Am I the only person to notice that the Tories were facing in both directions when it came to democracy yesterday? At the same time as condemning Tony Blair for ruling out a referendum on the next European treaty, they were launching a new policy paper which, among other things, called for directly elected mayors to be imposed – without referendum – on every UK city. As under the present system, these elected mayors would have near-unassailable powers and could only be overturned by the council by a two-thirds majority vote. To use Heseltine’s own words, this would be a form of “loose scrutiny”. Despite calling for a bonfire of the quangos, he would meanwhile give the Audit Commission much greater powers, backed by criminal law.
Now, I should keep some perspective here. These proposals are not official party policy, and in any case there is much in them that I have rather more sympathy with. At the same time, I’m grateful that the Conservatives played such a crucial role in forcing the Sustainable Communities Bill through its third reading yesterday, a law which has a real chance of substantially clawing back powers from the centre to local authorities and communities. But it does suggest that the Tories are still struggling to get to grips with this newfangled concept of democracy and people power, and that there is trouble brewing ahead.
On the EU “constitutional” treaty, I happen to broadly agree that a referendum would be desirable. But there are two problems here. Firstly, if the public was asked to vote for motherhood and apple pie, it would probably vote no if it the EU said it was a good idea. There is an EU-shaped boil on the UK’s bum that is in dire of lancing. The Tories know this which is partially why they spend all their time talking about what they are against at a European level and never engage positively in the debate. Secondly, we can’t have a referendum every time the Commission President wants to buy a new pencil. We need proper Parliamentary scrutiny of EU decision making, something the Tories always opposed when in power and continue to play down in favour of claiming weird conspiracy theories about Brussels. In fairness, both Ken Clarke’s Democracy Taskforce and Direct Democracy have now called for a more central Parliamentary role, but the latter certainly is still prone to swivel-eyed lunacy whenever the issue crops up.
Ironically, much of what was in the last proposed EU Constitutional Treaty strengthened the role of both national parliaments and individual citizens in EU decision making. It proposed a ‘yellow card’ system whereby the EU would be forced to reconsider legislation if enough national parliaments demanded it to. It proposed a Europe-wide system of Citizens’ Initiative whereby the Commission would have to formally consider any proposal backed by a million petition signatures. Yes, we could have gone further, and had a ‘red card’ system for instance where X number of national parliaments could block legislation outright, but when have you ever heard a Tory actually suggest such a thing?
There is also this strange confusion between democracy and national sovereignty. You would think, would you not, that a party which spouts rhetoric about the evils of the state and the need for small government would be suspicious of the capacity of the government to represent our best interests at a European or global level. When we look at possibly the EU’s two worst policies – the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy – both have failed because decisions are made at an intergovernmental level, not via the Council and Parliament. The CAP will never be reformed properly until France loses its veto, yet which party believes it should keep these powers? The Tories. The CFP will never lead to sustainable fishing policies until countries such as the UK stop revising its quota system upwards. Taking a short term hit would lead to long term benefits. Everyone knows this. Yet which party defends the existing annual pantomime? The Tories.
Another common complaint from Conservatives about the EU that I find mystifying is about the fact that it has gone beyond the free trade zone that it was sold to the UK as in the 70s. This appears to be rooted in a charmingly quaint view of economics that supposes you can neatly separate out free trade from public services and social issues as if they fitted neatly into their own little silos. Of course, back in the real world, we know that employment laws (for instance) directly affect our ability to compete in the global marketplace. We might disagree what those employment laws should be; we might question whether the EU is making itself uncompetitive worldwide, but if you believe that the EU should not guarantee employment rights, you are not saying that the EU should not have a policy on employment rights: you are saying that the policy should be that any country which has them will be at a distinct disadvantage (this goes to the heart of the French’s complaint about making the EU too “anglo-saxon”).
The bottom line is that these policies are a reflection of the will of the 500 million European people. We may well want to make that reflection more accurate, as I do, but if we want to change those policies, it is surely more democratic to change people’s minds than to deny them what they want?
Meanwhile of course, most of the Conservatives I speak to are all for bringing the marketplace into public services. When I was on 18 Doughty Street last week, all three Conservatives I was on with were enthusiastic about school vouchers. As I’ve said before, I’m open to the idea. But if you want the EU to be a free trade area, and you want to turn everything into a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market place, it follows that your vision of trans-national politics is just as all encompassing as the most pro-state socialist going. Either that, or you’re a protectionist (the default Tory position of course) and lose any veneer of economic respectability. Which is it?
Personally, I’m comparatively Euro-sceptic for a Lib Dem. I’m unconvinced by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which reads too much like a wish list and lacks the elegance of the ECHR. I think that any future treaty ought to be focussed on bringing the EU closer to the people, which is desperately needed unfinished business, but am wary of rushing into any new grands projets any time soon, decades even. I’m in favour of abolishing the vetoes of member states, but would want to see decisions require a supermajority of some kind to ensure that there is meaningful consensus on such decisions and to keep the number of new directives down. I consider legislative deadlock to be a good thing, broadly speaking. I want an EU that is outward looking and less insular.
I know I won’t get much of that, but does that lead me to wanting to leave? Not at all, because that would mean we’d still have to implement EU decisions into our laws if we want to trade with them; we just wouldn’t have any say into what those decisions were. The EU is still comparatively young and needs time to bed down.
As for the Conservative position, it remains utterly confused. In some ways, a row over the EU now might actually be the worst thing that could happen to them. I’m quite sure that Cameron is praying that the General Election will be before the European Parliament elections in 2009 because he knows how batty his party gets on the issue and that while the population as a whole is sympathetic, it is utterly bored by the whole debate and associates it with Tory splits. Cameron, having been cautious even before getting his fingers burned over Grammar schools, won’t dare try facing down the lunatic wing of his party on Europe.
There is an authentic conservative view on Europe that doesn’t involve wild-eyed conspiracy theories and is about more than banging on about sovereignty, but don’t expect to hear it any time soon.