“We are disappear backwards into a flag-waving, nationalistic hell. One of the reasons I’m now looking at getting out while I can.”
So says a very pessimistic commenter on the Socialist Unity website, discussing the aftermath of David Cameron’s veto of the Merkel-Sarkozy proposed changes to the Lisbon Treaty in the early hours of Friday morning.
That’s a pretty dire, pessimistic perspective to put forward on the basis of a couple of opinion polls after Cameron’s priceless piece of political ineptitude. Opinion polls, in a situation of what is likely to be considerable volatility, say that Cameron has struck a chord with large sections of the public, possibly through being seen to ‘stick it to’ the French and Germans, show a bit of the ‘Bulldog spirit’ and similar nonsense. Though if anything, it is just as likely to involve a degree of disquiet at the unelected, technocrat governments now emerging from this crisis in parts of Europe. Given that the mission of this government is to impose similar extreme austerity on this country, and given that the parties, especially the Lib Dems, stood for election promising something rather different, even this could be a two-edged sword.
One point worth noting is that Cameron cannot call a snap election on the basis of his actions, because it now takes a two-thirds majority in the Commons to call an election. Thanks to the ‘Fixed Term’ parliament law which the coalition passed and which became law in September.
The idea that Cameron’s faux-pas (because that is what it is) is somehow the equivalent of the Falklands War for Thatcher, as some, not just on the left, are saying, is hyperbole. There are strong reasons to suspect that Cameron’s actions could have pretty bad economic consequences. He has not, in fact, managed to ‘veto’ anything: all he has managed to do is force the bulk of EU members to draw up a new treaty instead of amending an old one. A new treaty that could easily become another major fault-line in British politics, assuming that they succeed in salvaging the Euro as a result of the planned fiscal union (which is not a done deal by any means).
As it becomes clear that there are likely to be adverse economic consequences to this falling out with the EU, its likely that Cameron’s boosted popularity will go up in a puff of smoke.
Cameron showed his ineptitude here, because he ended up with no support. If a British politician were seriously intending to ‘do a job’ on the EU, if they had any nous at all they would be very careful to take a few other co-factionalists along to mess things up and produce at least the appearance of disunity. To end up in a minority of one in such a fraught situation is not smart tactically or strategically. Many people in Britain know that the Tory eurosceptics are mainly quite mad and remember what they did to John Major, who unlike Cameron actually had a parliamentary majority. Major by the middle of his first and last full term in office looked rather like some kind of farcical circus act: a man carrying a 20 foot stack of dinner plates, with plates crashing here, there and everywhere!
Cameron is much weaker, no majority, relying on a Liberal Democrat coalition partner who could conceivably jump ship particularly if a few by-elections went the wrong way and shifted the parliamentary arithmetic a bit, and who has legislated away his own power to call a snap election. As this miserable government goes on, the temptation for Lib-Dems to do this might be greater and greater – ultimately electoral carnage threatens if they don’t do something…
And then there is Scotland. Cameron’s strident defiance of the EU appears almost tailor-made to play into the hands of Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party, who has an overall majority in Holyrood and who is pledged to hold a referendum for independence sometimes during this session of the Scottish Parliament. The idea of being isolated from Europe, perhaps even dragged out altogether by a Eurosceptic tail wagging the Tory/Coalition dog is likely to go down like a lead balloon with the Scottish electorate.
This is a prospect that will have many stauchly pro-Union Tories, with a little reflection, choking on their caviar. The loss of Scotland, which might even trigger off the loss of Wales also, would be the most traumatic event for this country since …. who knows when? Does anyway think that the Tories would welcome the break up of the Union and look forward to ruling unchallenged from then on in an English rump-state?. Would they still be singing ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ then?
Nationalist triumphalism flows from percieved victories, not from such defeats as the destruction of the Union would represent. There would of course be the possiblity of a later reactionary nationalist revanche that could even take a fascist form, but that would be on a longer perspective. But, to put it mildly, that is not the sort of development that would give rise to a wave of patriotic fervour. Just the opposite.
“Who lost Scotland (and Wales?)” would be flung at the Tories very effectively from all kinds of opponents. It could actually destroy the Conservative Party; remember how deeply Unionism is embedded in the whole Tory mindset and politics. They could conceivably tear each other to pieces over who to blame for what would be the greatest political debacle in English history, the reversal of 1707.
It would likely be as traumatic as the division of Germany, or the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, or some comparable event. No one could predict how that would pan out. It could even lead to some very radical, revolutionary development if the left had in the meantime regained even a little purchase, or been renewed in some way through something like the Occupy movement really taking hold.
This event underlines the almost complete absence of an independent working class voice in mainstream politics. Ed Milliband (and indeed Nick Clegg, who conspciously boycotted Cameron’s self-justificatory address on Monday in the Commons) have put forward the rational bourgeois case for continued ‘engagement’ with the EU. No one put the case for working-class interests on all three major problems tied up with this: the need for Europe- wide opposition to the ultra-austerity represented by the new fiscal union; the need for a programme of genuine European democracy, particularly urgent given the technocratic, unelected governments being imposed on countries like Greece and Spain, and the need to stand against nationalist responses such as represented by the Tory Eurosceptics (and UKIP). Those are the kind of issues that bourgeois politics, by its very nature, is unable to coherently address.
We need a new working class party, but it cannot be on the model of Toytown Bolshevism or ‘democratic centralism’ like most of the revolutionary sects that make up much of the left in Britain and internationally. We should stop following a party model that has little or no relevance in decaying advanced capitalist societies like ours, being put together as part of a struggle agaisnt feudalism by the working class of backward Russia in the early 20th century.
We need a democratic party with freedom of public argument around ideas, freedom to associate and dissociate on the basis of broad principles, and as much centralisation as is needed to carry out the practical class struggles that party is able to lead at its given stage of development. No bureaucratic models or schemas, no ideological straightjackets. Democracy in action, and the development of a coherent set of ideas and programme through debate and experience.