Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Illusion of Independence

In October 1964, the British Labour party won a close victory in the General Election. Within weeks, there was a currency crisis, which Labour politicians blamed on the so-called Gnomes of Zürich - in other words, external and unelected powers that controlled the international economic climate. After a decade of economic crises, Britain joined the European Economic Community (known as the Common Market) in 1973, and this was endorsed by a referendum in 1975. The EEC has now evolved into the European Union, with the active participation and (sometimes grudging) consent of successive British Governments.

In 1975, one of the key arguments against EEC membership was that it was supposed to undermine British sovereignty. The argument was put forcibly at both ends of the political spectrum, by Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, and a new version of the argument has been put forward by Alan Sked, the founder of UKIP. (By the way, Professor Sked is no longer involved in UKIP, which in his opinion has been taken over by racists and the far-right.)

However, Sked's argument is rather puzzling. He puts forward a formal notion of sovereignty that is possessed in equal measure by the dictator of a bankrupt and internationally powerless country (Zimbabwe), by the elected president of a rich country with a robust separation of powers (United States), and by the UK parliament acting in the name of the sovereign. The UK parliament retains the power to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972; therefore although some elements of sovereignty may have been delegated to Europe, they have not been lost. And yet the protection of this formal sovereignty provides sufficient reason for Sked to advocate Brexit.

These notions of sovereignty were already being dismissed as Victorian in 1975, and seem no more relevant today than they were then.

There are many small and powerless countries around the world, and the idea that we should envy them their "independence" is laughable. As is the idea that our bargaining position as an "independent" country would be anything like as favourable as our bargaining position as a member of a substantial trading bloc.

It was initially thought that big business was unanimously in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. Even Swiss financiers (ironically) have warned that Brexit could lead to market turbulence and currency crisis.

However, other financiers now appear to be endorsing Brexit, claiming that they want control to pass back into "our" hands. 

So whose hands would that be? Financiers? Or gnomes? No thank you.

Alex Brummer, The sovereign that never ruled (Guardian, 6 January 1999)

Alex Brummer, 'Gnomes of Zurich' strike again with an epoch-making move in the currency markets (Daily Mail, 15 January 2015)
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Swiss wealth managers warn of 'sudden stop' in capital after Brexit (Telegraph, 15 April 2016)

Greg Rosen, Labour’s Brexit brigade should not rewrite history (Progress, 10 Feb 2016)

Alan Sked, L’état c’est nous: sovereignty is no illusion, and we should retain it (LSE blogs, March 2016)

Harold Wilson and the 1964 Labour Government:The devaluation of socialism (Fifth International, Feb 1997)

European Communities Debate (Hansard, 27 October 1971)

Wikipedia: Bruges Group, Gnomes of Zürich, Separation of powers, UK Independence Party

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