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Sunday, January 29, 2017

What's a Tory to do? The challenge of using a vote you don't think you should have.

I have four months to decide what to do with my vote for the next leader of the Conservative Party.

There are fourteen candidates to choose from at last count. Half of them I’d never heard of before they entered the race and I started getting emails from them. I won’t name them for fear of giving them undeserved publicity.

Those I had heard of, who held office when Stephen Harper was Prime Minister, would perhaps do, but their respective efforts to persuade me that she or he would be best, and sometimes that another would be poor, have not enlightened me.

You can see their calculated posturing, trying to distinguish themselves with new ideas, which Conservatives shouldn’t have, or claiming that they will return the Party to its old principles, which none should claim ownership of.

A consequence of the ridiculous year and a half campaign is that the best the Conservatives have to offer are spending their time mouthing evasive platitudes and fatuous hyperboles, checking themselves from speaking frankly for fear of losing votes, trying to distinguish themselves from each other across the country when they should be mounting a coherent opposition in Ottawa.

And preening themselves, claiming a special empathy with the voters, unique talents from their experience, and generally displaying a corrupting immodesty.

Several candidates seem to be staunch social conservatives, with whom I sympathise. But the idea that they can advance their cause by leading the Conservative Party without persuading the voters generally to see things as they do is stupid. And stupidity is a moral failing. And how staunch their social conservatism would prove when the next election loomed we cannot know. Stephen Harper was supposed to be a frightening social conservative and only lifted a finger to wag it at Tories concerned about abortion or gay marriage.

Then there is Kevin O’Leary. I never saw him in any of the hundreds of hours I spent in Conservative meetings or campaigns. All he brings to the contest is celebrity. Worse, celebrity bought with our tax dollars on the CBC. His only conservatism is the caricature conservatism of the brash entrepreneur. He may not be Donald Trump, as he insists, but the parallels are strong and his is noisome enough.

As with Trump in the States, the media have fallen for him. Before he announced he was running he had received more coverage than any of the other candidates and now that he is coverage has spiked. His impertinence in running shows him unfit.

Count me ‘Never O’Leary.’ If I can figure out a way to stop him I’ll use my vote that way.

But I don’t have a vote so much as a chance to express my preferences. On May 27 party members are to fill in a preferential ballot listing their preference from 1 to perhaps 13. I have written elsewhere on the irrationality of preferential voting. But the risk is that the ultimate winner may be the one who was many peoples’ sixth choice because they knew nothing against her or had heard of him. Without knowing how my fellow Conservatives may vote down to their sixth preference at least I can’t know how to deploy my preferences to assure O’Leary won’t win.

I was actually polled a couple of weeks ago, in a poll that offered only 8 choices and I chose 9, ‘Don’t know.’ But we really have no idea how the candidates are doing. So I could randomly pick several ‘anyone but O’Learys’ and find that had I put X 5th and Y 6th instead of the other way round I could have helped stop O’Leary.

All of which is to make the point that I shouldn’t have a vote at all. The Conservative MPs in Ottawa should choose their leader. They know the candidates. It is they the leader will lead. They will win or lose in 2019 on the choice.

Liberals may be pleased by the choice Liberal ‘supporters’ made in choosing Justin Trudeau in 2013. But very many Republicans are dismayed at the choice of Donald Trump as their candidate for President by a shambolic process and even Conservatives in Britain are dismayed at the choice and confirmation of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of their Labour Party by ‘grassroots’ there.

In Britain Conservative party members disastrously chose Ian Duncan Smith to lead their party in 2001. Two years later Conservative MPs were able to oust him. It took three months to choose him but he was replaced in a matter of days.

But whomever Conservatives choose on May 27 we’ll likely be stuck with. Even had the provisions of Michael Chong’s much touted ‘Reform Act’ saying MPs can trigger a review of their party’s leader been adopted by the Conservative caucus at the opening of Parliament, and I doubt and cannot find that it was, the prospect of having to spend a year finding a new leader would make the new leader’s position impregnable.

