15 June, 1999
A number of the people of Britain (i.e. the responsible minority who are concerned about matters beyond their own immediate material 'prosperity') appreciate that the Treaty of Maastricht (the 'Treaty on European Union' as it is properly called) has already accomplished by political chicanery what no Continental invader has succeeded in doing since 1066: it has made a proudly independent British people subservient to a real, if as yet rather ill-defined, European Power.
It seems to me that in their flirtations with Europe, our politicians have made two fundamental but profoundly mistaken assumptions:
Let us consider.
The peoples of mainland Europe have good reason to be tired of war. Throughout recorded history, the Continent has resounded to the noise of battle as neighbours have attempted to annex each other's territory and tyrants have tried to impose their will on their less warlike brethren. Thus it is hardly surprising that the citizens of many European countries should seize upon any political philosophy that promises relief from war.
The trouble is that policies devised by seekers after political power have a poor record in the peace-keeping stakes. Few political nostrums are ever actually implemented as prescribed; few, if any, of those that are implemented live up to the extravagant promises made for them. The current political recipe for a war-free future is a politically inspired and bureaucratically engineered 'ever-closer union' to be imposed upon the peoples of Europe whether they like it or not. Should we place any confidence in it?
There is, of course, a sense in which 'ever-closer union' is being imposed upon the population of the entire world by the natural consequences of human over-population and developments in communication. Each of us must submit to this compression because we are powerless to prevent it even if we wanted to. But natural occurrences and technological developments always leave us free as individuals to respond to them as we think fit. For example, the Internet enables me to communicate, to trade, and to make friends with people scattered all over the world. But there are other people, some of whom I sometimes encounter in the flesh, with whom I would find it very difficult to be friendly even on the Internet. Why? Because they try to impose their will upon me and make me do things which I don't want to do not merely out of cussedness but because I believe them to be fundamentally wrong. Like many other freedom-loving people, I believe such attempts must be resisted as strenuously as may be necessary. Because I, like most freedom-loving people, am peaceable by nature, I start my resistance by writing essays such as this in an attempt to persuade politicians to consider the possibility that they might not always be right about everything. However, should kindly reason and gentle attempts at persuasion prove unavailing, personal freedom is the pearl of great price for which I am ultimately prepared to do anything and sacrifice everything.
The nature of the European Union is increasingly seen to be inimical to personal freedom. What was originally politically sold to us as a 'free trade area' now threatens to become a monolithic State exercising dictatorial political and judicial power from a centre remote from the people and apparently run by de-humanised robots. Long-established national boundaries, even natural ones like the sea which has benignly delineated the home territory of the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, are being rendered meaningless by political fiat.
This seems to me to be quite unnecessary. We all inhabit (or are imprisoned in) a Spaceship called Earth which modern communications has turned into a natural free trade area. So the very idea of a European Customs Union erecting artificial barriers against the rest of the world has become an anachronism. By all means let's abolish political interference with trade in the form of taxes and embargoes between all the states of Europe. But let's also apply the same policy to trade between all the states, and even all the individuals, in the world, and so set all the people of the world free to trade with each other as they wish. Then war, whose immediate effect is the disruption of communication, will easily be seen by everybody but the most power-crazed of politicians to be in the interests of nobody.
Such freedom does not require the immediate abolition of political boundaries. Natural human intercourse will probably increasingly blur artificial boundaries as time goes by. But there is plenty of current evidence that large political blocs forcibly cobbled together from smaller, more 'organic', units, make matters worse rather than better. Witness the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ongoing unrest in the Balkans. There are even signs that the United States of America, whose motto used to be 'Out of Many, One', is reverting to a multi-cultural, multi-lingual society as groups of its citizens set up their own 'soft' boundaries within which they can give expression to their group preferences without limiting the freedom of other groups to do the same.
It is surely futile to suppose that all the peoples of Europe, many of whom have until recently been maiming and killing one another, should suddenly experience an outbreak of mutual loving-kindness just because a few over-ambitious politicians decide it is good for them. The pretence that international borders no longer exist will not overnight dispel the distrust between people who have long viewed their trans-border neighbours with fear and suspicion. Is it not much more likely that attempts to enforce 'ever-closer union' on groups who have good reason to distrust each other will merely perpetuate the squabbling which has characterised so many meetings of the European Council of Ministers? I cannot myself remember any European Union initiative that has been widely popular in Britain, and I doubt very much if we British are entirely untypical of human beings elsewhere. If we are untypical, it would be foolish for us to become a minority in Europe. If we are not untypical, then other Europeans will probably agree that mutual respect for each other's responsibility for self-determination is the best hope for peaceful co-existence.
