Daily Archives: January 25, 2011

The nation state – the only way to democratic control

Democracy in the literal direct sense does not exist in the modern world, indeed for practical reasons cannot exist in a state of any size.  What we have is what political scientists call  elective oligarchy, a political system whereby the electorate is offered a choice ever few years between competing parts of a society’s elite.

 That paints a dismal picture for the  masses. However,  even within an elective oligarchy, they can exercise considerable  control given the right circumstances.  What the masses can do and have done for most of the past  century and a half in Britain is  exert an ever increasing  control  over  the  elite  through  representative institutions.  But they have only been able to do this because the  representative institutions have operated within the context of the national state.  Elites as groups have been forced to take heed of the masses because they relied upon their votes to be  re-elected and  the  system  worked  by and  large  because  the  major political  parties  offered a meaningful alternative  on  the most of the great issues.

In  the  past forty years our political  circumstances  have changed dramatically. Two things have happened.  The  freedom of action of the Government  and Parliament has been  greatly reduced  and the political  parties have  become  ideologically aligned.

Entanglement  in  the  EU  has resulted  in  a  majority  of British  legislation  ultimately originating not  in  Parliament but  within the European Commission,  while various  treaties have  removed  whole swathes of political choice  from the electorate, ranging from proper control over foreign policy and border control  to the pursuit of a national economic policy. Most profoundly  the  European  single market agreement and the  GATT treaty arrangements and membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have left British  parties with no choice of economic policy, for as  things  stand they have to support the notions of  free markets and free trade. Any party wishing to offer protectionism and  state intervention in the economy cannot do it  unless  they commit themselves to withdraw from the EU and WTO.

The consequence of the our membership of the EU and our other treaties is that  our politicians in practice can offer  very little  difference  in  policy to the  electorate.  And,  of course, our politicians  find it convenient to  use our  EU membership  and other treaty  obligations to  excuse  themselves from responsibility for  unpopular  measures or as justification  for forcing through vast amounts  of  detailed legislation  which Parliament,  let alone the electorate,  is barely aware is being passed into law.

The  position  is  worsened by the careerism  of  the  modern politician.  This has always existed to a degree, but what we have  now  is of a different order of magnitude. The  really depressing  thing about the House of Commons now is the  sheer narrowness of experience of the members, many of whom  have never had a career other than their political one. Hence, once on the political career bandwagon they cannot afford to get off. The current bandwagon is the internationalist one.

Internationalisation dissolves national sovereignty. The left may cheer this but they are discovering by the day just how restrictive international treaties and membership of supranational groups can be. As things stand, through our membership of the EU and the World Trade Organisation treaties, no British government could introduce new socialist measures because they cannot nationalise companies, protect their own commerce and industry or even ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in Britain with British firms. As far as economics is concerned, a British government can have any economic system they like provided it is largely free trade, free enterprise.

The Right are suffering the same sickness with different symptoms. They find that they are no longer masters in their own house.  They cannot meaningfully appeal to traditional national interests because treaties and EU membership make that impossible. Control of national borders has gone.

A reversion to nationalism need not be a party political matter in Britain,  but  the  modern  British  left  are  unfortunately conditioned  to believe that the national state is at best outmoded and at  worst xenophobic, racist even. This ignores both the history of the mainstream British left and mistakes form for content.

The Labour Party for  almost all of its  existence  has  been strongly  protectionist  and hence de facto in  favour  of the nation state. Indeed, Blair in the late 1980s was still an  economic nationalist.  Moreover,  for most of  the  time Labour  has been consciously in favour of the  nation  state and  of Britain’s independence – few could give the likes  of Attlee and Bevin lessons in patriotism.

As for mistaking form for content, it is simply  a  matter  of empirical  fact that the nation state does not  produce a uniform behaviour – take Switzerland and Iraq  from the present day as examples of that. The idea that nation state equals aggressive, xenophobic,  badly behaved warmonger is a literal  nonsense.  In particular,  there  is  good empirical  evidence  that  where there  is  significant democratic control within a nation state, this  makes  aggressive  war  much less likely than where  a dictatorship exists.

It is also  true that supranational bodies are not noticeably better behaved than nation states. Worse, they have a large element of the  sham in them, being invariably dominated by the more powerful component states, for example, the UN being heavily manipulated by the USA  and  the  EU broadly controlled by  its  major  members. Supranational bodies are not simply vehicles for the normal process of power-mongering, but, in  practice,  that is their prime function. That  they  give a  spurious  appearance of international agreement  and legitimacy adds to the ability of the  dominating states within them to exercise control over weaker states by direct threats,  the withholding of money and, most insidiously,  the development  of bureaucracies which carry forward  the  policies forced  on  the supranational bodies by  the  most  powerful members. ( It is often  said that the UN has no power. This is utterly  mistaken.  It may not have an army but there is a vast web of agencies which allow a great deal of control and influence to be exercised over states which seek their assistance. Some  such as the IMF and World Bank control client countries from the outside, while others such as UNHCR permit direct  internal interference on the ground.)

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