Populism and the European Union

Democracy is dangerous. Plato thought it the worst possible form of government. Decisions would, he thought, be made by those best able to sway the mob, rather than by those with greatest wisdom. After the last few weeks of the EU referendum campaign, many will concede he had a point. Modern day commentators who moan about the influence of the tabloid press are misdirecting their criticism. The overwhelming responsibility for how votes are cast lies with those who cast them. Though they feel they cannot say it, democracy should be the real focus of their disapproval.


The American founding fathers knew the dangers of majority rule well. It was for this reason that the US Constitution is structured in such a way as to try and create a number of checks and balances within the system: a bicameral legislature with each chamber elected on a different basis, a separate executive, civil rights embedded in a hard to change constitution guarded by an independent judiciary, and powerful individual states.


One check against populism in the United Kingdom is the European Union.  It stops Member States from doing popular, but foolish, things. In this regard it is a politically centrist enterprise. I will give fours examples of populist policies that may be unwise, two from the right and two from the left. What I shall say about them will be necessarily brief, and I realise that there is much more indeed that can be said for and against each of them. That is not the point of this post.



Does it make sense to prevent someone living in Coventry from working in Birmingham? A Scotsman from working in Wales? An Irishman from working in England? A Pole from working in the United Kingdom?


Restricting free movement of persons is popular with some, but makes little economic sense. We all of us benefit in the long run from there being no barriers to our working in the neighbouring village, town, and country. As barriers to free movement of people are withdrawn, there will be losers from this process. Unfortunately, the large overall benefit to people generally is diffuse, whist the harm to those adversely affected may be felt acutely. Whenever something goes wrong either in our own lives or in society, it is also tempting to blame the ‘other’. So, populist politicians of the right often seek to restrict immigration.


The EU stops politicians from doing this insofar as free movement within the EU is concerned. Populism is constrained.


Workers Rights, Environmental Protection and Regulation

Policy makers often face prisoners’ dilemma problems. If country A undercuts country B’s workers’ rights (or taxes, or environmental protection etc) it may benefit as businesses will move to country A where operating costs are consequently lower. This creates an incentive for country B (and C, D, E) to go still further. Beggar thy neighbour policies of this kind can best be combated through collective action. Form a club, with rewards, under which such undercutting is not possible. Members of the club should always be mindful of the benefits this may give non-members in certain markets, but overall, overtime all will be better off if the club is sufficiently large.  This is central to the purpose of the European Union.


Protecting Businesses

When jobs are to be lost in an industry that is ‘strategic’ some will call for intervention to save it. A recent example was the possible closure of the Port Talbot Steel Works by its Indian owners Tata. Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly called for government intervention to save the works, by, for example, the government buying British steel on preferred terms. Similar nationalist sentiments are often expressed when a foreign buyer seeks to takeover a major British company. Even where there are independent bodies at national level to supervise takeovers, there may be enormous political pressure brought to bear to give a ‘home’ decision.


Protectionist measures like this harm everyone overtime. If the Chinese wish to sell us steel at a price lower than we can produce it for, lucky us. We (by which I mean our overall collective interests) have no more strategic interest in the production of steel than of onions. Again however, the benefits from not adopting protectionist policies are diffuse, whilst the pain for those adversely affected may be serious. The EU enables the politicians of Member States to do what they know (or should know) is in the longterm interests of all by tying their hands through the rules of the club.


Free Trade

The benefits of the North American Free Trade Association far outweigh the costs. Trade between Mexico and the United States has exploded over the last twenty years, much to the benefit of both. If an equivalent deal could be struck (the TTIP) between North America and Europe, the benefits would be potentially enormous.


Again, there are losers from free trade. It was no surprise that President Hollande expressed the view that France would say ‘non’ to any deal. If such a deal with great overall benefits can be struck by the EU, the objections of politicians of particular states who are constrained by particular interest groups may be overcome.


