Thursday, April 14, 2005

My Tuppenceworth...

I wanted to give a few of my own thoughts, briefly, on the debate that has been raging here for the last week, as someone who has not yet made up his mind on how to vote in the forthcoming election. It seems to me that there are powerful arguments available on both sides: indeed, this has been amply demonstrated by the posts on here on the issue. A few points seem in order.

Firstly, I’m not at all certain that Srdjan and Lorenzo do not take their emphatic arguments for a “yes” too far. In his last post, for example, Srdjan suggests that anyone voting “no” is “unwittingly voting for the le Front National”; however, he then goes on to insist that a “yes” vote is not a vote for Hollande, Sarkozy, Chirac. This argument to me bears many of the hallmarks of the dichotomising impulse that political theorists have placed at the heart of ideological strategy: to reduce a complex situation into a simple yes/no choice, and to ensure that one of the options appears as unpalatable as possible. In the recent past we have seen such arguments used most prominently in terms of the use of force: with regard to the Kosovo intervention, fror example, we were effectively told that we could either bomb Serbia or appease Milosevic and become complicit in genocide. Any more nuanced responses to what was, after all, an extremely complex situation were thus strategically removed from discourse. I acknowledge what Srdjan is saying when he notes that a referendum tends to make such dichotomies unavoidable; however, the result of the spin that both he and Lorenzo put on the choice is to effectively disenfranchise anybody with the kinds of concerns that Rafael and I share.

Secondly, I think that Rafael is quite correct to insist upon acknowledgement of the political, symbolic force of the term “constitution”; that is, after all, one of the reasons that it was chosen. This choice, it seems to me, was a strategic error: at a time when Europe desperately needs new institutional mechanisms to deal with the fact that we have ten new members (and soon to be more – Parliament voted today to allow Romania to join), these measures have been included in a package that was always going to be controversial if only because of the title “constitution” itself. However, it is something that now needs to be factored in to the decision on how to vote on the constitution, particularly for those of us in favour of Eastward expansion.

Lastly, however, I think that Lorenzo is quite correct when he argues that France does not have a monopoly on the interpretation of leftist values. Rafael, for me, makes the same mistake as Srdjan and Lorenzo when he makes his strong claim that anyone holding radical left wing views cannot vote yes to the constitution. This is for two reasons: firstly, as he has acknowledged, a polity the size of the European Union may have sufficient economic and political clout to introduce radical welfare reforms and redistributory measures on a scale and to an extent that simply would not be possible within the confines of a single nation state. Secondly, as both Lorenzo and Srdjan have pointed out, the failure (both theoretically and practically) of Marxist economic meta-narratives have meant that the free market must be incorporated into leftist thinking – and there is, as yet, no uniformly agreed manner on the best way in which to do this. Mature radical leftism today must amount to more than a simple “no” to the free market.

The issue of alternatives raised by Srdjan is also important. The key question has to be “are we more or less likely to see the sorts of redistributory measures that we want to see with or without the Union, with or without the constitution”. Rafael’s unspoken premise seems to be that there are grounds for hope that a “no” to the constitution will create opportunities for a more openly leftist political agenda to assert itself. I would be intrigued to hear his reasons for this: certainly, in terms of the current political climate in the UK, it strikes me as unpersuasive. Even in France, it seems unlikely: the left seems in utter disarray, as the success of Le Pen in the presidential elections illustrates, and the few notable successes they have had, such as the introduction of the thirty-five hour working week, are being steadily dismantled as we speak. To think, then, that a rejection of the constitution will lead to a more leftist political agenda coming to the fore strikes me as simply niave: it is in these terms that the call to vote pragmatically must be taken seriously.

As I said, I am as yet undecided on how to vote. One thing seems clear, however: the existence of this debate is extremely helpful, at the very least to those like me. I will remain, therefore, deeply sceptical of all attempts, from both sides, to argue that a certain political position compels either a “yes” or a “no”. The issues involved are much more complex than such an assertion implies; and there is undoubtedly considerable scope, as the debate on here has illustrated, for much “reasonable disagreement”.

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