And so Justin Trudeau’s position may be impregnable. Because the MPs we elect can’t choose the man or woman most likely to defeat him.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Andrew Coyne descends to caricature in attacking opponents of Electoral Reform

Andrew Coyne alleges that opponents of proportional representation, among whom he kindly singles me out, ‘describe life under proportional representation in terms that bear no resemblance to any actual example of it,….’ He writes that the claim of supporters of what PR’s advocates sneeringly call ‘First Past the Post’ voting, the way we vote now, that it ‘produces stable majority governments, broad national parties, and contestable politics, owing to the unrivalled ease with which the public can “throw the bums out.” is a caricature.’

It is Coyne who offers a caricature, of the arguments of the supporters of FPTP. We do not say that PR never produces stable majority governments or broad national parties or that under PR bums are never thrown out. We say that PR makes all that very difficult and it seldom happens.

Coyne has evidently bulled up on European elections under PR to contest my report that ‘In the fifty years after 1945 in 103 elections in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland the major governing party was only thrown from office six times.’ He doesn’t deny that is true. He winkles out a handful of suspect counterexamples.

His first example is Norway where he says that the citizens have thrown the bums out nine times since 1945. He neglects to mention, perhaps didn’t check, that six of those times it was not the citizens at elections but a realignment of parties in the Storting that changed the government.

Examples can be multiplied. Spain after Franco presents a poignant example. For much of that time Spain had majority governments because of the ascendancy of the conservative and socialist parties and wrinkles in its PR that allowed the socialists to win 52 per cent of the seats in the Cortes with 44 per cent of the vote in 1986. But the December 2015 election produced a fractured Cortes. After six months of negotiations another election was called. Another fractured Cortes. For almost 260 now days Spain has been under a ‘caretaker’ government.

Perhaps it doesn’t much matter. Several European countries have been for quite some considerable length of time under caretaker or ‘technocrat’ governments. But I assume that the premise of the discussion is that governments matter and that it matters that the voters should decide who governs them.

Coyne concedes that there have been only four ‘changes of power’ in Germany. But again neglects to mention that only once in the 67 year history of the German Federal Republic have the governing parties been replaced as a result of an election. In 1998 the Christian Democrat/Free Democrat coalition was replaced by a Social Democrat/Green coalition. The other changes were when grand coalitions of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats were formed, rejecting the apparent choice voters were offered at the election, or broken up, leaving half the bums in power, and when the Free Democrats, a small party, shifted their support and exercised the disproportionate power PR gives small parties.

Coyne accuses us of amnesia for forgetting that nine of the last twenty elections in Canada have produced minority governments. My memory actually goes back farther to Canada’s first minority government from 1921 to 1925, which went swimmingly as the second party, the Progressives, refused to form the opposition and Mackenzie King governed without difficulty. And we all remember the Pearson minority governments, which, whatever you think of them, were highly productive, and stable. Pearson called an election in 1965 in an unsuccessful attempt to get a majority. And our minority governments are responsible. We know whom to blame if they go badly and whom to credit if they go well. Coalitions under PR cannot be held responsible. They don’t stand for election. A bunch of parties stand for election and how they may coalesce after the election is a great unknown.

It is an odd thing for a proponent of PR to complain of minority governments. As most often no party has a majority under PR and a coalition the voters never got to vote on is formed.

But Coyne’s quarrel with minority government in Canada is that parties have an incentive to precipitate an election that they might win. He writes of what he calls ‘the high degree of leverage characteristic of FPTP.’ By which he means the leverage the voters have. Their ability to decide who governs. ‘Under PR, by contrast, there is no such leverage, and no such incentive.’ You bet. Voters can shuffle about between parties but it makes little difference. So parties are left to shuffle about amongst themselves without elections.

Deciding between electoral systems requires looking into the principles on which they are based and the details of how they work. I have done that in the paper to which Coyne refers. Only FPTP makes sense and allows voters to decide who will represent them and who will govern them. All the alternatives are misconceived efforts to do better than best. The common problems that opponents of electoral reform fairly point out result directly from the misconceptions of electoral reform. Some times countries manage despite PR. And, yes, some times countries get in a muddle with FPTP. But with FPTP countries can get out of their muddles, while with PR countries can become permanently stuck.

