When I wrote against Scottish independence in the run-up to the referendum I noted that one of the strongest motivators of many in the Yes campaign was the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the campaign itself, not the actual goal. The latter promised wonderful things but these were free floating and detached from reality, and no amount of wishful thinking could make up for the lack of any realistic case. Instead, the campaign itself gave tangible reality to the demand for independence.
It is now apparent that this is a cause that has to have such a movement, now through Indyref2, or it starts to crumble. The Scottish working class dodged a bullet when the majority of people in Scotland voted No. Even prominent supporters of independence and erstwhile opponents of austerity are now saying that independence would need five years of austerity to work. Of course, we’re told it would only be temporary, but then so is Tory austerity. When is austerity not temporary?
I was reminded of this when I read Owen Jones article in today’s ‘Guardian’, whose headline said it all – ‘As the media obsess over Brexit, they’re missing Labour’s revolution.’ In other words – forget about Brexit and look at the movement for change in the Party.
If you think my characterising this position is not really forgetting about Brexit, then consider the report – again in ‘The Guardian’ – that, “on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, McDonnell said it could not be guaranteed that Labour’s position on the single market would be finalised if there was an election in six months.”
When Theresa May made her Florence speech last week much media coverage concentrated on her ‘change of tone’ from the bombastic declarations of her Lancaster House speech. The usual in-depth reporting perhaps.
The media repeatedly tells us that Brexit is fiendishly complex while generally ignoring this complexity; although now and then it makes pathetic attempts to explain it; that is when it’s not wallowing in the knockabout political manoeuvring at Westminster and, as it has done from the start, treating Brexit as mainly an intra-Tory fight. On this occasion however, the obviously superficial attributes of the speech were indeed the most significant thing about it.
Where the media failed yet again, was to explain why this change of tone came about. Or how the rest of the speech was actually a continuation of the La La Land Tory dream of Brexit, which some more informed commentators think will, to the Brexiteers delight, be delivering Brexit before Christmas. Again unfortunately, before the Labour Party might decide to get its act together.
What appeared as the most significant policy initiative was May’s statement that there had to be a transitional phase, which she couldn’t even force herself to describe as a transition. In this transition she hopes that some unspecified super trade deal, unlike any other, can be negotiated; one that will save the UK from the consequences of Brexit.
This reflects simply that Brexit is a looming disaster, with the hope that it can be made less so by postponing it, perhaps similarly to the way it is said that justice delayed is justice denied. Unfortunately for her, and for us, Brexit won’t be delayed, or at least not by anything she’s doing.
May’s transition assumes more or less continued EU membership, perhaps without EU judicial authority continuing, which even the most ignorant must surely know is not possible. Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator has made it clear again and again, immediately before and immediately after May’s speech, that the UK is leaving the EU in March 2019. If it wants to discuss anything else, it has to first sort out the rights of EU citizens in the UK, agree the financial settlement for leaving, and propose a special deal to avoid a new border in Ireland.
May made unspecified promises on citizens’ rights, offered £20 billion – which I’m sure the EU welcomes although that is quite beside the point – and said nothing about Ireland. In other words, the UK is heading for the exit with no deal unless it practically addresses these three issues, and that includes any deal on a transition. They have been calling it a cliff edge for a while now.
Clearly the bitterly divided Tories are drowning and trying to take everyone down with them, if allowed. Their position on Brexit is incoherent. They cannot possibly get the trade deal they say they want, one that gives them more or less the same arrangements as retaining single market membership while leaving the EU. To get the former they must ditch the latter, or rather to get the latter they must ditch the former.
The problem is that the Labour Party’s position, in so far as it has one, is now perhaps even more delusional than the Tories’. Certainly, the Labour Party demanded a transitional deal before the Tories, but only the blind could have believed that the exit terms could be agreed, and then new arrangements negotiated, within Article 50 requirements. These requirements were written precisely to ensure it made no sense to use them. A classical Catch 22 – to get out you must use them but if you use them it shows it makes no sense to get out.
But Labour too wants just the same sort of wonderful trade deal as the Tories while leaving the EU. ‘The Guardian’ article reports the following – “Speaking later at an event with Labour’s MEPs, Starmer said he believed a Brexit deal could be achieved that would be as good as being in the EU.”
This is as much a ‘have your cake and eat it’ policy as the Tories. Leaving the EU means the UK becomes a third country, so it will have to face barriers to trade. New trading arrangements will take potentially years to negotiate and the EU will not allow the UK to cherry-pick what it will buy into and what it will not. There is no point looking at existing comparators because the UK is the only country ever to seek to leave. It is both too important to let cherry-pick the power wielded by the EU bloc and too weak to impose its demands.
What sets the Labour Party position apart is not the claim that it can have a Brexit that cherry-picks the best bits, but one that appears to believe that you can have a Brexit that puts “jobs and living standards first.” Such a Brexit does not exist. Trading barriers and their consequences will hit both – that’s how capitalism works.
Socialists opposed to Brexit have argued that socialism cannot be built in one country, cannot arise by separating the UK or any other country from the international capitalist system, but can only arise from an international struggle for international socialism based on existing global development.
in more immediate terms however, socialists will not build an alternative by acceding to a Brexit policy that can only damage jobs and services and reduce wages, processes already in train, while blithely claiming the opposite. No amount of social democratic intervention by the UK state can ameliorate the effects of increased isolation from the world capitalist market, or the alternative of supplicant trade deals with major power blocs.
The traditional socialist value of international solidarity is based on the identity of interest among workers in all countries because these interests can only be defended successfully together. We are not talking merely of identification of common interests, but the identity of circumstances at the most basic level. Socialist advances cannot be successful if not extended internationally, or imposed, for example at a European level, from the very start.
Just as in Scotland, celebrating the movement while ignoring the goal is a mistake; a Brexit Britain under a Corbyn Labour Party will fail, just as similarly if not identically, a separate Scotland would also fail to advance the interest of workers there.
There is still time to dodge the Brexit bullet; but if or when it comes don’t ask why everything is turning to shit – “send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” How appropriate this passage starts with “no man is an island entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent.”