“People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to f*** up your life whatever way you want to.”
So laments Walter Berglund, the protagonist of Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant 2010 novel Freedom. This may be the insight of a fictional character, and it may concern the founding values of America. Nonetheless it captures a counter-intuitive truth at the heart of modern politics: those who have the least, and need Government the most, are often hardwired to reject it.
The defence of freedoms when all else has failed is an instinctive reaction tied up with pride. Much of politics hangs on these die-hard freedoms and to what extent they should be reined in by laws and regulations. But much of it doesn’t – and yet cliques have realised that they can achieve their own minority interests by convincing people that their freedoms are at stake when they are not.
The result is a highly destructive force in politics.
Freedom from food stamps?
The most obvious examples can be found in Franzen’s homeland, the US. Few policies are more obviously beneficial to the poorest segments of society than food stamps (‘SNAP’), used by around 48 million Americans at the latest count. This support is a lifeline for many, as is the state-subsidised flood insurance that stood between many people and homelessness in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
‘Big Government’ should be more popular than ever – and yet a powerful coalition of Tea Party-inspired commentators and politicians has managed so relentlessly to paint the State as an invader of freedoms that it has discredited Government intervention in the eyes of those who need it the most. Obama, who defended social programmes such as SNAP throughout his first presidency, is frequently labelled as an elitist who wants to tell poor people how to live their lives.
When it comes to food stamps, what is supposedly being encroached on? The freedom not to be offered social assistance? A general feeling of indignation is nonetheless sparked, and this taps into the underlying sense of injustice that is close to the surface where freedoms are concerned.
To put it crudely, the anger of the poor is turned to the benefit of those who don’t want to subsidise the poor, and this unlikely coalition can be activated to resist any attempts by Government to have a real impact (and especially a redistributive impact) on the life and wealth of the nation.
Euroscepticism and freedom
The defence of freedoms in the face of an anti-democratic EU has meanwhile become the rallying cry of Eurosceptics across the bloc as they seek to capitalise on the Eurozone crisis and ramp up the case for exit or repatriation of powers.
The UK is the pioneer of all things Eurosceptic. Last week’s BBC Question Time saw the trade unionist Bob Crow join forces with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a Daily Mail columnist to condemn the EU and demand that the UK leave (12 minutes in):
Crow’s EU exit call is based on a general lament about inter-EU and non-EU immigration undercutting British salaries and working conditions.
Yet if a decent situation for workers is what he really wants, surely his anger should be directed at the UK Government for opting out of the EU Working Time Directive? Or why not push for a better Working Time Directive at EU-level if it needs improving?
In many European countries labour movements have been highly critical of EU internal market policy (e.g. the Bolkenstein Directive) and have sought to reorient the European project away from liberalisation, a position that often translates into strongly anti-Brussels rhetoric.
However, the UK example is more problematic because not only are UK workers more likely to attain labour protection at EU than at national level, but also because key figures like Crow ignore specific policies and head straight for the EU exit.
Trade unions and far right parties are odd bedfellows – and their alliance in the service of a ‘Brexit’ is testimony to the genius of a particular clique in conscripting a broad coalition of people to do its dirty work.
Who are those with an unequivocal interest in the UK leaving the EU, as opposed to reform of EU policies or other incremental change? If we exclude a small fringe of outright nationalists and patriots, we are left with a) company CEOs whose ability to exploit their workers and capture the lion’s share of profits could be threatened by current and future social legislation which can be stifled more easily at national than EU level; and b) the city of London, whose freedom to speculate, pay out exorbitant bonuses and operate without a financial transaction tax hinges on multiple legislative debates in Brussels.
Overall this is a fairly limited bunch. But a much wider coalition has been built to demand an exit, not least thanks to the efforts of a vicious partisan press – ideologically and often financially tied to the self-interested clique – which works to convince people that their freedoms are genuinely at stake. To do so, the freedom of the few to make exorbitant amounts of money has been conflated with the freedom of ordinary citizens not to have rules dictated to them by Brussels.
Eurosceptics have bullied their way into every discussion of politics at the European level, not least through concerted campaigns to label the BBC as elitist europhiles if they do not feature the likes of Nigel Farage (the UKIP leader) whenever the word EU is mentioned.
As such, no EU-level policy can be discussed in isolation or in detail, because the debate is always brought back to the original sin of the EU itself, and the assault on freedom that it supposedly represents.
Labour MP Gisela Stuart summed up the problem in advice addressed to her party leader Ed Miliband in a recent Prospect article: “First, stop thinking that we will ever come to love any institution of government… So make sure you and your team talk about the substance rather than the structures”.
The success of Eurosceptics is to make the entire debate about the structures rather than the substance, and thus to make all EU business a question of personal freedoms versus the dictatorial power of an anti-democratic, illegitimate body.
Crying EU withdrawal every time we don’t like a particular policy is like the county of Cornwall demanding secession from the UK, or Brittany from France, every time they don’t like a national-level policy. Legitimate? Very occasionally. Practical or constructive? Certainly not.
What if the anti-EU outrage were channeled at improving policies at the national and EU level? When lambasting Brussels people perhaps forget that the EU is not set in stone, and is only as good or bad, as free-market or nanny-state, as accommodating or restrictive of freedoms, as its citizens choose to make it. This they do when they elect the MEPs who sit in the European Parliament, and the national governments who will represent their interests at Council, as well as nominating Commissioners.
Decisions are made by consensus, which may feel alien to British voters – more used to attritional two-party politics than to the trade-offs of coalition-building – especially when a consensus without the UK in it is presented by the Eurosceptic press as ‘anti-democratic diktat’.
The individual decisions are of course rarely given the attention they deserve, given that people’s attention – on the trade unionist left and free-market right – has been trained on the ‘bigger’ but emptier question of in versus out, freedom versus no freedom.
When the UK drifts towards the EU exit door, it is not people’s freedoms that will have been protected, but rather the special interests of a minority who have too much to lose from a genuine policy-oriented debate, and much to gain from manipulating the concept of freedom and making the EU the bogeyman.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone