Brexiters’ faux-populism is a sham. They don’t want to ‘take power back from the elites’

Gove, Johnson and Duncan Smith are harder to sack than EU Commisioners


We hear a lot about the ‘unelected, unaccountable elites’ in Brussels. Often this accusation comes from Tories, who are all too happy to stuff our own unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, full of their own cronies.

A typical recent example was Michael Gove’s waxing lyrical about the beauties of British democracy. Gove and other leading Brexiteers have produced a number of dog whistle phrases, suggesting they are involved in a fight on behalf of the downtrodden citizens of Britain against an elite conspiracy.

This is now common Brexit currency: exploiting the loathing for politicians the Tory government has engendered to attack a separate and quite different political structure.

So who are these ‘unelected, unaccountable elites’ that Gove and his colleagues refer to?

There are three main EU institutions – the Parliament, which is democratically elected under a PR system every five years; the Council – made up of ministers and heads of states from each and every EU government; and the Commission – made up of 28 commissioners, one put forward by each country in the EU and who oversee just shy of 30,000 civil servants.

Interestingly, this compares to the 400,000 ‘bureaucrats’ employed by Whitehall, who work as the expert civil service: some on drafting laws to curb air pollution; some on dividing up EU funding to deprived regions; some on re-evaluating existing laws on VAT, and so on.  

No one would claim the EU Commission is perfect. For instance, as part of the Green Group in the Parliament we were highly critical of the choice of Commissioners, including the selection of Cameron’s place-man Jonathan Hill as Finance Commissioner, a man with a former career as a lobbyist for the financial sector in the City.

But this was a mistake made in Westminster, not Brussels, for which we must hold our own Cabinet – of which Gove was a member –  accountable.

However, whether or not we approve of the choice of Commissioners, they are not distant and unaccountable. As a member of the European Parliament I regularly question them and we also have the power to sack them, on behalf of those who elected us. I do not have this power over the British Cabinet who were elected on a flawed mandate and are there for five years.

I also have the ability to meet those Commissioners whom I am working with in drawing up legislation.

Just this week, for example, I met the Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Pierre Moscovici, to discuss my main area of work: tax policy.

He was able to reassure me that the UK will have the ability to abolish VAT on tampons in an agreement to be reached shortly and that legislation to exempt small businesses from the very destructive unified VAT system known as VATmoss will be published before the end of the year.

I doubt I would have been able to have such a constructive and open meeting with a Whitehall official working on tax.

I have also met and questioned Margrete Vestager, the Competition Commissioner, to discuss the deeply flawed Hinkley nuclear project. (And yes, I have met Jonathan Hill, who happens to be one of my constituents since he lives in Salisbury!) 

When it comes to decision-making in the EU, national governments have opportunities to oppose legislative changes.

Decisions made by the Council usually require a qualified majority and can be blocked when at least four countries vote against. There are also exceptions for certain issues such as decisions about new members, for example Turkey, when a unanimous vote supported by all countries is needed. 

Perhaps even more shocking than the hypocrisy of Brexiteers over democracy and systems of governance is the spectacle of doublespeak we are having to endure, where the very politicians who have attacked, downgraded and privatised our public services are masquerading as its defenders.

The NHS is a classic example. Gove argued for privatisation, Boris Johnson has suggested we should pay for the service, while Ian Duncan Smith has suggested moving to a US-style insurance system to replace our national health service. 

When I see a group of Westminster politicians, many of whom are privately-educated, many of whom live off private incomes, campaigning under a ‘take back control’ banner, it seems to me that it is they themselves who are a threat to democracy and I think we should ask very carefully who exactly is taking back power from whom.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England and a former Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. Follow her on Twitter @MollyScottCato

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18 Responses to “Brexiters’ faux-populism is a sham. They don’t want to ‘take power back from the elites’”

  1. wg

    I’m sorry, but this is complete nonsense – we all know that democracy in the United Kingdom is hugely flawed, and we can remedy that once we are free of EU interference.

