Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum, to take place on June 23, on whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union (EU). “Brexit”—British exit—from the EU is favored by Spiked, a London-based online publication edited by Brendan O’Neill, a former member of the defunct Revolutionary Communist Party (UK).
Chris Gilligan’s “Open Letter” challenging Spiked’s position appears here for the first time. He first submitted it to that publication, where he has served as a contributing author, but it was rejected—notwithstanding O’Neill’s portrayal of himself as a forceful advocate of free speech. With Sober Senses is pleased to publish it. – The Editors
Popular sovereignty requires vigorous debate – Chris Gilligan
I wrote this open letter as a contribution to the vigorous debate that Brendan O’Neill and Spiked claim that they want to promote. I think that O’Neill’s refusal to publish the open letter suggests that Spiked’s commitment to free speech and rigorous debate is bigger on rhetoric than it is on substance. Read O’Neill’s editorial, then read my criticism (below) and decide for yourself.
Open Letter on Spiked‘s ‘Leave the EU’ campaign
by Chris Gilligan
I see that you are campaigning for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU). According to an editorial by Brendan O’Neill Spiked are urging a Brexit on the grounds, (‘which trumps all of those reasons to stay, and trumps them hard’), that the EU thwarts ‘popular sovereignty, the crucial right of a people to consent to the political system they are governed by’. O’Neill tells us that we should vote to leave if we ‘think people should determine their political destinies’, if we ‘are optimistic about the future’, if we ‘prefer the adventure of uncertainty over the dull predictability of expert-delivered diktats’, and if we ‘prefer politics to be lively and unpredictable rather than paper-pushing and aloof’. All of this sounds great. But, and this is a BIG but, how is a vote to leave going to achieve any of these things? The reality is that a Brexit is not going to reinvigorate democracy in the UK.
The EU referendum has not come about because of any popular agitation. There is no popular demand for a Brexit, and no popular desire to remain in the EU. The EU referendum has come about because of machinations within the Conservative Party, fuelled in part by the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This elite concern regarding the EU is not because of the anti-democratic nature of the EU or its disdain of ordinary people, the political elite in the UK (from all the main parties) share this disdain and have for years been busying themselves with eroding democracy in the UK. The EU is not the problem, it is symptomatic of a deeper problem, which O’Neill acknowledges when he says that ‘The EU both expresses and expands the 21st-century crisis of democracy’. Taking sides in the referendum implies that the EU is the problem, rather than a symptom.
If we take the example of migration, arguably the one issue on which there has been some popular engagement with the referendum debate, we can see that the UK has done much more than the EU to stifle debate on this issue. Spiked Deputy Editor, Tom Slater, partially acknowledges this when he says that ‘immigration policy is the sharpest expression of the anti-democratic sentiment of European elites. This is particularly keen in the UK, where New Labour’s relaxing of the borders in the 2000s reflected not only an open contempt for popular sovereignty, but a barely veiled disgust for the blob-like demos itself’. The UK, not the EU, has been at the forefront of an anti-democratic approach to immigration. The New Labour government did display open contempt for popular sovereignty. Blair, Mandelson and the other career politicians of New Labour consolidated the anti-democratic internal operation of the Labour Party and treated the electorate as passive fodder who only needed to be mobilised at election time. They continued the trajectory, begun under Margaret Thatcher, of moving ever increasing areas of public life outside of the realm of public accountability.
Slater is too one-sided when he says that New Labour relaxed the borders in the 2000s. What they did was relax immigration controls for specific kinds of immigration, principally labour migration, while they toughened them for asylum-seekers and others who were deemed ‘illegal’ or unproductive. They introduced immigration controls that operate on the basis of encouraging those who would bring an immediate monetary benefit to the UK and deterring those who were deemed to be a potential burden to the public purse. New Labour initiated the policy of ‘managed migration’, (which continued under the Con-Dem coalition and now under the current Conservative government), in an attempt to treat immigration in a technocratic manner. It was designed to depoliticise the issue of immigration, not to make it into a political issue. The Conservatives have continued this ‘managed migration’ approach, but argue that in the context of austerity the UK does not have the capacity to absorb as many labour migrants as previously.
Slater is correct when he says that ‘if we want to open the borders, we need to win the argument first’. Where, however, is the radical, progressive argument in favour of open borders? Slater doesn’t provide us with an argument. During the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 and 2016 members of the public signed online petitions, sent money,visited the camps in Calais, joined protests, and even offered shelter in their own homes. These are actions that involve more than simply putting an X on a ballot paper. What has Spiked had to say about these examples of popular sovereignty in action? They have been disparaged as exercises ‘in charity and public empathy, rather than a political issue about freedom of movement and human autonomy’. Protestors have been told that if they ‘want to help refugees’ they should ‘stop sobbing’. These arguments from Spiked read like barely veiled disgust for the demos, not like arguments for open borders.
Spiked is for open borders, but …. As Brendan O’Neill put it in September 2015: ‘spiked is about as open borders as you can get. But in Europe right now, there is a bigger problem than border control, and that is the cynical weakening of national borders, and of the popular sovereignty within those national borders’. This is an evasion of the difficult arguments. It is easier to rail against the bureaucrats in Brussels than make the case for open borders. It is easier to be cynical about the limitations of popular expressions of human empathy, than to engage with this empathy to make the case for a human-centred world. Spiked never engages with the difficult arguments on migration. What do we say to people who feel the harsh grind of austerity measures when they say that we can’t take in refugees because there is not enough to go around? We need to challenge this culture of limits, not by arguing for capitalist growth, but by pointing out that it is not immigrants who are responsible for austerity. We need to challenge the idea that there is not enough to go around and instead ask why the vast wealth that capitalism generates does not trickle down to the vast majority of society? In making these arguments we redraw the borders, from political demarcations of territory, to political demarcations between those who benefit from capitalism and have an interest in it being maintained, and the vast majority of us who do not.
Instead of recommending a vote to leave, it would be better to focus on the substantive issue and use the opportunity to argue for open borders, regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU. A more radical and progressive approach to the referendum would be to engage with the desire of the mass of people for a better world and repose the issue. Calling for the UK to ‘Leave’ only lends legitimacy to the elites’ pretence that the EU is the substantive issue.