Stormont falls again – Brexit on loop

The decision by the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive was a bit of a surprise, but it only evoked the sort of reaction among many people of – ‘whatever’.

He had set so many deadlines and made so many declarations of his seriousness that most people had begun to take it as background noise.  It’s not as if the Stormont Executive hasn’t collapsed before.

Those more interested couldn’t help recalling that he supported Brexit that gave rise to the NI protocol in the first place, and his claims about the damaging effects of it sit uneasily with his previous statement that he could live with the loss of 40,000 jobs as a consequence of Brexit. 

The timing of the announcement makes no sense except in narrow party terms; as an attempt to shore up a vote that looks like it has fallen by a third: from 28 per cent in 2017 to one opinion poll recording 19.4 per cent today. All a result of the ‘existential threat’ to the union which Donaldson claims the Protocol represents but to which his party was midwife.  

On top of this disastrous strategy we can factor in the shambolic removal of one leader only to have to get rid of her replacement in a matter of days. A party previously dominated by one messianic personality now looks at a crisis with no authoritative leadership at all.

The threat to its vote has appeared to come from two sources: from an even more rabid unionism but also from those less extreme who can see the party’s responsibility for the mess.  In an effort to shore up support there could never be any doubt as to which side the DUP would seek to win back.

The weakness of its position is evident not just because its own policy clearly led to the Protocol but that its strategy is still to rely on the word of the most untrustworthy politician ever to hold the job of British Prime Minister, and that is a very high bar, especially when it comes to anything related to Ireland.

Donaldson revealed only a day after his decision that Johnson had told him that there was only a 20–30% chance of an agreement between the British and EU on the Protocol and that he would not commit to unilateral action as previously promised if there was no agreement.  On top of this Johnson’s Secretary of State has promised to implement legislation on the Irish language in opposition to DUP demands.  And this is who they now rely on! When Johnson did make a gesture to help Donaldson out by allowing double-jobbing at Westminster and London that decision was reversed in a week.

This weakness of the DUP position was unconsciously revealed when the party complained that its four reasons for collapsing the Executive included failure by Sinn Fein to fund celebrations of the British Queen’s platinum jubilee and preventing the planting of a centenary rose bush at Stormont.

More relevant to this weakness is a recent opinion poll recording that not much more than one in ten unionists think the Protocol is the main issue, coming fourth in their list of concerns.

It is all very well for the British government to wave the DUP threat in front of the eyes of the EU, but given Donaldson’s report of his meeting with Johnson it’s hard to believe that the EU would change its relaxed attitude to the repeated threats of the British.  The EU has been careful not to inflame opinion in Ireland as it needs no extraneous factor complicating its negotiations with a party it pretty well has the measure of.

What we have witnessed therefore is a re-run of the Brexit referendum.  The DUP have been spooked by one opinion poll showing its more extreme competitor, Traditional Unionist Voice, increasing its potential support from 6 per cent to 12 per cent while its own vote has dropped.  

So, it moves even further to the right and meets with loyalist paramilitaries before announcing its new strategy of withdrawal from a Stormont that it wants to lead.  Very like the way the Conservative party felt compelled to play with a Brexit referendum under pressure from a UKIP that was never going to go very far.  The otherwise lack of interest or prominence of the issue of EU membership among a majority of people in Britain before the referendum is mirrored in the North of Ireland by the relatively relaxed view of the Protocol.

We have even had the DUP parrot ridiculous numbers about the cost of the Protocol to the Northern Ireland economy, which bear as much relation to the truth as the claim by the Leave campaign that it could get back £350m a week from the EU to give to the NHS.  In both cases the culprits are the most reactionary petty bourgeois movements with no positive agenda.  In both cases, the British economy and the economy of Northern Ireland would actually benefit from what was/is the status quo.

The mini-drama in the North of Ireland is a reminder to the British public that Brexit isn’t done.  While the Westminster opposition vituperates over Johnson’s lies over boozy parties at the office his biggest lie – Brexit – is ignored by the congenitally cowardly and reactionary leader of the opposition.  Instead it reverberates in the North of Ireland through a crisis of the party of petty bourgeois reactionaries who supported it most; it’s not a coincidence that Donaldson worked for ultra-reactionary Enoch Powell as the latter saw out his remaining political days as a Unionist MP for South Down.

Just as DUP support for Brexit has ushered in the Irish Sea border, so have the changed rules to the formation of a First and Deputy First Minister at Stormont that the DUP championed opened the door to a potential Sinn Fein First Minister.  In both cases the potential consequences were foreseeable but that didn’t stop the DUP.

It now faces the prospect of its stupidity putting this on the agenda after the elections in May, an outcome that it cannot accept and one no unionist party has admitted it will.  An extended period of paralysis in the workings at Stormont can therefore be expected.  New rules mean that the institutions can survive longer without anyone actually performing the role of a government.  A case of making the rules conform to much of the experience of the devolved arrangements over the last couple of decades, where the lights have been on but nobody has been in.

All these circumstances testify to the continuing political degeneration of the Northern state and its unionist foundations, although decay is not an alternative.  We can see this easily when we note that Sinn Fein are currently the biggest party in opinion poll terms with less than a quarter of the first preference vote.  Even with the SDLP, the combined nationalist support is only one third. Countdown to a United Ireland this is not.

Internally, the failure of unionism to reassert sectarian supremacy to its satisfaction has created fracture and division.  It hitching its wagon to the hubris of its old imperialist mentor has further weakened it where it thought it could have prospered.  From outside it has instead been the development of European capital through the EU that has now delivered a different dynamic for change that will weaken it further.

Change often comes slowly but it still comes.  The fracturing of unionism is to be welcomed as is the inevitable failure of Brexit, which will become ever more obvious.  One barrier to this taking a more progressive direction is the failure of social democratic forces to expose the failure and to offer an alternative, and unfortunately the pro-Brexit left stands behind it as the redundant non-alternative.

‘From Empire to Europe’, and then where?

‘From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry since the Second World War, Geoffrey Owen, Harper Collins, 2000.

This is another book I read last year: a history that more than most has contemporary relevance.  It charts the story of British manufacturing from the end of the Second World War to the end of the century.  The majority consists of ten chapters on the experience of separate industries, from textiles and steel to cars and pharmaceuticals.  Not all are stories of failure.

Two early chapters present the historical background and four at the end review differing explanations for Britain’s relative decline.

The book was first published in 1999 and screams ‘BREXIT’ – as a history of the future of Britain outside the EU, or so it might too easily be concluded.  In fact, given the relative starting positions of Britain and the rest of Europe, then and now, the mistake of standing outside of the rest the continent now looks more obviously stupid and will more quickly be seen to be so.  If it isn’t already.

After the war ended it was expected that in due course Germany would resume its pre-war role of supplying Europe with manufactures; Britain could concentrate on the rest of the world with which it already traded.  The Labour Government decided against joining the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ceding sovereignty over its two most important industries, while the left of the Labour Party complained of the economic liberalism on the Continent it said led to social injustice.  Foreign  Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted that Britain was ‘not just another European country.’  Some economists at the Board of Trade favoured membership of the ECSC on the grounds of exposure to European competition, but this was a minority view.

The Tory Government from 1951 broadly followed its predecessor, rejecting a second opportunity to join the ECSC or taking part in negotiations to create the Common Market.  European integration was, in the words of another author quoted, ‘at best irrelevant to Britain’s economic self-interest and at worst a political nuisance which had to be tolerated, if only in public, because of the Americans.’

Again and again, Owen records the effect of being outside the European market.  In textiles small and medium-sized firms from Italy and Germany benefited ‘to a far greater extent than the British industry from the expansion of intra-European trade in the 1950s and 1960s . . . where the long-standing bias towards non-European export markets proved to be a serious disadvantage’ (p57)

When eventually Britain did join the Common Market, it found that its European competitors ‘instead of scale and standardisation . . . had put more emphasis on design and technical innovation . . . imports from the Continent rose sharply in the second half of the 1970s, and the British textile industry, having neglected European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, was not well equipped to respond.’ (p77)

In shipbuilding ‘the export trade was regarded as marginal and unpredictable’ and ‘a marketing strategy geared to the requirements of domestic owners was becoming obsolete’. (p97 & 100). In steel, ‘traditionally the most nationalistic of all major industries . . .  European steel-makers needed a market as large and competitive as that of the US’, and ‘while recognising that the smaller domestic market-imposed limits on how far British steel-makers could go in the American direction . . .’ there were barriers to this being achieved within Britain.

