How much do Brexiters really care about democracy?
When Britain Thinks director Deborah Mattinson was asked ‘Who do people trust on the EU?’ yesterday on the BBC’s Today programme, she had one name in mind: ‘Martin Lewis.’
The focus groups had all mentioned Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert, as the most trusted figure on the referendum.
So it was a nice coincidence when later that day he published an extensive blog on why he’s voting to stay in. It was balanced and reasoned: ‘The EU referendum is far from a black and white issue; there are more shades of grey than E L James’s bookshelf.’
His backing was clearly a coup for the Remain camp. But aside from the top-line story, there was a point about democracy:
‘For many – worst of all – the EU organisation is without doubt distant, only vaguely accountable, inefficient, and out of sync with the sentiment of much of Europe’s population.
Even many IN voters berate that, but think the gains outweigh it.
‘Note, though, that if we leave the EU, it’s the UK’s system that would pick up the slack, and some castigate its democratic deficit too…
It has an unelected legislature in the shape of the Lords, and only 37 per cent of those who voted picked Conservative, yet they govern.’
So often, arguments are made by Brexiteers about how undemocratic the EU is. Some of the points are valid. But one will rarely hear someone who castigates the EU’s lack of democracy discuss the UK’s own democratic deficit.
And one of the core arguments heard time and time again is that ‘the European Commission is unelected’.
Let’s put it straight. The Commission – the EU’s civil service – is appointed by elected governments to implement the wishes of 28 democracies who have voluntarily come together.
It’s by no means perfect, although if it messes up, the elected EU Parliament can dissolve the Commission. Given that it’s a political body, there are good arguments it should be directly elected. But UKIP MEPs have hardly been at the forefront of democratic reform in the EU.
The Commission is a political civil service in that has the ability to initiate legislation. But that legislation must be passed – and can be blocked – by the proportionally-elected European Parliament. And its President – currently the centre-Right Jean-Claude Juncker – is elected by the (currently centre-Right) Parliament.
But all this misses the point that one of our own Houses is totally unelected in the UK – the House of Lords, which like the Commission, can initiate legislation. It desperately needs reform – but few of those condemning the EU as undemocratic condemn the Lords on the same grounds.
You won’t find this blog quoting Nick Clegg very often, but yesterday he wrote this:
‘[The Lords] Norman Lamont, Norman Tebbit, David Owen, Michael Howard, Nigel Lawson and other lords…support Britain’s exit.
From their lofty perch they berate the EU for being economically deficient, expensive, bureaucratic and, above all, undemocratic.
Without the slightest hint of irony, Lord Lawson has declared that ‘one of the most unattractive aspects of the European integrationist movement is its contempt for democracy’.
Pots and kettles immediately spring to mind.’
The House of Lords is the only fully unelected legislature in any advanced democracy. And while the Commission has one recallable, visible and appointed Commissioner per state, the 830-strong Lords is the second largest chamber in the world outside of China – packed with political appointees by the government of the day.
25 per cent of Lords appointments since 1997 are former MPs who lost elections or resigned. And David Cameron has appointed at least 244 since 2010 – all of whom are able to claim £300 a day tax-free, without having to prove they’ve worked. That’s without even mentioning Westminster’s hideously disproportionate voting system.
When will those who castigate the EU’s lack of democracy take action to reform our broken democracy here?
For there to be any credence to the constitutional cris de Coeur of Brexiteers, ‘democratic reform starts at home’ would be a fair slogan to adopt.
Or, to put it another way – ‘let him that is directly elected cast the first stone’…
Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter@josiahmortimerLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.