George Monbiot wrote an article on Brexit for The Guardian that was subsequently reprinted in Village magazine. In it he says that we should not only accept the Brexit referendum vote but “should embrace it.”
Yes, the Brexit campaign was ‘led by a political elite, funded by an economic elite and fuelled by a media elite. Popular anger was channelled against immigrants but the vote was also a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority.’ That is why the Brexit slogan “take back control” resonated. “If the left can’t work with this, what are we for?” he said.
But, like the old Irish story of the response to someone who was lost and needed directions to a particular place – if I was going to there I wouldn’t start from here.
What the left is for, hopefully, is not to pretend that we can work with reactionary politics to sugar the pill, which is altogether different from having to deal with a reactionary situation and trying to make the best of it.
‘Working with it’ first of all means understanding that the “howl of rage against exclusion” was captured by those seeking their own exclusion of foreigners. Alienation is of no use unless it can be overcome and not displaced onto the wrong target, and blaming a remote authority in Brussels just gets us back to the “rage against exclusion” and blaming foreigners. As for “take back control”, this was a reactionary nationalist response that showed incredible levels of ignorance of the power, position and role of the British State. Even if this power were not severely diminished; even if its position of weakness were not more and more exposed, and even if its supplicant role is not becoming more pronounced, it would still be a reactionary commitment to nationalism that we ‘cannot work with’ except in the sense of attempting to undermine and defeat.
Monbiot presents Brexit as a land of opportunity – “If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power – of insisting that companies that operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp?”
But who exactly is going to exert control in this way, assuming for the moment it’s possible? We can be sure that, in any Brexit negotiations, containing corporate power will not be an objective of Theresa May. We can even be confident that, in negotiations between the greater capitalist power wielded by the EU and the lesser power of Britain, the weaknesses of the latter will be exploited by the former. And this balance of forces would weigh to an even greater extent on any sort of left Government in Britain facing a much more powerful EU.
Only with allies in the EU, primarily in the shape of a European-wide workers’ movement, would it be possible for the balance of forces to tilt towards the workers. But this obviously points in the direction of staying in the EU. As part of the EU there would at least be the beginnings of a political unity within which the workers’ movements of the various European countries could achieve some measure of unity and seek to exercise power at an international level.
But such a perspective would mean rejecting Brexit and continuing to fight it.
I looked at the arguments surrounding such an approach before and said that “there is no principled reason why there could not be a new vote. What matters is how this might come about. 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.”
I further said that “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.”
Except of course unlike a general election, in which the winning party takes office immediately, we do not have Brexit immediately and it has become increasingly obvious that the Brexit campaign has no idea how it will deliver on promises it is still making, promises that become ever less credible.
There are some steps to limit the damage that the Tories have taken, such as the secret deal with Nissan, but this exposes any notion of taking back control. We don’t know the cost or even whether it involves state support the EU could sooner or later simply nullify, whether Britain were in or out.
But there have been and will be consequences which no Government can do much about; such as the depreciation of the currency, inflation and rising interest rates. When the Governor of the Bank of England says that he will let inflation overshoot the target of 2% to save jobs that’s really very good of him, because there’s nothing short of cratering the economy that he can do about it.
So to give up on fighting Brexit is to put British workers at the mercy of the most reactionary and frankly stupid sections of the Tory party. It is to accept their risible promises and seek simply to expose them through their failure, a failure whose heaviest price will be paid by workers. It is to accept the drastic fall in living standards that has already begun and it is to accept the secrecy necessary to cover up the unfolding disaster.
In this respect the demand for parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s plans and their progress, including sweetheart deals, is important. Not just to expose the policy of Brexit but also the nationalist alternatives that will flourish in the twilight of Brexit failure. Such nationalist intervention will come from the SNP pointing to a betrayal of Scotland or a UKIP narrative that accumulating failures of Brexit come from an insufficiently committed Brexit Government. So far it has been the Treasury mandarins who have led the fight against Brexit and we can expect further leaks if, or rather when, the current trio of Brexit ministers demonstrate the failure of their policy.
However, the perspective of the Labour Party is not opposition to Brexit but to fight for a “people’s Brexit” as opposed to a “bankers’ Brexit.” John McDonnell has argued that:
“Britain voted to leave the EU, and that decision should be and must be respected.
We should not pretend that the referendum result can be undone. If we do that, and walk off the field, we will simply be allowing other forces to give their own answers to those questions it has posed
The simple truth is that the Tory establishment cannot be trusted to make a success of Brexit. Labour in government is the only party that would be prepared to take the necessary measures to make a success of Brexit
We are also committed to making sure that Brexit works for everyone not an elite few. Labour would work with our European neighbours to protect our key industries like steel, and negotiate deals with the EU to make sure big multinationals like Google pay their fair share in tax.”
