Democracy, Europe, Nationalism... and Nick Clegg: a response to Anthony Barnett

One of Britain's leading contemporary historians and political analysts who served as a Labour MP, worked in the EU Commission and helped create the SDP responds to Anthony Barnett's recent critique of the Deputy Prime Minister
David Marquand
12 February 2011

This piece was written in response to Anthony Barnett’s recent OurKingdom post ‘Decoding Nick Clegg’.

Dear Anthony

I was really astonished by your recent piece on Nick Clegg. I’m glad you said you didn’t want to join the hate campaign against him. Hatred is a poisonous emotion that usually does more damage to the hater than the hated. It is quite incompatible with the sort of democracy I believe in: a democracy of public reasoning and careful deliberation. But apart from that, I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick – in fact, the wrong end of a whole forest of sticks.

Your basic premise – that because Clegg doesn’t understand the term ‘marketisation’ he can’t be a real politician – is odd, to say the least. ‘Marketisation’ makes sense to academics and self-styled public intellectuals, but I doubt if many politicians use it or understand it. The truth, I think, is that Clegg is a clever, but muddled and, in many ways, rather silly young man. But that doesn’t make him a non-politician. He seems to me pretty typical of his generation of politicians – the generation that grew up under Thatcher and reached maturity under Blair. To take a couple of examples, he seems to me to have a lot in common with David Miliband, on the Labour side of the House, and with Michael Gove on the Tory side.

But these are side issues. What really troubles me is your line on three much more fundamental points.

First, democracy. Obviously, you’re for it. Who isn’t? But you don’t say what kind of democracy you’re for – and still less where you think the limits of democratic governance, however interpreted, should lie. Democracy is a highly contested term, as I tried to show in my last book. In particular, plebiscitary democracy – the democracy of the popular referendum – is the enemy of the democracy of public reasoning and careful deliberation that I believe in. Perhaps wrongly (and if I am wrong I apologise) I get the feeling that you’re really for plebiscitary democracy. Hence your belief that it was shocking and dreadful for the mysterious people you call ‘our rulers in Brussels’ to disregard the referendum results in France, the Netherlands and Ireland.

I’m afraid I disagree. As a graduate student in California more than 50 years ago I saw plebiscitary democracy in action, and a nasty sight it was. Attlee famously said the referendum was a weapon for demagogues and dictators, and he was right. Much more to the point, though, is that it’s a weapon for media moguls, well-heeled interest groups, professional lobbyists and market populists. I know the referendum has now become part of our uncodified constitution, but that’s not a reason for treating it with superstitious reverence. The voice of the people is not always the voice of God. If the referendum had been part of our constitution in the Thirties, there would have been a massive majority for the Munich Agreement. A referendum on de-criminalising homosexuality in the sixties would have endorsed the status quo. A referendum now would probably go in favour of a return to capital punishment. It’s too late now to put the referendum genie back in the bottle, but we should limit its use as much as possible.

Second, the alleged Euro-elite. What precisely do you mean by that? You say, on no evidence at all, that what you call the ‘top administration in Brussels’ is ‘full of vons and vans’. When I was a Commission official years ago none of my colleagues were vons or even vans. (Incidentally, ‘van’ in Dutch and Flemish doesn’t imply aristocracy: it just means ‘from’!) The vast majority came from the professional middle class, some from quite poor backgrounds. There were some arrogant people among them – the most arrogant from the British Foreign Office. But arrogance isn’t exactly unknown in Whitehall. The general tone was social-democratic, with a tincture of Christian Democracy. The Secretary General of the Commission was an old-time French socialist, and a wise and idealistic person. If you want to know what the Commission was really like, ponder this: among the French (and I imagine the Italians) there was a freemasonry of wartime resistants, who tutoyed each other. And that applied to the relationship between huissiers and Commissioners!

What I’m trying to say, Anthony, is that the dreaded Brussels Commission was far more open-minded, and far less pompous and hierarchical than Her Majesty’s civil service. But perhaps you didn’t mean the Commission. In that case, what did you mean? Did you mean the bureaucracy of the Council of Ministers? They, of course, are national officials, so any faults they have are those of the national administrations they come from. Or did you mean the European Parliament? That, of course, consists of democratically elected politicians. And don’t forget that it’s now far more powerful than it used to be. It now enjoys powers of co-decision with the Council – in other words with the nation states in the aggregate. You talk of ‘our rulers in Brussels’ as though they were on a distant planet. The truth is that ‘our rulers in Brussels’ are us – of course together with the officials and elected persons from the other Member States.

Third, the ‘nations’ you appear to like so much. I feel so strongly about this that I find it difficult to express myself. Let me try. I believe that the omnicompetent, totally sovereign nation state as conceived by the Treaty of Westphalia is an abomination. Quarrels between Westphalian nation states have repeatedly plunged our continent in blood and shame. That, and not just the fact that almost six million Jews were done to death in a process of industrialised mass murder, is the real meaning of the Holocaust. But don’t run away with the idea that it was only during the Second World War that blood was spilled and shame engendered. The First World War was almost as horrifying. Have you ever visited Verdun? If you think nation states are good things, you should. And you should also read Alistair Horne’s marvellous The Price of Glory. Did you know that the battle of Verdun lasted twice as long as that of Stalingrad. That the casualties totalled 750,000! Or if you prefer, take a ride around rural France and ponder the human and emotional meaning of the war memorials in remote country villages, listing the names of the dead, and inscribed with the haunting motto: ‘Morts pour La France’.

You’ll tell me, I suppose, that that is in the past and will never happen again. But that’s not the point. The point is that it did happen, again and again and again. It’s because he was trying to end that terrible story once and for all that I see Monnet as the greatest European statesman of the last century, perhaps of any century. The motto he chose for his memoirs says it all: ‘Nous ne coalisons pas les etats, nous unissons les hommes’. That was the meaning of the stated purpose of the Rome Treaty: ‘an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’. (Incidentally, we signed to that when we joined the EEC as it then was.) The project hasn’t gone as far as it needs to go. But that’s not the fault of the wicked Euro-elite. It’s the fault of the purblind, mean-minded, introverted, power-hogging Westphalian nation states.

As ever, David

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