Posted by Euan Bennet on 23/06/2016
I’ve left it a bit late to restart the blog for this vote, and perhaps that’s an indication of how engaging the referendum campaign has been. I’ve been appalled at the two official campaigns, and it’s only been relative fringe voices on either side that have presented anything in a tone worth paying attention to. I already had a pretty good idea of how I’d vote, but very little has been said or done by the campaigns to either make me reconsider or harden my resolve.
Several of the usual media suspects have lately attempted to equate this referendum with the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, and in particular the Yes campaign with the 2016 Leave campaign. I haven’t seen any evidence for their assertions, so it’s probably just a sneaky way of flogging the dead “Scottish Nationalists are racist: there’s no evidence for that, but it’s a fact” horse that the media loved to trip out regularly during our referendum. The tone and content of the Yes and Leave campaigns could not be more different. The prospectus for independence was a 650-page Scottish Government textbook. The prospectus for leaving the EU is a lie on the side of a bus, Boris Johnson promising to apologise on live TV if it causes a recession, and Lord Farage joining the UK Government. Casual observers might notice a difference in rigour.
The tone and content of the official No and Remain campaigns have been startlingly familiar however. Project Fear 2.0 has been rolled out promising all the same apocalypses that were supposedly going to befall Scotland. Though mercifully we were spared the “attack from space” scare story this time. Once again I was bemused by those in power essentially telling voters “vote for us or we will punish you in these varied and extensive ways”. Not exactly a good tactic for winning people over to their cause.
However, the point of this blog was to try to avoid the emotional aspects which undoubtedly play a part in any big decision. Let’s look at some evidence.
The difference between Scotland in the UK and the UK in the EU
The question of “how can you support one Union but not another?” has come up a few times. My answer is that the UK Union and the European Union are fundamentally different creatures, down to their DNA.
Scotland in the UK is in a position of having power devolved from the centre of a Union state that behaves as if it is a Unitary state. Power devolved is power retained: Westminster is the final arbiter of the powers of the Scottish Parliament. We can see this in the paltry offering of further devolution that has materialised since 2014 – a settlement that failed to meet low expectations, especially when compared to the desperate campaign promises made by the political leaders of the No campaign. Every single amendment proposed by MPs representing constituencies in Scotland was voted down and rejected by the UK Parliament.
Financially, the UK Treasury gathers almost all of the taxes collected in Scotland (about 88% before the referendum, now it’s about 85% off the top of my head). The Scottish Parliament has limited tax-raising powers, and still none of the important macro-economic levers such as corporation tax, duty, and social security. Westminster decides how much money is spent in Scotland based on a formula that translates how much spending has been done in England. No reference to what might be needed in Scotland. No agility to respond to changes in circumstances quickly. The Scottish Parliament is responsible for about £30 billion in spending, with Westminster spending the rest (another £50-60 billion) on our behalf.
The UK in the EU is a member state of an umbrella organisation that can legislate on matters that member states agree should be legislated on at a European level. Member states have “vetoes” over policy areas and indeed the UK has used vetoes in the past on issues such as immigration. Power is shared between the member states but ultimately still lies with the member states themselves.
Financially, the UK and other member states pay a “subscription fee” to the EU. This fee has been a big focus of the referendum campaigns. Putting it in context it amounts to between 0.5% and 1% of UK Government spending per year. Considering the fiscal multiplier attached to it, it seems to be a sound investment. The UK has in the past negotiated a “rebate” meaning effectively the other member states pay part of their fee. Some of the membership fee goes into funding the EU itself as an organisation, but a lot of it comes back in the form of funding and grants for a variety of projects. It’s actually an incredibly effective mechanism for redistributing wealth from Westminster to outlying parts of the UK.
One of these things is not like the other
Hopefully it’s obvious just how fundamentally different the UK and EU Unions are. There is a world of a difference between the relationships with power, and money, of each Union. There is also the fact that the EU was founded to preserve peace through diplomacy and shared economic development, while the UK emerged from feudalism straight into bloody imperialism. I would propose that there is evidence of both outlooks continuing to this day – though only one of those is a good thing.
The similarity (singular) between the 2014 and 2016 referendums
The only common link that I can see between the two referendums is the unacknowledged heart and core issue of the EU referendum, which was also the core issue of the Independence referendum (though it was only acknowledged and talked about by the Yes campaign): the issue of power, who holds it, and how it (and they) relate to the voters.
My number one reason for campaigning for Yes to independence was essentially as a super efficient mechanism of electoral reform. At a sweep we would have transferred power over the many important Reserved policy areas (energy, macro-economic powers, welfare, foreign affairs, defence…) from the medieval sham democracy of Westminster to the proportionately-elected modern European parliament of Holyrood.
This time round the proposition from the Leave campaign is “Take Back Control”. Superficially the slogan bears a resemblance to some themes of the Yes campaign – but that doesn’t excuse so -called journalists from conflating the two. If we ask “ah, but Take Back Control for whom?” then the answer gets to the heart of the matter.
Presently the (imperfect) European Union functions a voluntary Union between member states, with an executive that can pass laws on issues that member states have agreed should be shared across the Union. The power to pass these laws ultimately rests with the European Parliament, consisting of 751 MEPs elected by proportional representation by voters in all member states. The power to propose laws (N.B. not pass) is partly with the European Commission, made up of one individual per member state. These individuals are nominated by their (democratically-elected) member state Governments, and their appointments have to be approved by the (democratically-elected) European Parliament.
So a democratic Parliament has the power to pass laws affecting all member states, but only on matters that member states agree should be legislated on at a European level.
By voting Leave and “Taking Back Control”, the powers that are currently shared with the other Member States will return to Westminster. The power will entirely rest in the hands of the least democratic Parliament in Western Europe, and far from having “unelected EU officials” passing laws (a popular outright lie from the Leave campaign) power will be passed to the House of Lords – a bona fide unelected chamber (the only one in any Western democracy) of 825 illegitimate lawmakers. Who would I trust more to make the decisions that are currently shared and rigorously debated by 28 Member States? That’s a simple answer for someone who believes in voters having the power to influence lawmakers.
Final point – international trade
We’ve heard a lot about how much trade the UK has with the EU compared with the rest of the World. Various figures have been bandied around, with no indication if they are remotely comparable – I suspect several apples and oranges situations have been used. However, the Leave campaign always talks about how we can trade more with the RoW than with the EU. That might be true, but today I realised I had a very strong gut feeling that what they mean by that is “we can sell more weapons to the rest of the World”. I don’t have any particular evidence so it’s just speculation, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if the growth in trade the Leavers are aiming for would be driven by arms deals.