The quote is attributed to Buckminster Fuller. Another variation on the theme is that new ideas don’t triumph by changing opinions; they triumph because those holding the old ideas die out and those holding the new ideas take their place.
The Swiss can have a referendum on what they like, when they like. In the UK we tend to stage them for reasons of party politics, including as a tiebreaker in internal party politics. No-one outside the Westminster circus has any direct say on whether they’re held or not.
The Bill paving the way for an EU in-out referendum received its Second Reading in the Commons last week, opposed by the SNP for its failure to protect Scotland’s right to opt right back in again. And for its failure to give 16 and 17 year olds a vote on their future. There are plenty of 16 and 17 year olds who feel cheated by that. As well they might, since their future may be swayed by the elderly end of the age range voting disproportionately ‘Out’. That’s to say, the only end of the age range who’ve already voted once before on the issue, in 1975. Two votes for them then, four decades apart. And none for the young. That’s a shame, because the deep-seated view that the older are also the wiser isn’t necessarily borne out by events. Wars, quite infamously, are started by old men (and old women) for young men to fight.
After a conflict that may come to be viewed as at least in part a European civil war, we at last got a chance to re-assess who we are and whether our historic enmities matter as much as we thought they did. The European issue is not about policies, because they can be changed, and in a dynamic democracy forever adapting to a changing world it’s right that they should. It’s not about structures, because they can be changed, and those of Europe, 70 years old or less, are more malleable than those of our Anglo-Norman elite, 950 years old and dug in deep. It’s not even about values, because they too can be changed, preferably to be improved upon and never to be placed beyond reasoned challenge. The European issue at root is about identity and our place, or places, upon the planet.
What is it to be European today? The history of Europe as a name and an idea is the history of that search for place. Mythology ascribes its origin to Europa, carried off across the sea by Zeus in the form of a bull. A folk memory, perhaps, of the role that cattle, and therefore dairying, played in the continent’s opening-up for agriculture. One linguistic theory links the name to the Akkadian for ‘to go downwards’. The European peninsula in that case, like the Maghreb in Arabic, is literally the West, the place of the sunset when viewed from the centre of the ancient world.
Wessex, as England’s peninsular West, mirrors this on a smaller scale. ‘To go west’ is to die, and it is to Avalon, the land of the orchards, that King Arthur is carried, the same land of the apples of immortality that the Greeks knew as the Garden of the Hesperides. A chance to drink up thy zider then, as the sky turns red and gold and, like Chesterton, watch “the western glory faint along the road to Frome”. For those who have followed the sun’s path to the shore, there’s always the sea and new-found land. Little wonder then that Charles Kingsley, a great advocate of a contemporary Wessex, should have penned Westward Ho!, re-siting the phrase from London to the Atlantic coast, in geographical terms the most European part of Europe because also its sharpest interface with the rest of the world.
Europe is an encircled continent, often wary of what lies beyond. To stand in defence of the West is a theme that runs from Leonidas to The Lord of the Rings. Rome’s focus was the Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum that was a highway, not a border; what we know as Europe is the product of reaction to the success that came early to the followers of the Prophet. The first reference to the Europeans – Europenses – is in a near-contemporary account of Charles Martel’s victory over the Arabs at Tours in 732. Roman Christianity pushed northwards and north-eastwards more frantically – and more brutally – than it might have done because to survive it had to win new lands to replace those lost.
Yann Fouéré, in L’Europe aux Cents Drapeaux, set his views in the context of three successive Europes, past, present and future. The first, Christendom, existed for most of a millennium before fragmenting. The second Europe, of religious divides and imperialist rivalry, repeatedly came close to destroying itself. The third, Fouéré’s Europe of a Hundred Flags, is one of co-existence between regional power and transcontinental co-operation.
It isn’t the EU, but the EU is somewhere on the road that leads ahead, perhaps to a pared-down EU, designed primarily to safeguard regions against the predatory intent of nation-states. The EU has its critics, and many make sound points, but the staunchest are those shuffling backwards towards a world of now long-gone empires that has no conceivable role today. One does have to ask, for example, which century UKIP inhabit.