Centrism and the United Kingdom

One similarity of the 1975 and 2016 referendums is that it is the political centre (then Heath, Jenkins, and Thorpe, now Cameron, Cooper and, I suppose, Farron) who favoured membership of the EEC (now the EU), whilst it was and is the populists of the left (Tony Benn) and right (Enoch Powell) who oppose it. What has changed is the centre of political gravity of the UK. Back then, the Tory party overwhelmingly backed membership, as they saw it as a bulwark against socialism. Today, as that fear has receded, Labour is now far more the party of Remain, citing as a reason the damage a right wing government could do outside. That the voices of the left in favour of Leave are so muted is probably a product of a populist member of the left as leader of the Labour party who, constrained by collective responsibility, has been required to campaign for Remain. Those loyal to him have been reluctant to rock the boat. The downside has proven to be a lacklustre campaign by Labour as the leader and the shadow Chancellor are, at best, ambivalent about the EU Project.


The largest difference between now and the 1975 referendum is immigration. Even Powell made nothing of this 40 years ago, as there was no prospect of any imminent influx of Dutch and German builders into the UK of the 1970s.


Can the centrists win again? Possibly the largest difference between the UK and continental European countries is that the UK has not fallen into the hands of populists. The need for restraints is as a result less widely understood. For founding member states, such as Germany and Italy, this was central to their reasons for the European project. For some Member States, such as Greece and Spain, the memory of dictatorship is much more recent, whilst for others, such as Poland or the Czech Republic, the European Union has offered a secure basis for the transition from Communism. Even France is on its fifth attempt at a republican system of government. The dull centrist politics of the UK is unusual, and so we do not perceive the need for the safeguard.


At one time the United Kingdom’s constitution did possess checks and balances that inhibited popular rule. These were of a kind that nobody would wish to see return.In the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, the hereditary House of Lords and the Monarchy provided different centres of power from the elected Commons. Since, at the latest, World War II this has not been the case. Today the checks in place are our membership of the European Union and the constraints imposed by the European Convention on Human Rights and its domestic law incorporation by the Human Rights Act. Much of the opposition to both comes from the same people.


For decades after the war, a kind of consensus politics, Buttskillism, dominated public life. The United Kingdom was, at that time, a relatively homogenous society. With memories of the war still fresh there was a degree of deference towards the officer class of Attlee, Macmillan, and Heath. This masked the need for balances within the political system. This absence is especially dangerous in a first past the post electoral system where a majority of seats is usually won with a plurality of votes.


That world of 40 years ago has disappeared. Today, for many reasons, we live in a far more pluralist society than we once did. The post-war consensus is long gone. Populism is on the rise. This takes the form of sectionalism in Scotland and, to a lesser degree, Wales. They offer the same kind of analysis, blaming the authority at the centre for local ills, as do those who wish to leave the European Union. The current leadership of the Labour party, with its break from centrism was unimaginable 15 years ago.


In the 1970s the press uniformly favoured the UK remaining within the EEC. Today a majority by sales favour leaving the EU. It is impossible for modern day MPs many of whose working life has been largely confined to the role of special advisors (SpAds), to convey as much authority as in 1975  Jenkins, Healey, Heath or Whitelaw did, who had all served in the War. For one reason or another few current front rank politicians are as impressive as Shirley Williams (Remain) or Barbara Castle (Leave). In a world of beige politicians to whom we do not defer, the populist can thrive,


As an inevitably remote constraint on populism, the European Union has for decades been an easy target for politicians of all parties to use to blame for inaction. “We cannot do anything about [Issue X] because of the European Union, blame it not me.” The European Project has itself been carried forward with occasional hubris, as exemplified by the general misfortune that is the euro, undermining the aura of success that it once had. As a result, it is much harder today for the centre to hold than it was in the 1970s. The successors of Powell and Benn may this time win. For myself, and fully aware of the flaws of the European Union, my judgement is that it is important that we Remain. We must be protected from ourselves.


2 thoughts on “Populism and the European Union

  1. As you piece doesn’t constitute a formal legal judgment, shouldn’t the spelling of the word in your final paragraph be ‘judgement’?

    • Well, the Oxford English Dictionary for one has “judgement” and “judgment” merely as alternative spellings of the same word.

      It does note “In British use conventionally written ‘judgment’ in … legal senses, compounds, etc.”, but does not conversely limit this spelling to those senses alone. A large number of usage examples from Middle English to the 20th century show the two spellings as being used pretty much interchangeably.

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