In political administration, 'more' almost always means 'worse'; and 'larger' inevitably means 'less sensitive to individual needs'. The remedy for our present domestic political ills is surely to reverse the process of political centralisation which has already gone too far.
The expedient of establishing fig-leaf parliaments and assemblies in Scotland and Wales cannot be the final answer. As demonstrated by the "Midlothian Question", it merely reduces the hard-won integrity of the United Kingdom and repeats the folly that gave rise to the "Irish Question" which bedevilled British politics for most of last century and may still not be finally resolved. Such "devolution" from the top down is only a sop to Cerberus. A far better answer would be to restore to local people the power to make the decisions which most intimately affect their local lives. This will not be achieved by abolishing or tinkering with national boundaries but by restoring self-determination to the cities, towns, and natural local economies which abound in our richly diverse nations. Each administrative sub-unit could then sort out its own disputes with its immediate neighbours without disturbing the peace of the rest of the country. Carried to its logical conclusion via an appropriate system of tiers of government, there should be little left to worry the top tier except 'defence of the realm' and the maintenance of a system of overall justice as an arbiter of last resort. Power could then flow naturally from the many to the few rather than be wielded by the few over the many.
During my time in the Navy, I came to appreciate the importance of water-tight compartments which can keep a ship afloat, habitable, and battle-worthy even if parts of it are severely damaged. The analogy can be extended to the political worthiness of nations and the communities within them.
It seems to me that in this respect, Switzerland offers an example that the rest of Europe might do well to emulate. This small country (population less than 8 million), with few raw material resources and very limited agricultural potential, has by conventional measures the highest standard of living in the world. This fact alone makes nonsense of most of the arguments for a Federal Europe arguments which the Swiss population resolutely reject. The Swiss population represents a rich mixture of all the races of Europe. Switzerland has four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh). Nearly half the population professes Roman Catholicism while most of the rest are Protestants. Notwithstanding so much potential for inter-faction rivalry, Switzerland is a paragon of peace and plenty. How do the Swiss manage it?
Swiss success is securely based on a culture of political neutrality towards the rest of the world, allied to genuine internal democracy which breeds in its citizens a sense of self-confidence and personal responsibility.
The country is a confederation of 23 states or cantons, three of which are sudivided into half-cantons for ease of administration. The average population of each administrative unit is therefore less than 300,000 or that of a large-ish British town. Because each unit is small enough to be comprehensible to its citizens, something very close to true democracy is possible. Importantly, each unit is also too small to represent much of a threat to the stability of the State even if some of its politicians want to flex their power-seeking muscles. This may be frustrating for would-be dictators: but it produces obvious benefits for the majority of the people. In view of the success of their home-grown model, it is hardly surprising that the Swiss recoil with horror from the artificially induced stampede to centralisation which characterises the European Union.
The Swiss electorate not only elects representatives to the Federal assembly, but also decides important issues by referenda. Amendments to the constitution may be initiated by petitions if these are supported by a sufficient number of voters. Executive power is vested in a federal Council of seven members elected for four years in a joint session of a two-chamber parliament. One member of the Council is elected President for one year, and no President may be re-elected for consecutive periods in office. Thus the people keep the government of the country under pretty firm democratic control.
Switzerland is well prepared to defend its borders and its neutrality. It has no standing army, but military service is compulsory for all males between the ages of 20 and 50. Service is for relatively short periods of training: but uniforms, personal weapons and other essential infantry equipment are kept at home; upon mobilisation in an emergency, the Swiss could call about 15% of the population to the colours within 48 hours. In a mountainous country like Switzerland, such a force of 1.5 million trained men represents a more than formidable deterrent against invasion.
It should be obvious that natural barriers such as the mountains which surround Switzerland are a most important determinant of political stability and therefore of the 'realm'. That is why islands of moderate size (such as Great Britain) have an advantage that should never be negated by the machinations of politicians. It means they can sort out their internal difficulties without outside interference. It explains why, for three hundred years, the United Kingdom has been one of the most politically stable states in the world despite many internal religious, cultural, industrial, and philosophical quarrels. During that time, the British have played a generally honourable, if not always disinterested, part in administering and policing much of the rest of the world. Twice in this century, the United Kingdom has taken the leading role in saving Europe from itself, something it could hardly have done if it had been 'at the heart of Europe' whether literally, metaphorically, or politically. It did so without regard to the inevitably crippling cost in material wealth, to say nothing of the sacrifice of life and limb. And the reason it did so was that respect for human dignity and freedom of the individual was and is deeply embedded in the British character.
