Review by Sean Gabb Time to Say No: Alternatives to EU Membership by Ian Milne Civitas, London, 78pp, £8.00 ISBN: 978-1906837327
In its supporting evidence, this is a very useful book. In its overall purpose, it is quite useless. Its former is the claim that British membership of the European Union does not pass any kind of cost-benefit analysis. Our trade outside the EU has been growing much faster than our trade within. This will continue for at least the next generation, as the main EU countries are demographically in decline and, on the whole, stagnant economically. Indeed, taking into account direct and indirect costs of membership, the gains from being part of the Single Market could be negative. In purely economic terms, Britain is better off out.
The book is worth reading for its short but authoritative stating of these arguments. But I will now explain why it is generally useless. Mr Milne imagines a referendum, in June 2014, on British membership of the EU. He imagines this will go in favour of withdrawal, and that the governing and opposition parties work harmoniously together, and with the EU institutions, for a phased two year withdrawal as required by the Treaty of Lisbon. After this, the country can be free again to govern itself.
The problem with this scenario is that its main assumption is absurd. This country is not ultimately governed from Brussels. We are not victims of foreign control. It is a false belief that our own liberal and therefore benign institutions have been checked by the European Commission, and that leaving the EU will have much the same effect as removing a stone from a horse’s hoof. The truth is that, just as before 1973, this country is governed from London, and by our own ruling class. All that EU membership has achieved is to help make the exercise of power by this ruling class less accountable.
Since the final disappearance, around 1980, of decency and regard for the public good in our politics, every tax and regulation and change in the law had been made for the benefit of some wealthy interest group. The political wing of our ruling class has been acting on behalf of its economic wing. If there have sometimes been disputes between and within these wings, we should not deceive ourselves on the essential unity of state and big business. Now, this is an actual constitution that is best hidden from democratic scrutiny. And so we have had a growth of supranational organisations to hide the reality of how power is exercised. Though by far the most prominent in this country, the European Union is just one among many of these institutions.
Let me explain this abstract point with an actual example. I do not think anyone of importance in Brussels has ever cared what system of measurements we use in this country. Yet, starting in 1995, we suffered a rapid and brutal metrication. By 2000, it could be a criminal offence to sell a pound of bananas. Anyone who complained about this was referred to an EU Directive from 1989 that allegedly tied the hands of British politicians. What seems really to have happened, though, is that the big four supermarkets had found a way to hobble their smaller competitors. Metrication required new measuring instruments. More importantly, it needed an expensive retraining of staff to work at commercial speed in so far unfamiliar measurements. The big supermarkets could spend millions on this without noticing. It was a different impact on small grocers.
If it had needed a Weights and Measures Bill to go through Parliament in the old way, there would have been an outcry, and someone important might have found it worth discussing who was pushing for this. Instead, the law was changed without meaningful reference to Parliament, and everyone who disagreed could rail against the European Union in general, while the actual projectors and beneficiaries of the change could walk away smiling.
And that is how we are governed – in little things and in great. The British Government is practically at liberty to enforce or not enforce any EU law it chooses. It does not comply with a Directive from the 1970s that seems to require identity cards. It does not comply with another Directive that, by implication, seems to forbid it from prohibiting civilian ownership of handguns. If our Government does choose to follow EU law, it is either because that particular law benefits – or has even been procured by – some privileged interest in this country, or because the only interests actually damaged are outside the ruling class.
This is why, regardless of which party is in office, and regardless of what the party leaders may have said in opposition, every British Government since 1973 has been committed to EU membership. And this is why the withdrawal scenario given by Mr Milne is impossible. No referendum will be allowed. If one must be allowed, the question will be slanted – for example, giving a “compromise” option of renegotiation to divide the anti-EU vote – and the mainstream media and whole of big business will argue for staying in. If there is a vote for withdrawal, the referendum will simply be rerun six months later.
The problem with most Eurosceptics is still their assumption that leaving the EU will allow us to solve all our problems. The truth is that the EU is not the cause of our problems: it is merely another symptom of how we have failed as a nation. If we are not to fade away as a distinct nation before the middle of this century, we need a revolution. Undoubtedly, one of the first acts of a revolutionary government must be immediate withdrawal from the EU – just as it must be withdrawal from every other supranational institution. But regarding withdrawal as of supreme importance in itself is the political equivalent of trying to cure chicken pox by popping all the blisters.
Yes, Mr Milne has probably got his sums right. If he really believes our masters will allow us a genuine voice about EU membership, or will listen to that voice, he needs to think again.
And one final point. I do sound in this review as if I am simply copying Richard North. I do greatly admire Dr North. He has said much more than I have about the European Union, and knows things in detail that I at best only dimly perceive. There can be no shame in putting in my own words what he has persuaded me to believe. But I have reached these opinions independently of him. For example, here they are, given ten years ago in much their present form. This is a moderately important point to make. When one reasonably intelligent person is persuaded by another, it adds some weight to a conclusion. When that conclusion is reached independently, the weight is increased. By all means, we could both be wrong. But this final point is worth making.