Electoral reform gets very technical. The media have so far spared you the details. You can skip all of it if you prefer and stick up for the way we vote now. Which brought you the Trudeau government, of which, by the latest polls, two thirds of you approve. Despite, not because of, its commitment to preventing you from deciding whether to keep it or throw it out in future elections.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Justin obliges the Supreme Court appointments squawkers without thinking

Pierre Trudeau appointed ten justices to the Supreme Court of Canada and made two of them Chief Justice.

He did it the old fashioned way. There was no ‘process’ and no ‘transparency.’ He just announced a name. But there was 100% accountability. If you didn’t like the appointments, you knew whom to blame.

His son says this won’t do. He writes in The Globe and Mail, which apparently serves him as his official journal, that ‘the process used to appoint Supreme Court justices is opaque, outdated, and in need of an overhaul.’

What has happened to make Pierre Trudeau’s way of appointing judges ‘outdated’ and so on?

In the last three decades an incoherent crescendo of squawking from law professors and politics professors and politicians who affect to be high minded and media pundits has demanded that what they insist on calling a ‘secret process’ when, as with all other practices for filling positions except elections, it is simply confidential, must be changed. To what end and how they do not agree. But the ever obliging, never thinking, Justin Trudeau has decided to give them everything they want.

A paradox of the squawk is the general agreement that the justices we have as result of the ‘outdated’ process are about the best justices there ever were anywhere, led by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, whom Trudeau quotes.

A seven strong Independent Advisory Board will come up with a short list of names to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Thomas Cromwell. The Board is instructed in bureaucratic flannel to find saintly geniuses, of whom there are none in Canada, and set out in the same bureaucratic flannel how it determined that its choices qualify. They report to the Prime Minister and how much of their reasoning will be made public is unclear. Though The Globe can be relied on to winkle out any ‘secrets.’

The process is based on applications. Anyone who would apply to be a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada would show disqualifying conceit and ambition. ‘Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!’ Isaiah 5:21

But the Board is to ‘actively seek out qualified candidates and encourage them to apply.’ Whether that means that they are to send out a circular to everyone legally qualified, which, oddly, includes me, though I haven’t practiced law for fifteen years and am not a member of the Law Society, is unclear. If it means that they are to solicit applications from distinguished judges and eminent counsel, it means those will not be asked whether they are willing to serve, but whether they are willing to demean themselves but pitching their qualifications to the Board.

The Board is made up of the usual suspect ‘non-partisan’ worthies. We had not heard of the Right Honourable Kim Campbell for many years, but one can see the non-partisan optics. Some, like Jeff Hirsch, President of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, are practically ex-officio. Others, like Susan Ursel, winner of the Canadian Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference Hero Award in 2011, are ideological operators.

But those who agree to serve on the Board as accredited worthies show themselves unfit to advise on who should be our next Supreme Court justice. They have accepted ‘power without responsibility.’

Justin can’t give quite everything some of the squawkers want. John Robson and opposition MPs complain that Parliament won’t get to vote on the appointment. But, as they should know, the power of appointment under the Constitution lies with the the Governor General, who will act on the advice of the Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister’s father was effectively the ‘seal of the framers,’ the Constitution can’t be changed.

MPs will hear from Campbell and the Minister of Justice how what is, wrongly, being called the ‘nominee’ was chosen and quiz her or him under the tutelage of a law professor. Will they be told how unsuccessful applicants fell short of the ideal? That should do wonders for the administration of justice.

Trudeau writes ‘The appointment of a Supreme Court justice is one of the most important decisions a prime minister makes. It is time we made that decision together.’ But we are not, as we should not be, going to make the decision together. Trudeau is farming out the decision, not to make it accountable, but to make himself unaccountable for any dud they may come up with. As with so much of modern rational administration and politics it doesn’t matter what the result is so long as you follow the correct ‘process.’

The best prospects for the Court will be put off by the process. Those who submit to it will be tainted by it. It will lower the quality of the judges who serve on the Supreme Court of Canada, while for a time enhancing their corrupting prestige.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

David Cameron, the referendum and the decay of democracy

David Cameron’s hasty departure from 10 Downing Street was marked by a merry last Prime Minister’s Questions and Cameron humming a cheery little tune. There was talk of his ‘legacy,’ besides the Brexit mess that was the reason for his departure.