On the other hand, while ‘there was a long tradition of price-fixing in French steel, and the industry had bee oriented almost entirely to the domestic market the effect of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was opposed by most French steel makers) was to break down the parochialism of the industry and force it to plan for a wider European market.’ (p 148, 127 & 130).

In the paper industry, joining the Common Market ‘would have exposed it ‘at an earlier stage to competition in a large dynamic market; ‘modernisation and rationalisation which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s might have occurred earlier’ and it would ‘have provided export opportunities’ which might also ‘have started earlier.’ (p170)

In relation to the engineering industry Owen writes that, after the war, ‘when the continental economies were in disarray and the need for hard currency was urgent’, when standing aside might been seen as explicable, ‘the neglect of Continental Europe . . . after its recovery in the 1950s . . . was to prove a serious error.’ Seemingly strongly placed in the early 1960s, low economic growth and lack of involvement in intra-European trade meant that ‘an increasing number of British manufacturers were falling behind their Continental counterparts in the scale of their production.’   The failure to Europeanise in the 10–15 years after the war meant that for many firms it was too late when they did.

A similar experience les behind the decline of the British motor industry: ‘the decline of Leyland has to be seen as an avoidable disaster, largely attributable to the failure to Europeanise the business in the 1950s and 1960s.’ (p249). The ‘low priority’ given by British firms to Continental Europe meant that they did not join ‘homogenous, fast-expanding and highly competitive mass market enabled companies such as Renault, Volkswagen and Fiat to narrow the productivity gap with American manufactures . . .’ (p250)

Owen points out that European industry was itself not always successful and notes its failure in computers and semiconductors.  Of the former he says that ‘European industry might have done better if governments, instead of nurturing and protecting national champions, had concentrated on widening the market for computers . . . As it was, nationalistic, producer-oriented policies, discriminating in favour of chosen domestic suppliers, exacerbated Europe’s most serious weakness vis-à-vis the US, the small size of the market.’ (p270)

Owen makes clear that lack of orientation to a European market was sometimes a mistake not just made by the British, and that failure was not simply a result of lack of access to that market.  Other strategic mistakes were made. Half a century later it would therefore be an identical mistake to see market restrictions only on a continental scale as the problem, when many industries now have global markets and global production.

So, Renault is partnered with Nissan and Mitsubishi; Volkswagen includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda plus others and has an alliance with Ford, while Fiat is now part of Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Jeep, Peugeot, and Citroën.  Britain has a small luxury car market with volume production owned by foreign companies.

Owen tells a similar story about chemicals, noting however that the success of ICI by the end of the period covered was despite the factors that harmed the development of British companies in other industries.

Others were also successful, such as pharmaceuticals, which Owen says was due, among other things, to its ‘openness to foreign investment.’ (p372). This ensured that ‘British-owned firms were forced to compete against the world leaders and learn from them.’ (p387)

In the last chapters he looks at common explanations for the decline of British industry after the war, including the nature and dominance of the financial system; the quality of training, education and culture; poor industrial relations, and Government policy.

On the first, he says that ‘the financial system on its own does not have a decisive influence on which countries succeed in particular industries, although it may play a supporting role.’ (p403).  He does not believe culture or education factors were decisive either, and although he notes that ‘there is no doubt that some British companies were badly managed in the 1950s and 1960s . . . there was significant improvement in the 1980s and 1990s.’ (p 422)

On Government policy ‘the decision to opt out of European integration was the biggest missed opportunity of the 1945–60 period, more important than any mistakes in macro-economic policy.  Indeed, it is hard to argue that Britain suffered from uniquely incompetent macro-economic management during these years.’  (p 450) Britain became a member of the EEC ‘fifteen years too late.’  He concludes on an optimistic note, telling us that ‘by the end of the 1990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market.’  (p 461)

Everyone loves a happy ending so maybe it’s as well the book hasn’t had another edition.  The ‘unique incompetence’ of British Government economic policy that didn’t exist after the war looks as if it has arrived.  But not only the government, the informed commentariat look as if they think this policy should persist, or, more charitably, be persevered with.

In today’s ‘Financial Times’ (6 January) Robert Shrimsley records the view that ‘Tories are wondering what happened to the Brexit they promised’, as if they got ‘the house red’ rather than the ‘vintage claret’.  He recommends that ‘whether one sees Brexit as fabulous or foolhardy, it is absurd not to take the wins that are available.’   

Unfortunately, the wins he seems to champion do not seem to be up to very much and also have downsides. His recommendation, therefore, is to continue better with a failed policy that will do nothing much more than deliver failure.  He, like Kier Starmer – the so-called leader of the opposition – can no more think of going back into the EU than Tory Eurosceptics could previously stop dreaming of leaving it.

The book tells a sorry tale of British failure to appreciate where the world was going and what its place in this changing world was to be.  It has happened again with Brexit.  Deciding to persevere is what’s called déjà vu all over again. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

The offer by the EU to significantly reduce checks on goods, especially food, on the Irish Sea border, and the promise to legislate for British authorisation of medicines supplied into NI and therefore the Single Market, takes away the salience of complaints of barriers to the supply of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland.  The solution of the medicines issue was promised long ago and the EU was never going to allow itself to be held up to criticism for preventing the supply of medicines, including cancer treatments, to NI.  The non-issue of British sausages that was already hardly alive was killed once again by the EU breaking with its policy on chilled meats entering the Single Market. 

This does not mean that these issues are solved.  One reason that the existing border checks did not work was because the British and Unionist minister at Stormont made sure that they didn’t.  The scope, or motivation, for a repeat approach by the British in the enforcement of the compensating mechanisms proposed by the EU for the abandonment of checks at the sea border remain to be seen.

Instead, the question of the role of the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been held aloft by the British as the key requirement in negotiation of a new Protocol.  Of course, the unionists don’t want any Protocol but that could only be the outcome if the UK and EU entered a trade war that none would benefit from, especially the British.  The unionists aren’t worth that price for the British so they will just have to sell as a victory whatever Johnson and Frost agree to in the end.

However, if both the British and unionists wanted to declare victory now is the time to do it.  The EU declared it would not negotiate and it has; its restrictions on food imports and requirement for authorisation within the EU for medicines circulating within it are important elements of its Single Market but have been given up in this case (the former to an extent).  It can bypass them only because it believes it can contain these concessions within the Protocol, that is within its arrangements for the North of Ireland.  It obviously takes the view that there will be no leakage into any other trading relationship and no precedent set that could be exploited by other trading partners.

Both the British and unionists could therefore claim that not only has it forced the EU to negotiate the Protocol, which it still denies, but that they have compelled the EU to surrender much of what it said it could not do.  It has political coverage for this not only for the reasons just set out but also because for its Irish member state and for Northern nationalists what matters is that there is no Single Market land border down the middle of the country.  As long as the checks along the Irish sea are held to be working, they are happy.

But this will remain an issue.  The more the British depart from EU regulation, the greater the scope for unapproved goods to circulate into the Single Market and therefore greater risk to the integrity of it.  The compensating proposals from the EU would therefore have to have meaningful effect and will grow in impact as Britain diverges from EU requirements, whether arising from its own decisions or from those of changed EU rules.

This is not the declared reason for the new prominence of the ECJ in British demands.  Instead, it is what a NI business representative called “nothing but a Brexit purity issue.”  For him the ECJ “it is not a practical or business issue.”  In fact, for business the Protocol gives unique access to both the UK and EU markets.  Were the British market certain to continue to be the much more lucrative and important the unionists would have little to fear from this parallel opportunity.  However, the growing trade between North and South and the reduced trade between the Irish State and Britain means that their opposition to the Protocol on political grounds is justified even if nationalists deny it. Unfortunately for unionist leaders this political opposition is detrimental to the people they represent, which will not have short term importance but will in the long term.

The unionist commentator Newton Emerson has argued that Irish and EU complaints about British negotiating tactics are a ‘slight loss of perspective’ and that their annoyance is mistaken.  In effect, both sides are at it and it’s a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’ . . . and trade negotiations.  He is however wrong to say that “the fact that Frost is tearing up his own deal is a redundant complaint.  The protocol is being negotiated.”  It matters that the negotiations that are now being conducted are not a first stab at an agreement but follow bad faith negotiations by the British who never intended to implement the deal they signed.

It matters because all the arguments made by Emerson about the ECJ not being necessary for Single Market governance must face up to this.  It is not a matter of whether the NI Protocol can be made amenable to Swiss type arrangements or those governing EU relations with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which insert arrangements that put ECJ competence at a greater distance.

