July 23, 2007

A united Europe has long been an aspiration spanning the political spectrum. The leader of the pre-Second World War Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley, called for “€œEurope a Nation,”€ while, only slightly later, the British Independent Labor Party worked toward a “€œUnited Socialist States of Europe.”€ Again, in 1945 Prime Minister Winston Churchill called for a “€œUnited States of Europe,”€  though he believed that Britain should not be part of it, apparently because of its “€œinsular”€ quality.
Britain, it is probably true to say, has long had a difficult relationship with the European nations, and with the idea of being a part of Europe, having thought of itself as an island protected by sea, with a “€œspecial relationship”€ with the U.S. When a rail tunnel was built, joining Britain and France a decade or so ago, many British people protested that the country’s natural defenses had been breached.

Now, it would seem, even the many of the once-ardent supporters of a united Europe have turned Euro-skeptic. In 2005 France “€“ which had once been one of its main promoters “€“ defeated the European constitution, as did the Netherlands. Perhaps most surprising of all, nationalist political parties have recently made significant inroads in Euro-politics (especially since the introduction of several Eastern European countries), with several having banded together to for the European National Front. Ironically, with few exceptions these parties do not appear to be calling for “€œEurope a Nation,”€ or promoting the sort of all-encompassing political and cultural hegemony that is typically associated with at least earlier far-Right parties, but rather are promoting the idea that individual nations to retain their own historical characteristics, while forming some sort of working relationship.

Notably, Nick Griffin of the British National Party (not a member of the E.N.F.) has commented in this regard, that, “Unless the nationalists of Europe cooperate, the internationalists of Europe – the Eurocrats – will destroy all our national freedoms and identities separately.” Though the B.N.P. remains a party on the margins of British politics, Britain’s fourth largest political party is The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which, ironically, has ten members in the European Parliament. According to its mission statement their aim is to, “€œexpose the true nature of the EU and… campaign for British withdrawal [from it].”€ Although they are usually denounced as “€œfascists”€ by their opponents the B.N.P. and other far-Right political parties in Europe do not echo, then, the historically fascist aspirations for national expansion and homogenization of occupied territories. The undoubted irony of Europe’s political dynamics is that the far-Right now consciously stand for the opposite, while secular Eurocrats seem intent on homogenizing the nations of Europe, even though this against the historical and cultural reality on the ground.

Europe is increasingly “€œa Nation”€ rather than a “€œUnited States,”€ such as Churchill called for. Despite any diversity that may appear within it, a nation is one, standardized, uniform in manner, customs, monarch or prime minister, weights and measures, etc. Churchill was American on his mother’s side (though his mother’s family was of English descent), and he made much of his American background when he promoted himself and the cause of liberty to the people of the U.S., prior to the latter’s involvement in the Second World War. Churchill understood what it was to be American, and her knew what a “€œUnited States”€ meant.

The U.S.A. contrasts sharply with the European Union precisely because it is so self consciously a union of states, each of which has not only a very distinct culture, but, often, distinct laws regarding the drinking of alcohol, sex, assisted suicide, etc. Some counties are “€œdry”€ because the sale of alcohol is illegal, due to long held religious sensibilities, while cities in other states, such as Las Vegas, thrive on gambling, drinking, and other sorts of nightlife. You would think that as the U.S.A. is so diverse, the European Union would embrace the historical and cultural diversity of its member nations, yet individual cultural identity has long been undermined by the legislators of Brussels, and continues to be, much to the chagrin of Europe’s people.