Quite possibly the 20th, amid dreams of a revived Commonwealth, even though with each passing generation the family ties become looser. And trade moves on. Goods from Australia and New Zealand aren’t sitting on the quayside waiting for the call from the motherland. The UK is a much smaller player on the global stage now because Europe is much smaller too and demographic trends will only make it more so. In a world dominated by semi-continental blocs like the USA or the BRIC countries it’s difficult to see where the UK would hope to go. UKIP fantasies of plugging-in to BRIC growth rates could only be delivered by matching their rates of environmental degradation, but perhaps that’s the plan.
The current alternatives to Europe don’t include the land of Rule Britannia, colonies, coal and cotton; they do include 51st State of the USA, in all but name, or perhaps ultimately to become a satellite of India or China. Norway’s independent, but awash with oil; it’s also forced to apply the EU’s legislation in order to trade with it but has little say over the content. Switzerland’s proudly independent too, but as the world’s money laundry it can afford to be. The ultimate in centralisation is not the EU; it’s globalism, which UKIP seem to endorse. The evolution of the EU into a bulwark against that globalism is fraught with difficulties but look forward to the world of 2050 and there could be worse places to be.
And… if not the 20th century, then quite possibly the 16th? Euroscepticism’s founding document is the declaration of the Reformation Parliament in 1533 that “this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world”. It’s the double standard of Fouéré’s second Europe: no-one tells us what to do but you disagree with us, local folk, and it’s off with your heads. We demand your subservience in all things as proof of loyalty. The Irish, the Welsh and the Cornish were among those who discovered how one-sided the Tudor idea of English independence could be. And not only English: many an Alsatian or Breton has died fighting for France against not-so-distant cousins across the Rhine or the Channel.
The most compelling argument for staying in the EU, while insisting on its radical reform, is that withdrawal would further empower the London regime, parliamentary sovereignty and ‘fortress Britain’. Might a re-invigorated UK not share out its enhanced functions in a generous wave of regional devolution? Not on past form. More likely by far is that triumphalist waving of the Union Jack would turn into a paranoid hunt for the nationalist and regionalist ‘enemy within’, egged on by Fleet Street and by a State apparatus looking out for itself.
The UK has NO commitment to subsidiarity, even in constitutional theory. Federalism, for example, is for the other man. If only the UK had as little power over Wessex as the EU does! If the EU is a corporatist conspiracy, so too, blatantly, is the UK, and we need completely different choices all round. Claims that the EU is unreformable, however, sit ill with the facts. The EU now labelled oppressively neo-liberal and the one previously denounced for its social chapter are the same institution under different managements sponsoring different treaties. Politics happens and no ideology therefore can own Europe forever. The longer the EU exists, the more vulnerable it is to attack, because both Left and Right can pile up precedents that support their case.
A simplistic view might be ‘EU bigger, therefore bad; UK smaller, therefore good’ but there is more to decentralisation than that. It depends just how much power is centralised at that wider level, whether the modern world needs it to be there for reasons of subsidiarity and how much headroom is left for more local levels to flourish. In the context of subsidiarity, net decentralisation – a few things up but many more down – is a fundamentally credible position to advance. The real debate should be over who gets to decide what’s decided where: subsidiarity is only genuine if judged from ‘below’.
And… if not the 16th century, then quite possibly the 13th? Today we mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the short-lived foundation of English liberty. Short-lived because the Runnymede original was declared null and void by the Pope ten weeks later. The charter that forms the basis of what survived was the heavily edited version re-issued by the regency council of Henry III meeting at Bristol in November 1216. It was the result of strategic bargaining with the Pope’s man in England, Cardinal Guala Bicchieri. Stop press: islanders do deal with continent over share-out of powers. It could be David Cameron today as much as William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke way back when. Magna Carta continues to influence our politics, producing in some a kind of resting on laurels that means we don’t have to update our ideas because 13th-century feudalism can’t be beaten. Looking at how England is still governed today, the bad bits of that feudalism may be more evident than the good ones.