Why would the EU agree to Swiss governance arrangements when the British have just rejected Swiss trading arrangements? Why would they seek to introduce arrangements involving numerous bilateral treaties that they already find too onerous and have sought to dispense with?  Why would they seek the governance arrangements applied with Norway etc. when the British specifically rejected the EEA option as the form of Brexit they should seek?  Part of the reason why the EU will not want to agree is that the British cannot be trusted.  

If Emerson wants to critique the statements of Irish politicians in relation to the British approach to negotiations he would be better to start with Varadkar’s nonsense that “for decades, for centuries, British people in many ways were renowned by the fact that they were an honourable people; people whose word you could trust . . .“ And by “people” it should be understood to mean the British state.

Has he not heard of Perfidious Albion?  Has he no knowledge of the Anglo-Irish treaty, with its Boundary Commission, or the promise by the British king in 1921 that the new Northern Ireland parliament would be “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community . . .’?

The British may reject the mitigations of border checks and alternative arrangements and may demand removal of any role for the ECJ.  If they do, they may proceed with Article 16, which will lead to further negotiations but also opens up the possibility of retaliatory measures against them by the EU.  Tory Brexiteers are still bloviating about the EU needing Britain more than the Brits need the EU but only the blinkered continue to entertain such nonsense.

It is reported that Article 16 may be triggered by the British on narrow grounds that may avoid a fuller EU retaliatory response but we would have to see what such narrow grounds might be and the EU has indicated it is weary of British negotiating tactics.

Even if the EU were to agree to some intervening body between the operation of the Protocol and adjudication by the ECJ, this would not essentially change the fact that there would be a Protocol that would involve a trade border between NI and GB and none between the North and South of Ireland.  It would not change Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets or the economic dynamics released by this arrangement.  It would not put to bed the problems that will arise if the British decide to increasingly diverge from EU rules.  It would not change the enforcement mechanisms ultimately available under the Protocol or wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement and it would not change the power imbalance between the UK and EU.

The attitude socialists should take to all of this should follow from their opposition to the whole reactionary Brexit project, which seeks to reverse the internationalisation of capitalism and the long-achieved broaching of nation state constraints on the productive forces.  Such an international development of capitalism is precisely the material basis for socialism and the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality.

Some on the left have opposed Brexit only by registering its English nationalist clothes and necessarily xenophobic and racist expression, without appreciation of this more fundamental basis.  For some, not even this has dawned on them and they have supported Brexit without being able to demonstrate that it has led to any compensating advance by the working class.

Just as nationalism feeds off other nationalisms so the Brexit war of words has involved Priti Patel advocating the threat to Ireland of food shortages from a no-deal Brexit and the French threatening to deny power supplies to the Channel Islands.  Socialists must oppose all such offensive nationalist threats.  Opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of the policies of the EU but simply recognition that we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to creation of a new society.

In terms of the Protocol, we oppose the creation of a land border in Ireland as a strengthening of division on the island and recognise that this could only come about from increasing the separation of Britain from the EU, most likely from acrimonious conflict that would have the effect of dividing workers, and not only in Ireland.

Back to part 1

Brexit still not done – the Northern Ireland Protocol 1

I was in the south of England as the recent fuel crisis hit, when many petrol stations ran out of fuel and closed.  Stuck in Bath, I drove around the city looking for one that was open, then drove to nearby Chippenham where Google Maps was telling me that there were a number of stations open.  All were closed so I decided the best thing to do was to drive North, where I was heading to the ferry at Stranraer that would take me home.  My wife had cancer treatment the day after next and we really didn’t want to miss it – the treatment is keeping her alive.  I was able to get petrol on the M4 and then headed North via the M5, filling up again in a Motorway service station north of Lancaster.

So, we got home safe and sound and to the sight of petrol stations in Belfast with lots of fuel and no queues. Buying the local Irish papers in order to get up to speed on the local scene I read speculation that the Tories were going to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of getting rid of it, although it doesn’t actually do this, on the grounds that the Protocol gives rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”

Since unionists have been declaring a crisis and organising protests that have managed to mobilise only hundreds of protestors; and trade between the North and South of Ireland has grown dramatically, albeit from a low base, their strained narrative has claimed that the grounds for unilateral action by the British to trigger Article 16 exists.

I thought to myself, if only the Article applied to Britain, where trade with the EU has fallen; ports are clogged up; goods are sent to Rotterdam and Antwerp before being unloaded and re-loaded onto smaller vessels so they can be taken to England; the shortage of lorry drivers has led to restrictions on the supply of goods with even more knock-on effects due soon; the shortage of other workers has led to a culling of animals and the shortage of all these workers has led to approval for recruitment of foreign drivers and butchers – a clear reversal of the rationale for Brexit.

But still Article 16 is waved as a magic sovereignty wand that derives its power from being a unilateral action that needs no EU negotiation or agreement, although the foresight of a goldfish is required in order to overlook that it leads to both.

The growing crisis caused by Brexit has been answered by louder and louder bellicose rhetoric, especially by Lord Frost.  This rhetoric is all the more raucus because Britain has few cards to play; the opposition(?) Labour Party is silent so the high pitch is only necessary to divert attention from real events.  Even so, Frost finds himself admitting that the British were compelled to agree to the NI Protocol because of a weak bargaining position – one glint of truth in a trough of bullshit and deception.  On this score not much has changed so rhetoric substitutes for real power.  The response to the driver shortage demonstrates this.

Not only has the British government had to beg foreign lorry drivers to return, having just told them to get lost (why would they come back?), but rules on the number of internal deliveries that foreign companies can carry out when delivering into Britain have been relaxed while the British Road Haulage industry complains that they cannot avail of the same rights when delivering into the EU.  Just like Brussels enforcing Single Market restrictions on British exports to the EU but London still not able to enforce restrictions on EU exports to Britain.

Unionist opposition also reveals its weakness not just in low numbers protesting or the absence of any queues at petrol stations, but through plummeting support for the DUP, now down to 13% from over 31% in the December 2019 Westminster election.  With Sinn Fein now the largest party it is in line to nominate the First Minister after new Assembly elections scheduled for May.

In the latest poll the DUP is the third largest unionist party, although what matters most is the division in unionism caused by the DUP collapse.  Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson has attempted to reverse this by relying on Johnson to get him a better deal, in itself a terrible admission of weakness (relying on the guy who shafted you in the first place) and also by attempting to get the rest of unionism to own the failure.

So, when I arrived back from England I came back to a joint article in the ‘Irish Times’ by Donaldson and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, plus a joint statement by the ‘four main unionist leaders’ with a video to accompany it.  One I didn’t bother to watch.

The ‘Irish Times’ article was a joint statement of opposition to the Protocol by Donaldson who declares he wants it scraped because it contradicts the Belfast Agreement (which he originally opposed) and by Allister who has never supported it.

The joint statement and video to the unionist public proved only that you really can have too many leaders.  The motivation for Donaldson is obvious – ‘I may have helped get you into this mess but all the rest are now just as responsible for getting you out of it’.  For the Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie all his claims to be modernising his party and putting clear blue water between him and the DUP is exposed to ridicule as he stands beside the even more extreme TUV.

The contradictions for the TUV in uniting with supporters of the Stormont administration that it never ceases to denounce are obvious but matter less.  If the campaign fails the TUV can still blame the DUP and if it can be portrayed as any sort of victory they can own part of it.  The loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson is there to show that loyalist paramilitarism and its own particular means of exerting influence are part of the family, to be ostracised when embarrassing but embraced as a delinquent brother if required.  For Billy Hutchinson, he gets to wear a suit for the day out and a boost to mainstream credibility that has been less frequent of late.  

Where there does appear to be some genuine unity is revealed in one of the opinion poll‘s other findings, which recorded that 79% think the performance of Johnson and his NI Secretary is bad or awful.

Forward to part 2

Vaccine nationalism

The decision to attempt to prevent vaccines made in the EU getting to the UK via Northern Ireland led to a flurry of arguments that almost all mirrored the same nationalist impulse of the EU that was being criticised.  This was true of some on the left as much as any other.

Production of vaccines is an international effort and equitable access could only be carried out by agreed international Governmental and regulatory action.  If it is true, as has been claimed, that AstraZeneca had claimed that it would provide vaccines to the EU from its UK operation and promised the UK it would not, then its failure to deliver the number promised to the EU is a neat example of international production suffering from the imperatives of capitalist ownership.

On top of this, it is obvious that the conflict between the EU and UK would not have arisen without Brexit, even if its supporters are trumpeting the cack-handed approach of the European Commission and celebrating the faster advance in vaccination of the UK compared to the EU.  This opportunity for Brexiteers arises because it involves one of the few industries in which Britain is a leading participant.

