The question of Brexit contains many interrelated issues that are both complex and far-reaching. I have therefore decided to present a sequence of shorter articles tackling specific topics. This one is a general plea to wavering leftists…
Four weeks today on June 23rd, Britain goes to the polls to decide on whether our collective future lies inside or outside the European Union. Whatever the outcome, our decision will very likely reshape the political landscape, not only inside Britain but also beyond our borders, for decades to come.
I have been trying to construct a short article outlining my own position favouring Brexit for many weeks now. But shortly after I begin, the doubts set in. Not doubts about leaving the EU, but doubts about how best to broach a frank and honest leftist argument in its favour?
At the heart of this difficulty is the nature of the debate itself. A debate – and I use the term loosely – that is necessarily being held at breakneck pace due to Cameron’s call for such a snap referendum and one wholly dominated by the most loudmouthed opinions of his Conservative Party…
In the blue corner “call me Dave” Cameron and in the other blue corner “The Boris” Johnson. Two of Bullingdon’s finest slugging it out for king, country and globalisation. It’s a spat that is about as phoney as any WWE wrestling bout and (for me at least) an even bigger turn-off.
So let’s be clear, neither Cameron, well-remembered for reneging on his “cast iron” Lisbon Treaty referendum pledge back in 2006 1, nor Johnson, who always hedges his bets on Europe, are fighting for what they believe in. They are not men of actual conviction, but political opportunists, and I am very far from alone in believing that Johnson’s lead role in the ‘Leave’ campaign was always part of a “choreographed game” stage-managed by Downing Street 2 (so desperate to maintain a modicum of cohesion within the warring Tory party ranks but also determined to win the vote).
Yet rather than forcing our politicians to face up to a fuller debate, the media mostly lends its considerable powers to keeping it shut down. Deflecting public attention away from the important issues and persuading us instead to fixate on the latest posturing of each side’s leading personalities as well as the nonsense they are endlessly spouting. And since there are deeply divisive and unpleasant characters talking rubbish on both sides, I strongly advise the undecided to ignore all the grimacing and the cacophony of half-truths, outright lies and utterly risible innuendo – al-Baghdadi cares not one jot about your vote and neither does Vladimir Putin!
Which brings me to the next difficulty faced by all left-leaning proponents of Brexit, and this involves recognising and surmounting a peculiar, since unfamiliar, sense of shame. The shame one feels at letting the side down. That we are apparently cheering on the nationalist cause when we ought instead, by rights, to adhere to a more internationalist stance. We even hear the ugly accusation raised against advocates of Brexit that, presumably by virtue of sharing this single opinion with holders of entirely obnoxious political outlooks, we may likewise be adopting an inherently a racist position. Which is another desperate slur intended to suck the air out of any serious debate over the essential and quite legitimate questions about independence and sovereignty.
That said, there is also a genuine concern that needs addressing, although in order to grapple with it sincerely we must first issue a full admission of guilt. So here it is: the left has been duped. It became hooked on a pipedream after mistaking the European project for an antidote to Thatcherism. Having been, for many years, a staunch advocate of “Europe” (the project not the geographical region), regrettably I was one of the many who were duped.
For whereas true internationalism – the internationalism of the old left – is predicated on an political ideal of extending democratic freedom throughout all nations of the world, the EU was deliberately constructed to function as a constraint against those democracies. And it is baloney to claim (as many do) that the EU “pools” our sovereignties, when in truth it erodes them down to nothing. This is the raison d’être of globalism as opposed to internationalism.
“The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear,” writes Paul Mason in a Guardian opinion piece published Monday 16th, adding:
The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime.
Mason, the former Economics Editor for BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4 news, who more recently resigned to become an independent voice, continues:
Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law. 3
I have strongly criticised Paul Mason for fence-sitting on related issues in an earlier article, but here, in three tightly constructed paragraphs, he makes the most succinct and, as he says, “principled leftwing case for Brexit” I have yet to read. And yet, and yet… Mason then swivels on a sixpence to reverse his position, saying:
Now here’s the practical reason to ignore it. In two words: Boris Johnson.
Overall Mason’s article is an impressive one and I very much encourage everyone to read it in full. Like Mason, I too am deeply concerned that a person as slippery as Boris Johnson might soon hold the reins of power in Westminster, but then Johnson has been lined up for succession long before Cameron felt so electorally cornered by UKIP that he bought victory in the General Election at the cost of this unwanted (from his position) EU referendum.
As a self-confessed pro-Brexit leftist, Mason’s broader concern is that leaving the EU now may inadvertently supply ammunition to our enemies. This is a valid point and one that Mason rightly raises, however, I find little reason to dwell on it. Do we cut off our nose to spite our face? Or, more specifically, to dent the prospects of a clownish would-be Tory leader, who seems in any case to be Teflon-coated – and frankly is Johnson actually any more dangerous than Cameron and their other Bullingdon buddy Osborne – a leadership rival – who together head ‘Remain’?.
