The failure of David Cameron to prevent Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission drew widespread comment that it will now be harder for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU). If the Tory Party wins the next British general election Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017. Under pressure from The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and from within his own Eurosceptic ranks he has developed a policy that has temporarily settled the in-fighting within his Party.
In Ireland referenda on the development of the EU have been fairly frequent. In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9% with only 34.8% of the electorate voting. The vote was held again in 2002 and the Treaty was passed by 62.9%, with 49.5% of the electorate voting.
In 2008 53.4% voted against the Lisbon Treaty (on a turnout of 53.1%) so once again the vote was re-held to get the ‘right’ result. The next vote in October 2009 resulted 67.1% voting in favour of the treaty, once again on a higher turnout of 59%.
The Left in Ireland has been in the opposition within these EU referenda and opposed the original entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, which was decisively approved in a referendum by over 80% of those voting. In Britain the Left also opposed British membership of the EEC in a 1975 referendum, which was passed by a majority of 67.2% in a turnout of 64.0%.
When I was in a second hand bookshop in Glasgow some weeks ago my attention was therefore drawn to an old copy of New Left Review from 1972, which was a special issue on ‘The Left Against Europe’. The whole issue was devoted to one article written by Tom Nairn on the ‘great debate’ in Britain in the previous year whether Britain should join the Common Market, as the EEC was popularly called. This debate eventually led to a vote in the Westminster Parliament to join and accession into membership in 1973, before the new Labour Government elected in 1974 held a referendum in 1975 to ratify staying in.
Nairn states that the debate was far from ‘great’ and that quotation marks enclosed the phrase from the outset. It continued what he called a ‘stale and exasperated argument about the topic which had dragged on for years.’ The Cameron promise shows that it still continues.
The ‘great debate’ Nairn says “never at any moment approached ‘greatness, or even excitement.” Nairn uses it however to examine the Left’s opposition to the EEC and this examination is worth looking at to see what lessons it provides for today. The issue of the EU matters to the Left and working class as much as it still does for the Tory Party.
Whether Britain stays in or leaves also matters to the Irish State. Its original membership was only viable if the British also joined and Britain leaving would create a real problem. Only last week it was reported that a delegation from the German Parliament’s Finance Committee had issued a report – that the Irish tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain. Instead Ireland has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”
Nairn puts the British decision to join down to the hegemonic interests of finance in the City of London and the timing down to global monetary instability prompted by the dollar crisis that eventually forced the dollar off convertibility to gold in August 1971. He quotes the Economist magazine stating that a future attempt at monetary union within the EEC will see Britain in the inside, with the strongest financial centre and having a dominant say in what gets done.
Not quite how things turned out but this story isn’t over and the choice to join the Euro is one that still faces the British capitalist class.
Nairn notes the virtual unity of the Conservative Party in seeking membership of the Common Market and the limited opposition of a marginalised rump led by the arch-bigot Enoch Powell, who by coincidence, has had the depths of his bigotry recalled by a flag supporting him going up in a loyalist area of Belfast. Today the decline of the Tory Party into a backward, reactionary and ultimately self-defeating nationalism is evidenced by the ascendancy of Eurosceptics within that Party.
It is examination of the attitude of the Left however that is the purpose of this long 120 page article. The opposition of the Labour Party to joining the Common Market in this ‘great debate’, or the vast majority of it at least, is put down to pure opportunism. Under the leadership of Harold Wilson it opposed joining for purely party political purposes, Wilson having attempted to lead Britain into the EEC when in power between 1964 and 1970.
The ability of Labour to perform this U-turn is put down to the fundamentally nationalist character of the party. For Nairn, the Labour Party is not fundamentally a class or popular Party but a nationalist Party and its reformism and ‘betrayals’ of the working class a result of its nationalism. This nationalism is one shared in a basic sense by its supporters and voters, which explains why – despite the betrayals – they still support and vote for it. Otherwise the phenomenon of continued support despite continued betrayal become inexplicable, unless workers are to be understood as fundamentally stupid – voting again and again for people who betray their beliefs and expectations.
Nairn records the opposition of the Left of the Labour Party in particular and its opposition to the Common Market on the basis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘socialism’. In this respect the themes of the ‘great debate’ resonate today.
- The Left in the Labour party presented Britain as more internationalist than the inward looking European States. Open, free trading Britain was compared to the protectionist EEC. Didn’t Britain look beyond the petty European states towards the countries of the Commonwealth and Britain’s wider role in international affairs and international bodies? The latter providing the basis for a real socialist foreign policy.
- Entry into the EEC would erect obstacles to the fight for socialism in Britain and prevent further socialist measures by a future Labour Government. The EEC is a capitalist club and entry would mean the loss of the potential for socialism that does exist.
- Refusal to enter this club would pose the question of an alternative, which would allow a socialist answer to be given.
- The independence of Britain would allow the real popular character of the British nation to be revealed through its labour movement in a way that would be impossible within the rules of the EEC.
So what does this remind you of?
Well, swap Scotland for Britain and you have much of the Left nationalist case for Scottish independence today.
Just as the EEC is supposed to be more capitalist that the British state (God knows how) so Scotland is less reactionary than Britain (which is even less comprehensible). London rule is capitalist but somehow Edinburgh rule is less capitalist!
Left nationalists proclaim the international potential of Scottish independence in the same self-refuting way the Labour Party did in the 1971 ‘great debate.’ Nationalist separation is somehow internationalist. Why? Because somehow, again unexplained or simply incredibly, there exists more potential for socialism in Edinburgh than London; just as the nations within the EEC and the EEC itself were assumed to be barriers to socialism that the British imperialist state wasn’t.
Today one part of the imperialist state – with a history of disproportionate participation in empire building – is again more socialist, or with the potential for it, than Britain as a whole. Again while Scottish Left nationalists claim that the real Scottish nation is more left wing so did the Labour Party claim the real British nation was more socialist than the capitalist EEC, including such historical bastions of reaction as Paris and Rome.
Finally, even posing the nationalist question somehow gives rise to a socialist answer, or less extravagantly, gives rise to the potential for a socialist answer. But it’s as if, if you ask the right question in the right way somehow socialism will pop up almost naturally as the answer. And where is the evidence for this even when, as in Ireland for example, the capitalist crisis brought the Irish State to bankruptcy and exposed double standards that made working class people pay for the reckless gambling debts of the rich?
What more striking exposure of the rottenness of capitalism could be imagined? Yet still there has been no alternative created and still in both Ireland and Britain there is no successful resistance to austerity – the most immediate question to which the socialist movement has been unable to provide an answer.
What this exposes, among many other things, is that the essence of socialism is not the displacement or even destruction of this or that aspect of capitalism or its state but the development of the working class. Capitalism can only be superseded, at least progressively, by the development of something positive. Unfortunately the Left thinks always in negative terms – of what it is against – and when it looks to achieve even this it posits the existing capitalist state or some configuration of it, usually its own nationalist version, as the mechanism of transformation.
It is ironic that Tom Nairn ridicules the claims that the the fight against the Tories, for national ‘independence’, against inflation and for socialism were, in 1971, ‘all the same thing’. This is exactly the same claim made today in 2014, except we might replace inflation with austerity and support the claims of ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘Britain’. He shows how Labourism rejuvenated itself and re-established unity within its own ranks by claiming to unite British workers in opposition to bureaucracy and international capitalism. Except all this rested on the unity of British workers with the British state, shackled by the chain of nationalism.
But the question of Scottish separation is a derivative lesson to be drawn from reading ‘The Left Against Europe’. The major lesson is the need to give real content to the socialist claim that it is international by its very nature. Not an aspiration, not simply a goal to reach, an attitude to strike or an opinion to hold dearly but a practical and immediate part of its political programme.
What he says about this will be taken up in the next post.