Prize for top hypocrite in the affair must go to the DUP leader Arlene Foster who expressed outrage at the EU’s decision to invoke Article 16 of the Irish Protocol. This allows either the EU or the UK – in the event that the application of the instrument leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade” – unilaterally to take “appropriate safeguard measures”.

This, she condemned as an “incredible act of hostility” that places a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.  “By triggering Article 16 in this manner the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives”.

The impulsive triggering of Article 16, before hastily being withdrawn, shows that the EU is indeed motivated by self-interest, something that no one with even a modicum of sense would entertain the least doubt about for a second.  Socialist opponents of Brexit didn’t oppose the project because there was any illusion in the purity of the motivations of the EU.

However, a unionist complaining about the hardening of the Irish border, that they spend every minute of existence fretting over the permanence of, is too absurd for words. Since a number of leading figures in her party have already been calling for Article 16 to be invoked by the British, the charge of an “incredible act of hostility” is more than a bit rich.

In the North of Ireland, to point such things out is called ‘whataboutery’, and is frowned upon, which means circumlocution is constantly required to call someone a hypocrite and allows those who exercise it most to get away with it most often.  The North of Ireland is getting its vaccine from Britain so no one would be missing out if they weren’t allowed to get it through a supply across the Irish border.

What it shows is that disputes between Britain and the EU have the potential to reverberate inside the North and act as a catalyst for political instability, exactly what the Protocol was to supposed to avoid but reflecting the fact that the political agreement it was to support is unstable. Unionists are reminded, and demoralised by the fact, that for some essential purposes the EU determines economic and social policy and the sovereignty of the British has been diminished; while nationalists have been reminded that the EU is not a cuddly benefactor but has its own interests and that the idea of upending the Protocol they support has just become more conceivable. The latter will at least have been assuaged by the quick change of approach by the EU, promptly enacted following representations by the Irish member state, which will have had some effect.

Some on the left saw the episode as displaying the necessity for big pharma to be nationalised, or put under public ownership, as the misleading euphemism puts it.  In fact, state ownership would have exacerbated rivalry between producers of the vaccine.  Brexit is itself testament to the destructive rivalry that can be introduced to economic and social relationships by state competition.  The pharmaceutical industry is characterised by international research, development and production and it would not help if state ownership overlaid company competition.

The answer to the equitable distribution of vaccines is international cooperation that cannot be assumed to be achieved by capitalist states that might (and just has) rather hindered the international cooperation that is needed.  The socialist answer is to recognise that the separate interest of different companies and states stands in stark contrast to the common interest of workers in the pharma companies and those outside, in every country, most vulnerable to the virus and the catastrophic effects of lockdown.

It is in their joint interest that they, their families, friends and communities are protected, recognising that no single country will have immunity unless they all have it.  This points not to state ownership but the ownership of the workers, in workers’ cooperatives, working together across borders in taking over the current development of vaccines in their own interests.

If socialism is the answer, the answer is the action of workers not capitalist states, although again and again so many parts of the left forget this, if they were ever aware of it in the first place.

 

Belfast meeting discusses Marxism and Brexit

Sixty or so people attended a meeting on Friday night organised by academics and the Slugger O’Toole web site entitled ‘Brexit, Borders and Beyond: Marxism as a guide in turbulent times.’  It was interesting in a couple of respects worth recording.

The first speaker gave a broad description of the Marxist view of the state – “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”  It was an instrument of class oppression.  Unfortunately, at the end the meeting in replying to points from the floor, and in attempting to defend the idea of Brexit, she argued that it would allow the working class more say than continued membership of the EU.

The second speaker was an advocate of Green politics and argued that the ecology of the planet could be saved, but could be done in one of two ways.  Through oppression and exploitation or through a progressive and democratic road.  He argued strongly that important to the second was an emphasis on industrial democracy as well as political democracy.  He was also rather dismissive of the traditional Marxist view of insurrectionary revolution and the necessity of social change coming through violence.

A comrade beside me made a comment to the effect that revolutionary change can only come through violence but this ignores the point made by the speaker that the growth of industrial democracy is important, and this does not necessitate violence.  This is something I have argued in this blog in relation to the importance of the creation of workers’ cooperatives.  While political revolution involving the State often requires violence it also often entails no fundamental social change, which requires a change in ownership of the productive forces.

The Marxist idea of revolution is too often conceived in terms of destroying the capitalist state, leading to a one-sided focus on what is bad for capitalism, while ignoring the much more important concept of revolution, which is a revolution in the consciousness of the working class.  This shifts the focus to what is necessary for the working class and doesn’t assume that what is bad for capitalism must be good for workers.  It also brings to light the importance of the growth of workers’ cooperatives in changing the social life of the working class and thereby its political consciousness.  It addresses the otherwise impossible to answer question how revolutionary politics can be effective in times of peace.

The meeting was in part ill-conceived, since I can’t have been alone in thinking the meeting was about the left case for Brexit.  The third speaker was Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek academic working in London and ex-member of the Greek parliament.  He recently wrote a book entitled ‘The Left Case Against the EU’, which more or less did a reasonable job of achieving the aims of the title but didn’t make a strong case for Brexit.  In speaking at the meeting he argued more forcefully for it.

He argued that the EU was irretrievably neoliberal and could not be reformed since this neoliberalism was enshrined in basic Treaty law, although he did acknowledge, as he did in his book, that the EU was once dominated by a Keynesian approach to economic governance.  Since changes could only be made by unanimity it was impossible to foresee such unanimity and therefore impossible to see how there could be any reform.  He declared that no advocate of ‘remain and reform’ had been able to explain how they could carry it out.  His speech was well received and there was only one intervention from the floor in opposition to Brexit.

This intervention argued that the proof of the pudding was in the eating and that so far Brexit was a disaster. Lapavitsas did reply at the end that Brexit had yet to happen but didn’t go on to explain how the pudding was going to improve on what we had already seen.

The speaker from the floor argued that Costas had come to the wrong country if he wanted to argue that the British State was reformable in a way that other capitalist states were not (otherwise of course we could reform the German and French States and therefore why not the EU?).  It was pointed out that at another recent meeting on trade unions and Brexit one speaker had argued that the EU had held workers back, but that the idea that the EU was the obstacle to workers unity and mobilisation in Ireland was hard to take seriously.

It was the British State that had divided Irish workers and had been responsible for such things as internment, torture, Bloody Sunday etc.  But this was the State that was almost uniquely reformable?  A later speaker from the Socialist Party pointed out that the EU had approved or failed to criticise the actions of the British State in Ireland but this didn’t really answer the point – it hadn’t been claimed that we would or should rely on the EU or that it was in some way expected to have prevented British oppression.

The speaker also argued that the EU did not prevent nationalisation as seemed to be the argument of left supporters of Brexit, and pointed out that, in so far as critical industries were concerned (as argued by Lapavitsas), the energy industry in Ireland was dominated by state-owned companies; the water and sewerage industry was state owned; the banking industry had more or less been nationalised at one point, and the transport industry had a large state-owned presence.

Lapavitsas responded that what was important was not that state industry was allowed to compete with private capitalist concerns but that it was prevented from monopolising an industry. While this is not even strictly true – state ownership enjoys a more or less monopoly position in electricity transmission and distribution, water and sewerage, and railways for example – it avoids the much more central question that ownership by the capitalist state is NOT socialism. This is so fundamental an issue that failure to recognise it shows the complete degeneration and disorientation of the self-styled Marxist left. But we will look at this further in a minute.

This intervention from the floor finished by recalling a debate in which a left supporter of Brexit had mocked the idea of defending the EU’s freedom of movement by stating it showed concern only with the freedom of white Europeans.  It was noted that in that debate, and at the meeting, the participants were mainly white Europeans, and white Europeans had rights too; as did non-white Europeans who had been forgotten about by dismissing free movement in the EU.  It was observed that ‘the free movement of people’ had for some incomprehensible reason become a dirty phrase for some on the left.  And as someone else had remarked – left opponents of freedom of movement in the EU want to extend this freedom beyond Europe by getting rid of it within Europe first.

In relation to this Lapavitsas claimed that open borders was not a socialist position and that the alternative was Marx’s declaration in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that workers of all countries should unite.  What he seemed to mean was that workers in each country should stay in their country with some sort of fraternity between them, but that the nation state would persist. He claimed that Brexit was not nationalist, but if restricting workers freedoms to within nation states looks like a form of nationalism it is because it is a form of nationalism.  And this nationalism informs Lapavitsas’s and Brexit supporters’ whole conception of socialism.

