September 7, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
It might surprise you that a speech by committed socialist Tony Benn was once identified by Conservative firebrand Norman Tebbit as the best he ever heard in Parliament. But during the second reading of the bill to ratify the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, Chesterfield’s Labour MP Benn stood up in the House of Commons to explain why, whatever advances it made in social equality (which he had always campaigned for) he was against the European Union. Here is an excerpt I would like you to read, particularly if you are lamenting the apparent loss of protections for social, employment and environmental rights if Brexit is completed:
“In future you will be governed by people whom you do not elect and cannot remove. I am sorry about it. They may give you better creches and shorter working hours but you cannot remove them. If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away. The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away. Even if I agree with everything that is proposed, I cannot hand away powers lent to me for five years by the people of Chesterfield. I just could not do it. It would be theft of public rights.”
Many people lamenting Brexit point out that it could mean the loss of minimum wage, equal pay, environmental protections, trade unions, working condition protection and many other things. They use those as a stick to beat those who suggest they want to be able to vote for those who make their laws. A long list of laws and regulations that are generally regarded as ‘good’ in the eyes of many people. Normally followed by the insistence that leaving the EU would mean those would disappear.
The best come back to that is threefold. First of all, quote Tony Benn above. He wanted all those protections, environmental and social protections, but he wanted to be able to vote for them, not have someone impose them on us. Benn suggested we ask five questions of those in power: What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interest do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? How can we get rid of you? The fact is that those questions are difficult to answer when it comes to the EU.
Secondly, this constant stream of articles about ‘Britain could lose this…’ and ‘Britain could lose that….’ are typical of a group of people who don’t trust the electorate, and are relying on a misreading of history. To remove the minimum wage, remove maternity laws, and remove environmental protections, a political party would have to put those ideas in a manifesto and the electorate would have to vote for them. Are you seriously telling me that if a political party tried to end the minimum wage they would win? The answer to that comes in the fact that in almost all areas of environmental and social protection, Britain has been ahead of the EU. Minimum wages have been higher, maternity benefits greater and environmental protections stronger. Because people voted for parties who offered them.
Thirdly, and this is related to Benn’s point, it’s all very well celebrating the loss of the ability to elect and remove those who make our laws when they make laws we like, but what happens if they start to make laws we don’t like? People often like imposing laws and restrictions when they are in the ascendant, forgetting that one day they might not be. So Donald Trump removed the ability to filibuster a Supreme Court justice appointment, but the Democrats will be in charge one day and they will be able to get appointments through without cross-party agreement. Those who want to censor free speech when speech offends forget that those laws could be sued by a government who decides that criticism of its policies is offensive. The EU could end up ruled by people who want to end social and environmental protection, and no-one could stop them. So be careful what you wish for.