In so much of the debate on the EU – and now on the debate on the Article 50 bill – I have been repeatedly told that we have voted, we have decided and so that there should be – can be – no further argument. Our future is set and nobody should tell us otherwise.
A similar idea during the referendum campaign itself was that nobody should force us to do things that we don’t agree with. OK, so why are Scotland, Northern Ireland, Cambridge, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and London all being forced to leave the EU? They don’t want to go.
Ah, I’ve been told, obviously, it’s us as is a country, as a nation. We should decide. Well, that’s pretty damn insulting to the Scots, Irish and Welsh! The people who say this talk about Britain as if nothing else matters (in fact I had one person describe Scotland as a mere county!). That’s probably because – to them – nothing else does.
But this all raises a very important question. Who is the “we” that people are talking about when they say we shouldn’t be told what to do or that we should decide. And why do they believe that their specific definition of us – that of their definition of a nation – have any extra weight over any other?
One thing that you will hear a lot in these debates is that the nation is the natural and only sovereign body. I’m afraid that is total nonsense. Quite apart from the arbitrary nature of that declaration, it doesn’t stand up to any form of historical analysis. Certainly nations have become the most common political unit; but that is a very recent phenomena. In fact it was the rarity before the modern age (the 18th century is when that really started to change).
But people do insist – oblivious to the actual history – and justify this talk of the natural sovereign body with talk about linguistic, cultural and even racial consistency – with those common bonds making the “nation”. Of course, that does give rise to difficulties such as with the Belgians; the Welsh, the Bretons; or Russian speaking Latvians etc. Often these are airily dismissed as minorities and that borders should be redrawn to accommodate. But if that was the only true definition of a nation, why isn’t Canada part of the USA? Why did the British settlers in America break away to forge a new nation in the first place? Or how did England come about since it was a fusion of two distinct cultures and languages: Old Anglo-Saxon and Danish. And how can anyone explain Switzerland?!
Nations are basically historically accidents – and often the linguistic pattern then evolves from that (original English is a fusion of the languages of its two component parts – in fact that’s one of the reasons for its flexibility). We’ve done a lot together as nations, certainly – and that forms a bond – but they’re not the absolute end of the debate, the pinnacle of human existence. They are, however, important and in recognition of this, the EU was, is, and always will be, a union of nations.
I’ve heard many repeated claims that the nation is sovereign and that it is the only natural body that can be sovereign. This is arrogant rubbish. It is the mantra of nationalists who will not – or cannot – think beyond their most favoured concept. It’s lazy thinking; so let’s take it apart.
Sovereignty is defined as “supreme power or authority”. However, in all of human society there is only one supreme power, only one source of all authority – individuals. Every single one of us has a choice – every day in every action we do; and everything else in our civilisation comes from those individual choices. We choose to live in society and so choose to accept its rules. We could go and try and live outside it – as original colonists tried to – but they then form their own society which has its own rules which people conform too. Some moved on again; but it always produces new societies with their own rules. Eventually, you have to agree to some.
Do we really have a choice? Don’t we have to follow laws? No, you don’t have to – and some people don’t – but there are consequences of that decision and so most of us do. Even social conventions don’t have to be followed; but if you don’t, there are consequences to your relationships. Some are happy about that, some are not. You make your choice. But the key point is that every rule in any society ultimately comes from the people in it. And the idea that there is a society – that there is any distinct block of people that can be called “us” – is a construct of our own minds. “We” exist because “we” believe that we do.
Part of the choices that we make is to allow governments to form and rule; and it is a choice. If an entire population made the choice to collectively rise up and resist, a government or even a whole political system can fall. It rarely happens as there’s a cost – and in repressive societies, that cost can be far more than we would face in democracies.
So why have governments formed at national level? Pure accident. If one thinks about it logically, we have only given up our total freedom to do absolutely anything we want (and that includes steal and murder) in order to reap the benefits of society (i.e. no one else is allowed to steal or murder us). Therefore, the only logical position of government is at the level which produces the most benefit to the people concerned. Therefore, if we’re debating the local hospital – do locally; if deciding a European wide regulation so businesses can sell to all Europe with one design – do at the European level; if discussing an educational programme – hold at the national level.
At all levels, the same thing has happened. Each of us has given up our individual sovereignty to get benefits. That is the origin of all power and all authority. Claiming one particular level is the only legitimate source is as rational as claiming that all power and authority comes from a special appointment by God. Certainly people have claimed that in the past – and some may still believe it – but most of us have moved on and dismiss that for the scam it was.
There is no special level – it’s all about the people. And if any specific group (Britain, London, my home town!) all suddenly decided that they that they had had enough of a particular structure, they could all exercise their sovereignty together; and say we’re leaving (which is pretty much a summary of the American Declaration of Independence). There may well be issues and difficulties (my home town would struggle with access to international trade for example); but if all the people were united, they could do it.
