Democracy: “we” or “oui”?

For me the EU referendum debate all comes down to democracy. While there are many specific gripes about rule from Brussels – for some it is lack of control over immigration, for others it is over-regulation, for others the amount we spend on the EU or the inability to strike our own trade deals with the wider world – if we were once again a fully functioning democracy we would have control over all those matters.

Democracy is a strange creature, because just about everyone claims to believe in it. For that reason perhaps it is never really discussed and I suspect it is not deeply understood. In particular I believe there is an essential link between democracy and the nation state, to the extent that the former can not truly exist without the latter.

But many people who are suspicious of the nation state – particularly on the left – would claim to be democrats, and do not see the link between the two. This is one of the fundamental errors made by the architects and the supports of the EU, and is the subject of this post.

So, what is democracy? The essential principle that I think everyone would agree on is the principle of majority rule. You take a vote, and the majority position prevails. There is a lot more to a functioning democracy, but let’s leave that aside for now and consider that most basic question: Why should the majority view prevail?

Is the majority always right? Or is it more likely to be right? Or does the majority view perhaps define what we mean by “right”?

A little thought shows that none of those answers will do. If the majority view defined what is right, no one would be able to hold an opinion until a vote had been taken, and how would they decide how to vote? And we can all think of cases where a majority decision has not been right. There was a majority for slavery in the Confederate states of the USA (and would still have been even if the slaves had been allowed to vote).

Another view which I think gets some way to the truth holds that the purpose of democracy is to avoid conflict, and if it came to a fight the larger group would probably win, so we may as well take a vote and avoid a fight. But the larger group is not always the strongest. It might make more sense to say that the group with the largest number of young men wins. Or the most weapons, or the most money. And if I am in the minority, but think we could win a fight, why not go for it?

Democracy relies on the willingness of  the minority to accept the majority decision. The SNP accepted the result of the Scottish referendum. They did not have to agree with it, and indeed they continue to campaign for an independent Scotland as they have every right to do. But they do not dispute the result.

No purely logical argument requires a minority to accept a decision they disagree with. I think the strength of the democratic principle lies in the social nature of the human species. We are tribal by instinct. For most of our history we lived in small groups which relied on cooperation for their survival. Hunter-gatherers are largely egalitarian, they do not have chiefs. Everyone is free to leave the group, but to do so is risky. Usually there is a discussion and the group reaches a consensus on what to do next. But what can we do when there are too many people to sit around one camp fire?

A system of chiefs, kings and emperors relies ultimately on force to impose a consensus, but it is unstable as rivals do battle for the top spot. Today the most prosperous, successful and stable countries are democracies and I believe they owe this to our hunter-gatherer psychology.

The motivation to accept a majority decision comes from the  recognition that “while I want to do X we have decided to do Y“. It is the ability to say we – my group – that motivates me to accept a decision I might not like. It is not a logical argument, but it is, for a human, a compelling one.

If I can’t say we about the group that has made the decision then it looks very different. In that case we are the dissenters and the argument becomes: “we want to do X but they want to do Y, and there are more of them than there are of us“. And that is not at all a compelling argument for a human. In fact it triggers our fight-or-flight response. As well as being cooperative with the in-group humans are naturally suspicious or even hostile towards the out-group. Survival has often depended upon this instinct.

What I am saying is that in order to be willing to accept a majority decision that we don’t agree with we have to have a strong sense of identity with the group. We can test this by looking at situations in which democracy has not worked – by which I mean that minorities have not been ready to accept majority rule and conflict has resulted. We would expect this to happen where different tribal/cultural/religious identities are stronger than the sense of nationhood. And indeed that is what we see. It has proven particularly difficult to establish functional democracies in the Middle East and sub-saharan Africa where long-standing tribal loyalties do not correspond closely to national borders.

To take some recent examples, in Afghanistan and Iraq, where democratic institutions were essentially imposed by external powers, while there was considerable popular enthusiasm for the process of voting for a government, they have notably failed to produce the peaceful societies that had been hoped for. In Iraq the principal divisions are between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the linguistically and culturally distinct Kurdish people in the north. In Afghanistan there are many tribes, with the main linguistic groups being Dari and Pashto. In these places democracy has become a new arena for playing out old tribal hostilities.

Closer to home the Northern Ireland “Troubles” are a case in point. The partition of Ireland in 1921 was due to the fact that the minority Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist population in the North of Ireland identified as British and did not wish to become part of an independent Ireland. The troubles of the 1970’s-90’s resulted from the fact that the minority Catholic/Nationalist/Republican population in the North did not identify as British, and came into conflict with the P/U/Ls. Each side in this conflict was able to recite  an alternative history of grievance.