On the other hand –
- If the vote for Brexit means severe cuts to working class living standards, why should a vote based on lies and deception be respected?
- The Labour Party is assuming that there are progressive answers possible to the questions posed through accepting Brexit.
- It assumes that there can be a “successful” Brexit.
- It assumes that the protection of industry and jobs and fair taxation of multinationals is possible in Brexitland.
But Brexit puts up barriers to trade and it puts up barriers to effective taxation of the wealthy and international companies. Were a Labour Government outside the EU how could they enlist the support of other European countries to increase taxation of the rich?
When France increased its taxation in 2012 to 75% on those earning above €100,000 the number moving abroad jumped 40 per cent. Between 2000 and 2014 42,000 millionaires left France, many of them moving to London, and particularly to South Kensington, referred to by some as Paris’s 21st arrondissement. Many of its banks and its bankers also moved, although thanks to Brexit this has now stopped.
Inside the EU such tax increases have a greater chance of being coordinated. Outside, the competitive position of weaker countries often drives them to lower taxation on multinationals and the wealthy. And as we have seen, there are economic effects which are largely outside the control of Governments to prevent. What they can do is take offsetting measures such as increased public expenditure and investment, and this is what Labour promises, but this can only be offsetting and the weakening of Britain’s capitalist economy also weakens the capacity to do this.
Of course Labour’s model of Brexit is very different from the declared objective of the Tories. John McDonnell declares that “Labour will insist that any deal with the EU includes, at least as an interim, tariff-free Single Market access. Full Single Market access implies freedom of movement, as in Norway’s European Economic Area deal.”
Without the xenophobic hang-ups of the Tories Labour is happy to see free movement alongside as much access to the EU single market as the EU is prepared to allow. This is one possible transitional deal that the advisors to big business, in the shape of ‘The Economist’ and “Financial Times’ are pointing to. A transition that might, like those of Norway and Switzerland that were initially temporary, prove more permanent than first intended and that might be open as much to a transition back to full membership as complete exit.
However, once again all this will be in the gift of the EU. All the calculations involved in a permanent divorce apply to such a separation – whether the interests of the remaining EU are better protected and advanced by accepting a relationship with Britain on these terms or whether a clean break is preferable. Once again it is necessary to note that given its size, Britain is not Norway or Switzerland and it makes no sense for it to pay into the EU and be subject to its rules without any say in those rules. Such a transitional arrangement is the very opposite of ‘taking back control’.
Whenever we look at the relatively weak position that Britain is in we can also see the weakness of the Tory Brexit policy – when even speeches at Conservative party conferences occasion steep declines in the currency. The pound has hit a 168-year low and this is before Article 50 is triggered, the lousy terms of the exit start to be revealed and the two-year exit timetable has been exhausted.
This weakness is also reflected in the political weakness of those seeking Brexit. UKIP, which spearheaded this policy, is in disarray. The political leadership of Brexit in the Tory party includes someone who was considered a star before imploding and heading for obscurity before being given a plum job at the Foreign Office; another who was already discredited and already in obscurity before being given a job in Trade, and a third who was also a twice loser in contests to lead the Tory party. The majority of MPs are opposed to Brexit but they have no idea of how to make popular a campaign against Brexit that would make its reversal legitimate. That task lies with others.
The referendum was largely portrayed in the media as an inter-Tory dispute and the struggle that big business will put up to resist Brexit and/or to deliver a ‘soft’ Brexit may also seek to do so primarily through that parry. Once again the struggle could come to be seen as primarily an inter-Tory argument.
Considerations that this may severely damage the Tory party are secondary to the necessity that the struggle against Brexit is open, clear and honest. In this sense the instincts of the primarily young Remain Voters who demonstrated and signed petitions immediately after the referendum were all these things, which an inter-Tory dispute will not be.
In order for the Labour Party to truly defend working people it is necessary for Brexit to be stopped – to nullify the dire effects that no amount of negotiation for a ‘soft’ Brexit may put right. If this is to be done it must be done openly or charges that democracy is being subverted will appear to have some truth. The defeat of Brexit is still possible but it should be done openly and on a progressive basis of defending the living standards of working people; defending EU workers and other immigrants who live in Britain; defending those British people who live in other EU countries and in defence of international unity. A lying, xenophobic referendum result with reactionary consequences deserves no respect and should be reversed.
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