National Sovereignty or EU Membership: Which is the Least Bad Option? (2014), by Sean Gabb
National Sovereignty or EU Membership:
Which is the Least Bad Option?
Speech given in Bratislava on the 12th August 2014
to the Institute of Economic and Social Studies (INESS)
by Sean Gabb
It is a point of orthodoxy among British advocates of the free market that Britain should leave the European Union. This is an orthodoxy that, between 1999 and 2001, I did much to impose on the Conservative Party. It is, however, an orthodoxy that I no longer fully accept. I do accept that the freedom and prosperity I want for my country are incompatible with membership of the European Union. What I do not necessarily accept is that we should walk away at the earliest opportunity. There may, in the next few years, be a referendum on British membership of the European Union. If it happens, I am not sure how I shall vote in this. But, if it were to happen tomorrow, I know that I would vote against leaving.
I am always grateful to INESS for its invitations to speak here in Bratislava. INESS is itself one of the most prominent and distinguished movements of its kind in Europe. Those it gathers to hear my speeches are impressive both in their intellectual quality and in their ability to express themselves in a foreign language. I am particularly grateful this year for the opportunity given me to explain my partial change of mind on the European Union. If I shall be speaking mostly from a British point of view, I hope that what I have to say will be relevant, or at least interesting, to a Slovak audience.
A Case Against the European Union
I will begin by stating what I believe to be the main case against the European Union. Unlike many British Eurosceptics, I do not believe that my country has been in any meaningful sense conquered by an alien power. The European Union is not, for my country, an exercise in French or German imperialism. Its development has not been driven by an out of control and centralising bureaucracy in Brussels. Instead, British membership of the European Union, and its influence on Britain are entirely a device of the British ruling class.
For as long as I have been alive, and perhaps for somewhat longer, the ruling class of my country has been working to free itself from anything by the most formal accountability to the people. On the one hand, this has been achieved by a state-sponsored mass-immigration of those who are, for whatever reason, unlikely to assimilate themselves into our national life. Over a century and a half ago, John Stuart Mill observed that, when a population is made up of groups who speak different languages, and who have different ways and different concerns, there can be no single public opinion able to hold the rulers to account. Instead, each group will be more inclined to look to the State for preference against the other groups, and free institutions will be impossible. That increasingly is the situation in Britain.
On the other hand, this project requires all important decisions to be taken beyond the inspection and control of our historic institutions. Rather than state it in the abstract, let me illustrate this with what you may regard as a trivial example.
In terms of rationality, the English system of weights and measures is hard to defend. One inch is the average length of the top joint of an adult male thumb. Twelve inches make one foot. Three feet make one yard. 1,760 yards make one mile, which is also 5,280 feet or 63,360 inches. I leave aside how rods, poles, perches, furlongs and other units of length fit into this system; and I will say nothing of our equally eccentric measurements of weight. All I will say is that the system works and has always been popular. Each time, since the 1790s, there has been an open discussion of whether we should adopt the metric system, change has been firmly rejected. Then, in the 1990s, a coalition of bureaucrats with tidy minds and commercial interests agreed on a policy of compulsory metrication. Rather than take this before Parliament, where it might be voted down, they took advantage of a European Directive from 1989, which requires all goods that are sold throughout the European Union to be labelled in metric. This says nothing about goods sold in one country only, or about secondary labelling. But it was interpreted by the British authorities to mean that.
Now, a Directive can be incorporated into national law by parliamentary legislation, or by executive order, which may not require parliamentary discussion. British metrication was imposed by this second method – and, to make sure protest would be minimised, it was imposed in two stages. The Order was published in 1995, to come into effect in 2000. In 1995, discussion was muted because the change was five years distant. In 2000, we were told that discussion was worthless, since everything had been decided five years earlier. And so, to a chorus of venom against a European Commission that had no interest in our domestic measurements, it became a criminal offence to sell a pound of bananas in Britain, and the real projectors of the change walked away laughing.
In great things and in small, this is how the European Union works. This is how Britain got its money laundering laws that have abolished financial privacy, and its lunatic recycling laws, and the closure of all slaughter houses not owned by big business interests. The European Union is a cartel of ruling classes. In each member state, the ruling class makes unpopular laws behind a fig leaf of the various European treaties. Of course, since it is a cartel, each ruling class must often accept laws desired by the others that it finds unpopular. For example, the British ruling class would rather not have the Common Agricultural Policy. It increases rents for the landowning interest, but does so at the cost of endless complaints about British membership of the European Union.