The first opposition to the E.U.’s encroachment upon British independence came in the form of tabloid headlines proclaiming that the Eurocrats were intent on denying the status of our “€œprawn cocktail flavour”€ crisps (or what Americans call “€œchips”€). Later, ironically, the French wanted us to refer to our chocolate as “€œchocolate flavour.”€ Regulations banning the use of the term, “€œprawn cocktail flavour”€ or some such thing, seems a trivial matter to me, and a sacrifice worth making for a real United States of Europe. Yet, E.U. regulations have continued to damp down British traditions, as well as the traditions of some of its other member nations. Recently, for example, regulations pertaining to the measurements of pints of beer have threatened the use of the British crown within Britain, which has appeared on pint glasses as a marker of correct measure since the late 17th century. In response nine different breweries complained to the then prime minister, Tony Blair.  There is no good reason why a real, and long-standing tradition such as this should be eradicated by the European Union. Indeed, its function should be to protect the cultures of different European countries, or at least to allow them, by law, to keep their traditions, such as we find in the U.S.

Unfortunately Europe is uniting at a point in time when tradition, religion, and national sovereignty are concepts that are anathema to its prevailing intellectual culture and the bourgeois of several of its nations “€“ perhaps especially Britain “€“ and this can only affect any E.U. treaty. In 2006 Liberal Democratic Euro-M.P., Baroness Sarah Ludford condemned Poland’s stance on rights for homosexuals, which are exceedingly limited in comparison to other E.U. member countries, in part because of the country’s Roman Catholic heritage. Regardless of the merits of her position, Baroness Ludford commented that it was not a matter of Poland’s culture, clarifying a moment later, suggesting that it would not affect the nation’s language, food, music, etc. That these are held up as a nation’s culture, while its religion and moral foundation are designated, by implication, as “€˜not culture”€™ is problematic to say the least in countries where tradition is still so alive. Would we apply this absurd notion to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Unsurprisingly, Poland seems to consider the E.U. a threat to its traditional, Christian way of life, and as attempting to impose liberal secularism upon its people. Against the trend, in 2003 Poland led a campaign to have the Judaeo-Christian roots noted in the E.U. Constitution.

If traditional, national culture has been undermined, complaints have also arisen, regarding more practical matter. Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron has noted that Britain was influential in the wording of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantee among other things, “€œfreedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of expression.”€ Yet, these rights, Cameron has also pointed out, have been increasingly undermined under Labour. Sometimes, the erosion of basic rights has come from the government and at other times by the modern brand of Liberal-intolerance that the government’s followers have created (and which certainly does not deserve the name “€œliberal”€).

In regard to freedom of thought, in 2005 the Labour government proposed the Religious Hatred Law, making it illegal to condemn, criticize, or ridicule any religion “€“ thus effectively making free speech, or “€œfreedom of expression”€ illegal. The law was voted down in its original form, though it was instituted in an amended form making it illegal to use threatening language in regard to any religion. Personally, I do not want to see religion attacked, though I do not want to find myself in a country where I risk imprisonment if I dare to condemn terrorist acts, for example, carried out in the name of a religion. Liberal intolerance has, of course, a trickle-down effect, and we are constantly affronted by an extreme though vocal minority, who promote turning freedom of speech into their own brand of politically approved form of speech under the banner of liberalism. Recently, then, we have seen people revealed as members of the B.N.P. by the press with “€“ if it had any foresight whatsoever “€“ the clear knowledge that they would be (and later were) attacked, with unions, demonstrators, etc., calling for them to be fired from their job, prosecuted, etc., even though they had not even promoted the party or spoken of their membership or political views “€“ whatever they may be. (It is a cliché, I know, but the exposure of political opponents by newspapers became a part of the zeitgeist and semi-official policy of the early years of Germany’s Nazi Party.)

The harassment campaign against ballerina Simone Clarke for her membership of the B.N.P. is well known. A similar situation had occurred even before this, however, when architect Peter Phillips ran for presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2006, and won 60 votes, Sumita Sinha, founder of the equal opportunities campaign Architects for Change, called for him to be expelled from the organization and for those who had voted for him to be named. Calls for people to be fired because they support a legal political party, or for overturning secret ballots, are entirely undemocratic, and un-British. Place them in an earlier time, and we would call them fascist. Such tactics will also ultimately backfire. Note for example Rod Liddle’s confession in the Times that he laughed at a “€œmildly racist joke.”€ “€œI used to find racist jokes dismally unfunny,”€ he notes, “€œ but these days, because I”€™m not allowed to find them funny and might even be visited by the police for committing a hate crime if I did, they”€™ve taken on a samizdat quality.”€  Such an editorial would not have been published if it did not speak to its readers, and it probably would not have ten years ago.