The particular conundrum for democrats was that both sides were minorities. The P/U/Ls were a minority in the whole of Ireland, while the C/N/Rs were a minority in the North. And neither group was willing to submit itself to the will of a majority with which it did not identify. The principle point of contention was where to draw the borders that define the electorate. It is clear that this is not a question that can be decided by taking a vote.

The evidence points to the fact that effective democracy requires an electorate with a sufficiently strong sense of identity that maintaining cohesion is more important than any individual political issue. When political parties are strongly identified with a particular tribe, ethnic, linguistic or cultural group, this is not likely to be the case.

I am not saying that a democracy has to be culturally, linguistically, ethnically and religiously homogeneous (though that certainly helps). There are enough examples of functioning democracies in the world where this is not the case, e.g. Canada, Belgium, Singapore, though in each case the fault lines are visible.

I am saying that a democracy needs to be a nation-state with a sense of national identity that trumps cultural/linguistic/ethnic/religious differences. If that is not the case democracy is just the dictatorship of the majority and it will not – and does not deserve to – command the support of its people. And it will fail.

The above clearly leaves many questions about democracy unanswered. (How do you decide where to draw borders? What institutions are needed to make it work?) My purpose here is just to apply this line of thought to the EU.

Most of the individual member states of the EU have a long history of being functioning countries and at least some history of being functioning democracies. Most borders coincide closely with linguistic boundaries that go back hundreds of years.

The EU however is not a functioning country or a democracy and we can see why. There is no European sense of identity that comes close to superseding the sense of being British, or French, or Polish. Sure, I will admit to being European as opposed to Asian or African. But that is not a significant part of my sense of identity. When push comes to shove, we will always feel it is “them” against “us”. There is no European “we”. This has been summarised by saying that the EU can never be a democracy because it does not have a demos.

As further evidence, there are no truly pan-European political parties. The groups of the European Parliament are mere flags of convenience for national parties with very different outlooks and priorities. No one votes for them, and hardly anyone can even name them. The truth is the EU never aspired to democracy. It is by design a bureaucratic oligarchy with democratic window-dressing.

But, some will ask, should we not somehow force ourselves to feel “European” and form a new super-nation in order to avoid wars between the old countries? That is a huge and dangerous misunderstanding. A national identity can not be conjured out of thin air. Forcing together people who do not share a sense of identity does not reduce conflict, it increases it, and this is what we are seeing. The Euro project and the austerity measures forced on the Mediterranean countries to maintain it have increased tensions between EU states. The Greeks have not expressed such animosity towards the Germans since 1945. That is a consequence of working against human group psychology. As the proverb has it, good fences make good neighbours.

But we need not despair. Nation states can cooperate peacefully, as indeed they are doing increasingly successfully all over the world, without being subsumed into pan-national superstates. The EU needs to dissolve and reform as a free trade area and cooperative arrangement between independent nation states. I believe that will happen eventually whether the UK Leaves or Remains, but it will happen all the sooner if we leave, and the death-throws of this ill-conceived experiment are not something we need to be a part of.

Aylan Kurdi

Aylan Kurdi is the name the international media gave to the three year old boy washed up drowned on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, whose picture went around the world and triggered a wave of sympathy for Syrian refugees and revulsion at the people-traffickers.

It turns out his name was in fact Alan but it seems “Aylan Kurdi” is the name that will forever be associated with that image. Yesterday two Syrians were convicted for their role in trafficking his family, but they were not found liable for his death.

I am writing about Aylan because on Question Time this week (BBC1 3/3/2016) a couple of panel members and a section of the audience seemed to think that his tragic end made an important point for them about migration. That point was (I am paraphrasing) that no father would put his family in small dingy for a perilous sea crossing unless they were fleeing for their lives. This was said in tones implying that that it required no proof, and anyone who could suggest otherwise must be a cold-hearted bastard.

I am not sure the story of Aylan/Alan makes that point very well. I have not been able to find a single comprehensive account of the Kurdi family’s story. But the facts appear to be this. The family (father Abdullah, mother Rehan and brothers Alan (3) and Ghalib (5)) were from the border town of Kobani.

The Kurdi family, who are ethnic Kurds, had moved from town to town to escape Isil before fleeing to Turkey. At first they went to Damascus, where Mr Kurdi worked as a barber, then Aleppo, then Turkey. They returned to Kobane at the start of this year after Isil had been pushed back, but in June Isil re-took the town and the family went back to Turkey.

The family had applied for asylum in Canada, where Abdullah’s sister Fatima lives, but their application was rejected. After their third ill-fated attempt to reach Greece Abdullah returned the bodies of his wife and children to Kobani for burial.