This involves socialism being ownership by the capitalist state, and since the capitalist state is still primarily a national one it means defending the sovereignty of that nation state. Defence of national sovereignty was another assertion Lapavitsas was keen to make.  But the supreme power, supremacy and authority – sovereignty – of the capitalist nation state is NOT socialism but reactionary nationalism that even modern capitalism is leaving behind.  In this sense Lapavitsas and supporters of Brexit like him are not only wrong about the way forward but are reactionary because they want to take us backwards.  Far from separating the working classes by nationality, as he wishes to do, it is the Marxist view that workers should identify themselves as a class irrespective of nationality.  This is obviously at odds with a political view that the nation state will define their liberation and emancipation.

The true relationship between Marxism, Brexit and Borders is the recognition that the development of capitalism brings socialism closer, that the revolutionising of the means of production ,and society generally, creates the preconditions for socialism, and that the increasingly international character of capitalism creates an increasingly international working class.

Lapavitsas referred to Marx’s remark that “the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”, but this was written when a world market had begun and world production had not, when capitalism and the capitalist class and its state were purely national.  The working class could not settle matters with the capitalist class of all countries ‘first’.  But the EU is precisely confirmation that capitalism and the capitalist class are now internationally organised.  The failure of the workers movement to keep up has led some of its political representatives to seek to address this failure by seeking to drag capitalism back to the primitive state the workers movement is still in.

The international organisation if capitalism exists and is therefore what the proletariat faces “first”, and must face as an international class by building up its international organisation and programme.  This is precisely the perspective of reform and remain, although Marxists will of course have their own view of what this entails.

More than this, the purpose is not so much to remain in the EU and seek its reform, but to accept the breaking down of national restrictions as the most appropriate framework for the reformation of the European working class more and more into a single class. For Marxists it is the sovereignty and independence of the working class which is the objective of socialist politics not only in relation to the nation state but in relation to the proto-international EU state, and not the reform of either.

As Marx stated before the line quoted above – “though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.”  The existence of the international economic and political organisation of capitalism through the EU shows that increasingly the struggle of the proletariat must not only be international in substance but also international in form.

As Lenin put it in ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’– “The aim of socialism is not only to abolish the present division of mankind into small states and all national isolation; not only to bring the nations closer to each other, but also to merge them.”

In seeking to deny this approach the left supporters of Brexit unknowingly deny not only the reality of capitalism but also the possibility of socialism.  No wonder their conception of the latter involves ownership by the capitalist state and not by the working class.

The Socialist Party and Brexit 2 – part of the programme?

Following economic recession the second possible consequence of Brexit predicted by the Socialist Party is increased division and instability in the North.

Increased division on the island is of course inevitable, since that is the purpose of Brexit – to exit the arrangements that entail the existing unity of the European Union that includes the whole island.  On exit the UK will become a ‘third country’ and the only question is the degree of separation.

Given that left supporters of Brexit see the rules of the Single Market and Customs Union as so harmful to the interests of the working class it must be expected that the sort of Brexit they seek involves a high degree of separation and therefore a meaningful and significant border.

It  doesn’t matter that left supporters of Brexit blame the EU for this – the Socialist Party says that “after a hard Brexit the logic of the workings of the EU is that a hard border would have to be put in place” – the result is the same.  The Party states that “a Labour government should seek to re-open negotiations and demand an entirely different relationship with the EU, based on the interests of working-class people, not the 1%.”

One has to ask however – why would the EU, if it is the irreformable neoliberal construction that is claimed, strike an agreement in the interests of the working class, whatever that might be?  If it were possible there would seem to be little reason to leave in the first place.   Why not use membership to effect such changes for the whole EU instead?

But this is not the perspective of the Socialist Party, which is wedded to a very particular scenario of the way forward, which is “the necessity of a left government having to carry through a rupture with capitalism and adopting a socialist programme.” This “rupture” with capitalism is to be achieved through the “democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy”; i.e. through nationalisation supported by the mass activity of the working class.  This must be carried out by each state separately as nationalisation is by definition the action of an individual state.

This essentially nationalist approach to socialism lies behind the Party’s support for Brexit.  At the immediate level this perspective takes shape in the following expected results:

“Socialists in Ireland would welcome the return of a Labour government in Britain. If such a government were to adopt a position of socialist opposition to the EU this would transform the situation. Corbyn should speak over the heads of the Commission, reaching out to working class people across Europe in rejecting neo-liberal rules, calling for co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis, and popularising a socialist vision of Europe. A left Labour government would be able to call on workers throughout the continent to fight the ‘race to the bottom’ in their own countries and mobilise against attempts by their own governments or the EU to pursue punitive measures against other workers whether in Britain or elsewhere.”

Why a left movement in Britain would be more powerful in reaching out to the rest of Europe’s workers by leaving the EU, instead of remaining and seeking unity of the workers’ movement across Europe, is unexplained.  But this is precisely what supporters of Brexit would need to demonstrate – why an exit was necessary and why it would be more successful in achieving wider European unity. How would leaving assist “co-ordinated action for Green Energy on a Europe wide basis” for example?

Unity of Europe’s workers, through its trade unions, works councils, political parties and workers’ cooperatives is possible but it is made easier by being within a common EU framework, in which Europe’s capitalist classes are seeking their own form of unity.  Only from a perspective in which the rupture with capitalism must first come from national governments in each individual capitalist state is it possible to simply assume without argument that international workers’ unity must follow this and not be immanent from the start.

So at an abstract level the Socialist Party maintains its international socialist credentials by considering such unity only as an end result after almost all the problems have previously been solved:

“Socialists are in favour of a genuinely united Europe. This will only be possible when the socialist transformation of society allows the coming together of nations of Europe in a democratic, European-wide confederation.”

The Party considers its approach to be consistent with the approach of the transitional programme as codified by Leon Trotsky.  This can be stated rather briefly as a programme fought for by a revolutionary party that starts from today’s objective conditions and from the existing level of consciousness of the working class.  It demonstrates through the demands raised in today’s struggles the necessity to take ever more radical measures that culminate in the working class seeing the need for, and being organised to achieve, socialist revolution.

This is the transition that the programme is meant to achieve, as opposed to demands that simply reform aspects of capitalism but do not fundamentally change it, and the maximum programme which demands this fundamental change through demands for socialism and socialist revolution.

There are lots of issues bundled within such a view, and lots of Trotskyists who would hotly dispute that the Socialist Party’s version is consistent with Trotsky’s programme, but that is not what I want to discuss here.  Rather it is to question how support for Brexit can possibly be seen as being part of any transitional approach.  I have written many posts on why I think socialists should oppose Brexit so the purpose here is a much narrower one and is confined to the role that supporting Brexit plays in the Socialist Party’s politics.

The first problem in the Party’s support for Brexit is that it then either abstains or is confused on just what this policy entails.  So it says that:

“We say that whatever way the different capitalist vested interests resolve their business dispute, it must be done without any physical or repressive borders.”

So having voted for a Brexit, to be determined by a reactionary Tory Government and EU bureaucracy, the Party leaves it for these capitalist interests to decide what it means, to ‘resolve’ the issues (within certain limits).  How does this engage the working class in seeking to impose its own solutions?

The view that a Corbyn led Government could simply re-negotiate all the bad neo-liberal rules away and leave the same market access is even more delusional than the Boris Johnson idea that Great Britain can get Johnny foreigner to allow it to have cake and eat it.  Does the Socialist Party really think Jeremy Corbyn could negotiate away the bad bits of the Single Market and customs union for the whole EU, or even just for the UK? And if it was just for the UK, would this not mean that there wasn’t really a Single Market? And if only for the UK, what then for the rest of Europe’s workers, including the Irish?

Would those Irish workers not within the UK have to await its own left government, one that is not on the horizon, before it too would attempt to copy any Corbyn success? Or would it not make a lot more sense for a left Labour government in the UK to fight within the EU alongside allies across the continent, including in the Irish State?

Since we don’t have a left Labour Government in Britain or the short-term prospect of one in Ireland, what is the policy that the workers movement should fight for right now to make Brexit a ‘good’ Brexit, or does silence on this indicate that one does not exist?

So, the first problem is that the Socialist Party has advocated a policy of Brexit for which it has no concrete idea how to give any progressive content.

In an instinctive reaction against their own sterility members of the Party have made a virtue out of their impotence and argued that no positive policies should be put forward in this situation, but instead only negative demands:

“Deliberately not putting forward positive demands, or advocating a particular arrangement post-Brexit, has been correct, and broadly remains correct however. There are issues on which it is not for the worker’s movement to come forward with solutions which address the concerns of the ruling class, and in the main this is one such.”

