Andrew Fisher argues the UK has lost more power to boardrooms than to Brussels
On his regular slot on BBC Question Time on 8 May this year, Nigel Farage outlined UKIP's message simply, 'We want our democracy back'.
The message from UKIP is clear and consistent: the UK's democracy is diminished by the fact that powers once possessed by the UK government are now exercised by the European Union.
This is unarguably true - though the extent is hotly contested - but while UKIP gets hot under the collar about the powers allegedly undemocratically exercised by Brussels, it is silent on the far greater powers that successive governments have surrendered not to Brussels, but to boardrooms.
One UKIP poster claims that 75% of our laws are made in Brussels. The reality is somewhat different - in fact this well-researched factcheck site tests the claims of a Tory MEP, UKIP's Farage, and even Prime Minister David Cameron - and finds them all to be exaggerating. It concludes that: "something in the region of 10-20% would be a fair guess for the UK."
Furthermore the indepedent FullFact website helpfully reproduces this graphic showing the origins of various types of legislation - which shows just 14% of Acts of Parliament and 14% of UK regulations initiated by Parliament are EU-driven. But 53% of all regulations do come from Europe (much related to food and agriculture).
Nevertheless, with only limited regulations and oversight, the unaccountable boardrooms of various transnational corporations run our energy, railways, postal services, water, forensic science and have an growing influence in our increasingly marketised universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, probation service, police and security, prisons, and even the welfare state.
The UK's contribution to the EU was £17.2 billion last year. But that was offset by the £3.3 billion UK rebate and the £5.2 billion funds that the UK receives - making a net contribution of £8.6 billion (government figures).
|The real seats of power in the UK?|
From just these three privatised sectors nearly three times as much is spent than the UK's gross contribution to the EU - and seven times our net contribution. Please also bear in mind that in addition the following companies have also been privatised in the last 30 years: British Petroleum, British Telecommunications, Royal Mail, Cable & Wireless, Enterprise Oil, British Airways, British Aerospace, Britoil, Amersham International, Fairey Engineering, Girobank, Ferranti, National Freight, International Aeradio, British National Oil Corporation - to name a few...
To some extent the EU has strong claim to democratic mandate. A referendum was won (in 1975) committing us to membership of the European Economic Community (EEC, later EC then EU).
A little over two-thirds of the UK electorate voted to join the EU's predecessor, on a 65% turnout (higher than the 2001 and 2005 general elections - and equal to the 2010 general election).
No referendum was ever held to remove from democratic control our water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, railways or, most recently, postal services.
The EU also has internal democracy. We vote for members of the European Parliament every five years, and the elected UK government of the day appoints an EU Commissioner, and sends minsters as delegates to the Council of Europe.
No democratic mechanism operates in any of the privatised utility companies or in any industry formerly controlled run under government control.
Democracy roughly translates from its Greek origins as 'the people rule'. So how enraged are people that the EU has taken some power away from the UK government? As its name suggests, UKIP believes the UK should pull out of the EU - a view shared by 39% of the public according to a March 2014 opinion poll (41% wanted to stay in the EU). Similarly an April poll found that 35% wanted to stay and just 32% wanted to leave.
Compare this with the concern people have that too much power has been handed to boardrooms: according to a YouGov poll 67% want the recently privatised Royal Mail in public ownership (22% against); 66% want the railways renationalised (23% against); and 68% want the energy companies under government control (21% against).
This too is reflected in the views of UKIP members, who are far more keen on the renationalisation of privatised industry than Tory or even Lib Dem voters. UKIP voters want the railways back by a margin of 73% to 21% and the energy companies nationally-owned again by a whopping 78% to 16%.
Conclusion: The UKIP fraud
Nigel Farage is therefore correctly reflecting public opinion when he says 'We want our democracy back' - but he's mistaken about both where the public want it back from and where our democracy has actually gone. It's boardrooms not Brussels, UKIP.
There are undoubtedly flaws with the EU, its democratic mechanisms and support among European citizens - but that is true of national governments too, who likewise underwhelm.
The real hypocrisy of the UKIP leadership is its failure to articulate any concern about the far greater democratic powers that have been surrendered by successive governments to boardrooms - whose powers over our lives (just those gained through privatisations in the last 35 years) are far greater than those held in Brussels.
Ironically then, rather than reflecting their own voters' concerns, UKIP wants to hand over more of our democratic say to the private sector. The NHS should be privatised, according to Paul Nuttall, UKIP's Deputy Leader and an MEP for north west England. Opinion polling shows 84% of UKIP voters want the NHS run in the public sector (only 10% want it privatised).
- Andrew Fisher is author of a new book (out 20 May) about the UK economy: The Failed Experiment ... and how to build an economy that works. He is also speaking at an event at the Brighton Festival Fringe on Tuesday 20 May 'Is It Time to Re-Nationalise UK plc?'