Interestingly, when Mason concludes his piece saying “the political conditions for a left Brexit are absent today”, he has already somewhat undermined that position in the preceding paragraph:
The EU’s economic failure is fuelling racism and the ultra right. Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU with the Third Reich was facile. The more accurate comparison is with the Weimar Republic: a flawed democracy whose failures fuelled the rise of fascism. And this swing to the far right prompts the more basic dilemma: do I even want to be part of the same electorate as millions of closet Nazis in mainland Europe?
It is as if he cannot keep a lid on his own frustration – anti-EU passions that he had even greater difficulty holding in check during last week’s [Thurs 21st] appearance on BBC Question Time:
Click here to read Paul Mason’s full article
The trouble is that the left have been caught on the hop. As the EU dropped its liberal veil, a great many of its supporters hesitated and keep a respectful silence. This failure to react opened the way for right-wing forces to gain much of the ground the liberal left once occupied. Two years ago, back in May 2014, I posted an article entitled “the rise of UKIP calls for new strategies from the left”. Unfortunately, such new strategies are still to be properly delineated by the mainstream left, which makes the need more urgent than ever before
It is unlikely that we will have another opportunity to vote on our EU membership in the foreseeable future (and given that the EU appears bent upon its own destruction perhaps we may never get one) and so rather than leaving it to the paleoconservatives and ultra-right to campaign for Brexit, isn’t the better strategy to refrain from playing politics, and stand firm for what we actually believe? If we find ourselves disenfranchised and alienated by the Eurocrats in Brussels then we should speak up and boost the left campaign for Brexit (as Corbyn almost certainly would too, if he hadn’t been muzzled by the PLP 4). If enough of us do, we will steal the thunder of our enemy.
Traditionally, the left in Britain – the democratic socialists and not the social democrat usurpers of “The Third Way” – have consistently and solidly opposed the EU’s monolithic and anti-democratic institutions and their bureaucratic takeover of our society. So what has changed?
Additional: a background on Brexit
When the UK first joined ‘Europe’ in January 1973, the decision had been a purely executive one; the agreement signed behind our backs by the Conservative government of Edward Heath. But then the European Economic Community or EEC (as the organisation was originally known) was merely a burgeoning association of trading nations, and usually known more simply as the “Common Market”. So this was not a change affecting our rights or our constitution, certainly not to begin with, but apparently little more than an expanded free trade zone – and after all, the UK were already founder members of the European Free Trade Association or EFTA, along with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland. The United Kingdom along with Denmark only ceased to be EFTA members when both then joined the EEC in 1973.
In these early days of EEC membership, the British public was just as divided on the issue as they are today, and, for the most part, this division in opinion fell along the traditional political fault-line of left against right. Back in the 1970s, however, it was socialists and trades unionists who, concerned by the top-down rule of bureaucrats in Brussels, were the most outspoken opponents. It was then much harder to find opposition within the rank and file of either Conservatives or Liberals (the Liberals being the only party to remain consistently “pro-European”).
A few years on, and with the 1975 referendum, the British electorate were at last given the chance to formally express their support or otherwise for the European project. Not to vote on whether or not to join, of course, since by then it was already a done deal, but on whether or not the UK should leave. So a loaded question obviously, and one further biased due to emphasis on the purportedly grave economic risks of an exit. Thus, with the deck fully stacked in favour of EEC membership, the nation went out to vote, and hardly surprisingly chose to stay put. 67% voting in favour, out of a 65% turnout.
But then something strange happened. Gradually, and throughout the following decade, the political poles were shifted around. The left becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of forming greater ties with our European partners, whilst the conservative right have grown ever more concerned and disaffected. The reason for these shifts actually aren’t hard to understand at all.
Thatcher loathed Europe, although what she really despised was the worker rights and other guarantees of social justice being snuck in through Europe’s backdoor. As a consequence, her almost rabid hostility towards European federalism (federalism being the big new F-word of the 1980s) being almost sufficient in itself to bring many on the left on board when it came to recognising the virtues of the fledgling union. Surely if this was the only route to achieving social justice then it was better to have more of it. Yet even so, a few on the left held on to their previous mistrust of Brussels. Tony Benn offers perhaps the best example, having remained unflinching in his objection to Europe’s inherent lack of democratic process. And here it is worth remembering that the “No” campaign of the ’75 referendum had been backed not only by Benn by other significant members on the left wing of the Labour Party, including cabinet ministers Michael Foot, Peter Shore and Barbara Castle.
More recently, the EU (which was formally established to replace the EEC after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and again without any national referendum in Britain) has revealed how the organisation’s fundamentally neo-liberal credentials never went away. Barely disguising its own shameful part in the agonies of “austerity” now being foisted on Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy, with these measures insisted upon by “the Troika” of which two of its three parts are the EU itself. These actions serve to highlight what many progressives have failed to understand (and for many years, myself included), which is that the EU was never intended as a socialist project at all, or even an inherently ‘liberal’ one. Rather, and primarily, it has been a vehicle for concentrating power to the advantage of an already powerful financial and corporate elite. Which is why some on the left have remained just as strongly opposed to the EU as many on the right.