But of course, a content will be given to Brexit and it will be a wholly reactionary one, and it is really not good enough to vote for a reactionary policy, saying it is progressive and a step forward, and then be unable to build positive demands out of it and arising from it.

The final illustration that the policy of Brexit has no place in any socialist programme is that the Socialist Party is totally silent on the most obvious of questions.  If Brexit is the right policy for the British working class, indeed for all the workers of the EU, why does the Party not follow up on the ‘success’ in Britain and call for the Irish State to leave the EU as well?

It would appear no one in the Party wants to do this, but it is not because they all believe it is wrong. Instead they have saddled themselves with a policy that they dare not proclaim. Every argument defending Brexit and every claim that it is necessary is but another demonstration of the dishonesty of the Party to workers that it proclaims require its leadership – because it is not actually asking the workers to follow it.  It is not leading but hiding.

Once again, the political impotence of the policy is so clear that it cannot be replicated: the nationalist nature of it imposes its own logic regardless of the left illusions of its supporters.  There is no transitional content whatsoever.

Brexit has thus exposed fundamental flaws in the state-socialist programme of the Party, a programme which identifies socialism with state ownership and the route to working class power with governmental office.  Since the state is a nation state this almost inevitably involves conceiving of socialism, and the road to it, in national terms.  And so the Party gets it totally wrong when it comes to key international questions such as the European Union and Brexit.

In the final post I will look at the national question and how the Party’s policy on Brexit fails the challenge of uniting Ireland’s workers.

 

The Irish Socialist Party and Brexit 1

The Irish Socialist Party, in common with the Socialist Workers and Communist Party, is a supporter of Brexit.  What makes its particular position worth discussing is the way it brings to the fore the consequences.

In an article last year the Socialist Party writer is right about these economic consequences. He writes that  “a sudden and sharp economic shock would result . . . an economic recession would almost certainly follow. . .  a fall in living standards would be most likely, as inflation would rise and wages fall in real terms. If the hard-right Brexiteers are by then the dominant force in the Tory government workers are right to fear a race to the bottom and attempts to create a low-tax, low-wage, unregulated economy.”

Yet none of this prevented the Party from supporting Brexit and being the force behind the union I am a member of endorsing it, much to the surprise of many of its members.  Given that it is the job of trade unions to prevent and resist such attacks it seems incredible that a trade union would invite them, but that is where we are.

In full awareness of these consequences the Socialist Party has said that “an emergency conference, with the widest participation of workers’ representatives from workplaces across Ireland, North and South, must be convened, in order to allow a full democratic discussion on how to best oppose both the EU and the attacks of the Fine Gael and Tory governments.”

As it makes clear, it is attacks from the British Government which will be the most immediate and swingeing and unfortunately while Brexit may be coming, there is no sign of the workers’ conference.  This should not come as a surprise.

The Socialist Party will know that Irish workers, particularly in the North, are not in a position to fight the effects of Brexit through any sort of militant action that might provide some minimal chance of success.  In the North the Stormont administration was able to impose years of austerity, real wage cuts and thousands of redundancies in the public sector with little difficulty.  Effective resistance to a much greater offensive can therefore hardly be anticipated with any degree of confidence.

What should have been expected instead is that, faced with such a threat, socialists in the trade unions would have opposed Brexit.  Certainly not invite the attack and then rely on a working class response.  This does not absolve socialists from now arguing for such a resistance, but it behoves us to have prevented it in the first place if we could. It is one thing to be up a creek without a paddle trying to do one’s best, and quite another to have wilfully decided to go up the creek and throw away the paddle.

There is some sort of argument in the article justifying support for Brexit through the remark that “workers’ rights have been won through struggle, and will be defended through struggle”; while we should have no illusions in the EU to defend our rights.

Unfortunately, while at a very general level it is true that workers’ rights will be won and defended through struggle, this is only a partial truth.  In other words, we have to ask ourselves whether in this particular situation and at this particular time – how do we defend working class interests?

It must therefore be recognised that at this particular time it happens to be the case, as the Socialist Party itself has acknowledged, that the EU is demanding that the:

“UK must observe “level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”

So at this particular time the EU, for its own reasons and purposes, wants to prevent the attacks on workers in the UK that Brexit is designed to carry out.  This is not to sow illusions in the EU but to accept the reality that the Socialist Party has recognised.

The argument put by the Party is that the rules of the EU prevent the British working class from moving forward. And this is true as far as it goes, as far as these rules – such as those relating to state aid – exist and can be applied.  There is certainly a debate as to the extent that this may be the case, while there is also the potential to struggle to change these rules or prevent their application.

But all this is also true of the rules of the British State.  Along with the other Member States it has major responsibility for the EU rules to which socialists object.  It makes no sense to prefer these Member States to the EU on such grounds.  Thatcherism’ is not a French or German word.  The anti-trade union laws, privatisation and austerity are as much British as EU creations, and what delivered the historic defeats of the British working class was not the EU but the British State.

There is an ancillary question whether, given Brexit, it is even possible to suggest that British workers today can take big strides forward, rather than accept that in such a situation the questions before them relate to defending rights and living standards already achieved.  The Socialist Party itself makes it clear that Brexit does not herald a period of advance but the necessity to organise defence on a scale not seen for a long time.

That is why the debate about Brexit has been about Brexit, about its effects, and not at all about how the British working class can move forward to take advantage of it.  So rather than call for a conference to resist these attacks it would have been far better to head them off before they could begin.

The idea of an all-island workers’ conference is a good one, but it is currently only a good idea.  Given the level of struggle and organisation of the Irish working class it was, and is, unrealistic to expect such a conference to both emerge and be adequate to the tasks that it would face. We know this from the inability of the working class to effectively resist the attacks it already faces, never mind a whole raft of new ones.

We cannot have expected the Irish trade union movement to organise such a conference, since it would not do so over water charges in the South. When sections of it did organise on this issue, they did so in their usual bureaucratic manner, which cripples a movement’s capacity before it has even started.

For the Irish Congress of Trade Unions there is no need for an all-island workers’ conference because that is considered, and indeed should be, the role of ICTU itself.  If the socialist movement is unable to turn the existing all-island organisation towards addressing the tasks presented by Brexit there can hardly be much reason to believe it would be able to create a real alternative from scratch.  Already ICTU has surrendered and accepted Theresa May’s take on what Brexit should mean and has abandoned opposition.

In any case, one of the first questions that would be posed to socialist organisations at such a conference would be why they supported Brexit in the first place?

One final point is worth making here in relation to the defense of workers’ living standards.  It is not true that only working class struggle can advance working class living standards.  Capitalism itself has given rise to increased living standards, with the potential for much greater increases in the future, and it is just such circumstances that Marxists believe gives rise to the potential for a socialist alternative.

This is an elementary Marxist understanding of capitalism and socialism but it is not one that, having accepted it for ‘theoretical’ purposes, one can then ignore it for political ones.  The dynamics of the capitalist system through which Marx believed this to be the case are still at work and must be taken into account.  Our opposition to capitalism comes from our understanding that there is a more progressive alternative, and not simply from the iniquities or barbarities of the current system, which can only finally be condemned if there is an alternative.

What this means in relation to the current situation is that Brexit is an attempt of one country to reverse the development of capitalism and reverse the international socialisation of production that has characterised it for many decades. It seeks that one country can compete with a much larger bloc on the basis of free market principles more applicable to the 19th century.  It is therefore wholly reactionary even from a modern capitalist viewpoint, and is an attempt to go backwards rather than forwards.

It is not in the interests of the working class to revert to an earlier stage of capitalism where, for example, regulations are torn up to the benefit of those capitalists willing and able to ignore them.  It is not to our benefit to see the costs of our labour power such as health and education imposed on individual workers as opposed to the socialisation of such costs by the capitalist state through organisations such as the National Health Service. It is not in our interest to heighten national division through greater separation of nation states in Europe, when such previous division has only resulted in alliances of the biggest powers in aggressive competition with each other.  Such alliances do not result in the freedom and independence of smaller nations but their subordination within the alliances of the great powers.

This is why the EU is a more advanced form of capitalist formation than a Europe of separate nation states and why the illusions of Brexit in Britain are the illusions of an earlier period of British capitalism and British history.

Of course the EU is a representation of big business.  Such multinational capital is a more advanced form of capitalism than the small private businesses of the 19th century.  Small business has no interest in regulations which it considers to be costly red tape, or minimum employment regulation, or environmental regulation or socialisation of its costs, which it would seek not to incur in any event.