    The European Union has been constructed by a series of treaties that the public have had no say in.
    Us being able to vote for somebody every five years to go to Brussels, and discuss policies that nobody has seen or been able to vote for, is not democracy.

    Who elected the five presidents, or voted for the departments created under those treaties?
    It seems that this EU democratic castle is built on some very undemocratic sand.

    In what system of true national democracy is it seen as acceptable, for a country to have to beg a department outside of the United Kingdom, to remove a tax from one of the necessities of life?

  2. Bob Irving

    Even worse nonsense – nothing in EU treaties decrees that we cannot get rid of the House of Lords and replace it with an elected upper chamber. We could have done it years ago. And nothing in the #BRexit promises says we will.

  3. Richard Honey

    Can’t wait to se this sudden flowering of UK democracy that is only held back by ‘EU interference’. Boris Johnson can’t wait to implement PR, abolish the monarchy, create an elected House of Lords and establish a measure of worker control over their companies and workplaces (none of which incidentally are forbidden by the EU).
    PS: wonderful that tampons will zero rated for the whole of the EU and not just the UK. Bit of a triumph for people, countries and elected MEPs campaigning to change the rules I’d say rather than some grudging concession from a miserly EU.

  4. Nick

    My view is simple in that the EU stands good or bad for 28 countries and that means more good then bad.

    the conservative governments of the past have only ever produced flawed policy’s and are not noted for anything significant or for the good of all and for the vulnerable a life of hell

    my view is that the people will understand my view point as basic and will vote to remain in the EU

    Sure the EU could do better and i’m sure it will in the future but i can never see a day when a right wing conservative/UKIP party doing any better only far worse

  5. JC

    I’m sorry, but this is complete nonsense – we all know that democracy in the United Kingdom is hugely flawed, and we can remedy that once we are free of EU interference.

    The European Union has been constructed by a series of treaties that the public have had no say in.
    Us being able to vote for somebody every five years to go to Brussels, and discuss policies that nobody has seen or been able to vote for, is not democracy.”

    We don’t vote for every UK piece of law or government department that is created either though – every 5 years we elect representatives to do these things for us. Just because the majority of the UK electorate don’t bother to engage with the EU democratic process doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  6. ds

    “Us being able to vote for somebody every five years to go to Brussels, and discuss policies that nobody has seen or been able to vote for, is not democracy”

    I find it ironic you don’t square the circle and realise that it applies as much, if not more, to Westminster for the reasons laid out in the article.

    Indeed, there is nothing about EU membership that stops us reforming British democracy to make it more representative and more accountable. The fact that Westminster has not reformed and the key Brexiters voted against the last attempt to reform illustrates what will happen in the case of Brexit quite starkly.

  7. IJ

    WG, please explain to me HOW we can remedy the flaws in UK democracy once we are “free of EU interference”. I’d love to know. Also I’d like to know in what way the EU is currently preventing us from fixing democracy in the UK. It seems to me that your first paragraph is completely meaningless.

  8. Jack

    @wg: On the five presidents.

    Juncker is president because the EPP won the biggest share of the parliament and he was their candidate. I’d call that ‘elected’.

    Schulz was elected by the EU parliament to be their president. Exactly analogous to how the Welsh and Scottish assemblies choose their president. I don’t see what’s undemocratic about that?

    The president of the Council of the EU rotates every six month so it’s not an elected position.

    Tusk is an appointment chosen by the democratically elected governments of the member states. What’s wrong with that?

    And Lenaerts is president of the European Court of Justice because he was elected to that position by a vote of the judges of the court. Surely you don’t expect to directly elect judges, do you? You don’t vote for any of the judges in the UK system.

    So, of five presidents, one is a judge so shouldn’t be elected, one is rotational so can’t be elected, two are elected and one is appointed by the elected national governments. I don’t really see what the problem with that is?

  9. Jan Flowers

    Aren’t potential new leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley are privately educated Molly?
    Time to stand against them?

  10. Marcel Brown

    Thank you for that. It’s basically what I have been arguing on Facebook for the past few weeks.