The good bits show the importance of a radically decentralised Europe in which ideas that others have discarded as quaint and old-fashioned can survive, rather like old plant varieties, until they’re ready for a comeback. Take juries, a Frankish administrative innovation, adopted early by the English, later applied by them to criminal trials and retained when the rest of Europe moved on. France introduced jury trials at the Revolution, modelling them on English practice, and spread them across Europe. For UKIP-inclined conspiracy theorists, jury trials are doomed because they’re incompatible with continental, Roman law. In fact, juries exist today in many countries across the EU, which really spoils the argument, especially as UK governments are quite capable of restricting trial by jury without needing any external encouragement. As for the wider point on legal systems co-existing, Scots law is a mixture of Roman and common law, and the Scots have juries. The same is true of the laws of Quebec and Louisiana.
The practical divide within Europe isn’t between common law and Roman law jurisdictions. It’s north / south. When it comes to drafting EU laws, it’s the Mediterranean countries that are more laid back and happy with statements of general principle, and the northern Europeans who insist on precision, regardless of legal system. (The Germans, it should be remembered, also had their own version of common law, based on Saxon practice, down to 1900 and our own word ‘law’ comes not from Old English but from Old Norse.) Montesquieu, writing De l’Esprit des Lois in 1748, tried to answer the question of why different peoples have different laws. They have, he suggested, different temperaments, due to different climate. So will climate change alter English law? We shall see.
What we do know is that the north / south divide in Europe is mirrored in north / south divides in many of its larger countries, notably England, France, Italy and Germany. Differences in landscape and vegetation (and hence in agriculture), in language, in religion and in wealth continue to find political as well as cultural expression. There’s a particularly remarkable zone of transition between the 44th and 46th parallels of north latitude, roughly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, which runs through many of the world’s best wine regions and also marks the northern limit for growing olives and rice. As one might expect, it disregards national boundaries far more often than regional ones.
Those who wonder how a diverse Europe can hold together should ask how well diversity is accommodated in some of its Member States. Not very well is the answer. France from 1789, Italy from 1861 and Germany from 1871 tried to make single countries out of regions that simply don’t think in the terms dictated from the capital. Nor do the several parts of the UK: Brexit propelled by the votes of southern England would be likely to provoke a Scottish exit from the UK, making UKIP not the saviours of British sovereignty but among the chief architects of its destruction.
The problem with learning from history is that we don’t. The Europe we need to see, with sovereignty at the narrowest level, solidarity at the widest level and subsidiarity in between, is not what we have. How we get where we’d rather be is up for debate, but it’s fascinating to listen to those who claim to be pro-European and anti-EU, just as if it were possible to be pro-British and anti-UK. (Perhaps voters are viewed as making the wrong choices.) Structures give concrete form to identities, so it is important to get them right and that means not allowing them to be defined by others.
If Brexit happens, it will be for two reasons. One is that Eurosceptic myths will not be subjected to the forensic dissection they deserve, and that misinformation once in circulation and insinuation becomes impossible to stop. The other is that the Brussels gravy train will respond with arrogance, complacency and weariness, and will fail to make a positive case for Europe. That is, it will fail to own up to its mistakes and to understand that a workable vision of Europe must have a broad cultural base, upon which the economics and the politics are built, not the other way round. Some splendid books have been written – none more splendid than Norman Davies’ Europe: A History – that join up the dots of a common heritage much vaster in time and space than Little Englanders can imagine. Primed with that information, it’s much easier to see the bedrock of Europe, its small nations and historic regions, and not be distracted by the shifting sands of states determined to partition or assimilate them.
A clear discussion has been made immensely difficult not only by Euroseptic antics – demonising the EU while presenting national parliaments as implausibly fine paragons of virtue – but by uncritical enthusiasm in the opposite direction. A good example of the latter is the SNP’s draft constitution for an independent Scotland, Section 24 of which states that Scots law will be inferior to EU law. Technically, it may be true, subject to equally technical safeguards, but what a message it sends politically. We’d much rather not criticise the SNP, so how come, having worked for centuries to regain national sovereignty, is the first act, apparently, to give it away?
It will be a shame if 16 and 17 year olds don’t get a vote. They won’t be the only ones to be disappointed though. A choice of in or out, of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, is not much of a choice. Why not a box for ‘Maybe’? Because without the really wide-ranging debate that we, as advocates of a third, rather different kind of Europe, would like to see, that's the answer we prefer to give.