At the same time there was commentary on the theme that referendums, which seem to many perfect democracy, are undemocratic. Just giving the voters what they want won’t do. Politicians must ‘deliberate and come to an informed decision’ and stand or fall on it.

The Brexit referendum was a logical step in Cameron’s political career, and it is that career that those interested in the workings of democracy should be reflecting on rather than the merits of referendums, which pundits have no objection to when the voters do as they are told.

Cameron was the almost perfect type of the modern politician for whom politics is all about winning elections and government is just stuff you have to do if you win them, always with an eye to winning the next.

He was chosen leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, aged just 39 and only four years an MP, as the man who could win elections, which his three predecessors evidently could not.

Everything he did could be fully explained as calculated to win and retain votes. He passed his first test in winning the 2010 election, though many might have thought he failed in not winning a majority against Labour, tired after thirteen years in office and led by the far from popular Gordon Brown. But for Cameron the need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats may have been no disappointment. It protected him from Conservatives who wanted a conservative government. And, at the LibDems’ insistence, Parliament was rigged by fixed election date legislation to assure that the coalition would survive and he could enjoy being Prime Minister for five years with happy LibDem ministers.

For forty years the Conservative Party was torn by divisions between those who thought the European Union and its predecessors were good and the inevitable future and those who were sceptical and opposed to the ever increasing power of the European Commission in Brussels. Cameron and his predecessors managed to stifle the Eurosceptics, always a minority of Conservative MPs, though not of Conservative Party members and voters. But the effective silencing of Conservative Eurosceptics discouraged conservative voters and led to the rise of UKIP, which, under the lively leadership of Nigel Farage, saw its popular vote rise to 12.6% in the 2015 election.

For Cameron, Brexit was simply an issue of votes. Most, though by no means all, of UKIP’s voters would have been Conservative voters in earlier elections. Purely to staunch the loss of Conservative votes to UKIP, Cameron promised in 2013 that there would be a referendum on the EU if the Conservatives won the 2015 election. To the Eurosceptics in his base Cameron said ‘If the voters want Brexit, they can have it.’ assuming that in the face of the establishment consensus that the EU was a good thing the voters would vote to Remain. And also, it is speculated, assuming that he wouldn’t win a majority and the LibDems, perfervidly pro-EU, would prevent him from keeping his promise.

But UKIP took a serious number of votes from the Labour Party under its feeble leader Ed Miliband and the LibDems’ vote collapsed to less than UKIP’s and Cameron won an unexpected majority and felt bound to go ahead with the referendum.

Had Cameron been interested in government rather than votes, he could have seen that the EU is less than perfect and applied himself to reforming it, thus placating Conservative Eurosceptics and undermining UKIP. It was a project in which he would have found many allies amongst other EU members. But Cameron, like most politicians now, didn’t think about government. He took his thinking from the consensus of bien pensants whose horror at Brexit has been reflected in the media around the world. For them, those opposed to Brussels, were, as a Conservative Party chairman was reported to have said, “Swivel-eyed loons.”

Cameron wasn’t against Brexit because he thought the EU was good. He was against Brexit because he thought he couldn’t win an election on a Eurosceptic platform. On that assessment he assumed that Remain would win.

Because he had never thought about what may be good and what may be bad about the EU his campaign for Remain was a mindless fear campaign, saying practically that Britain couldn’t leave the EU, and possibly backfiring.

It might seem that the modern politician, shopping for votes, is the triumph of democracy. And that asking the voters what to do in a referendum shows them at their best. But the only way for democracy to work is for politicians to think about government and stand for what they think and win because they have thought well and persuaded people to agree with them. When politicians don’t think about government but only about votes, democracy decays.

That’s what’s happening now. The referendum was only a symptom.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Tony Blair as he appeared in 2004 - The Cool Son Thatcher Never Had

Philip Stephens' Tony Blair is expressly addressed to Americans. He wants to answer their question: "Who was this British Prime Minister who was ready to risk his own political career to go to war alongside President George W. Bush?".

