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In / Out: Which Way for the European Union?

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On 23 June 2016 the UK electorate is being asked a simple question. “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The options are simple: In or Out. Soothsayers and latter day wise guys of every ilk are at the ready. With oodles of sagacity; opinion, informed or otherwise is in full flow.

To be fair to the people of that country, European Union (EU) membership was never a particularly easy matter. Back in 1973 when the UK signed up to membership of what was then known as the Common Market there were opposing views that cut across the traditional left/ right divide.

Some saw it as a way the war mongering Europeans could learn to live in peace after a century in which that view was severely tested. It was a view much promoted by various European social democratic parties of that time. Other held that the British were an “island people” quite apart from those dreadful (European) Continental types. Another view was that the Common Market acted as a sort of buffer between the Soviet Union and the USA.

The left was divided. The European project is a rich man’s club and should be avoided. Greater European collaboration would strengthen economic security, meaning jobs and enhance people’s rights in the face of a sometimes hostile state.

The right was similarly divided. It welcomed the project as a properly sanctioned market, good for business, private enterprise and profits. The European Union imposed bureaucratic restriction and regulations on what should be a free market for business enterprise.

There were other nuances as well of course. And to make life more complicated the EU itself underwent changes. The world started to change in the mid 1970s; social democracy as an established ideology began to wane. Britain’s industrial base went into decline; Germany asserted itself as the leading European economic power and eventually, a united state.

Many in the UK began to see the EU as a gravy train for not particularly inspiring politicians, both Labour and Conservative. Ideology of the neoliberal brand disguised itself in a cloak of technocracy. Rules and regulations, promoted and imposed by non elected bureaucrats became the order on the day while elected member of the European Parliament emerged as less than a side show.

Much of the so called “hard left” has always opposed EU membership. But it was to be the voice of an increasingly vociferous right which set the pace for questioning EU membership. Some in the ruling Conservatives became a threat to the leadership of their own party. The emergence of the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) grew into a scary, political reality.

UKIP gained support from conventional Conservative supporters. Traditional Labour party voters, left behind in the UK’s decline under governments of different colours, started to look to UKIP. So in typical British Establishment fashion the country’s rulers have given the people what they wanted but in a way which is entirely in keeping with the Establishment’s own interests. Hence the referendum.

If which way to vote in the referendum is not easy for the electorate it’s a head ach-and-a-half for the editors on the main daily and Sunday newspapers. After lambasting the EU, its regulations and officials for months, even years, an editor now has to put his or her money where their mouth is.

No editor wants to back the wrong side and increase their chances of losing readership numbers, resulting in reduced market share with diminished returns from advertising revenue. These papers aren’t called the yellow press for nothing. Or perhaps the editors aren’t such wise guys after all. There are some dissenting voices among big business but in general the trend in is favour of the status quo. In other words, vote to remain in the EU.

Many have their favorite tales of EU absurdity. Take my friend’s case of a fishmonger who owned a shop in an English town with a population of just over 7000, about 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Oxford. The fish monger, the only one in town, was in his mid 50s. He displayed his fish from a marble slab and had done so without complaint for decades. In hot weather he put the fish in a refrigerator until ordered, with only pictures and notices on the marble slabs. That didn’t do for the inspectors when they arrived, well versed in EU regulations drafted in Brussels. Fish purveyors are obliged to present their products from refrigerated displays. End of story.

At his age the shop owner was not inclined to take on the capital outlay for this new equipment. He sold his shop, took early retirement and made his two assistants redundant. As a treat he took himself to the warmer climes of Europe, including Portugal, for a holiday.

But alas, he returned, so I am informed, in a state of near apoplexy. In Europe he saw fish being sold from marble slabs, wooden counters and even cardboard boxes in Portugal. And what of the EU regulation, he inquired? It appeared no one was likely to enforce such regulations. Meanwhile the good people of his town make a round journey of 36 miles (58 kilometers) every time they want to taste fresh fish.

In all this confusion of claim and counter claim there may yet be a clear beam of light piercing the smoke and flash bangs of the referendum battle. Further north in Scotland the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) formally debated the In/Out question. There were differing views and the majority opted for remaining in the EU. The Out campaign was seen as dominated by racists and English nationalists. These are unionists who would do all they could to impede Scottish independence, a central plank of SSP policy, and take the UK further to the right.

The Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, which saw the rejection of independence by a 10 % majority of the voters, generated a lot of enthusiasm and practical experience. Soon after this defeat a number of individuals and groups on the left, including the SSP, set about exploring, then building a left electoral alliance in Scotland. Eventually this has emerged as RISE; Respect, Independence, Socialism, Environment. RISE will be standing candidates for the Scottish parliament elections this May.

RISE is ambitiously fielding 40 candidates in all of Scotland eight electoral regions this May. But its take on the June referendum on EU membership is to my mind a step even further. Read what the RISE manifesto says on the subject.

“RISE takes no official position on the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. RISE supports a socialist Europe: some of our members believe that will come about through reform from within the EU, while others believe that the EU is undemocratic and should be broken up.”

The left is famous for its fragmentations and similarly famous for its calls for left unity. While this unity might hold on a particular issue over a relatively short period of time it too often reduces to an arthritic and bureaucratic stance, incapable of moving with changing circumstances. The result is more bitterness and divisions among the left.

Egyptian Marxist and political economist, Samir Aziz on the other hand has long made known his preference for what he refers to as “convergence of diversity.” Diversity is what the left does well, so why can’t it make it work?

Part of the problem is that we don’t have a good working definition for such a condition of diversity. Those of us who grew up in a north west European culture have been exposed to the tradition of precise and clinical thinking. We sometimes call this “clear thinking” even in the midst of muddle. This has served us well, especially in the physical world. In the social world where diversity thrives and often seems to be ahead of our particular curve its utility is less certain.

So we are left with one of life’s old conundrums. How to do the right thing, how to do the thing right? The technocrats and many of my friends in political parties seek to eliminate risk. Others accept risk – this is not just for the entrepreneur classes – it’s part of diversity.

In the meantime RISE – like them or loath them – goes to the electorate with a convergence of diversity working model, ready to be tested in the referendum. That’s got to be a good start.

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Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

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