We never seem to take a break from politics in Scotland. European elections. A referendum. A general election. A Scottish Parliament election. And then – just when it looked for a few moments at least that there would be some blessed respite from people spouting nonsense in the name of their false gods – a European referendum.
It seems there is always an excuse to knock on someone’s door and tell them about education policy. On balance, this is likely a good thing. If a politician is knocking at your door he can’t be doing something dreadful – like passing some unutterably stupid law or raising taxes on hard-working (hang on a second… ed.) 30-somethings who just want a glass of vino collapso at the end of the day.
A lot of tosh has been written since our Prime Minister came back from Brussels telling us all about his deal to give us special status within the European Union. As a known peddler of tosh it was inevitable I would get involved. When in doubt, add verbiage.
If we leave life will go on. Whether this is good for the country that is difficult to know but any negotiations will likely be messy and extended. The nature of negotiations is you don’t get everything you want – no matter how strong your position is, no matter how good a negotiator you are.
So some thoughts for both sides:
Leave cannot argue that Eurocrats have poked their nose into every aspect of British life whilst simultaneously arguing that extracting ourselves from the Union could be done at the stroke of a pen. There would, surely, be months of negotiation, talks, rows, detail and minutiae. Policy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lots of business for lawyers (no shame in that. Far from it!) but these things won’t be easy.
On the one hand you have a Britain that has told all of the other Member States to get raffled and on the other side you have 27 other Member States all simultaneously jockeying for position, quelling their own insurgent movements, trying to ensure Britain doesn’t get too plum a deal but also realising that they do probably need access to our markets and that – until we formally leave – all UK citizens remain EU citizens.
All of that looks about as messy as a clown’s tea party and about as fun as walking to work in wet socks. A golden rule in life is: Never trust a politician. If you want a platinum-plated rule? Never trust a politician who tells things will be easy.
Leave seem to be a mix of shysters, saloon bar loudmouths and bulging brain types who wear bow ties and can do sums without a calculator. None of them, however, can tell what Britain would look like out. Some jingoistic types see us becoming a great trading and seafaring nation looking out across the azure main. Others believe we will play the great game with Russia, India and China. Others don’t answer: it will be ours to decide. That is terrifying. For all the Scottish Government’s white paper was lies built on nonsense built on Del Boy-esque financial projections they at least had a vision of what they hoped an independent Scotland would look like and put it before the people.
For Leave: it is a blank slate. Or, worse, we have Galloway arguing for some Socialist Utopia whilst Farage is arguing for a country where he can drink drive and slap the secretary arse without being hauled over the coals. It is nonsense.
At the same time, the Remainians are tubby types skating on particularly thin ice. If you truly believe in the European project and you believe that Ever Closer Union is a good thing then surely it is difficult to defend our Prime Minister’s claims that we are no longer tied into Ever Closer Union. Indeed, if that is the goal of everybody else and that – at some point down the line we move towards some federalised state – doesn’t that make us a kind of North Atlantic Puerto Rico? There’s nothing wrong with Puerto Rico. I’ve seen it on Man vs Food and the sandwiches looked fantastic but if the direction of travel is to a federal state do we really want to be the oddbods who can’t get our former PMs on stamps?
Putting Mr Cameron’s deal to one side, Remain also have to watch their arguments over ”what has the EU ever done for us?’. Some of the claims are, shall we say, exaggerated (the Equal Pay Act – for instance – predates our membership of the European Union by five years).
Some of the claims make Leave’s point for them. If, as Remain claims, the EU is responsible for health and safety, parental leave, part-time workers rights, smoke-free workplaces (eh?), holiday entitlements, Europe-wide patent protection, lead free petrol, cheaper air travel, a recycling culture (double eh?), clean beaches and the Working Time Directive then there are two problems.
Firstly, Remain admits and acknowledges that the scope of legislation from Brussels is actually quite wide and perhaps wider than many Britons would want (and certainly wider than what the British public voted for in 1975).
Secondly, by suggesting that we only have many workers rights (as the TUC has this week) because of our membership of the EU the argument rather suggests that we aren’t to be trusted with the our own government. If the people of Britain really want a party to axe their holiday entitlement then why the bally hell shouldn’t they be free to do so? Plenty of countries around the world have managed such protections without membership of the European Union.
The problem is much of this is more technical than the public wants and more technical than the politicians are willing or able to debate. EU Directives, for instance, actually give state legislatures wide-ranging freedom. As one lawyer noted to me, we could amend half the transposing legislation with a Statutory Instrument overnight. If Britain has chosen to transpose these things in a stupid way that is Britain’s fault.
Nobody wants to talk about Statutory Instruments or transposition or Directives. They want to talk about straight bananas and two parliaments and ‘elf ‘n safety. Sometimes, admittedly, they want to talk about sovereignty but dashed few people know what they themselves mean by sovereignty let alone what anyone else means. What is sovereignty in the 21st century? I don’t have the foggiest.
Ultimately what we will see over the next few months is both sides doing what I’ve done above – picking holes in the other side whilst pretending the holes in their own side don’t matter.
On the one hand, The European Union is an undemocratic mess, there is little transparency and seems incapable of reform. It makes Westminster look like a model of good governance. It takes credit for things it hasn’t done (the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
The EU – strictly speaking – has existed since 1993. Is peace in Europe – a wonderful thing that we take for granted – down to the EU and its predecessors? Or was it NATO and the Marshall Plan? Does the EU really get the credit for entrenching human rights across Europe or does that honour really go to the European Convention on Human Rights? For a faceless organisation it does remarkable PR for itself.
On the other hand, it has improved some aspects of our lives immeasurably. It has incorporated post-communist countries to their betterment (just think about the EU now and think about the world in 1989. It is astonishing). Britons have, generally, benefitted as has British business.
The direction of travel for the EU is at points terrifying and at points exhilarating. On balance, Remain is the safest choice. It is not a flawless one. It is merely less flawed than Leave.