David Cameron gives a good speech, I think most will agree. He spoke to his party conference without notes and established his leadership credentials, and he spoke again last time to quell the whispering campaign that might (although I think it unlikely) have brought his leadership to an end. Very few, if any, question his position now.
But yesterday’s speech on Britain’s place in Europe revealed something other than his ability to talk the talk. I’m not going into the meat of it here, but something struck me before he uttered even a word.
The location. The speech was apparently taking place in Bloomberg’s London office. No doubt this is a good venue, great even, and as a regional hub of an international news agency perhaps it makes a lot of sense given the international implications of his proposals. But it isn’t Parliament. You remember, that Gothic World Heritage Site beside the Thames from where we are notionally governed.
Then he got going and said something that seemed strange:
“It is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU.”
Really? Then why not deliver this most important of speeches to one of those parliaments – ours as it happens – in recognition of that legitimacy and to emphasise its democratic importance above that of the EU? The whole point of this passage was to propose ‘a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments.’
One can’t help thinking that parliament is not, in the minds of most politicians, the institution that matters most. Rather it is the Newsnight studio, the Today Programme sound-booth or something similar that is most important to a politician with a point to make.
“It is to the British Parliament that I must account on the EU budget negotiations, or on the safeguarding of our place in the single market.”
But not, apparently, when announcing the most important policy declaration on the UK’s place in that very same club. On the face of it, this is immeasurably important, because what the PM is proposing is a referendum that could well see us out of it. And if not out of it then under membership rules radically different to the ones we live under today – assuming the apparatus is amenable.
“Those are the Parliaments which instil proper respect – even fear – into national leaders. We need to recognise that in the way the EU does business.”
A great opportunity, then, to demonstrate the point by making the speech in Westminster. Or perhaps I’m being picky? Why not announce policy to the media instead of Parliament? It’s such common practice now, it would seem odd and strangely antiquated to make important announcements like this one in good old Westminster.
Still, had it not been for the Algerian hostage crisis, the speech might have been made in Amsterdam. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with making speeches outside Parliament, or even outside the country, but when the main antagonism is about national parliaments – and therefore democracy, accountability and legitimacy – being hollowed out by the EU bureaucracy, then one begins to wonder just what politicians really think about Parliament.
Do national leaders really fear democracy? Is that why they ignore its parliamentary houses? Or is it simply boring, or just inconvenient? I don’t really know, but whatever the EU project is about, it’s not about democracy. And that’s the primary problem. Parliament is where the demos gathers in the form of elected representatives and, if we ignore that demos or undermine it or marginalise it, then we should not be surprised if, in the end, the public comes to resent those people and external institutions that seem to stand against them.
Perhaps it really doesn’t mean a thing, but why was that speech, with its potentially seismic policy pronouncement, not made in Westminster to our democratically elected representatives?