Two events affecting the future of the nation will take place today. Both involve powerful politicians, both cover topics that will soon be subject to referendum (for some of us, at least), and both have the potential to change life for millions of people, for better or worse. They have that much in common – they could not, though, be more different.
The first is David Cameron’s visit to Scotland to press the unionist case. The second is the televised debate among the candidates seeking to be President of the EU Commission, which takes place tonight.
Which will have a greater impact on our lives? The Scottish referendum is hugely important – a Yes vote would create a new country, and change both the character and the political calculus of the nation the Scots leave behind. But even if there’s a Yes vote both divorcees, the UK and newly independent Scotland, would still find huge swathes of their public policy controlled by whoever wins the EU Commission presidency.
It’s an uncomfortable truth – particularly for Alex Salmond – that even in a state of “independence” Scotland’s borders, agriculture, trade, environmental policy, fisheries and much more would be decided in Brussels, not Holyrood.
Given that the outcome of the EU debate will likely have a bigger influence on all our futures, a rational observer dropping by from another planet might expect it to get the most attention. Needless to say, it won’t. Cameron’s speech tops the headlines, and the viewing figures for tonight’s federalist fisticuffs will struggle to reach parity with a re-run of Last of the Summer Wine.
That isn’t the fault of voters. They’ll be making a logical choice when they fail to tune in to watch the future EU leaders battle it out – not least because they don’t actually get a vote on who wins.
The official line is that this is just like the party leaders’ debates in the UK – most people don’t directly get a vote on the individuals, but by voting for their local representative in your Euro constituency then you can propel them into Government.
That’s hogwash. The EU has once again hungrily gulped down its own Kool-Aid. 35 years after the European Parliament was first elected, all attempts to forge pan-European political parties – and ultimately for them to replace national parties – have failed. People still vote as British, French, German and Dutch, they still vote through a lens of their own national politics, and they still don’t have a clue who any of the candidates for the unelected Commission Presidency are.
It’s a good thing the debate is being televised. If anyone is seeking the ultimate visual demonstration that the EU project has failed, it will be provided by the sight of five people most of us have never heard of, debating in languages most of us cannot speak about a job that the people never actually get a say on but decides the fate of a continent nonetheless. Not only is the EU’s democracy distinctly lacking, it still has no demos to represent, despite decades and billions of pounds worth of trying to create one.
By contrast, Cameron’s speech demonstrates that the British union may have its issues but it rests on far stronger foundations. Those watching or reading about it, of all sides in the referendum and of all nations in the UK, know that it matters to them. They recognise the man delivering the speech even if they dislike him, they share his language (if not his accent), they acknowledge – even the Scottish separatists – that they are at present part of the same nation. And, even more importantly, they know that they can change the direction of that nation if they choose, by using their freeborn right to vote.
Instead of moaning that the British aren’t tuning in to the EU debate, the EU’s apparatchiks could do worse than tune in to watch events in the UK. They might learn what a real democracy – and a real demos – looks like, warts and all.