Libertas, Veritas and a politics unhinged from class… Why! It has to be Europe… April 27, 2008Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Politics, European Union, Irish Politics.
There’s an interesting discussion on Machine Nation about new political parties, prompted in no small way by anti-Lisbon Treaty group Libertas. This follows on from the news that the most recent RedC poll indicates that the gap between the Yes and No side on the Lisbon Treaty Referendum is narrowing, with 35% voting Yes and 31% voting No. This in the context of 34% undecided. As RTÉ noted:
31% are opposed to Lisbon, an increase of seven points, while one third of voters, 34%, do not know.
When those undecideds are excluded, the “Yes” side leads by 53% to 47%, a very narrow margin with seven weeks to go to polling.
And so, hardly a surprise that:
Anti-Lisbon group Libertas welcomed the findings, and said its concerns over taxation, democracy and accountability are resonating with the electorate.
I’ve mentioned before that for them a narrow loss is as good as an outright win. Their appearance as a rightwing anti-Lisbon Treaty pressure group has caused a fair degree of consternation on the anti-Lisbon left used more to poorly funded and supported far right ginger groups making the running at that side of the spectrum rather than the vastly more professional and media-savvy Libertas which occupies a hitherto unfilled niche of critiquing the EU project from the free market right. Now, it may well be that Libertas is an ‘astroturf’ operation, and posters and comments on the CLR have raised quite a few queries over its tactics and approach, but… that said Ireland has been distinguished for decades by the seeming uniformity of support for the EEC/EC/EU across decades from almost all political backgrounds. The exoticism of Libertas is paradoxically less remarkable in a European context.
But thinking about Libertas, some suggest it may try to position itself as an alternative political vehicle in a future European Union election – a nascent pan-European party as it were. In a way such an approach makes sense. US style economic liberalism is actually rather undeveloped in Europe as a whole. The legacy of Christian Democrat parties across the continent which married cautious social conservatism with centre-right economic policies which tended to eschew outright idolatery of the free-market in favour of more ‘social’, but no less conservative, approaches in some ways echoed pre-war corporatism. Not entirely of course, but sufficient to generate a political context where the harder-edged approaches forged in the US and the UK had remarkably little purchase, for all that the term neo-liberal is bandied about.
Add to that curious experiments in flat-taxes in the former Eastern bloc countries and the space for an opening to the right seems evident.
But I have to be honest, I’m both profoundly sceptical about ‘new’ parties, and the level of expertise and human capital necessary to further them. It’s not that it’s impossible to do so, but it is very very difficult. And here’s another thought for what it’s worth. Europe simply isn’t an issue with sufficient traction for a single political party. Sure, an MEP might be elected, but the history of Irish MEPs from an independent or small party backgrounds is instructive. They have tended to be single issue and last single terms.
For Libertas the task would be fascinating, at least from the perspective of those of us who are spectators. Firstly they would need to lock into a supposedly EU sceptical vote amongst supporters of the larger parties. Does such a vote exist? I’m don’t think so, but, perhaps. But, this being a ‘not only, but also’ sort of dynamic they would have to attract other EU-sceptical voters. From the left? Not likely. Libertas is far too closely entwined with former PD supporters, and that come an election might provide ready ammunition to a vengeful Irish political establishment should the referendum be lost. And after that, how to sustain such a party? The concept of pan-European parties is great fun on paper, and it’s one argued for here on the CLR, but the reality has been that national and local considerations have always trumped Europe, not least because Europe has not had the power it’s defenders or antagonists have suggested and that national parliaments remain sovereign. Then there is the language issue. This is particularly pertinent in Ireland which has historically had an abysmal level of knowledge of second and third languages, but is not without traction more widely. Are any of these factors likely to change, well, We Are Change may think so, but having seen Treaties come and go I remain pretty well unconvinced.
So while I don’t think it’s entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that Libertas might see an MEP elected, although it would be vastly more difficult than they might think, I’m dubious that it would signal any long term structural shift in Irish, or European, politics.
In a way it reminds me of Dublin Central. On numerous occasions high profile candidates from various parties have attempted to contest it as if high profiles are sufficient to distort its voting environment from the local to the national. All have failed. And yet when one thinks about it that is unsurprising. Granted there are two nationally known politicians in the constituency, Ahern and Gregory, but despite that national profile they are – at heart – very traditional local politicians who for differing reasons achieved national prominence.
Europe, in electoral terms, is entirely the opposite. It relishes high profile or quixotic candidacies, but, the corollary of that is that they tend to have much less impact on the national. So, for all the Labour MEPs, or DL, or WP ones before them (and this is true of SF and the Greens as well), this is political capital that is strangely unexchangeable at national level. Who now dares speak of Pat Cox and all his works?
And for further proof of this dynamic consider the fate of Veritas in the United Kingdom, founded, as wiki notes by ‘politician-celebrity’ Robert Kilroy-Silk, a man whose political journey surely is only rivaled by that of a certain E. Harris of these parts. Kilroy-Silk was an MEP for UKIP who found the latter party ultimately uncongenial to his political ambitions (these being considerable for a man who had been through the UK Labour Party in his time). So, with a number of others, including London Assembly members, he founded Veritas… supposedly a genuine right wing alternative to the ‘old’ parties. Dubbed ‘Vanitas’ by his rivals the party was very much regarded as a personal vehicle (and incidentally there is a great documentary that was shown some years back about the various politicking around it and UKIP which is well worth viewing if you can get hold of it).
This is a politics devoid of class content. That is not to say there is not an aspect of class representation, but in the pseudo-technocratic gloss of political formations that seek to ‘improve’ (and this is a discourse which more traditional parties have engaged with in recent times) is one that attempts to avoid engagement on the more difficult and challenging terrain of class. The problem is that even still, despite the opportunity for the EU to allow a thousand flowers to bloom, of varying qualities, even still the majority of those elected are from more traditionally class based parties of left and right. There may well be an opening in Europe, but technocratic free marketeer philosophies isn’t, I suspect, going to garner the sort of vote some seem to think it will. Nor does Europe provide a platform to strike into national politics, or at least not an easy one.
Sadly Veritas is no longer with us in its fullest Kilroy-Silk form, but there are lessons to be found here. The European project provides a fabulous receptacle for hopes and fears. From the starry-eyed boosterism of some to the near-apocalyptic prognostications of others it allows people to map any number of meanings onto it. And all this despite the remarkably dull and process-led reality of it. And that provides a space, a very limited space, but space nonetheless for individuals and groups to attempt to carve out an identity. Is Libertas going this way? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. What I would say is to caution against any idea that even a pan-European Libertas – or other similar group/party – would be in any real sense politically meaningful in the national context. Even in the US system the opportunity for third parties to shine has been extremely limited. In the entirely different context of Europe at both national and supra-national level the barriers to entry are high…