When trade minister Margaret Hodge dared to say that British families had a “legitimate sense of entitlement” over immigrants to government-provided housing she was denounced as “using the language of the BNP,” which is usually code for “€œracist.”€ The Left-wing Guardian newspaper may write of fears of the rise of the far-Right, but when centrist politicians (or even those on the Left, such as Hodge) and parties cannot raise the concerns of their constituents (as Hodge claims she was doing) it is quite obvious that ordinary people will eventually vote for whatever party is addressing their concerns. Indeed, it is fairly frequently remarked that Britain’s main political parties, though ostensibly Left and Right, have effectively the same policies on nearly everything, and disagree usually only on minor details, so sanitized has the country’s politics become.

With increasing intolerance toward political dissent, and the harassment of the dissenter, it is becoming increasingly clear that Britain needs a Constitution, like that of the U.S. Constitution, to guarantee its citizens such human rights as we once took for granted, e.g., free speech. Notably, while the government has been criticized for giving away to much power by signing the new E.U. treaty (designed to replace the defunct Constitution), it has attempted to moderate this opposition by amending the treaty before signing, and obtaining “€œan opt-out on a charter of human and social rights.” In Britain the Magna Carta is not a historical document enshrining Habeas Corpus, it is merely history “€“ forgotten history, at that. Law, it would seem, is something that depend very much on the whims of the day, and that is a very dangerous situation for the British.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, calls for a formal British Constitution have begun to surface. The minor political party, the English Democrats, has called for “€œa modern and wide-ranging Bill of Rights founded on traditional English civil liberties,”€ for England, and Cameron has taken the initiative to charge the Conservative Party with producing a Modern British Bill of Rights, which, he has said, “€œneeds to define the core values which give us our identity as a free nation.”€ He goes on to say:

It should spell out the fundamental duties and responsibilities of people living in this country both as citizens and foreign nationals.

And it should guide the judiciary and the Government in applying human rights law when the lack of responsibility of some individuals threatens the rights of others.

It should enshrine and protect fundamental liberties such as jury trial, equality under the law and civil rights.

And it should protect the fundamental rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights in clearer and more precise terms.

Greater clarity and precision would allow those rights to be enforced more easily and effectively in circumstances where they ought to be protected but it would become harder to extend them inappropriately as under the present law.

Greater clarity and precision in the law, as opposed to vague general principles, which can be interpreted in many different ways, is more in accordance with this country’s legal tradition.

Of course, a Constitution is only as strong as the political will of the governing class to respect it. The Iraqi government has recently written its Constitution, as has a military-backed commission in Thailand “€“ after the elected government was ousted in a coup nearly a year ago. It seems that every emerging nation writes one. I am always struck by the thought that this represents an ersatz political tradition, that there is in effect a “€œbeginning again,”€ a year zero. There is something socialist about it. Frequently they fail, either by vote or in practice, because their contents are often artificial, creating an ideal nation on paper rather than presenting a conscious of the nation’s historical culture while establishing equal human rights. (Thailand has had no fewer than 17 Constitutions in the last 75 years.)

At the very root of the various nations we find the idea of its sacredness (expressed, for example, in such myths as that of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, in (traditional) monarchy, etc.), and the Constitution must be an affirmation of the sacred nature of both the nation or states and citizenship within it. Such a document could only be produced by those who are conscious of history, cultured (in a traditional sense) and learned “€“ wise, even. It remains to be seen whether an authentic British Constitution can be written in the modern age by professional politicians with one eye on their career and the other on the clubs wielded by various pressure groups.


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