Even so, this is a cost that can be managed. Other costs can be entirely avoided. Whether or not membership of the European Union involves a loss of national sovereignty, anything really unwelcome that comes out of Brussels can be ignored by each ruling class. Though it has been allowed to destroy the British fishing industry, the Common Fisheries Policy is not applied in Spain. The European Arrest Warrant, which allows a citizen of one member state to be taken, with minimal oversight, for trial in another member state, is not applied in Germany or Austria – because these countries have constitutional safeguards against extradition, and it would be too much trouble to remove these safeguards. We in Britain have just had an example of how supreme the European Union really is. The British State likes to spy on us by collecting details of our e-mails and telephone calls. This was recently judged to be in breach of European Law by the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg. Our ruling class responded by passing the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, which overturns the ruling of the European Court.
I repeat: the European Union is not an external imposition. In Britain – and, I think, in each member state – it is the means by which the ruling class has carried out an internal revolution. Historically subordinate institutions, such as the bureaucracy and the judiciary, plus private interest groups formally outside our Constitution, have been placed beyond the scrutiny and control of our elective institutions. Parliamentary government has become a charade – though not for the empowerment of the European institutions, but of our own ruling class.
A False Assumption
When, at the turn of the present century, I first realised that nature of the European Union, my natural instinct was to join in the demands for British withdrawal. As said, I had an important part in making Euroscepticism an orthodox position in the Conservative Party. Through my Candidlist Project, I was able to destroy the hopes of several dozen Conservative candidates for Parliament who refused to sign their names to the possibility of withdrawal. Many other candidates, who did sign as I demanded, found their way into Parliament more easily than they might otherwise have done.
But my belief in British withdrawal was based on a single assumption. This was that, once we were out of the European Union, our Constitution could be rebalanced in favour of its elective elements, and that the government of my country would become politically and economically more liberal. This was not, at the time, a manifestly absurd assumption. The history of my county has, to a large degree, been the history of freedom. Every liberal doctrine has had its origin in a meditation on the history of England. As late as the year 2000, the Thatcher Government could still be seen – however imperfect we may have thought it – as a reaction against an overmighty state. I took it for granted that, once the various interest groups empowered by the European treaties could be made subject to a Parliament elected by the people, we could at least argue for the restoration of our ancient liberties.
I now accept that I was wrong. Since 2000, Britain has become a sinister police state. The police are feared. Speech is increasingly unfree. Our rulers talk endlessly of democracy and fundamental human rights. But these are interpreted as extravagant affirmative action programmes for privileged minorities. You can get a criminal record in my country for suggesting that a police horse looks gay, or for standing beside the Cenotaph to recite the names of our dead servicemen in the Iraq War. You can be put out of business if you refuse to let homosexuals share a bed in your hotel. You can be arrested if you quote Winston Churchll’s comments on Islam. Ancient due process protections have been stripped from the criminal law. There are suggestions that your children should be taken from you if you do not agree with the ruling class definitions of diversity or human rights.
None of this has been required by membership of the European Union. Nor has it been effectively resisted by the people. It would be unjust to say that the British people as a whole want to be slaves. At the same time, the popular voice most often heard is one long and hysterical scream about paedophile conspiracies, and demands for a police state even less restrained than the one desired and given us by the ruling class.
The Origins of the New Totalitarianism
According to the standard Eurosceptic narrative, there is a war between traditional English liberties and Napoleonic despotism. We have a limited state and the Common Law. The Europeans have absolute states and politicised justice. Without romanticising the constitutions of the other member states of the European Union, this is a false narrative. So far as the European Union is becoming more despotic, the main pressure comes not from Brussels or Paris or Berlin, but from London.
Increasingly associated with Euroscepticism is the Cultural Marxist hypothesis. According to this, Classical Marxism – that is, the ideology that some of you may be old enough to remember in your own country – fell to pieces in the 1980s. But, rather than give up their position in the face of triumphant liberal democracy, the Marxist intellectual classes simply changed their front. They stopped quoting Marx and Lenin about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, they turned to the writings of the neo-Marxists – Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Herbert Marcuse, Michel Foucault, and so on – and used the alleged evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, lookism, transphobia and much more beside, as their ideology of legitimation for a total state. In short, old-fashioned socialism gave way to political correctness.
