Democracy Café – December 2020

We ended this most unusual year with a lively discussion on sovereignty but we also briefly, and rather gloomily, discussed was England doomed?  Two jolly topics leading up to the festive season. We also managed a brief diversion into animal rights.  The meeting was held via Zoom.

Two aspects to sovereignty were suggested, firstly what is it exactly and what does it mean?  Secondly, we discussed it in relation to the current Brexit situation where, in the last few weeks, it has assumed considerable salience.  This is being written when the UK was hovering on the brink of leaving the EU and leaving without a deal looking like a real prospect.  [If it takes me more than a hour or so to write this, we might even know.]

We were reminded that all through the tortuous negotiations of the past three or four years, it was economic prosperity which was promised with the easiest trade deal in history and a world waiting to sign us up to their trade deals.  In the last few weeks, sovereignty seems to have loomed larger in the discussions, hence the suggestion we debate it.  Could it be that the realisation that the economic case has become quite weak and so sovereignty has risen up the agenda?

Every time we make an agreement or sign a treaty with another nation, we essentially give a piece of our sovereignty in return for some kind of advantage.  This is the essence of all the hundreds – probably thousands – of such agreements we have made over the centuries.  It is believed the first treaty the UK signed was in 1386 with Portugal which, outrageously, allowed free trade between the two nations and for free movement of people as well.  There may have been a party formed in the 14th Century called UK Independent of Portugal’ or UKIP for short but I’m not certain.

In recent times, sovereignty has come to mean ‘bending people to our will’.  It seems to have lost its sense of mutual cooperation and become all about power – and one-sided power at that.  It was observed that there was a sense that we were seeking to leave the EU to prove the sovereignty point – a bit like shooting yourself in the foot to prove you have one.  It was also seen in terms of competition – ‘take back control’ – with winners and losers.  How could we change and move from a culture of conflict to one of cooperation?  What can we do to develop a greater sense of a caring culture?  Perhaps the education system was the place to start. 

One of the puzzles of the current position and the prime minister’s statements of the past few days, concerns the point that once we have left the EU we will not have influence over its rules.  This is the situation Norway and Switzerland are in:  they are rule takers not rule makers.  If we diverge too much with our labour laws or standards for example, then the EU will be concerned about unfair competition and act accordingly.  It was compared to someone leaving a tennis club and then seeking to change club rules.  Yet this has seemed a difficult concept for some in government to accept.

There was discussion about the loss of Empire and the effect of that on people’s views.  For some, this loss has been a painful wrench and being tied to the EU merely acted to reinforce that loss.  This was also linked to some of the myths of WWII (‘we stood alone’).  In this connection, and the desire to hold on to an imagined past, could we not imagine a future it was suggested?  We can never go back to that past yet we find articulating a view of the future difficult.

There was then a discussion about wealth and the banks especially following the crash of 2018.  This was perhaps part of a feeling that sovereignty was too narrowly focused on us and the EU.  We did not have full sovereignty over the City of London yet few were concerned about this.  Chomsky has commented that $47tn has been transferred from the poorest to the wealthiest in recent years: 

“We have just endured 40 years of regression, the neoliberal regime, a bitter assault against democracy and on the kind of society that can sustain it.  An estimate of the monetary cost to the general population was recently given by the Rand Corporation: $47 trillion transferred from the working and middle classes (90 percent of the population) to the super-rich; the top 0.1 percent doubled their share of wealth to 20 percent of the total since Ronald Reagan.

“The Rand figures are a considerable underestimate.  Tens of trillions more were “transferred” after Reagan opened the spigots for tax havens, shell companies and other devices to rob the public.  More were developed under Clinton’s deregulatory mania.  Reagan and his partner Margaret Thatcher moved at once to undermine the labor movement, setting in motion the campaigns to deprive working people of the primary means to resist the assault.  The serious decline of functioning democracy is a virtual corollary of the radical concentration of wealth and dispatch of much of the general population to stagnation and precarity.”  Global Policy Journal, 26 November, 2020

This and other imbalances have never been fully addressed by the Left it was noted.  Corporate Welfare was another area of wealth imbalance which receives almost no attention.

We moved on to discuss big corporations and their increasing power.  Shoshana Zuboff’s book on Surveillance Capitalism was mentioned.  People are beginning to have second thoughts about some of the tech giants and their increasing power.  It was the power of ‘them’ – a reference to the various corporations, media firms and banks – who seem to control our lives in various ways.  The likes of Cummings and Johnson it was suggested, were about facilitating the movement of wealth upwards i.e. from the poorest to the wealthiest.

In this connection, the concept of psychopolitics was brought up: a kind of version of Big Brother where people are conditioned by a combination of neoliberalism, corporate power and information.  How this was used in America to micro-target the black vote and successfully persuade them not to vote was given as an example.  

Was England doomed?  The many problems – economic, a failure of democracy and the first past the post system, and cultural divisions, all led to a gloomy view.  In a sense we are now in a ‘phoney war’ as far as the EU was concerned, the full effects either way will not be fully felt until 2021.  Could this be an opportunity to reset it was suggested, a bit like after the wars which heralded important social changes in housing and the creation of the NHS?  Possibly, but during those wars, significant work was done in preparation as part of a desire for ‘never again.’  No such preparation is currently in progress since leaving the EU is believed to lead to a successful future for the country.  Indeed, the government is preparing bills to limit the power of the judiciary and to modify the Human Rights Act which some would argue are negative steps. 

Some were more positive on the other hand noting the huge rise in community support which emerged with programmes like the NHS responders and locally, WCA.  This was reflected in more positive coverage of events in the local media. 

This took the discussion on to the issue of subsidiarity – leaving decision making as close to the individual as possible.  We discussed likely devolution in England; the desire by the Scots to stay in the EU (if UK leaves), and the increasing independence shown by the Welsh government over the past year.  Perhaps there might be a greater role for local government it was suggested. 

Finally, we moved onto animal rights.  It is here that we have almost complete sovereignty despite the fact that many animals are sentient creatures and are social.  Animals were not in a position to reciprocate however. 

This only gives a flavour of the debate.   Perhaps one of the main conclusions is how partial the debate is framed particularly in relation to the EU.  It is seen as a kind of zero sum game where if you have a treaty with another country, then you have lost something and your sovereignty is diminished.  It seemed to be linked to nationalistic sentiments.  Secondly, it is extremely partial in its application seeming only to apply to Brussels.  Corporate power, and in particular the tech giants, the City and countries like USA and China all exert power over us and actually, or potentially, reduce our sovereignty, yet this is seldom discussed and almost never in terms of lost sovereignty.  

Peter Curbishley

Our next meeting is on 9 January and you would be welcome to join which you do by getting in touch with one of us.