The fact is that, more than material comforts, individuals want some degree of control over their own lives and destinies. They resent the centralisation of political power and the erosion of the powers of the local organisations that grew up over the centuries in response to their local needs. They want to be able to elect representatives, not dictators. And for most citizens of Great Britain, they want their representatives to exercise their powers openly, under scrutiny, and no further away than London.
That emphatically does not imply that the people of these islands all want to be 'Little Britons': far from it. That unique institution, the British Commonwealth of Nations, gives the lie to that canard. Neither do most Britons want to be forced into a straitjacket by 'Little Europeans' and have their world-wide horizons limited by petty regulations imposed by political bureaucrats who seem oblivious of the existence of a wider world outside Europe.
That is why I believe that our first priorities in the UK for the indefinite future should be to take a more detached view of the European debate, to secure our own Monarch and Parliament as the supreme authorities within our natural boundaries, and to behave ourselves in whatever manner we consider best for ourselves and the whole world including Europe. If the politicians look after these priorities, the people are well able to take care of their own material welfare.
The most vociferous proponents of European Union regale us with lurid fantasies of dire economic consequences for the UK if we remain 'semi-detached' from Euroland.
It seems to me there are good reasons why the opposite should be the case. I have already cited Switzerland as an example of a small country whose economic success is based on self-assured semi-detachment. Offshore islands such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have also been among the most successful economies in the modern world. There is only one reason why Britain should not regain and retain its former commercial success: and that is the dependency culture fostered by politicians who fear nothing so much as the individual freedom and enterprise on which they all ultimately depend for the taxes with which they attempt to bribe their electorates after they have creamed off a generous proportion for themselves and their cronies. The European juggernaut, being larger, offers even richer pickings for some of them even if it doesn't have many attractions for most of the rest of us.
What do we ordinary non-political citizens have to fear from resuming control of our own territorial waters and restoring to our fishermen the protection of the Royal Navy while there are still a few fish left for them to catch? Would it not be helpful if we could rely on the judgments of a British Court without danger of their being over-ruled by a European Court of Dubious Justice? Should we not feel better if our own elected representatives were able to determine our systems of taxation without their having to be 'harmonised' (i.e. unified) to suit the requirements of a non-elected European Commission? Would our industrial relations not benefit if local employers and employees were free to draw up mutually beneficial and binding contracts of employment that could not be challenged in a remote Court committed to imposing the dread hand of central bureaucracy over the most intimate details of business life? Would we not all wish to continue to enjoy the variety in tradition and culture which is the glory of European civilisation and is in danger of being standardised out of existence?
In short, would the ubiquitous 'level playing field' not sound the death knell for a richly diverse Europe one of whose principal sports is skiing?
The enterprising men and women who own and direct small businesses abhor the level playing field because it nullifies the nimble versatility which is their principal means of combating the steam-roller strategies of the big battalions. If politicians had eyes to see, they would realise that while the huge national and multi-national corporations and the well-paid executives who represent them in the CBI are automating and downsizing, the self-employed and the owners of small businesses are the ones who are finding useful work for themselves and their neighbours. They are the ones who ultimately create the wealth and actually play the key roles in its distribution. They are the ones who are still offering personal service as an alternative to the vending machine. They are the ones and twos who refuse to be turned into automatons with artificially restricted hours of work. They are the people on whom the future prosperity of every country depends. And they are the people whose will must eventually prevail because they are the people with the backbone to stand up and be counted in the face of adversity.
We may not like the impositions of our home-grown politicians: but at least we can get rid of them if they offend us too much. The members of the European Commission are beyond our reach. Let us hope that we shall find some means short of uncivil war of frustrating their grandiose but dehumanising dreams.
Cultural exchange among the peoples of the world requires the abolition of European barriers to trade, whether internal or external. But establishing true democracy in Europe requires more tolerance not only of long-standing political boundaries but also of the 'soft' boundaries which individuals erect around their local communities and voluntary groups and institutions. Personal freedom can be maintained only by respecting the natural rights of individuals to be different and to behave differently. Only by constant assertion of natural individual rights can the self-serving ambitions of politicians and the executives of large commercial organisations be kept within reasonable bounds.