Thursday, 30 March 2017

Article 50 and Identity: what can we learn?

How European do you feel?  How does that feeling manifest itself?  Does that feeling really require to be validated by membership of supra-national institutions?

One of the things that struck me reading a lot of the response to the triggering of article 50 was how much of it was about identity.  People who had voted Remain felt personally bereft.  I found that remarkable for a number of reasons.

Although I personally feel European – that somehow Europeanness is part of my cultural background – I don’t feel the need for that to coincide with governmental structures.  I don’t feel less European today, nor do I expect to feel any less European in 2 years’ time when and if the UK finally leaves the EU.

Culture and government

Indeed, I don’t feel any facet of my cultural identity needs to coincide with governmental structures.  Quite the reverse: I am deeply suspicious of the idea that government maps onto a culture in any way.  Not only do I think that quite impossible, since cultures both overlap geographic boundaries and vary greatly within them, I also think it a dangerous idea for a state to adhere to.

Nor do I assume any unity of interests with governments or with state structures. Instead I work from the assumption that a government is something with which I will be in conflict when I fight to represent my interests and values.

Neither Leave nor Remain seemed worthy of my energy

I did not feel engaged with the EU referendum. Neither side seemed worthy of my energy. When I voted Remain, it was with no enthusiasm, and it was a last-minute decision.  In the end, it was a reaction against the tenor of the Leave campaign.  I was no heart-and-soul Remainer: I cannot bring myself to feel any love for the institutions of the EU.

The EU is a neoliberal project. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which we were led into by Gordon Brown, is a codification of neoliberal principles.  Far from being about protecting workers’ rights, it is about protecting the interests of the business elites. It is a prospectus for privatisation and deregulation, for eroding public health services and free education, and for decimating pension provision.

If Scotland becomes independent after a second independence referendum, I’d want it to follow policies that took a very different direction: that is exactly why I support it.  Not through some kind of misplaced civic pride, but because I want there to be change.  I’d want to see utilities, transport, and the mail service nationalised.  I’d certainly hope the EU’s illogical and wasteful agricultural and fisheries management could be avoided. And I’d strongly argue that a separate Scottish currency would be a necessity in order to avoid constraining the economic levers open to government.  All of this would be far easier within EFTA than within the EU; I fail to understand why a headlong dash back into the EU is seen by so many as a given.

If I can’t work up any enthusiasm for the institutions of the EU, nor can I give any backing to the Tory Brexit team.  They do not represent me or my interests.  I fear the outcome of David Davis’s “great repeal bill”, the effects of the sweeping powers we’re told it’ll bring.  I predict those powers will be used to benefit the already powerful, not the working class.  I do not trust Theresa May to represent me in any negotiations.  I do not expect the Tories to represent any interests other than those of capital.

That Letter’s No Mine

The Twitter hashtag that took off yesterday and which features on the front page of today’s National was quite correct: that letter’s no mine.  I will never unite behind a Tory agenda.

But on the other hand, as I read through the contributions to the hashtag, I had the uncomfortable feeling that the hashtag wasn’t mine either.  It was full of an identity politics that made me uneasy.  Too many contributions seemed too uncritical of the intuitions of the EU.  Too much went unexamined.

I know: it was an in-the-moment reaction.  But it seemed one based far more on identity and emotion than on either analysis or practical concerns.  When the independence referendum campaign is finally launched, I hope that the Yes side does not operate from the assumption that EU membership is a given.  And I sincerely hope that arguments in favour of membership would not be predicated on identity.  We are European no matter how governments choose to do business with each other, no matter what treaties are struck, no matter what grouping an independent Scotland joins.

However, there is something we can learn from the outpouring of emotion: identity does matter to people.  And if Yes wins, there will be identity Unionists who might feel just as bereft as the identity Remainers did yesterday.  We need to show people that the arguments are about practicalities and policy, and that they can still feel a sense of belonging to these islands, this archipelago, even if the polities within its geography change.  If we don’t do that, we risk an unhappy minority – perhaps a very large one.  That would be the payback for giving validity to identity politics in our campaign.

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