Canadian readers are probably more aware of British politics than Stephens' intended readers. We understand parliamentary government. It is disconcerting to find that New Democrats refers to Bill Clinton and his supporters. Nonetheless Stephens' book, more extended magazine profile than full biography, is a good brief account of Tony Blair's life and career to date.

Blair's rise to the leadership of the Labour Party seems both effortless and unaccountable. From a middle class family, his father a Tory, at Oxford he showed little interest in politics giving his spare time to lame efforts at playing the guitar and goofy ventures in managing bands. After Oxford Blair found a place in the law chambers of Derry Irvine, until recently Blair's Lord Chancellor. Irvine did a lot of work for unions and was well connected with Labour Party barons. Blair joined the Labour Party. It must have seemed the right thing to do. But Stephens reports no signs that Blair had any deep political convictions or even burning ambition.

Young Blair's most noted step was to be confirmed as an Anglican in 1975.  His "Christian faith" is made much of by Stephens but it remains vague and seems to come down to a conviction that he is called to "do what is right". Stephens says he is not writing hagiography but he is highly sympathetic to Blair. He admits that Blair can sound preachy and sanctimonious but he takes Blair's relentless assurances that he sincerely believes he is doing what is right at face value.

In 1983, like an 18th century lord handing out a rotten borough, Irvine arranged for Blair to run in a Labour safe seat. At Westminster Blair spoke for various left-wing positions that he would jettison in the 1990's but his chief interest was in making Labour electable. Much work in taming left-wing factions and reducing union domination of the party was done by Blair's predecessors as leader while Blair became an opposition star in a party of union hacks and loony leftists.

When Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in early 1994 Blair and Gordon Brown, a dour but bright Scot who serves as Blair's Chancellor of the Exchequer, were the contenders to succeed him. At a fabled dinner at the Granita restaurant in trendy Islington, Brown agreed not to run for the leadership. Whether, as has been widely reported, Blair agreed to step aside for Brown after two elections, Stephens does not say.

Blair persuaded his party to drop its pious commitment to "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". He was able to reassure middle Britain that he was in Paul Johnson's phrase, "the son Margaret Thatcher never had" while persuading the young that "Cool Britannia" was coming.

In power Blair left Thatcher's legacy untouched. Image and spin was the big change from the Major years. The domestic innovations of Blair's first four years were constitutional changes made either from political necessity in the case of Scottish devolution or to be " cool" in the removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords without thinking what should follow and the incorporation into British law of the European Convention on Human Rights, which threatens Britain with Charter like rule by judges.

Stephens' main concern for his American readers is Blair's role as a world leader. Blair's first important foray into international affairs was Kosovo. Kosovo was pretty much a fiasco but Blair's resolute conviction that NATO was doing what was right perhaps helped to keep it from being a complete fiasco.

Over Iraq Blair had been a hawk even in the Clinton years. Stephen's account of Blair's dealings with the factions in the Bush administration, Cheney and Rumsfeld seeing the British as a tiresome distraction, Powell and Rice working closely with them, Bush making the final calls, is the best meat in the book.

In domestic politics Blair's stand on Iraq was not as courageous as some think. The revolt in Labour ranks was never a threat with Tory support assured. When the fighting started and after victory came the war became a political asset.

The Kelly affair bizarrely threatened to deplete this asset. Six years of media management and spin caught up with Blair. Like the boy who cried "Wolf!" he was suspected of faking it when his conviction was probably at its strongest.

The Hutton Report's clearing of Blair removes any immediate political danger but public trust in him has been permanently damaged. Unlike Stephens' American audience, for whom Blair is a new friend, the British public may be tiring of Blair's relentless effort to persuade them that he is their friend.

In domestic politics Blair presents a curious parallel with Brian Mulroney. First interested only in winning elections and afraid to do much, he has now decided on a few right things to do and is prepared to take big risks to do them. Labour has poured money into public services but the public remains dissatisfied. Blair now plans to make changes in how public services are organised and funded. His plan to raise university tuition fees was the first big test of the new Blair. He barely passed it. It is as a national leader and not a world leader that history will judge Tony Blair and it will be what he can do in Britain in the next few years that will form the basis of that judgment.