The following is NOT taken from UKIP’s manifesto:
Membership of the European Community/Union has contributed substantially to the unprecedented decline of industries in Britain, mass long-term unemployment and inability to trade on the world market. Besides huge contributions to the EU budget we have to purchase high priced food, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Because of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) we no longer have control over the fishing grounds around Britain with consequent loss of most of the fishing industry and fish stocks and pollution of the sea. Membership of the EU has entailed a switch away from taxing income and profit to consumption through the imposition of VAT. The burden of these costs and taxation is mainly carried by ordinary people especially those with low incomes or the unemployed.
The Treaty on European Union, Euro-federalism and EU Constitution will guarantee further decline as a result of which Britain will become an offshore area of a supranational state. The aim of European Union to be consolidated through the EU Constitution is to have its own military forces and be ruled in secret by unelected governors of an unaccountable European Central Bank, an appointed Commission and committees such as the European Council. These bodies consist of a majority of representatives of member states not answerable to our Government, Parliament or electorate and would be taking decisions which may not be in the interests of Britain.
Rather, it is taken from the “Statement of Aims” of a lesser know left-wing organisation called the Campaign Against Euro-federalism or CAEF. A statement that continues as follows:
Corporatism and fascism are also menaces which emanate from the drive to a European Union. Racism has been encouraged by the Schengen agreement which is now part of EU law with parallel legislation on immigration and asylum in Britain.
Yes, not everyone who opposes the EU is automatically against international cooperation. Nor is everyone who opposes the open border Schengen Agreement a rabid nationalist.
In any case, internationalism, as CAEF correctly point out, is quite different to European federalism. Internationalism involves the strengthening ties between sovereign nations, rather than the more aggressive dissolving away of borders between them. And European federalism further undermines the independence of the people of those nations (its member states) by passing executive powers that were held by democratically elected governments into the technocratic hands of an appointed commission. The EU – as it exists, rather than how we might like it to be – is better understood, not as a grand project for furthering international cooperation, but as one of the vital organs of a fully globalised world.
Internationalism means the right to self determination and national democracy for all nations and nation states of the world which includes close relations with our friends in EU states and co-operating with peoples in all countries of the world.
And hear, hear to that!
The passage above is reprinted from an article posted in May 2014 entitled “the rise of UKIP calls for new strategies from the left”
In an article for the Sun on 26 September 2007, Cameron wrote: “Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations. No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.” […]
Barry Legg, co-chair of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, said: “David Cameron needs to come clean with the British people: why is he breaking his pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty?”Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, told Sky News: “It looks as if that cast-iron guarantee has become very rusty indeed. I don’t think he’s being entirely honest with the British people.”
From an article entitled “David Cameron to shed ‘cast iron’ pledge on Lisbon Treaty” written by Nicholas Watt and Patrick Wintour, published in the Guardian on November 3, 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/03/david-cameron-lisbon-treaty-referendum
Many of Mr Johnson’s closest allies are shocked that he made the decision to campaign for out.
One close political ally as recently as Wednesday said he believed speculation over Mr Johnson backing “Leave” was a “choreographed game” managed by Downing Street.
Although a committed Eurosceptic since working as Brussels correspondent for this newspaper in his twenties, Mr Johnson has always been known among friends as a Europhile and internationalist.
From an article entitled “How Boris Johnson came down on the side of a Brexit” written by Peter Dominiczak, published in The Telegraph on February 21, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnson/12167603/How-Boris-Johnson-came-down-on-the-side-of-a-Brexit.html
3 From an article entitled “The leftwing case for Brexit (one day)” written by Paul Mason, published in the Guardian on May 16, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/16/brexit-eu-referendum-boris-johnson-greece-tory
During the Labour leadership campaign, Corbn said he was ready to join an ‘Out’ campaign if David Cameron trades away workers’ rights, environmental protection and fails to crack down on Brussels-backed tax havens.
Late on Sunday evening Corbyn began assembling his shadow cabinet. The key position of shadow chancellor has been handed to his close ally John McDonnell. Benn was reappointed to the shadow foreign secretary job.
Several senior figures who served under Ed Miliband have either refused to join the team or have not been offered positions. In his resignation letter, Umunna said he would find it “difficult to abide by the collective responsibility that comes with serving in the shadow cabinet”.
He said: “That is why Jeremy and I have agreed I can more effectively support his leadership from the backbenches. In particular, it is my view that we should support the UK remaining a member of the EU, notwithstanding the outcome of any renegotiation by the Prime Minister, and I cannot envisage any circumstances where I would be campaigning alongside those who would argue for us to leave – Jeremy has made it clear to me that he does not wholeheartedly share this view.”
Emma Reynolds, who served Miliband as shadow Europe minister and shadow housing minister, also quit the frontbench citing concern about Corbyn’s position on the EU.
From an article entitled “Jeremy Corbyn Will Campaign To Stay In The EU, Insists Hilary Benn”, written by Ned Simons, published in The Huffington Post UK on September 14, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/14/jeremy-corbyn-will-campaign-to-stay-in-the-eu-insists-hilary-benn_n_8132078.html