Despite the condolences, though, and despite a flood of offers to give him a new home in the West, Mr Kurdi is no longer interested.  “I was dreaming for my family and they have gone, so the dream has gone as well.”


Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Economic migrant

Someone who goes to a new country because living conditions or opportunities for jobs are not good in their own country. This word is used by governments to show that a person is not considered a refugee (=someone who has been forced to leave their country for political reasons).

It seems to me the situation of this family does not really fit the definition of a refugee or an economic migrant.

Refugee status includes inability or unwillingness through fear to return to ones own country. Yet the Kurdis returned to Syria and to their home town of Kobani at least once during the war. And immediately after the drownings Abdullah was able to return to Kobani to bury his family.

From September 2014 to January 2015, the city was under siege by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Most of the city was destroyed and most of the population fled to Turkey. In 2015, many returned and reconstruction began.

By September Kobani was under the control of Syrian Kurds and had running water. However most of the city was still in ruins. This was not a place the Kurdis could not have returned to, though it is easy to understand why they did not want to. On the other hand their motivation for leaving is not entirely captured by describing them as economic migrants.

This was not a family fleeing for its life, but a family fleeing for a better life.

It seems clear to me that Abdullah Kurdi would not have left Kobani with his young family if there had not been a war in Syria. But he would not have put them in a dingy headed for Greece were it not for the prospect of settling permanently in Canada or another rich country. They were physically safe in Turkey. This was not a family fleeing for its life, but a family fleeing for a better life.

That observation is not intended as a criticism of Abdullah. While it is true that thousands of migrants drowned in 2015, these represented less than 1% of those who completed the passage. So what were his choices? Life in a ruined city in a failed state. Or life as displaced persons in Turkey with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to a normal life. Or a 1% risk of drowning, and a 99% chance of a new life in a western democracy. I can understand that a father may have thought it was in the interests of his family to take that risk.

We should beware of drawing a simplistic conclusion from a harrowing image.

What lessons can we learn from this? First, that it is increasingly difficult to draw a clear dividing line between refugees and economic migrants. The categories of 1951 and 1967 are being stretched to breaking point. However much sympathy we may feel for people prepared to risk their lives to reach Europe, it does not follow that we are under any moral or legal obligation to take them all in, and it is far from obvious that European leaders have done any good by holding out that hope.

Second, that we should beware of drawing a simplistic conclusion from a harrowing image.

I hope to return to the issue of migration and its implications for the future of the EU in future posts.


Article 50 and Project Fear

David Cameron asks three questions he claims those who would leave the European Union “must answer”:

The first question is: what trading relationship would Britain have with Europe after leaving?

The second question is: how long would it take to put a new relationship in place – and how great would the uncertainty be for families and businesses in the meantime?

Sunday Telegraph of 28 February 2016

His third question (about security) I will cover in a future blog.

The first question is a shrewd tactic on the part of the Prime Minister because he knows that no one in the Leave camp will be able to answer it. There are two reasons for this. The first is given by the PM himself in the very same article:

As you consider these questions, bear in mind the process for leaving the EU, as set out in Article 50 of the European Treaty. A Leave vote would set the clock ticking on a two-year period to negotiate the terms of exit.

Article 50 is here. The process for a member state to leave the EU requires that the intention to leave be announced before negotiations can begin. The PM asks a question whose answer could never possibly be known in advance. If any country is ever to leave the EU, it is required to take a “leap into the dark” with regard to its future relationship. Perhaps that is deliberate. (On the other hand if the EU was bound to negotiate possible exit terms with countries that had not decided to leave that could be an endless and unproductive task. I don’t suppose any other of our trading partners will be willing to negotiate hypothetical new trade deals until we have called time on our existing EU-based trading relationship either).

In any event the terms of Article 50 were certainly known to the PM at the time he promised us a referendum. If leaving was always going to be unacceptably uncertain whatever the terms offered for remaining then his threat to back Leave unless the UK was given a better deal was a sham.

The PM has also answered his own second question. The process would take less than two years, unless both parties agree to take longer. Claims that it would take a decade are clearly scare-mongering.

The second reason is that on 23 June we will be having a referendum, not a general election. If the Leave side wins, it will not be in government. Nigel Farage will not be PM, and will not be in charge of negotiating the terms of exit. To whom will that task fall? The Conservative Government. And on 24 June the PM will still be David Cameron, the man who by then will have spent four months telling the country that such a thing is too difficult, too dangerous, and a good outcome is hardly possible.

So it is surely inconceivable that the task of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU should be entrusted to the man who made such a poor job of negotiating a better deal within it. Whatever anyone says today, if the PM loses the referendum then his position will be untenable and a leadership election is sure to follow. It is also unlikely that the Conservative party would, under those circumstances, choose any of the Remain supporters in the cabinet to replace him (1). That narrows down the list of candidates.