This appeared in The National Post on February 28, 2004.

Monday, June 27, 2016

How letting party grassroots choose party leaders has left Britain leaderless in a crisis

The announced departure of David Cameron as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of its Conservative Party, in October, is a brutal illustration of the damage that the modern fashion for parties outside Parliament, by whatever involved process, choosing parliamentary leaders has done to parliamentary government.

Cameron is right to go. His campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union was based largely on the argument that Britain can’t leave the EU. It is now the principal task of the Prime Minister of the UK to take Britain out of the EU. He’s not the man to do it.

But the reason he must go is the reason why he should go now, not in four months.

The reason he won’t go now is that in common with many parliamentary democracies, with Canada leading the way, Britain has handed over the the role of choosing who should lead the parties’ members in Parliament to party members outside Parliament.

It wasn’t always so. Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 because King George VI was persuaded he was the man most MPs wanted. He only officially became leader of the Conservative Party some time later.

When Sir Anthony Eden resigned in 1957 and Harold Macmillan in 1963 the Queen was persuaded by Conservative elders that Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home respectively had the support of most MPs and appointed them Prime Minister.

When Sir Alec was defeated in the 1964 election and resigned as leader he set up a procedure for Conservative MPs to choose a leader, to save the Queen from the embarrassment of having to figure it out herself. By this procedure Ted Heath was chosen leader in 1965 and then, famously, Margaret Thatcher in 1975. And, perhaps even more famously, Thatcher was replaced in 1990 by John Major, by a vote of MPs.

After Major’s defeat by Tony Blair in the 1997 the Conservatives went through three leaders chosen by various procedures. One of them Ian Duncan-Smith, a Brexit champion, was the first chosen by a procedure involving party members. It took three months. Previously it had been a matter of days. He lasted only two years and never even got to lead his party in an election. Finally in 2005 a mish mash party procedure chose David Cameron as the bright boy who knew how to win.

Cameron had already announced he would step down before the next election, scheduled for 2020. He never said he’d step down if Britain voted to leave the EU, as that risked making the referendum about him rather than Brexit. But as he proved in the referendum to be not a winner but a loser he had to go.

Pandering to vague concepts of grass roots democracy while the Conservative grass roots have shrunk from a peak membership of near three million in the fifties to around 150,000 now the Conservatives will choose their new leader by letting MPs choose two candidates and the fluid membership choose between them. The process should take three months. Hence Cameron’s long goodbye.

In the meantime, during perhaps Britain’s greatest crisis since the war, it will be effectively leaderless, all to assure that the dwindling grass roots should have their say while the MPs voters elected cool their heals in waiting.

It is hard to imagine a similar situation arising in Canada, but a year ago few in Britain imagined its situation now. As we have allowed that not MPs but some months to year long party shenanigans should choose party leaders and even Prime Minsters or Premiers we have ceded the power of the MPs we elect to choose party leaders and who will govern us and must wait on party proceedings to know who are leaders may be.

Churchill used to like to observe when he met with Roosevelt and Stalin that he was the only one who could be replaced in a day, as he had become Prime Minister in a matter of days. Had present practices applied in 1940 it would have taken three months to be rid of Chamberlain and Britain might never have had its ‘finest hour.’

When in the ordinary round of politics leaders step down after an electoral defeat, or retire or drop dead, it all seems to work, though it produces dictatorial leaders, of which many rightly complain, but when leadership is most needed it can leave parties and governments leaderless.

There is nothing undemocratic about letting MPs choose their leaders. We elect them and their biggest responsibility is supporting a government or an alternative government in an opposition party. For that they are answerable to the voters.

There is little democratic in allowing a small amorphous subset of voters to intervene and choose leaders. To whom are they answerable?

The Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn was chosen by about 400,000 Labour ‘supporters,’ less than 1% of the electorate, to lead MPs most of whom can’t stand him. The party is falling apart.

So Britain is not just without a leader. I doesn’t even have an opposition. And Parliament at Westminster will for the next few months have less say on how Britain is governed than the sham European Parliament at Strasbourg.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The unreality and reality of the BREXIT vote

Until polls a few days ago began to roil the markets the referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union had an air of unreality about it.