There is much truth in this hypothesis. Of course, I would say this: popularising the hypothesis in Britain is another of my achievements – see my book Cultural Revolution, Culture War. But it should not be used as any support of Euroscepticism. The intellectual architects of political correctness were all European; and the European Parliament is filled with members and whole committees eager to impose political correctness at the European level. But its power as a hegemonic ideology has nothing to do with a few dozen politicians on the European mainland. I say once more that the wind is blowing from London – and that wind ultimately is blowing from across the Atlantic.
I am a man of reasonable education. I know several European languages and have lived and travelled much in Europe. But I do not know who is the French Prime Minister or the German President. I do not know the names or faces of the European Commissioners. I barely ever look at newspapers in the European languages I know. I pay very little attention to what people are thinking and doing in the other member states of the European Union. For most other people in my country, this ignorance of European affairs is total. At my daughter’s school, nearly all the other parents think Slovakia used to be part of Yugoslavia – and they would have trouble pointing to the former Yugoslavia on a map. I find it hard to believe that a group of European intellectuals could give my country its hegemonic ideology.
The truth is that, if European in its origins, cultural Marxism, or political correctness, draws all its power in the world from America, and to a lesser extent, from Britain. In saying this, I am elaborating on arguments that I have put myself – but also, and critically, on the arguments put by my friend Ian B on the Libertarian Alliance Blog. Together, and in the company of others I will not presently mention, we are feeling our way to a new analysis of where we stand.
The past four hundred years of history on the English-speaking world can be seen as a contest between puritans and libertines. The latter believe that life is something to be enjoyed, the former that everyone else should be made to feel so guilty that they will have no objection to being pushed around. For its first century, the history of this contest is muddied by the accidental fact that the puritans were broadly in favour of the Ancient Constitution, and the libertines supported an empowered monarchy. But the puritan victory in the English Civil War was followed by ten years of moral totalitarianism – no Christmas, no Maypole dancing, the death penalty for extra-marital sex, and more witch-hunting than at any other time in English history. The puritan defeat in 1660 was the beginning of the classical age of our constitution. With the puritans out of power – and often shipped off to stew in the American colonies – a tolerant and cautious aristocracy presided over an astonishing two centuries of freedom and progress. The puritans never went entirely away. They were always somewhere, whining about sin and quoting the nastier verses from The Bible. But they were unable to shut down the brothels and gin palaces and gambling dens. They were unable to curb the “licentiousness” of the media. Their only success was in running the commercial and industrial revolution that paid for the good times of Georgian and early Victorian England.
Then around the middle of the nineteenth century, the brighter puritans moved their ideology from religion to “progressive” statism. They argued for moral totalitarianism not because God wanted it, but because an expanded state would be good for the health of the people. It was not conservatives who. after about 1860, made laws against pornography and drinking and homosexuality. It was people who called themselves liberals. The first Obscene Publications Act was brought in by a liberal politician. The prohibition of “indecency between men” was brought in by a radical. The Punishment of Incest Act and the Mental Deficiency Act and the regulation of drinking, and all the other “progressive” laws of Edwardian England, were brought in by a Liberal Government against Conservative opposition in the House of Lords.
It was worse in the United States, where the puritans had a greater hold. They started the War on Drugs, and, for a while, actually banned the sale of alcohol.
Then in the 1960s, this second wave of puritanism collapsed in both Britain and America. An entire generation chose longer hair and shorter dresses. The Pill and penicillin helped break down the old restraints on sexual conduct. The laws against pornography and homosexuality were relaxed. The War on Drugs began to collapse. Wars became unpopular. Toleration came back into fashion. Puritanism of any kind became an object of derision.
It was now that the Anglo-American puritans began instinctively to feel round for a new ideology of legitimation. It was now, quite by chance, that Cultural Marxism came to ripeness. For all the intellectual power behind it, Classical Marxism had always been the political equivalent in Britain and America of train spotting. It had no meaningful influence. If a handful of German-Jewish intellectuals were now pulled out of obscurity, it was entirely because what they said about racism and sexism and patriarchy and so forth were exactly what our own puritan classes needed to power their third wave.
If anyone doubts this, just look at what the neo-Marxists believed about economics. They were all traditional socialists. Their main objection to Marxism-Leninism was that it was not socialist enough. Nor were they noticeably concerned about controls on smoking and drinking and sexual behaviour. Their socialism was soon forgotten. Its place was taken by a mass of claims about the need to regulate harmful lifestyles. By the time the generation of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came to power, what we got was traditional puritanism updated for a new century. We got speech codes and controls on drinking and smoking and lifestyle in general, and a police state to make us obey – and a heavily regulated but still broadly capitalist economy. Except there was little talk of God, the new order of things, as it emerged at the turn of the present century, was almost everything the puritans in the age of Charles I could have wanted.