The biggest companies however require state regulation, and regulation that covers multiple state jurisdictions, so that it can produce at the mass scale in as many markets across Europe as possible.  This requires uniform regulations to standardise production, while other costs are externalised and socialised such as health and education, provided by the state or by other private capitals.

This is why, as the Socialist Party says, the EU seeks:

“level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”

Were we simply anti-capitalists then it might be the case that we would not care which of these variants of capitalism we lived under.  But this is obviously not the case since we oppose austerity and fight in the short term for a different configuration of capitalism than the one austerity would impose.  Because we are socialists it is the development of capitalism, not its retrogression, which allows us to realistically put forward the alternative of socialism, and Brexit and our opposition to it is a demonstration of this.

In the next post I will look at how Brexit fits into the overall programme of the Socialist Party.

Brexit – stop digging!

Wayne Asher writes in the International Socialism Journal (ISJ) that “the traditional left in Britain has committed a colossal mistake in its approach to Brexit and is making matters worse by an obsolete refusal to correct it.”

The traditional left, as Asher calls it, is once again exhibiting a failure that can be seen running through its history throughout the twentieth century, involving the subordination of socialist movements to the state, in its nation state form, expressed in a capitulation to nationalism.

The subordination of Social Democracy and its incorporation into the State led to it urging the workers of each country to slaughter each other in World War 1.  This in turn massively reinforced nationalism after the war, leading to an even greater catastrophe in World War 2.

The defeat of the Russian Revolution saw the Stalinist counter-revolution base its politics on the Russian State and more and more on Great Russian nationalism.  Thus today we even have Stalinists who defend Russia (as if it were still a separate social system from capitalism), entirely forgetting why they supported the country in the first place.

The Trotskyist movement has fought a rather lonely battle against this and such has been its isolation many of its subjective adherents are now no more than pale reflections of these larger forces.  So, we often see the espousal of ‘anti-imperialism’ without any progressive or socialist content, and a programme based on state ownership – ‘nationalisation’ –  instead of workers’ ownership.

Also common is a primitive internationalism.  So, for most social democrats the internationalisation of capitalism is to be supported and the working class subordinated to it.  This is expressed in Britain through the majority of Labour MP’s uncritical support for the EU and its supposed progressive agenda.

On the other hand, for Stalinists and the left social democrats influenced by them, the road to socialism remains national and membership of the EU is rejected on this basis.

As for some of those claiming the mantle of Trotskyism, I was reminded of the corruption of organisations claiming to stand on this legacy by a recent article on Brexit by the Irish Socialist Party, which made explicit its perspective of international socialism as simply being the coming together of already socialist nation states.

This view can see no role, except a purely additive one, for the international struggle of workers. In effect, there is no international struggle, at most a solidarity of separate struggles, perhaps still quoting Marx from more than a 150 years ago that the struggle is national in form. Such an approach is really then the Marxist version of the internationalism of nationalism, in which anti-colonial movements reject accusations of their nationalist limitations by saying that they support other nationalist movements, not just their own.  Brexit is yet another example of this left nationalism.

Asher has no difficulty showing that this policy of the organisation of which he was once a member is wrong.  There are however limitations to his critique and his position could be stronger.

The critique is based mainly on the view that the movement for a left Brexit has had no purchase on reality because the supporters of it were so small. In such circumstances he argues that the Brexit project could only be a reactionary one, and so it has obviously proved.

This sort of analysis is the basis on which another organisation I can think of opposed Brexit.  In effect, they have registered the reactionary nature of Brexit in a purely empirical manner by witnessing the nature of its support and effects.  The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party continue to support it by denying this reality and inventing their own.

Asher shows the reactionary character of the support for Brexit – that it is not a movement of the oppressed against austerity and is not a movement of those ‘left behind’.

Its core vote was Tory, reactionary and racist and his article is worth reading on this account alone if anyone is still in any doubt.

However, this recognition of immediate reality does not provide the right starting point for determining how workers should vote.  It is one thing to recognise the reactionary nature of the campaign for Brexit, but to base our own approach simply on this is to believe that our opposition to Brexit is merely contingent, that we could or should look forward to a ‘good’ left Brexit.  It fails to recognise that the effluvia of reaction that has poured forth from the Brexit campaign was not accidental or contingent but faithful to its nature.

Asher states that “Alex Callinicos’s 2015 article warned “the referendum is about the EU as a whole, not just immigration. Socialists in Britain will have to take a stand on the entire project of European integration”.  Unfortunately Callinicos does not seem to have taken his own advice and frames everything in terms of a disembodied racism that stands above everything else, as we discussed in the previous post.

It is not clear that Asher starts from the place recommended by Callinicos either; he appears simply to argue that the immediate weakness of the left and the reactionary nature of the existing Brexit project was enough to determine the attitude of socialists:

“. . . it is quite possible, as Momentum did—to accept the traditional left analysis of the EU and still argue that the correct decision in the 2016 referendum was to argue for Remain. Whatever the levels of oppression and unpleasantness in today’s Britain, they are not the fault of Brussels but of two decades of New Labour and the Tories, and neither were reliant on Brussels to carry through such policies. Socialists who argued for a Remain vote did so not because of illusions in the EU but because they saw that the main issue in the campaign—given the weakness of the left—would inevitably be reactionary nationalism and outright racism.”

He says of the “formally correct position the left (excluding Momentum)” that “it had a formally correct analysis on the nature of the EU but fell into abstraction because it did not take into account the extreme weakness of left-wing forces and the inevitable nature of the Leave campaign in a downturn that has lasted decades.”

We will not go into what all the features of this “formally correct analysis” of the left might be, except to say that I assume it means that – other things being equal, i.e. a stronger left and weaker right – the correct thing would have been to support Brexit.

In this respect, it should be clear from previous posts that I don’t agree with this, and have argued that the working class should not seek to reverse the progress of capitalism into a more backward and purely national form but should rather build its own alternative on the basis of the international development of capitalism.

In this context, I will simply take up one point made in the article.  Asher absolves the Remain left of a belief ascribed to them by Callinicos “that . . .  the underlying assumption of those on the left supporting a Yes vote is that the EU represents, however imperfectly, the transcendence of nationalism and so internationalists and anti-racists should vote for Britain to remain in the EU”.

It’s not clear to me that Asher agrees with this argument, which might be stated slightly differently as being that one reason to support Brexit is that the EU does not, even in an imperfect way, represent the transcendence of nationalism.

This seems to me to be obviously wrong.

Not because the EU transcends nationalism in the sense of superseding it – given the role of the member states in its operation this would not be possible – but because the EU does represent the development of capitalism beyond the restrictions of national boundaries.  The forces of production of modern capitalism in their most developed forms have transcended the restrictions of the nation state and are international in character.

The Brexit debate has been an education in quite how international capitalist production is.  This includes such a range of industries that the Institute of Directors has said that around 30 per cent of companies, and so not just the large ones, have or will shift some or all of their operations out of the UK.

We only need to consider that the Euro is an international currency, with one Central Bank, that has replaced a number of the most important national currencies, including the Deutsche Mark and Franc

Brexit threatens the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, and was designed to end the freedom of movement that allowed this migration to occur. This movement is but another example of the international development of the forces of production.

In this sense then, the EU does (very imperfectly) represent the transcendence of nationalism.

And this is not just in relation to the economy.  The EU has always been a political project and specifically designed to mitigate certain nationalist antagonisms.  Its supranational political structure is still to a large extent the creature of member states but these states have ceded real political power to supranational bodies.  This is true even of the European Parliament, despite the well-known weakness of its powers.

It should nevertheless not be surprising that the largest nation states carry the biggest clout in the EU and that the easiest nationalisms transcended are the smallest, which doesn’t however include the British.  When some are more powerful than others this transcendence can easily be seen as, and is, subordination, but a perspective of going back to a Europe of purely nation states, the logic of Brexit, is quite clearly not a solution to this but a return to the problem.

The economic and political (imperfect) transcendence of nationalism is reflected in the consciousness of Europe’s population.  Brexit has not prompted a growth of opposition to the EU across Europe and the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll shows increased support for it.  This support is far from uniform or unqualified, but even in the UK Brexit has increased the intensity of support for the European Union.

One opinion poll just before Christmas showed that 30 per cent of Germans supported the proposal by the German politician Martin Schulz for a United States of Europe, which was also supported by 28 per cent of French respondents.  Unsurprisingly the UK was lowest in the poll but even here the proposal was supported by 10 per cent, even though such an eventuality is not even presented for debate, except when it is trashed by Brexiteers.

