What’s in a label?


One thing that has always puzzled me is why liberals are not more critical of the EU. Liberals tend to support the devolution of power, yet the EU represents the centralisation of it. So why, in general, the support?

Yesterday a comment made by the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, clarified things for me. Speaking at Demos on public health, he acknowledged that, in order to introduce a traffic light system in food labelling, agreement would need to be reached at EU level.

The need to do that grates with me. It strikes me as a (small) example of taking the single market principle too far and eroding democratic decision making. But I suspect for some people the important question is whether the proposal itself is too ‘nannying’ – not who in particular has made it.

This points to a bigger debate about notions of freedom. The philosopher Philip Pettit distinguishes between two forms of freedom: non-interference and non-domination. Liberals, argues Pettit, are concerned with non-interference, whereas republicans (small ‘r’) are interested in non-domination.

To explain what he means, Pettit gives an extreme example: the slave with the benevolent owner. The slave is the property of the owner but the owner lets him do what he pleases. Petit argues that liberals, concerned with non-interference, can live with this. The slave is going about his life unencumbered. But republicans, argues Pettit, cannot be happy with this situation. The owner has unaccountable power over the slave and therefore the power to dominate his or her life.

I am not suggesting that Britain is somehow ‘enslaved’ by the EU, but I do think Pettit’s distinction between non-interference and non-domination is pertinent to the EU debate. In the food-labelling example, the liberal question is: ‘is a traffic light system too much interference in people’s lives and/or the market place?’ By contrast, the republican question is: ‘is this decision made by someone accountable to me’. As long as the EU does not become too ‘nannying’ on food labelling, then, liberals ought to be able to live with it while republicans will remain frustrated.

This links, I think, to something Steve Richards wrote before Christmas about ‘new Bennites’ in the Tory Party. As he wrote:

‘Listen carefully to the arguments of Tory dissenters on several matters and they care about the mechanics of decision-making as much as the substance of the decisions. This applies to their current explosive opposition to the European arrest warrant and free movement of labour. They fume above all because neither they nor their constituents can decide on the issue, even if they can see merits in the policies being imposed on them.’

This explains a subtle distinction in positions on issues like immigration too. It is the difference between wanting less immigration and wanting decisions about immigration made by politicians who will stand for election in May. You might, for example, be liberal on immigration, but still frustrated that parliament is not in a position to decide about free movement – unless of course the UK leaves the EU.

All democratic decision making is a form of compromise with unavoidable trade-offs. The EU represents this writ-large. We trade some sovereignty to get things done. We can’t have everything our own way because we are working with others, often to do important things. Perhaps the ‘new Bennites’ take their position too far. Perhaps this is even slightly un-British – we are supposed to believe in messy compromise, after all. But there is something important in the republican notion of freedom – non-domination and accountable power – that shouldn’t be lost or dismissed in our current debates. Can we not decide, at least, on our own food labelling?