library has demonstrated, the legislation is still effective in creating an atmosphere where self-censorship is widely practiced, which cannot be healthy for academia.  If the UK is to maintain its reputation for academic freedom and world-class research, this problem needs to be tackled.

2014 In Books

In the first part of my 2014 in review series which may or may not continue after this post, I’m going to briefly analyse the books I’ve read this year.  Unfortunately I only managed to read 31 books, down from 41 in 2013 and failing to reach my target of 43 by quite a wide margin.  My main reason for this is that I more or less stopped reading outside of my university courses between January and May due to coursework and life related things going on, so hopefully this downward movement is only a blip!  Anyhow, here’s the list:

  1. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  2. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  3. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  4. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  5. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  6. Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
  7. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  8. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  9. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  10. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  11. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  12. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  13. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce
  14. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  15. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  16. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  17. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  18. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922)– F. Scott Fitzgerald
  19. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  20. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  21. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  22. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  23. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  24. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  25. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  26. The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison
  27. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  28. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  29. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  30. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  31. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin

And to put them in order of preference:

  1. A Storm of Swords (2000) – George R. R. Martin
  2. A Game of Thrones (1996) – George R.R. Martin
  3. A Clash of Kings (1998) – George R. R. Martin
  4. Long Walk to Freedom (1995) – Nelson Mandela
  5. The Silkworm (2014) – J.K. Rowling
  6. Frankenstein [re-read] (1818) – Mary Shelley
  7. Common Sense (1776) – Thomas Paine
  8. Doctor Faustus (1604) – Christopher Marlowe
  9. The Great Gatsby [re-read] (1922) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  10. The Fault in our Stars (2012) – John Green
  11. The Book Thief (2005) – Markus Zusak
  12. A Feast for Crows (2005) – George R. R. Martin
  13. The Trowie Mound Murders (2014) – Marsali Taylor
  14. Northanger Abbey (1817) – Jane Austen
  15. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift
  16. Of Mice and Men (1937) – John Steinbeck
  17. Rachel in Love (1987) – Pat Murphy
  18. Hard Times (1854) – Charles Dickens
  19. Rip Van Winkle / The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) – Washington Irving
  20. Europe: In or Out? (2014) – David Charter
  21. Utopia (1516) – Thomas More
  22. Salmond: Against the Odds (2010) – David Torrance
  23. Nausea (1938) – Jean-Paul Sartre
  24. Britain and Ireland: From Home Rule to Independence (1999) – Jeremy Smith
  25. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – J.K. Rowling
  26. Blair Unbound (2007) – Anthony Seldon
  27. Oroonoko (1688) – Aphra Behn
  28. A Sentimental Journey (1768) – Laurence Sterne
  29. Ulysses (1922) – James Joyce

Unrated:
Scotland’s Future (2013) – The Scottish Government
The Constitution of the United States of America (1787) – James Madison

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And here I’ve [broadly] charted on a map where each book is set or about.  Obviously fictions which aren’t set in our world, like A Song of Ice and Fire, aren’t included, and for non-fiction books I’ve had to take some liberties:

Settings 2014

Almost every book here written before 1900 is due to my English Literature course, hence why they’re so clustered together.  It’s a good mix, I think, although as the map shows there is a very strong northern European, British-American bias in the books I’ve read.  Every author, with the exception of Nelson Mandela, is either European or American – I’ll definitely try to widen the writers I read next year.  I think I’ve managed a healthy balance between fiction and non-fiction; I’ve neither lived wholly in bleak reality nor untempered fantasy.  In terms of preference, I’m not surprised to see George R. R. Martin consistently quite high given I tend to rate quality of storytelling in fiction above quality of prose (I imagine I’ll have a lot to say about that in a future post!).  Otherwise there’s no clear pattern.  I need to make a caveat for Ulysses however; while it was the most excruciatingly painful novel I’ve forced myself to read, while I considered the whole thing a project to ridicule critics, upon finishing I just couldn’t get it out of my head and having looked back at it I do find a lot of worth in there.  So this does betray one potential problem with my ratings, in that I rate purely in enjoyment while reading rather than any other means, which brings me back to the discussion of value best saved for another day.

Looking forward to the great reads 2015 brings!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the books’ gender ratio.  Only 23% of the books I read were written by women, which is pretty shocking to consider.  Some of this might be down to the amount of ‘classics’ I’ve read this year, although considering these gave me Aphra Benn, Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, who I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s possibly this actually buffed the number up.  Unless I’ve subconsciously given greater preference to male authors (could be similar to this phenomenon) it’s clear women still face a harder task getting represented in the most high-profile and bestselling books.