Oh – for largely accidental reasons, homosexuals have so far been one of the privileged groups in this new order. You may not go to prison for calling them hell-bound sodomites. But you will have trouble finding a job if you do. I doubt, however, this will last. An ideology that sees oppressive relationships in most heterosexuality, and that is going mad about the “sexualisation” of children – and that requires the support of ethnic and religious groups who have little time for all-male sex – is unlikely to let so glaring an anomaly continue. Homosexuals are likely to be tolerated only so far as they get married to each other and stop quite so obviously having a good time.
The European Union as Constitutional Safeguard
This digression being made, I return to the European Union. Where the new totalitarianism is concerned, it has no primary function. This new totalitarianism is entirely bound up with the history of the English-speaking world. I go further. I say that British membership of the European Union is an actual impediment to the growth of despotism in Britain. I will repeat that the European Union is not in itself a good thing. It is a cartel of ruling classes, and none of these is interested in the welfare of ordinary people. But the ideal of the European Union is one big vacuum cleaner factory – preferably owned by the brother-in-law of a national President or a European Commissioner. It is not really interested in the things that obsess the Anglo-American ruling classes.
I will elaborate. Here, in Slovakia, the ruling class is notable for a certain lack of transparency in its financial dealings. Anyone who digs too hard into these matters will get into trouble of one kind or another. But the ruling class is not that worried about smoking or drinking. There are still inside areas where people can light up a cigarette. You can buy alcohol in petrol stations. There seem to be few predatory social workers, always on the lookout for excuses to steal children from their parents. You may not have noticed, but, while Slovak politicians do not noticeably fawn over homosexuals, and put people in prison for laughing at them, Slovakia is one of the main international production centres for gay pornography. Run by the libertarian George Duroy, Bel Ami films is about the most famous gay video production company on the planet. Its models start their careers somewhat under the age of 21. Two of the most famous models, Dolph and Roger Lambert, are cousins. Two other models are claimed to be twin brothers. When they are filmed having sex, I do not think the studio is raided by the police. There is no equivalent here of The Daily Mail or the Sun – ready to howl at the moon for censorship laws. I am not saying that Slovakia is a libertarian paradise. But it does seem to me that the Slovak ruling class has other concerns beside the imposition of a cultural Marxist police state.
This seems to be the case in most of the other member states of the European Union. And the benefit for Britain is that, since the European Union is a cartel of ruling classes, many restrictive laws need to be brought in with the agreement of the other ruling classes. You cannot cleanse the Internet and the airwaves of “violent” pornography, when the Dutch and Germans have no interest in cooperating. You cannot have a minimum price for alcohol and plain packaging for cigarettes, when the Slovaks and Italians disagree. There are political limits to how many rulings of the European Court of Justice can be overturned by Act of Parliament.
The British Constitution has been shredded. There are no native safeguards of the liberties we retain. The only safeguard we have is the need for many totalitarian laws to be negotiated with other ruling classes, not all of them filled with certifiable lunatics. On this analysis, the main threat to liberty represented by British membership of the European Union is that the other member states are in danger of being cajoled from London into making slaves of their citizens.
A Challenge to the Eurosceptics
I want much more freedom for my country than is allowed by continued British membership of the European Union. For that reason, if I were to come to power tomorrow in London, one of my first acts would be to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, and all subsequent amendments. But I shall not come to power, tomorrow or any other time. The challenge I make, therefore, to the Eurosceptic politicians in my country is to demand to be told what specific policies they have for preventing Britain from becoming a totalitarian nightmare if they get their way. I and other people like me want to live in an independent country. More than that, however, we want to live in a free country.
So far, we have supported the UK Independence Party because its leader, Nigel Farage, is a sort of libertarian, and because voting UKIP is an easy way of annoying the ruling class. But we are one year now from a general election in which UKIP hopes to win seats in Parliament. We may be three years from a referendum in which UKIP will probably lead the No campaign. It is time for specific assurances that an independent Britain outside the European Union will not simply be a country made safe for third wave puritanism.
If, in this speech, given in the capital of another European Union country, I can help begin a debate on this critical issue, I shall more than usually, have been in the debt of INESS and my Slovak audience.