And so it’s been with the EU. We have always had “Sovereignty” and we could have always just walked away. We didn’t, though, because of the benefits we had. So what matters isn’t the level a power is exercised at. What matters is the democratic, accountable control of that power.
Too many people have referred and keep referring to democracy as if it means that the majority can do absolutely anything that it wants. It doesn’t meant that; and all smaller groups need to be protected from this idea. But there is a fundamental reason why it does not mean that which can be expressed as the simple question: majority of what?
Majority of this area we are all in is the common answer (usually the nation). OK; but what about my region, what if most of us disagree? We’re a majority in that area. Take it down further and we can be in and out of the majority all the way down until you are an individual. And that’s the point. That is why sovereignty starts and stops with individuals. Any group we choose to be a part of takes its sovereignty – and thus the right to claim a group and thus a majority – from that consent. If the rule of that majority is to persecute, abuse, or kill the minority, that consent to be part of that group has gone.
So democracy is more than just the tyranny of the majority. And when that happens, you can see why areas or regions say that they would be better off on their own where they can create a different majority. But we are social creatures and we live in groups and so we do need to agree how to live together – and democratic rule has proven far better than the alternatives.
The key to living under such a rule though is that, sometimes, you don’t get what you want. Sometimes, you make your case, you don’t win and you have to accept that. This is true. For one person to be able to say I disagree and so you can’t do it without my permission is the very opposite to democracy. Absolute vetoes have no place in a democratic structure. Which is why I keep being amazed by the Leavers – those very people who say “You Lost – Get over it” – who say things cannot be democratic in the EU unless there are vetoes. Be warned though, they get upset if you point out this logical inconsistency.
Every individual’s identity is many layered. Our position in our family, our education, our work, where we live – all of them define us. Which of those should be the basis of political organisation though? Throughout history, virtually all have been tried. In the modern world with geographically distinct states, only those that can cover a particular area have lasted; but those other ideas still exist.
But even being limited to geography, our identity is many layered and political authority can be expressed at any one of those layers. No single identity can claim all authority – though that’s what nationalists do. They arrogantly claim that the level that they believe in is the only level that is valid. They claim that every other level is somehow wrong; but give no explanation or justification to that because they cannot. It’s an emotion – a passionate grasping at what is familiar just because it has been familiar to them. But it is not unique. It is not special. It is one of many.
A long time ago, I used to play rugby for my school. I wasn’t bad and so I was selected to go to the country trials with another player from my team. I didn’t get anywhere; but that wasn’t the experience that stuck with me from that day.
We all arrived at the changing rooms from many different schools – some arch rivals – and we changed in our little groups. It was silent, everyone watching the others a little suspiciously. Not the best atmosphere; but perhaps understandable. And then we went out on the pitch.
We were put into teams and we played for a couple of hours. Teams were swapped and changed around with players being tried in different positions – all under the watchful eyes of the selectors. And then we went back to the changing rooms (decisions came over the following few days – though not positively to me). But the atmosphere afterwards was totally different.
It was raucous, friendly, more than friendly in fact. There was camaraderie. Regardless of what happened now, we’d all got through it, we’d all had a laugh (we liked the game or we wouldn’t have been there) and we felt like we were a team. We relived incidents that had happened on the pitch, joked with people we barely knew before; and the defensive school groups of before were largely forgotten.
We were now part of the county. Just as proud of our schools as we had been before; but we saw we could also be part of something else. We had a shared interest, shared skills and frankly spotty teenagers are pretty much the same the world over. Now we could see that and we lived it.
This was demosism. A sense of identity forged from the area we came from and what we had experienced together; but it functions at every different level. My identity was my school, my town, my county. If I had been good enough and gone on, my identity would have been a professional rugby team – arch rivals to others and yet whose players can all come together to play for England. This would be impossible if our identity wasn’t a complex many layered thing. That is something we should rejoice in, cherish; and resist any attempts by others who say you must belong to one group above all others, be with us or against us, my country right or wrong.
Only we as individuals are sovereign. We allow organisations and authorities to use that sovereignty for the common good; and we agree to abide by the resolutions agreed democratically by that group. That doesn’t mean that we all have vetoes but nor does it mean the majority can just do what it wants and ignore, or even persecute, the rest of the community.
Our identity is a many layered complex thing. Part of this is national, but it’s equally as much from our town, our county or country; even our family and which street we live in – all add to our identity. We feel an affiliation – a loyalty – to all of these levels. And unless you block your mind to considering other levels, there is no reason to restrict governance to just one.
Nations are part of the picture; but they are not the only “us” that exists. Us can mean many many different things so people should be very very careful before claiming that “we” are doing anything or that “we” have spoken. In fact, I would say probably the opposite is true. Any time any government claims that it is speaking for everyone, you can almost guarantee that it isn’t.