    However, I would like to address some points from a previous comment by “wg”.

    I fail to see how the EU is hindering reforms in the UK government to address the flawed democracy. I also fail to see how the public has no say in treaties (which are hundreds of pages of legal speak which the vast majority would not care to read nor would they understand it). The treaties could go to a referendum, if the elected government so desires, but if our elected representatives see fit not to, then that is their decision on the public’s behalf. This has nothing to do with the EU.

    I think that the term “president” needs to be cleared up. The presidents of the EU establishments are not presidents in the sovereign state meaning of the word, but rather meaning the person who “presides” over. In other word, the “head”. Does the public vote for the Speaker of the Commons? Or for the leader of a party?

    And as for “begging”, it’s called negotiating. As in negotiating trade treaties post-Brexit, or should I call that “begging” other countries to trade?

  11. Simon

    Great article. I find it deeply worrying how many people seem to accept Gove, Johnson et al as champions of democracy and defenders of “ordinary” people. The only interests they have at heart are their own and those of their wealthy friends and supporters.

  12. Captain Ned Ludd

    Thanks for telling us how things work in the EU and how our MEPs can work for us. It’s a pity that MEPs don’t claim more public profile. Because we don’t see what they’re doing, and it’s not widely reported in the media, it’s easy to assume that it’s not happening and that EU decisions are simply being handed down from a great height.

  13. Elaine Smith

    Why do the “Brexiters” seem to think that if we vote to come out of the EU, they will be leading us? Has Camoron said he’ll resign if we do? And, with all the “problems”, being investigated by the police etc. we could (hopefully) be having another election.

  14. ad

    Frankly, claiming that the EU is more democratic than the UK strikes me as lunacy. To make that argument in public is to persuade people that EU supporters are round the twist.

  15. Robin

    I will vote ‘In’ – but I want significant reform of EU. The silly business of shifting offices between Brussels and Strasbourg has reached its ‘Use-by’ date; I want CAP to be skewed in favour of small scale farmers that might encourage more to become farmers, also to disadvantage extensive deer, sheep, grouse estates, and would move away from the neoliberal economic model presently in vogue.

  16. Russell Gowers

    Why is it “Lunacy” to claim that an organisation where:
    – proposals are presented by unelected Commissioners, to be debated, modified, accepted or rejected by elected MEPs and elected Councillors

    Is more democratic than an organisation where:
    – proposals are presented by unelected* Ministers, to be debated, modified, accepted or rejected by elected MPs, and ratified or rejected by a totally unelected second house.

    What’s so perfect about the latter system?

    * I describe ministers as “unelected” because whilst they were – at least in modern times – democratically chosen to be MPs, they were nominated to do their actual roles. Just because I voted for Alex Chalk as my MP doesn’t mean I voted for Michael bloody Gove as Justice secretary. And there is no requirement for a Minister to be a sitting MP.

  17. David Britten

    It is claimed here that we can get rid of unwanted politicians in Britain, despite the indisputable fact that we cannot. We voted the Tories out in 97 to get New Labour which, under Tony Blair was nothing more that an alternative Tory party with a slightly nicer rictus grin. The current Tory regime is planning to gerrymander the 2020 election and all consequent elections to ensure a permanent one-party (Tory) state. The idea that we have a democracy in Britain, where a party can be elected to power on less than a quarter of the popular vote is a sick joke. By comparison, the EU is the apex of democratic institutions….

  18. Mike Stallard

    Please will you read Yanis Varoufakis on the inner workings of the EU. Himself a passionate socialist and a member of the Greek Socialist government and finance minister, he is also a supporter of Remain.
    He calls the EU a Ponzi scheme. He describes how his economy was waterboarded by the EU. He tells how the lies, arrogance and disdain for the common people of Greece who had been bamboozled into debt by German salespeople led to pensions not being paid, teachers not being paid and fascism taking 1/3 of the Greek parliament.
    How any person who cares about the common working class can support an organisation like the EU beats me.
    Oh – I forgot – the Commissioners are lovely – to their fellow conspirators.

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