Asher points out that the supporters of Lexit are in a hole and are still digging.  This is a real problem for the relatively small forces that claim to be Marxist.  As an example of where this might ultimately lead we need only look at Russia where the nationalist depths that Stalinist parties have plumbed has resulted in a programme of extreme national socialism.

This is possible, if only because the left supporters of Brexit are as delusional as its supporters on the right.  In fact, their delusions are greater.  Both live in a world in which Britain can become either the standard bearer of a free market world or a beacon of socialism – if only it were freed from the rest of Europe.

How delusional this can be was revealed to me this week when I attended a meeting on the Irish trade union view of Brexit.  Two speakers from the floor ridiculed the prospect of 27 EU countries electing left or anti-austerity Governments, thereby committing the crime of holding back the UK and Ireland from moving forward.

Aside from the admission that the unity of Europe’s workers was therefore considered to be effectively dead; so, it would have to follow, would any prospect of socialism, which is international or it will not exist.

But what was really delusional was that this claim – that we were being held back – was made in Belfast of all places.  Yes, that city renowned throughout Europe as a trail blazer of working class unity!

Where do you start with such nonsense?

In the hands of such people what we have is not Marxism but a dogmatic Marxism which, because Marxism is not a dogma, is no Marxism at all.

If the contribution of Asher has gone even some way to making the left supporters of Brexit stop digging it will have performed a service.  In this light, we might even see the article by Callinicos as an attempt to stop digging.

It would appear however that some people have yet to show signs of stopping.

Lexit – You were never really there

According to the polls not many people have changed their minds since the referendum, although there may be a few signs that this is beginning to change.  Instead a shift to a Remain majority appears to be from the death of mainly older ‘Leave’ voters and entry to voting age of mainly ‘Remain’ young people.

It might be thought that the reactionary mess of Brexit would cause those supporting Lexit to reconsider but the obstacle to this is obviously the politics that got them to this position in the first place.  I tried to get one supporter of Lexit to address this mess by asking him if he was happy with the way Brexit was going, but he refused to answer.

However, a sign that at least some are debating the question is shown in the latest issue of the International Socialism Journal (ISJ), which contains an article that calls for just such a reconsideration.  In fact, it calls on the Socialist Workers Party to recognise that it made a mistake and to correct that mistake.  It refers to the organisation’s earlier position on the European Economic Community as a way of helping it do so, and I have covered this history in a previous post.

The ISJ also contains an article continuing to defend Lexit from one of the leaders of the SWP, Alex Callinicos.  A fair summary of this article would be ‘we were right, and anyway it doesn’t matter that much.’  In my experience this appears to be a common view among Lexit supporters and has the convenient effect of divorcing themselves from the real world consequences of Brexit and their support for it.

We can continue to refer to Brexit (and not Lexit) because this is what was on the ballot paper; this is what the campaigns to leave proposed in the referendum; this is what all the debate about implementation has been about since, and most obviously this is what SWP members voted for when they put their pencil on the ballot paper.

Any claims that they were actually voting for something other than what we are getting could only be true if the world were as SWP members wished it to be, and of course it isn’t. Examples of this denial of the world as it actually is is illustrated by Callinicos’ denial that the Brexit vote was racist while still having to admit that the result ‘partially’ encouraged racism.

Since racism is for him the over-riding issue this in itself should be enough to make him reconsider, but to actually do so would require acknowledgement that his reading of the result is nonsense.  The article by Wayne Asher opposing Brexit in the same issue of the journal demonstrates this and contains enough material from the now widely publicised opinion poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft to show that the Leave vote was thoroughly reactionary.

The core Brexit vote was nationalistic, xenophobic and racist, which is why it encouraged racism afterwards.  It was centred on small capitalists, middle class reactionaries and demoralised workers, many of whom don’t normally vote or habitually vote Tory or UKIP.  Whatever their disaffection with the status quo, their response to this status quo was to blame other victims and ally with those whose policy is to make things worse.  Asher very effectively demolishes any argument that socialists should orient to these people, through what amounts to critical support for their reactionary project on spurious grounds that they are the basis of some anti-austerity protest.

The major argument of Callinicos however is that the issue of Brexit is not really that important – “which is the more important issue – the EU or racism?”  Aside from artificially dividing them into wholly separate issues when even he admits Brexit has encouraged racism, both should be considered together, understanding that Brexit is the key assault on the working class at the moment and raises very important issues for workers and particularly socialists.

He acknowledges that the referendum result has been interpreted as a rejection of free movement for European citizens but draws no conclusions that maybe the result was therefore not for the best.  If Brexit was something progressive why so many reactionary consequences?

To put a veil over all this we are told that despite “this deep political and constitutional crisis . . . the plight of British capitalism is unlikely fundamentally to change in or out of the EU.”  He feigns agnosticism over whether the country will be worse off while acknowledging that supply chains will be disrupted, and states that Brexit has “simply highlighted the limits of the reconstruction of British capitalism under Thatcher.”  A bit like cutting your right hand off to highlight the need to use your left just as well.

Callinicos refuses to acknowledge that the Brexit project will involve increased attacks on workers and that for the ultra-right this is one of its main objectives; he complacently claims that “the dynamics of global crisis will continue to work whatever happens on 29 March, and working people will still face attacks and need to fight back in or out of the EU.”  If or when such attacks come will he be saying that these are simply run-of-the-mill attacks on workers’ living standards – nothing special?  No particular cause?

By counterposing opposition to Brexit to opposition to racism he makes the claim that some Remainers are putting support for the EU ahead of fighting racism and fascism. Aside from his sleight of hand – that opposition to Brexit means support for the EU – it is he who has, to put it in his terms, put support for Brexit ahead of fighting racism and fascism.

He wishes to further divorce himself from responsibility for the project that he has supported by claiming that the rise of racism was happening anyway and that there is a tide of such reaction everywhere – so why blame Brexit?  He ignores, or simply denies, that Brexit has made such racism worse and that Brexit is the project in Britain in which this reactionary movement involving Trump etc. has coalesced.

The idea that you can support Brexit while opposing racism and the racists is absurd – imagine a Lexit contingent on a Brexit demonstration consisting of the English Defence League, Football Lads Alliance and UKIP!

But ‘never mind’ seems to be the message – “where you stand on the EU is a secondary question”.  “There is no reason why we can’t stand together against the main enemy – the bosses and the far right that the crisis of their system is strengthening.”

Yes, the millions of EU citizens working in Britain will see no issue with standing shoulder to shoulder with those who voted for Brexit and placed their right to live and work in Britain in danger.  They shall ignore that it was not just some “crisis of the system” that has strengthened the far right but also Brexit.

In the real world, it is not for these millions of workers, or for the millions of working class Remain voters, to explain to the SWP why they will not join their anti-racist campaigns but for the SWP to explain how they could be their effective allies in fighting racism while still supporting Brexit.

Callinicos claims that in supporting it he is demonstrating that it is not impossible to campaign against the EU on a socialist basis, and that “the arguments for leaving the European Union were substantial and debate-worthy.”

However despite this, and his claim that Brexit was mainly motivated by progressive impulses, he nowhere presents the relevance of Brexit to any progressive struggle that is going on.  Nor does not say how his and other left organisations supporting Brexit are helping to push it in a socialist direction.  In fact he is not able to point to any initiative that is putting a left Brexit on the agenda.  The only attempt at this is the ‘soft’ Brexit so far championed by Jeremy Corbyn, and this would still result in lower living standards and is in any case unworkable.

He admits that “the referendum wasn’t something that the left had campaigned for”, but given the argument that the EU is unreformable and is such an obstacle to progressive change you could be forgiven for seeking an explanation why not?  The campaign however, and its result, has demonstrated that Lexit has been an irrelevance, if not those who consider it in relation to the integrity of socialism and Marxism.

Callinicos admits that the referendum result has threatened to “stoke populists anxieties with unpredictable consequences’ . . . “amid political and perhaps economic turmoil’ but again sees no reason to reconsider his support for what got us here.

Like the Tory Brexiteers who proclaimed the benefits of Brexit but buggered off when it came to implementing it, the supporters of Lexit have turned round to claim that their Platonic love child isn’t really that important.

The final act of abandonment is put forward in the final sentence of the article:  “The radical and revolutionary left too should avoid getting trapped on one side or other of the debate within the ruling class and instead stand ready to promote and help shape “fundamental revolts”.

Having supported “one side”, as he puts it, by supporting Brexit, he now wants to claim that, actually, socialists should now not take sides. Of course if they followed his advice it would conveniently make implementation of Brexit that bit easier.

If only he and the other supporters of Lexit had decided to dump it earlier.  It would have saved themselves, even if it would not have made much difference to the result.