The State of Scottish Parties

Scotland’s decision to vote No in the independence referendum will have fundamental consequences regarding it’s relationship with the rest of the UK, but it will also prove to have far-reaching implications for politics at home.  Here are some of my predictions for how Scotland’s five major represented parties, significant  but largely unrepresented (the SSP) and others (UKIP) will fare over the next couple of years:

The Scottish National Party
In pure electoral terms, the SNP may end up becoming one of the big winners in the post-referendum fallout.  This may seem surprising given that they lost the referendum, however it’s important to remember how close the result ended up being.  Including nonvoters, around 38% of Scots voted for independence, far more than the 22.7% who voted for the SNP in 2011.  This extra 15% of Scottish voters who support independence must have come from somewhere.  Granted many will have been members of the other pro-independence parties, the Greens and Scottish Socialists.  However others will have come from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who saw perhaps as many as a third of their former voters support independence.  I’m not suggesting these people will convert en-masse to the SNP but if they’re willing to go against their parties on such an important issue as this, it’s very likely they may be swayed to go against them again in 2016 and vote for the SNP.  Meanwhile a substantial portion of these Yes voters most likely came from people who don’t normally vote, but who may be likely to SNP in future.   I also believe the SNP could get significant support from the 46.8% of Scots who voted ‘No’.  Now independence is off the table, many No voters who support more devolution may end up backing the SNP as a guarantee for extra powers, especially if the Westminster parties are seen to be reneging on their promises.

This isn’t just idle speculation; in the last 48 hours the SNP have reportedly gained almost 5,000 new members, an increase of approximately 20% bringing them up to 30,000 – far and away the largest political party in Scotland (Scottish Labour refuse to publish their membership numbers but they’ve been in decline since 1997 and probably number no more than 13,000 people – though they still somehow claim to be ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’).  Such a surge in membership in so short a time is virtually unprecedented.  For these reasons, and in this context, I’ll be very surprised if the SNP don’t remain the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election.  Another downright majority may even be within their grasp if the situation south of the border is perceived to be particularly dire.

Labour
I could be wrong, but I think Scottish Labour is in trouble.  The party has been in decline throughout the last decade, losing seats in every election for the Scottish Parliament to date.  As mentioned earlier a third of Labour voters may have backed independence, who could end up drifting away from the party if the devolution settlement doesn’t go far enough.  The Yes vote was particularly high in Glasgow, Labour’s stronghold in the country – I’ve heard rumours that it touched 60% in Pollok, Johann Lamont’s own constituency (indeed, there have been opinion polls suggesting she might lose her own seat at the next election).  The poor performance of the No campaign will also undoubtedly have harmed Labour due to its overwhelmingly negative tone, while firmly creating the image of Labour as a party of the establishment.  If Labour wins the 2015 general election, manages to avoid any major controversy and is able to bring forth a truly inspiring programme of reform under Ed Miliband the party may earn a reprieve – though probably not enough to actually win the 2016 Scottish election.  Otherwise, if the party fails to deliver on its promises or if a potential Labour government at Westminster has a very bad year, then they’re finished in Scotland.

Conservatives
I don’t think the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes will change much following the referendum.  They’ve consistently won within 12-17% of the vote throughout the last decade, not moving greatly in either direction.  Given that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters are thought to have voted No, there aren’t many grounds for defection in the immediate future, except perhaps to UKIP – though they’re unlikely to do well enough in Scotland for this to make a major difference.  The Conservatives will probably remain the third largest party in Scotland for some time, unless the Greens begin to do particularly well or the Liberal Democrats see a reprieve.

Green Party
The Greens could emerge from the referendum in a comparatively better state than even of the SNP.  Within the last 48 hours the party has gained an extra 2,000 members, more than doubling its membership count.  Even before this surge the party has consistently been polling at between 7-9%, up from 4.4% in 2011.  If this extra support lasts I could imagine the party easily reaching at least 10% of the vote in 2016.  The party is no doubt also benefiting enormously from the publicity boost it gained from the referendum, giving figures such as Patrick Harvie a much greater profile.  The future looks bright for the Greens.

Liberal Democrats
Like their compatriots across the UK, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are in a state of continual meltdown in Scotland since the Westminster party entered a coalition with the Conservatives four years ago.  At the 2011 election they lost 12 seats as their vote halved, while they’re now consistently polling even lower than they did back then.  I’m not sure they could possibly lose any more support even if the referendum had made a negative impact upon them.  Though I’m not sure it will really have made much difference.  The party – as in most current issues – has largely been ignored throughout the debate.  It was also the only unionist party calling for a full federal solution across the UK, and perhaps therefore the only party to recognise that the current system is broken.  Since the party has lacked a platform to get these ideas across I don’t know how much of a difference this will have made, but it certainly won’t have done any harm.  I expect the party to continue its position at around 5% in the polls, maybe climbing back up to the 7% or so they achieved in the last election by 2012, largely unaffected by the referendum.