Everyone understood that David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on BREXIT was a ploy to smother divisions in the Conservative party between Eurosceptics, who don’t like the EU, and Conservatives who either think the EU is wonderful or just something post-imperial Britain must live with. Cameron and smart people expected Britain would sensibly vote to remain and the Eurosceptics would be put in their place. Somewhere round Coventry.

Cameron undertook to negotiate a deal with the EU to placate his Eurosceptic wing, but, as the prospect of a BREXIT was not taken seriously and Cameron had no serious ideas about what would make the EU less objectionable to Eurosceptics, all he got was a vague letter from the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk who fancies himself as the President of Europe.

In Britain and abroad the referendum has seemed to be about the economy and immigration. For the Leaves the fact that around 500 million Europeans are free to come and live in Britain with practically all the privileges of those who were born there is upsetting. Add to which, Germany’s admission of upwards of a million migrants opens the prospect that anyone any country in the EU chooses to welcome may before long turn up in Neasden.

For bien pensants in Britain and the rest of the world this makes Leave supporters bigots and the issue is immediately settled.

The Remain campaign has argued that BREXIT would be a disaster for the British economy. They seem to be saying that Britain simply can’t leave the EU. Which raises the question why the voters are being asked whether they’d like to. Ask a stupid question and you may get a stupid answer they might have thought.

The question is not whether Britain should leave Europe, as it is often put. Europe is a geopolitical fact. The question is whether Britain should leave a particular institution, the EU.

Undoubtedly Britain’s leaving the EU would be a great disruption and how it would work out is uncertain. Markets hate uncertainty and that is enough to explain their recent behaviour. But it does not settle the question of whether Britain would be worse off, better off, or much the same economically outside the EU. That all depends.

The case that Britain would be worse off assumes that on leaving the EU it would be cut off from much of its trade with the rest of the EU. But that assumes that the EU without Britain would follow Bonaparte, the Kaiser and Hitler in trying to put Britain down by cutting her off from trade with Europe. Hardly an assumption that does much credit to the EU.

The idea that the world’s fifth largest economy could not survive on its own is rather a stretch particularly as, on its own, it would be both forced and able to adapt to the world economy in ways that its membership in the EU inhibits.

The uncertainty of BREXIT is compounded by the fact that in the event of a Leave victory it would be Cameron, who seems to believe it is impossible, who would have to negotiate BREXIT. Were he De Gaulle he’d have put his job on the line. But that would have led many who want to be rid of him to vote Leave just to be rid of him. As it is, the referendum has led to acrimony amongst Conservatives that may hasten the departure he plans before the scheduled election in 2020, hoping to cash in as fabulously as Tony Blair has.

But neither the economy nor immigration is the real issue. The real issue is whether 28 countries and 500 million people should be governed by an unaccountable bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels.

We in Canada with our provinces and Ottawa and some sense of who does what and a regular choice in elections of who they should be cannot imagine how the EU works. Most Europeans haven’t a clue. Their national governments apparently continue to function and elections take place and for most of the history of the EU and its predecessors back to the Common Market prosperity with freedom and peace has been general. How far this is because of the EU and how far a coincidence has never been carefully considered. For much of this century the prosperity has been challenged and freedom compromised as Brussels has in some countries effectively chosen who should govern, or at least how those in office should govern, whatever voters may have wanted.

For European elites this if fine. Able bureaucrats and politicians ejected from office in their own countries beaver away beyond the interfering scrutiny of national media, and voters are distracted with increasingly meaningless national politics, while Brussels sees that all is for the best. But increasingly, and not just in Britain, Europeans are thinking they are not getting what they want, whatever may be best, and BREXIT, if it happens, or even comes close, may give a shock to the whole European project.

Many outside Britain, from Barack Obama to the Pope and Justin Trudeau and most commentators, have said Britain should remain in the EU. They would be more circumspect in saying whether Scotland should leave the United Kingdom or Quebec leave Canada. They should ask themselves how they would like to be governed as the EU largely governs Europe.

That’s the real question voters in Britain are faced with on June 23.