I don’t often blog on general themes of politics here. Mostly, I stick to issues relating to alcohol and other drugs. That’s simply because that’s the area I know best, on which I spend the most time. But the original purpose of the blog was to discuss public policy issues where I felt there wasn’t clear debate.
I’ve talked about university admissions before, but this time I’m going to touch on the EU referendum. Not to get into the substance; I simply don’t know enough about that. But to apply some relevant understanding I do have (of political and sociological theory), to suggest that the debate risks missing the point. I’m specifically going to discuss Michael Gove’s statement on why he will be campaigning for withdrawal from the EU.
The whole argument, it seems, comes down to his worry about his own personal power. ‘It is hard to overstate the degree to which the EU is a constraint on ministers’ ability to do the things they were elected to do, or to use their judgment about the right course of action for the people of this country.’
This might be a fair enough point, if it was making the case that decisions should be devolved closer to the people they affect, and that a UK minister is another step closer to the people of their country than an EU politician. Certainly there’s a sense in which the UK government has more control over UK policy than EU-wide policy.
And this is to some extent the fundamental issue: how small should units of government be?
(On this point, Gove makes a disingenuous comparison with the United States, suggesting that just as they fought for their freedom through the War of Independence, we should take our freedom from the EU. Given the role and autonomy of states within the union, a case could be made that in terms of distance from voters’ lives, the federal government has in much in common with the EU as it does with the UK government within that EU. To take slightly flippant examples from my field, the legal status of different substances, like cannabis, and the age at which you’re allowed to buy alcohol vary by state in the US, and nation in the EU.)
But this question of how close power should be to citizens betrays Gove’s simplistic approach to power. This might well be a trick to make his argument more persuasive, but as I write so often on this blog, that might be even worse than if he genuinely believes what he is saying.
There is not, cannot be, and never has been a situation where a minister in Whitehall – or any other person ‘in power’ – can issue commands that are simply enacted. This is partly because of ‘street level bureaucrats’, who will actually be implementing any policy or diktat, but it’s also because the idea of ‘control’ that Gove seems to envisage is impossible.
He states that ‘government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter’ – but this is not the result of the EU; it’s the inherent nature of power. The EU is a useful scapegoat, but no government has ever had ‘control’ of the economy, for example. Even if it left the EU and took back direct responsibility for setting interest rates, the UK government would not be able to magically command employment, wages and growth rates.
But perhaps if Gove doesn’t mean controlling the outcomes of policies, or even their implementation, he simply means ministers should have autonomy in setting policies. In reality, though, this too is a charade. The world in which ministers could say ‘this is what our policy should be’, and it could be implemented, is impossible. Their choices are constrained by a myriad of factors, from international governments and corporations to sectional and electoral interests at home.
Of course, that’s the nature of politics: to look at a range of arguments and interests and come to a compromise. And it could be that’s the vision of politics that Gove is aspiring to: his ministerial compromises will be better without the institutions of the EU involved. His judgement will be improved by making a political calculation about the informal or putative constraints posed by the European context, rather than having formal constraints already written out. (Of course he’ll still have to pay attention to the European Court of Human Rights, but that’s another story.)
In a sense, though, that’s less transparent for the voter. If he can identify why he can’t enact a particular policy (it’s EU Directive X) that might be clearer than if he had to explain how that policy might spark a response from other countries, and he’s calculated it’s not a risk worth taking.
But all this is a sideshow. For all that central government talks of a new approach to governing and commissioning that focuses on ‘outcomes’ and not processes, Gove’s thinking is all about process. We should be having a grown-up debate in which the EU is understood to be just one (unusually clear-cut) constraint on ministerial decisions amongst plenty of others, and where there’s an acknowledgement that in any case ministerial decisions have a long way to go before they affect people’s actual lives.
Maybe then Brexit is the answer. It would remove what is often a diversion from the real constraints and issues in politics, and might force politicians to admit that Gove’s statement is truer than he would admit: ‘your government is not, ultimately, in control in hundreds of areas that matter’.
That’s quite a price to pay for a ‘told you so’ feeling. This vote isn’t about simply taking ‘control’. It is at best opportunity to swap one set of constraints for another – and that makes it even more important we talk honestly and openly about what those constraints are and might be.