The Scottish Socialist Party
As with the Greens, the referendum has proved to largely boost the profile of the SSP as one of the few parties to support independence.  Also like the Greens and SNP, the party is reporting a rise in members by around 600.  During the last year the SSP has risen to around 3% in the opinion polls – not a great position, for sure, but enough to potentially win a seat in Parliament.  The party lacks the base that the Greens and the SNP have – it’s only elected representative is one councillor in West Dunbartonshire – so there’s perhaps a risk that this boost could fizzle out, though the fact it’s had 600 members in the last couple of days suggest it is perceived as a genuine option for voters.  Winning a seat or two is definitely a possibility for 2016.

UKIP
I don’t expect UKIP to see its electoral fortunes changed much except to have become even more unelectable among the 45% of Scots who voted for independence (though I can’t imagine such an English/British nationalist party ever gaining any traction to anyone who’d consider independence in the first place).  It’ll continue gaining votes from the small section of Scottish society it appeals to, which may be enough to win a few seats in Parliament, while remaining incredibly toxic to the 90+% of the rest of the population.  UKIP is currently polling between 4% and 7% but it wouldn’t surprise me if this decreased by 2016 as the Greens and SSP become more attractive protest options.

For updates on polling in Scotland, which may or may not shift dramatically after the election, keep an eye on my election blog, The Election Stalker!

Scotland Votes No; Now it’s Westminster’s Move

I knew from the moment polls closed that Scotland would deliver a ‘No’ vote.  I just had a gut feeling.  The polls suggested it would be a close No vote, while there was evidence of a last-minute swing away from Yes.  Ultimately the result was 44.7% for Yes and 55.3% for No – a safe victory for the Union, though much closer than it looked to be just a year ago.  The Yes vote achieved a majority in Glasgow, Dundee, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, while missing out by just 86 votes in Inverclyde.  The referendum may have been lost, but for the first time in centuries there is widespread support for an independent Scotland.  This in itself may constitute a victory for the SNP and the wider Yes campaign.

So, where do we go now?  I was one of the 1.6 million Yes voters because I believed Westminster incapable of instituting the type of reform I would like to see – creating a federal UK that would devolve all domestic powers to Scotland, meet the demands of voters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and that would solve the West Lothian Question once and for all in a fair way.  I was also put off by the complacency in the No campaign, large parts of which basically rested solely on “vote Labour and everything will be ok.”  When that poll suggested Scotland may actually vote Yes, the last minute scramble to offer more powers lacked all credibility and reeked of desperation.

Yet, before voting, I made a commitment to myself to respect whichever way the vote went and work with the majority of Scots in creating a better future.  This now means I’m committed to making the UK work and will suspend my support for an independent Scotland.  To clarify, my support for independence has only ever been a means to an end; I believed independence to be the best route towards achieving the political and social reforms I wanted.  Now the referendum is lost it would be a distraction to continue focusing on independence alone at the present moment.

However, crucially, this does not mean I am prepared to give Westminster a blank cheque.  All three major parties promised further powers for Scotland and a genuine overhaul of the British constitution.  Now a No vote has been delivered the ball is very much in Westminster’s court.  I plan to put as much pressure on politicians as possible to deliver real reform; this can be done by voting carefully for parties and candidates that genuinely want change, by writing to MPs demanding they go ahead with reform, by signing petitions, and so on.  I plan personally to become much more active within the Scottish Green Party to force change both within Scotland and the UK at large.

The Westminster parties will need to carefully weigh up where they go from here.  Many English voters are (rightfully) demanding that Scottish, and perhaps Welsh, MPs should be barred from voting on issues that don’t affect their own countries – essentially, upon ‘English issues’.  If more devolution is delivered, the number of issues Scottish MPs can vote on becomes very small indeed.  This could present an acute problem if, for example, we get a Labour government elected with a wafer-thin majority (not unlikely according to polls for next year’s election), that’s in office but unable to deliver on many of its policies because it relies upon MPs from Scotland and Wales.  This is why I believe simply giving more devolution to Scotland and Wales is an untenable solution.  There must be devolution within England as well, spurring a transition to a much more federal structure where Westminster becomes the equivalent of the federal government in other countries around the world.  As I see it, this is the only solution.

