Arguably the most contentious debate in current British politics is that of our European Union membership. When I was younger, I often had fierce debates with my grandfather over our membership of the EU. He, of course, was old enough to have voted in the 1975 European Communities membership referendum and had seen, over the years, the negative effects he believed it had had on our country.
When we had these debates I, as a young socialist, was fiercely in favour of Britain remaining part of the EU. However, it was not until I was older that I asked myself why I was in favour. I believe the main reason was because I thought that being left wing meant favouring the EU was obligatory. It was a difficult position to find myself in.
As I have got older I have increasingly grappled with where my beliefs lie. I honestly could not tell you. Since the debates with my grandfather, my political beliefs have, in fact, got more radical. In many ways I am more left wing now than I was then, but I have still yet to decide my position on our EU membership.
Of course, I believe the UK needs to work with Europe, and we must, of course, continue to trade with Europe, but to do these things must we be part of what is essentially the federalisation of the states of Europe?
This is why I am fascinated by the late Tony Benn. To a young lefty like me he seems a complete oddity. Everyone on the left seems to be pro-EU, but here was a man who was as socialist as they come but opposed to EU membership. No one can accuse him of being a racist or a xenophobe – as a self-proclaimed internationalist that would, of course, be absurd – so why is it that there is a feeling on the left of politics that one must be pro-EU?
Personally, I believe it is a case of the de-politicisation of economic policy. Ever since Thatcher, and perhaps before, economic policy has determined the rest of the political agenda. Politicians these days often seem little more than administrators of the economy rather than public servants. Since Blair, most of the Labour party have accepted this. Like the other political parties, then, they must concede that if being a member of the EU is required out of economic necessity, they must be in favour.
As a self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Neoliberalist’, I, like Benn, am not saddled with this necessity. I do not accept that there is only one way to do economics, and I believe humanity needs to shape economic policy and not vice versa. So this does not seem to be a reason for me to be in favour. Furthermore, as Mr Benn quite rightly used to point out, the European Union is undemocratic: the commission is appointed, not elected and he saw that the influence of private wealth and power represented much more than the interests of working people.
So why should I be in favour of membership? If I follow the path of someone who shares many of my views – the late Mr Benn – then perhaps I should be in favour of leaving? Well, there are a few points which I find I could get excited about. The first is that of green policies. The EU does a lot to help member states enact environmental policies and only brain-dead climate change sceptics could disagree that this is a good thing. Also, there is the matter of human rights as the courts in the European Union do offer another defence for working people, but of course they have made controversial decisions in the past.
After the debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg I think we have seen these arguments dominated not by a compassionate titan of the left, such as Tony Benn, but by a deceitful, nationalist public school boy. Nigel Farage makes some of these arguments, but the idea he is in any way doing it out of any obligation towards the most disadvantaged in society is nothing less than ridiculous. This is a man who wants a flat rate of tax at 35%. Do working people in this country truly believe that would be good for them?
Currently this debate is dominated by the right. I think the left need a sharp wake-up call. If our default position is pro-EU we have to make good arguments that show people why we must stick with it. I think the cold economic analysis of Nick Clegg in the debates was poor. He did not seem to give many positive reasons for remaining, only that the sky would fall in if we left. Also, we must be honest; I believe the EU is undemocratic so surely we must demonstrate the benefits but call for reform. As long as we let the right dominate this argument we are alienating a large part of society who are sceptical. If we cannot engage with their point of view and only let the right answer their concerns, then we risk giving them precious ground that the left really cannot afford to lose.