Fear and loathing on the referendum trail 6: Democratic renewal? Better in than out?

The other day I caught some guy on the radio saying ‘it all comes down to who you trust, Cameron or Johnson’. That’s a fair point, although I wouldn’t restrict it to just those two. Who can we trust to renew our tired democracy, with its antiquated voting system, corrupt party funding and unaccountable quangos that spend £millions of our money? Will Brexit lead to democratic renewal once the dead hand of the Euro-bureaucrats is removed?

Would you buy a used car from this man?
Would you buy a used car from this man?

The only weapon that can tame the growth of transnational power that accompanies neoliberalism is democracy. Which is why the transnational corporate elite and the super-rich are so wary of it. Friedrich Hayek, the leading prophet of neoliberalism, openly proclaimed, when supporting Pinochet in Chile, ‘I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism’. If democracy gets in the way of the market, neoliberals are quite prepared to jettison democracy.

Leading Brexiters are as committed to market competition, the small state and the transfer of public services to the corporate sector as are the leading Bremainers. It’s difficult to imagine Farage and Ukip confronting the super-rich. They’re enthusiastically in favour of trade treaties and have even toyed with the idea of a flat tax. This is a favoured nostrum of neoliberals and would hand over even more £millions to the top few percent. In exiting the lobbyists’ paradise that is the EU, would they clear out the lobbyists’ paradise that is Westminster?

Claims to use the money saved from the EU on the NHS are just that. Empty claims. For a start, Brexiters exaggerate the money available by a factor of 2.5. Then it’s not clear how it would be re-allocated. The amount of tax we pay that goes to the EU is equal to just 0.6% of our tax bills. Is that really enough to fund the NHS? Why not just raise income tax by 1%? And what about those in the UK who rely on EU funding, farmers or some science researchers for example? Won’t they also have a claim on all that money saved from exiting?

Can we trust Farage et al. to respect workers’ rights once the vestigial protections of the EU’s Social Charter are binned? Imagining Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood and George Eustice leading a campaign of democratic renewal and restoration of public services stretches the bounds of credibility a little and makes the existence of Father Christmas look distinctly reasonable. Moreover, if the elite Cassandras of Remain are right and there is an economic cost to Brexit, is it not likely that there’ll be even more cuts and more austerity politics?

A politer version of 'Make Britain Great Again'?
A politer version of ‘Make Britain Great Again’?

Some in the Conservative Party and Ukip favour the market over democracy. Others favour the nation over democracy. But which nation? ‘We want our country back’ looks suspiciously like a more opaque and less aggressive version of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. A vote for exit is poised to unleash a wave of British, or more likely, as the Scots look for the door, English nationalism. Is a UK without Scotland a likely place for the new broom of exit to sweep us into a process of democratic renewal?

Of course, Cameron’s ‘vision’ of a semi-detached UK within a neoliberal EU holds equally dismal prospects for democratic renewal. But that’s not the only vision of Europe. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis argues that Brexit is the last throw of the dice for a wealthy British ruling class keen to liberate itself from Brussels regulations. He also points out there are movements in the other EU countries committed to radical reform.

The chances of democratic renewal within the EU look on balance to be better than outside. Logically, transnational power can only be confronted by transnational democracy. Although transnational democracy doesn’t necessarily mean the EU, how will a Brexit led by the far right and dependent financially on business rebuild our democracy? Those socialists who argue for Brexit have yet to explain convincingly how radical change will be achieved in a retro-UK dominated even more by conservative values.

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