I’m giving the Westminster establishment a year to bring forward proposals on how to do this.  I don’t mean to actively introduce these reforms – they need time to be carefully considered – but there must at the very least be a commitment to a detailed plan of reform and a timetable for implementing it.  If this is not the case within a year’s time, if Westminster produces more half-hearted sticking plasters to the issue of Britain’s constitutional mess, then my only conclusion will be that my initial instinct was right and that Westminster is incapable of reforming itself.  Now we’re committed to remaining in the union for the next generation I really, genuinely want the UK to work for all its citizens, but if Westminster will not or cannot provide real reform then I don’t see any other alternative than returning to the cause of Scottish independence.  I’m not a nationalist – this is not a cause I will triumph if I don’t need to.  Westminster, please don’t let us down.

The early movements aren’t looking positive.  David Cameron has still yet to commit to any details, instead appointing Lord Smith of Kelvin to oversee vague reforms (I can just hear 45% of Scots shouting, “Have you learned nothing over the last two years?!”).  The No campaign promised there would be a cross-party motion delivered to the House of Commons today laying out the groundwork for further devolution.  This has not happened.  Ed Miliband has seemingly refused to go along with David Cameron’s proposals, perhaps because he has other plans – although it’s worth noting that of all three parties’ reform pledges, Labour’s have consistently been the most limited.  I shouldn’t be surprised that this post-vote period is messy, given how plain it is that these devolution pledges have been cobbled together at the last minute.  As I said, I’m giving Westminster a year to sort out a plan.  During that period I shall be watching and commenting attentively upon that process.

The Union is in your hands, Westminster.  If you want to avoid a re-run of the independence referendum in fifteen years, one where you’d have a much harder battle according to demographic figures, you’d better not mess this up.

Image credits:

Jean-Claude Juncker: A Victory for Democracy?

The nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker by the Council of Europe to become the next President of the European Commission has received an unusual amount of coverage in the UK for a matter concerning European politics.  David Cameron’s opposition to Juncker because of his commitment to greater European integration fits the narrative of the UK being dragged into a political union it has no desire to be in, while also allowing Cameron to show the electorate that he is capable of being ‘tough’ on Europe.  This is how an overwhelming defeat of 26 votes to 2 on Juncker’s nomination has been seen as a victory for Cameron.  However the vote’s implications have far greater implications than simply for domestic politics; it was also a victory for democracy within the EU.

A near-universal criticism of the EU is that it lacks democratic legitimacy and accountability.  This is in part what the European Parliament was aimed to solve; a directly elected chamber which has a say on EU legislation can provide accountability to the indirectly elected European Commission – though the Parliament still lacks powers possessed by most of its national equivalents.  The 2009 Lisbon Treaty sought to further the powers of the European Parliament as a way of boosting confidence in European institutions.  Whether it has been successful is up for debate, but one important tenet of the treaty was that, in nominating Presidents of the European Commission, European leaders must ‘take account’ of the results of the most recent European Parliament election.

Like many aspects of the EU, the way in which account should be taken of these results hasn’t been clearly defined.  The consensus has been that the grouping which wins the most seats in the Parliament would have its candidate become President.  This is the interpretation that has been sold to the European public, largely through a series of debates featuring each European grouping’s candidate to become the next President.  The European People’s Party ultimately won the most seats and thus, by this interpretation, Juncker as their candidate should become President.  It’s true that most voters didn’t cast their vote with these candidates in mind but, nevertheless, to renege on this assumption would render the debates a farce and be an affront to the EU’s only democratically-elected institution.  Cameron’s much looser interpretation is that the results show a desire for reform away from closer integration and that the President’s selection should reflect this.  This may be true in the UK – although UKIP’s success is more an indictment on the current state of British politics than of the EU – but he cannot project this message across the rest of Europe when pro-European parties won 70% of the seats in the European Parliament.

That EU procedure can provoke such drastically different interpretations is due to its half-hearted approach to democratic legitimacy.  Power still resides with the unelected commissioners of the European Commission.  If we wish to remain in the EU and for it to be more accountable, there are two main options: either have a directly elected President or allow Parliament to nominate the President.  The former is unlikely to be suitable for most eurosceptics but the latter may be feasible.  And this, essentially, is the precedent created by Juncker’s nomination.  Both his own European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats group have backed him, thereby giving him the support of a majority of MEPs.  A general consensus appears to have developed that this is the appropriate way for the position to be selected, which may become enshrined in law within the next five years.

To be clear, Juncker is far from the perfect candidate.  His preference for closed-doors diplomacy will do little to increase the EU’s transparency while his support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) won’t benefit democracy either on a national or a continental level.  Yet for the first time the President’s nomination has a degree of democratic legitimacy and indicates that, though there is still much to be done, the EU is continuing down a path which gives its citizens the final say on how it’s run.

Image credit: by Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg: Martin Möller derivative work: IgnisFatuus (Jean-Claude_Juncker_(2006).jpg) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons