A Progressive Brexit?

The Brexit campaign won with the slogan – “take back control”, the rallying cry of right wing Tories and UKIP.  Much more than ironic then that its successful leaders were left totally without control – Boris, Gove and Farage. Except of course Boris has bizarrely been give the job of Foreign Secretary, but then maybe it’s because he’s not even in favour of it but will still be made to share the rap for the Brexit disaster that awaits.

As one writer has pointed out, while the Tory Government didn’t have a plan B this lot didn’t even have a plan A.

It was enough for the Brexiteers that the nationalist argument that UK laws should be made in the UK was won.  There was no plan how they could then put their objectives into effect; for example many have noted that reducing immigration on the scale demanded is not compatible with their demand for single market access.  Johnson’s after-referendum article in the ‘Sunday Telegraph’ promised that everything would now change, with a reassurance that nothing would change – reminiscent of that other nationalist campaign for separation in Scotland.

Despite pretence to the contrary the Lexit campaign – the call for a progressive exit from the EU – made exactly the same call with exactly the same disregard for how the purported objectives behind it could be brought about.

Both Right and Left made exactly the same argument that the UK should be free of the restrictions of the EU with the Lexit Left claiming that this was, and presumably still is, necessary to end austerity.  The EU, it said, was a capitalist club that the UK should leave.  It would appear that the argument here was that this capitalist member should leave the club because somehow it would then be easier to make it less capitalist, ignoring the fact that the UK state is already itself a capitalist club for the capitalist firms within it.

That the capitalist state is already a capitalist club escapes the advocates of Lexit because they start from the perspective that the nation state can be the instrument for socialism while a collective of such states cannot.

The accusation that the EU imposes austerity is correct as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far for the UK; the Tories needed no one to tell them to impose austerity and it would be a cover-up to claim it has not been their responsibility.  In fact it is the UK alongside the US which has spearheaded the neoliberal ideological revolution in Europe and across the world.

Certainly we know Greece has suffered and continues to suffer from Eurozone austerity but Greece is a small and weak country in comparison to the UK.  We have enough evidence that the rules apply differently to bigger countries such as France and Germany.  In any case, just how would leaving the EU assist the Greeks fight the EU’s austerity?

It is argued that the way this might be achieved is through a mass anti-austerity campaign, but just like the Boris’s and Gove’s of this world the Lexit game plan makes no sense and it was obvious from the start it made no sense.  Everyone knew the Brexit campaign would be led and dominated by the most vicious right wing political forces and that a victory for such forces would be a victory for reaction in general.  That doesn’t change with the leading figures screwing up their victory – the announcement of the potential for even greater corporation tax cuts and the increase in racism and xenophobia are two illustrations of this. The assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is another.  The make-up of the new Tory cabinet yet another.

Which brings us to the Lexit campaign’s alibi for failure.  You see it’s not their fault that this strategy is such obvious mince, it’s the fault of Jeremy Corbyn and his failure to campaign for Brexit. Apparently had he done so it would have made Brexit progressive, it would miraculously have made all the little-Englanders (and Little Great Brits in the rest of the UK) a progressive force.  It would have made them, including large numbers of alienated workers, less racist and xenophobic.  By agreeing with them that the British state would be better off alone it would have made them less nationalistic and would have won them to an anti-austerity message.  Instead of being ignored by the mass media and press in his campaign for Remain, Corbyn would have been propelled by this media to the front row in place of Boris, Gove and Farage.  Wouldn’t he?

No doubt all those workers who voted to Remain, including the majority of young people, would just have followed a Brexit/Lexit call by Corbyn.  Why wouldn’t they?  Wouldn’t this just be an example of what these so-called vanguard organisations call leadership?  People have no ideas of their own, they just follow slogans and ‘leaders’ and would be happy to be on the same side as UKIP. No doubt they would have found it easy to combine support for leaving the EU with support for less vindictive immigration controls, alongside those supporting Brexit who are unhappy that the controls are not vindictive enough.

In the real world, had Corbyn attempted to rally to the Brexit/Lexit cause the Labour Party would have been thrown into chaos and his support in Momentum and the trade unions would have collapsed in demoralisation.  The coup by the Blairite MPs would have been executed before the referendum campaign had even officially began and John McDonnell wouldn’t now be in a position to call them “fucking useless”.

All this might seem to be about re-fighting the last war again, after all the political landscape has radically changed in only a few weeks.  But this is not the case, because the Lexit campaigners have got what they wanted – a vote to exit the EU – so how do they substantiate the claim that where we are now will help the fight against austerity?  How will the legitimation of racism and anti-immigrant prejudice help unite workers?

The Left organisations supporting Lexit are now dependent on the labour Party Remain leadership to be even remotely relevant because the immediate struggle that dominates politics will be the fight to retain Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.  Only by and through achieving this can an anti-austerity movement be created.

However, because of the referendum result we are now presented with the task of having to fight for a progressive Brexit.  How can we achieve it and is it even possible?  Are there any alternatives?

Brexit will mean the gutting of the UK legal system of legislation either reliant on, or possibly dictated by, the EU or by EU law that is not transposed but directly effective.  Huge gaps will emerge where new purely UK law does not replace EU laws and regulations.  What laws to keep, replace or leave out will be a paradise of anti-worker butchery for the Tory Government.

Jeremy Corbyn has presented the line that the Labour Party must fight to defend workers’ rights in the Brexit negotiations and presumably it is in identifying and campaigning against this opportunity for the Tories that he is referring to.  Going on the offensive it isn’t.

As I have posted before, a Left exit would still require negotiations with the remaining EU on trade and investment and the free movement of people.  In such negotiations not only would the leaders of the EU not be inclined to be generous to the UK, it having just threatened and damaged its project, but it would be doubly antagonistic to demands put forward that were to be in the best interests of British workers.  First, because they would not be interested in the rights of Britain and secondly because they would not be interested in the rights of British workers.

For European workers the British would have been seen to seek their own interests separate from those of the rest of the EU who otherwise could be its allies in fighting their own conservative Governments.  These Governments are therefore under less pressure from their own working classes to accommodate any demands arising from a ‘progressive’ Brexit.

By definition the UK Government, even a left one, could only negotiate a Brexit on behalf of British workers, so immediately the logic of nationalist division weakens a working class approach based on the unity of all workers regardless of nationality.  Why would the EU succumb to the demands of a left British Government that’s leaving?

Perhaps the supporters of a progressive Brexit think that they could simultaneously ride the Remain view of freedom of movement and the reactionary anti-immigrant attitude of Brexit and negotiate more open and liberal migration rules.  But how would they sell this to the Brexit majority and how would they sell more liberal UK immigration laws relating the wider world if these were more open than those allowed by the EU itself, which is what the proponents of Lexit claim they support?

Because while the UK could have more open borders to the rest of the world than the EU the EU would not be obliged to accept entry to it of any additional migration allowed to the UK.  Yet another example of the necessity for international action and the utter blindness of national roads to socialism, or whatever else Brexit/Lexit could more accurately be described as.

So even a Left exit would end up in the same position as Brexit – the EU would set limiting rules of access while the UK would have no voice in setting these rules.  How does this assist British workers uniting with their brothers and sisters in the rest of Europe?  How does this assist opening the borders between workers of different countries?

Of course much of this is speculation – we don’t know how future arrangements may be arrived at but this is an entirely plausible scenario that illustrates that there is no progressive ‘Lexit’ on offer.  It isn’t going to happen.

So are there alternatives?  What about a second referendum?  Or would this not be anti-democratic?  What would the Irish who have been here before say?  Well, I think they would say – yes it would be undemocratic!

It could be claimed that there is little point in observing that the Brexit campaign lied through its teeth and has immediately retracted pretty much all its biggest claims; about money saved going to the NHS or of a future large reduction in immigration.  If telling the truth was a prerequisite for maintaining the results of a vote the Tories would not still be in office.  So there is nothing unique about a vote being based on lies.  Neither is there mileage in numerous anecdotes that many Brexit voters have changed their minds.  Being serious about politics is not a necessary qualification for the franchise.

On the other hand it cannot be argued that these things don’t matter, because they reflect the fact that Brexit is a big delusion and mistake.  You don’t get petitions signed by millions of people if there isn’t some dispute about the legitimacy of the outcome, although reversing it is not a matter of simply running it again to get a different result.

Nevertheless for socialists the first thing to say about such a proposal is that there is no principled reason why there could not be a new vote.  What matters is how this might come about.

Socialists do not regard any particular vote under the terms set by capitalist democracy as sacrosanct because all such exercises are predicated on the majority not being able to implement any decision arrived at.  Instead a political machine called the state carries out all such decisions, to a degree and in a manner that it sees fit, through political parties that carry out the job of filtering what will and what won’t ultimately be carried out.  In other words capitalist democracy is part sham, part neutered and part a necessary requirement for the working class movement to organise and advance its interests.  And it is advancing these interests, the interests of the vast majority, which is paramount.

It is thus not the sovereignty of the state, not the legitimacy of Parliament and not the authority of the Government that is decisive but the struggle of classes; in this struggle it is the advancement of the working class, its sovereignty, its legitimacy and its authority which must be foremost.  It is not one particular exercise in capitalist democracy that is sacrosanct but that of the democracy of working people struggling against the power of a capitalist system which is anything but democratic.

The lies of the Brexit campaign and the inability of those disillusioned millions who voted for Brexit to execute their vote as they intended are all testament to the limitations of capitalist democracy.  The threats of job losses and cuts in living standards resulting from a depreciating currency show how little the majority have control over the society in which they live.  Capitalism makes a mockery of the reactionary and Lexit vanities about taking back control.

In these circumstances negotiations on Brexit and the fight to ensure that the rights of workers are not sacrificed on the altar of a ‘popular’ vote will reveal the realities of the referendum vote even further than the swift events that followed the vote.  A rejection of Brexit however could only be legitimated or accomplished to the benefit of workers and young people if there is a struggle to defend their rights that leads to a vote or election that clearly signals a rejection of the referendum result.

An election engineered to reverse Brexit by the deceitful and debased methods of the referendum would increase the potency of the most bitter and reactionary elements of the Brexit campaign.

The struggle to defend working class interests and reverse the result must be fought in the open if progress is to be made in reducing and substantially defeating the reactionary impulses and prejudices within the British working class.   This can only be done by mobilising its best and progressive forces.  These are currently grouped around Jeremy Corbyn and it is no accident that even those on the Left who supported Brexit find themselves supporting and dependent on these Remain campaigners.

Brexit is reactionary and its implementation will provide repeated evidence of it.  In fighting against its effects such a fight should not renounce fighting their immediate cause.