Democracy in Danger


September 3, 2007 13:08 | by Steve McGiffen

Brian Denny's recent article ('They said it...') demonstrated that politicians in EU member states where no referendum was ever promised or expected are absolutely open about the fact that the revised proposal for a new EU treaty is virtually identical to the one overwhelmingly rejected two years ago by French and Dutch voters.

Denny's piece was one of a number I have read in a range of newspapers - British and others - making the same point. It is one with which I wholeheartedly agree, one which must be made time and again if we are to force this government to keep its promise. And yet reading it gave me an uneasy feeling.

The article was interesting, useful and, as far as I can see, as impossible to disagree with as the second law of thermodynamics, or the fact that Britain has had an unusually wet summer. But that's exactly what bothered me.

Like scientists in the States who are forced to defend the theory of evolution against people who purport to believe that the world was created over six days about 6,000 years ago, we are being forced to treat a simple truth as if it were a matter of opinion.

Here are the most significant parts of the proposal which are substantially unchanged:

"all of the provisions deepening the neoliberal character of the EU economy "the creation of the post of President of the European Council with a term of office of two-and-a-half years, renewable once "the creation of a new office of High Representative for Foreign Affairs "the introduction, from 2014, of double majority voting at Council (50% of the states representing 55% of the population will have to approve a proposal) "more policies to be voted by qualified majority, thus abolishing the national veto for these policies "the extension of co-decision (giving the European Parliament more power) "reduction of the number of commissioners and more power to the President of the Commission "'legal personality' for the Union, allowing it to sign treaties and other international agreements on behalf of all of the member states "explicit statement of the primacy of EU law over national law

Given that the above list contains no statement of opinion, it is not open to dispute. Yet we see it disputed. This is, moreover, no isolated incident.

We have seen straightforward facts treated as if they were opinions, and lies as if they were valid matters for debate, in relation to the in relation to the war in Iraq, to numerous cases involving requests for asylum, to repeated outbreaks of infectious diseases on British and other European farms, and to cover-ups of the dangers inherent in genetic modification of food plants, to take just four examples.

Is this important? Haven't politicians always told lies to gain power, or hold on to it? Perhaps so, but I believe that what is now happening, especially in British politics is different, and that it is profoundly dangerous to our extremely fragile democracy.

This is best illustrated by returning to my main example.

Fact: the statement "the 'Reform Treaty' is essentially and substantially the same as the 'Constitutional Treaty' on which we were promised there would be a referendum" is simple truth, not opinion.

Fact: the changes, even where they are more than merely cosmetic, are insufficient to justify the government's assertion that we no longer need a referendum. They include changes in language (no 'Constitution'), in such matters as the proportions required for a 'double majority', and the removal of any reference to the EU flag or anthem, though these will continue to exist.

Fact: the British government's assertion of the opposite is therefore a downright lie, and an extremely transparent one.

They can get away with this lie only if one of the following conditions exists:

"the British people have in general no knowledge of or interest in the contents of either Treaty, or

"they do not believe that they can influence government policies, have seen this repeatedly demonstrated, and have therefore decided there is no point in thinking about it, when there is so much shopping to be done and so many shiny new gadgets to buy "they may find politicians lying to them irritating, but it's a limited irritation, like the occasional barking of next door's dog. You can put up with it, because dogs bark and politicians lie and you can't change nature.

If any of these conditions indeed exist, then the game for people who believe in democracy may be up.

The British people have seen, over the last thirty years, workers' rights hugely eroded, political debate reduced to an exchange of platitudes, and the emergence of a political elite at least as arrogant and out of touch as the noble circles which famously lost favour in the early 1960s.

We have seen the Labour Party, which whatever else it may have been, was where working people did politics, abolish all of its internal democratic structures.

We have seen the retreat of the state, and with it all possibility of popular influence, from sector after sector of the economy, so that the overfed, leering face of corporate capital has thrust itself into every area of our lives.

We have seen, since the signing of the Single European Act by Thatcher in 1986, successive European treaties remove our democratic rights in area after area of policy.

We have seen, and are seeing, in the name of an entirely bogus 'war on terror' and a media-generated fear of allegedly rampant criminality, our most ordinary and in some cases ancient freedoms abolished, surveillance cameras watching us from everywhere and anywhere, and acts of egregious violence - up to and including murder - by police officers enjoying apparent immunity from prosecution.

If we allow this government to renege on its promise to give the British people the right to say whether they are in favour or against the most profound constitutional change of modern times, then we must accept that parliamentary democracy has indeed become the hollow sham that it has always threatened to be, and that sections of the radical left have always argued that it is.

Steve McGiffen edits spectrezine. He also writes a monthly column for the Morning Star, from which this is adapted.