The upshot is that the only prominent Leave campaigners who are likely to have any direct say in the exit negotiations are those in the current conservative cabinet (plus Boris). And there are two very good reasons why they can’t and won’t say what their negotiating stance would be.

First, they are in the Government and so can’t speculate in public about taking the PMs job. Second, even if they could, it would be a massive strategic blunder. There will be no official response from the European Council because notice under Article 50 has not yet been given. However it will be in the interests of anyone who wants the UK to stay in – including most MEPs and leaders of EU member states – to rubbish the proposed terms and declare them impossible. To propose terms now is merely to invite rejections that those making them would find it embarrassing to go back on. It would hinder rather than help the actual negotiations to come.

In the cold light of the morning of June 24 the posturing will end and the EU will be compelled by self interest to come to sensible and amicable arrangements with the UK. But nothing whatever can be achieved before then.

So there we have it. The only people in the country who would have any real standing in the exit negotiations can’t talk about it, and the PM can spread his message of doom unopposed. He must be feeling very clever indeed. The Scottish referendum was won largely on uncertainty, and Cameron must think he can do the same in June. But the cases are very different. The Scots had 300 years of union to unravel (400 since the Union of Crowns), the UK has been in the EU (common market as it then was) for just over 40. The UK was a self-governing democracy well within living memory and not everyone finds the prospect of regaining that status frightening. The SNP could not plausibly answer the most basic questions such as what currency an independent Scotland would use. But we know what currency the UK would use, and indeed almost everything else about our post-independence status.

The UK would still be in NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, the G7, the G8, the G20, Interpol and the Commonwealth. We would regain our own seat at the World Trade Organisation (currently the EU speaks for us). We would regain the ability to negotiate our own trade deals with the rest of the world. The regulations of foreign states would apply only to the goods we export to them and not (as with the EU) to our entire economy. We would be outside the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP).

The only question we can’t answer is what the renegotiated terms of our trade deals would be, because we have not yet negotiated them. With regard to non-EU countries there is no reason anyone prepared to trade with us on the EUs terms would not be willing to continue on the same basis after exit, and we would be able to offer them better terms outside the EUs tariff area. (In particular we would be able to import food from outside the EU much more cheaply).

The EU will not attempt to punish the UK with a trade war. Even if they wanted to (they don’t) and could afford to (they couldn’t) World Trade Organisation rules don’t allow it. The worst case scenario for us is (as the PM says) to fall back on WTO rules. That, says the PM, “could be crippling for our industries, as we’d have to accept tariffs that are sometimes as high as 50 per cent” I don’t know what kind of goods have a tariff of 50%. Dave should tell us. Here is what the EU itself says on the website:

The EU is already one of the most open trading economies. With an average level of duty at around 4%, EU tariffs for industrial products are among the lowest in the world.

It is true the tariff on agricultural products are higher – on average 18%. That is because the EU use the Common Agricultural Policy to protect its inefficient small-scale farmers. But the UK is a net importer of food (40% of what we eat ) and so would benefit from leaving the EUs tariff area.

WTO rules would not be “crippling” and would leave us freer and more prosperous than we are now. But we can almost certainly do better than that. There are several examples of countries outside the EU have free trade agreements with it. For example Turkey has been in a Customs Union with the EU since 1996 which removed all tariffs for nonagricultural products, and for 60% of its agricultural exports to the EU. Turkey does not participate in the free movement of people. The countries of the European Free trade Area (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) have a different arrangement.

The UK has a larger GDP than those five countries put together. There is no reason to doubt we can come to an arrangement that meets our specific circumstances. A lot more could be said about possible models for the UKs future relationship with the EU and I hope to return to this in future posts. But we must recognise that this is not a topic that the politicians who are most likely to involved in negotiations can discuss publicly in any detail before the referendum.

Finally David Cameron says: “A vote to leave is the gamble of the century. And it would be our children’s futures on the table if we were to roll the dice”. Now I am a big fan of probability theory. But there are some processes that are not well modelled as a random process. In particular any situation in which you yourself are participating as a rational agent interacting with other rational agents requires the use of other tools, such as Game Theory. Trade is not a zero sum game, and the EU will not cut off its nose to spite its face.

The outcome is uncertain to a degree, but it is not a game of chance. It is up to us, the British people, and our democratically elected representatives to make the best of the opportunities that arise. That is what independence means, and that is the future I want for my children.


  1. Under Conservative party rules MPs select two candidates who are put to the wider membership in a postal ballot. Since the MPs are almost certain to choose at least one Eurosceptic candidate, and the general membership is Eurosceptic, the next PM probably will be too.