So the former Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has come out for the Remain camp in the EU Referendum campaign joining other foreign secretaries like Jack Straw and, in all likelihood, the present incumbent Philip Hammond who has yet to declare his hand. For Hague to discard his well-documented euro-scepticism in such a public way seems surprising but in fact he is merely following a well trodden path of politicians who enter the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with one view of world affairs and then leave their term of office with completely different opinions altogether. The questions is: why? And why should this matter to all of us?.
The first thing to say is that the mandarins in the FCO see many politicians of different complexions come and go but regard their role as ensuring that British foreign policy remains consistent and predictable, and that, above all else, there are no sudden and unexpected policy lurches in one direction or another. In essence, they see ministers as transient and the civil service as providing the continuity. Now if you think about this it does seem to make quite a lot of sense. Friends, allies and trading partners have a view of the UK’s place in the world and they want to know that at the international level the UK’s actions will be predictable and consistent. I can’t say for sure, but I am willing to bet that this point is hammered home during a new minister’s induction briefings. It is also easy to imagine that most new ministers would be encouraged to view their role in non-political terms. This makes them more susceptible to advice from their civil servants than perhaps in other offices of state. Now, whilst this may sound harmless, what if the FCO’s global perspective is based on theories that undermine the very essence of our democracy? What checks and balances are there to protect the interests of the British people who may see the arguments as largely academic even though they cut to the heart of what it means to be a nation?
The FCO’s model is essentially based on theories expounding globalisation and the inter-dependence of states. This is a complex area, and if you want to read into it then google will provide any number of long academic papers written largely in the 1990s and early 2000s after the end of the Cold War. In essence, these argue that improvements in communication and transport coupled with large global flows of people and capital have reduced the effectiveness of national geographical boundaries. They say that in this ever complex world, governmental power is circumvented and made redundant, countries are unable to solve problems alone and they increasingly have to rely on cooperation with other states to derive solutions which they cannot provide by themselves. It is a theory that promotes the idea of expending or pooling sovereignty through membership and acceptance of supranational bodies like the UN and more topically the EU. It is seen as a mechanism for peace because it suppresses the nation state and violent nationalism. In some respects, it is an argument for big government, even global, and it is an NGO’s and lobbyists’ dream. But as I shall explain, the effects of globalisation can only reach so far because of our desire as individuals to be capable of influencing the world around us and to change those things that affect our lives.
Please bear with me as we get a little technical, but it all comes down to the nation state and for a fuller explanation I recommend that you read this wiki article providing a definition and the historical and contextual background. Please think carefully about the following two quotes from wiki:
“A nation state is a geographical area that can be identified as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign nation. A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one.”
In another wiki article Sovereignty is described as follows:
“Sovereignty is understood in jurisprudence as the full right and power of a governing body to govern itself without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity. It is a basic principle underlying the dominant westpahlian model of state foundation.”
Now, I would say that countries have evolved into nation states through common interest, ethnicity, culture and the need for collective protection. Sovereignty occurs because of the critical relationship between national leaders and those they serve. It is an agreement that sees a population bound by common ties investing in leaders whose role is to protect and serve the nation state. The leadership derives its legitimacy from the consent of the people and this is the basis of sovereignty. If the leadership is seen to subvert, undermine or pawn that sovereign power then the bond is broken, it is no longer serving the basis of its power and it ceases to be legitimate.
If this sounds largely academic, what does it mean in practice? At this stage I would like to look at the EU because there is confusion between cause and effect. The EU is a particular case of interest because it is being forged with the tools of globalisation rather than as a consequence of it. To explain this we need to remember why the EU came about. The founding fathers always saw the EU as a means of suppressing the dangerous nationalism that caused so much suffering in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The idea was that if the people of Europe could be united by a common political structure and ideals then ‘parochial’ and ‘dangerous’ national concerns would evaporate or could be circumvented. They saw a powerful EU as a vehicle for peace, and they viewed the mechanics of globalisation as a means for breaking down national sovereignty and driving the project forward. However, it is interesting how historical perspectives influence views on these matters. For the most part, the UK has never suffered from the effects of the extreme nationalistic ideologies that we have seen on mainland Europe in the past. At least until recently, Britons have been completely at ease with our history, who we are and what we stand for. Our patriotism has never had undesirable nationalistic undertones and in fact we fought several wars against the extremism which the EU founding fathers worried about. I would also argue that our sense of national identity and common endeavour have been a catalyst for great cultural, educational and scientific innovation, and our liberal values have been an inspiration across the world. This difference in understanding about national identity is the root cause of the differing attitudes between the UK and our EU partners about the purpose and extent of the EU project. Our vision is different because we are unabashed that our rich history of national identity is in our very soul rather than the European understanding that it is something that should be hidden and suppressed. It is worse than a mere difference of understanding, however. The EU leaders are actively using the tools of globalisation to batter down national sovereignty. Think about how EU policies seek to destroy those critical characteristics of the nation state such as Schengen (geographical boundaries) and the freedom of movement of people (cultural identity and ethnicity). However, the real dishonesty is that such policies are presented as unavoidable components of free trade whereas the real intention is to use them for an altogether different purpose.
But does any of this matter? Well, I believe that the crucial relationship between the people and the leadership of the nation states is already starting to fragment, and that by imposing policies designed to weaken sovereignty, the EU is actually causing the very tensions that the project was designed to prevent. These tensions include the rise of populist and extreme parties and a dangerous electoral apathy. There is a feeling by people that their vote makes little difference and that they no longer have a voice. Trust in leaders is at an all-time low and there is strong whiff of revolution in the air. This cannot end well in my view: the bond between people and leadership is dreadfully weakened and can only be restored by bringing decision-making closer to the people not further away. People need to see that they can make a difference and that the power of globalisation will not overpower their ability to change their lives. The Westphalian model of the nation state and western style democracy remain the best way of achieving this, and I refute the idea that it has to be dismantled to prevent European states going to war with each other. Another European war is inconceivable because trade links and capital flows alone are enough to cement common interest and cooperation without any further need to unpick the very glue that binds the people together. I do accept that globalisation complicates decision-making in international affairs and that countries should cooperate to solve problems. That said, I refute entirely the notion that globalisation heralds the end of the nation state and the version of supranational government being peddled by EU leaders.
As with many things in the political arena, it comes down to balance. In my view the foreign policy wonks at the FCO need to revisit their academic assumptions on international affairs and balance them with democratic factors. As for politicians, they come and go. Perhaps we’ll get one with great vision who can spot the dangers but don’t hold your breath.
This article provides the main reason that I shall campaign to leave the EU. The fundamental reform promised by the Prime Minister could only be delivered by reinforcing the foundations of the nation state and this is something he is not seeking to change or that the EU is willing to address. We need to protect our nation state by voting to leave. International cooperation can continue afterwards regardless.