The argument that we can do nothing about Brexit except make the best of it is presented in a lucid argument on this blog. Three reasons are advanced in support of the view that for the Labour Party to oppose Brexit “would be disastrous”.
Firstly, it would fail. The Tories will vote for it as will the early pioneers of Donald Trump – the Donald Unionist Party. And so will those Labour MPs in Brexit-majority constituencies who show much more readiness to oppose their leadership than the disaster that awaits their working class constituents.
This may or may not be true, although it certainly will be true if the opposition to Brexit itself refuses to oppose it. The mantra that “the people” have voted for Brexit will be made official if those MPs supposedly opposed join in making the slim majority in the referendum an overwhelming vote in parliament.
The typically arrogant and supremacist claim of the Brexit right will be confirmed, that the only people who matter are those led by bigots. The loyalist slogan “we are the people”, to be understood in the sense that everyone else is a lesser being, sits perfectly with the declarations of Farage and Trump that they alone speak for the people, because those who do not support them do not count. Not voting against Brexit confirms the strident demands of the bullying reactionaries that their vote based on lies, fantasy and prejudice is unimpeachable.
On the other hand a vigorous campaign led by Labour against Brexit, which explains the real effects that are already visible, could compel reluctant Labour MPs to vote against Brexit and provide the cover for Tories opposed to Brexit to do the same. We have been ‘warned’ repeatedly that a majority of MPs oppose Brexit, what matters is the political environment to make this a reality; and while the vote in parliament will decide the matter, the combination of disastrous consequences and political mobilisation outside parliament can determine it.
And if we are talking about numbers – what about the 65% of Labour voters who voted to Remain or do concerns about losing support only apply when bowing down to the most reactionary segment of support? In terms of sheer numbers it makes no sense to alienate 65% in order to placate 35%. ‘We can’t neglect to take on board the concerns of our working class supporters’ doesn’t really cut it when you look at it this way, unless you accept the nonsense that Remain voters were the metropolitan elite who, guess what, are not part of ‘the people.’
The second argument is that Labour cannot be seen to be “gifting the Tories, UKIP and the majority right-wing media the narrative of it ‘seeking to subvert the will of the people’. Absolutely everything it had to say on Brexit after a vote against triggering Article 50 would be met by this message being hammered home again and again and again.”
This is no doubt true; it is also true, although I do not know to what extent, that some Labour voters supporting Brexit will vote against Labour or abstain if it seeks “to subvert the will of the people”. But it must again be recalled that the majority of Labour voters voted Remain! And it really is internalising defeat when you vote with the Tories against the wishes of a majority of your own supporters. However true the argument is that the strident claims of the Brexiteers will gain traction if Labour doesn’t bow before their demands, the contrary argument put here is also true, true to our principles and true to our future:
“The Tory MP, Ken Clarke, is quite right when he says that he has supported membership of the Common Market, and EU for fifty years, and that it would be ludicrous to suggest that just because of the referendum vote, he now had to act as though he was an opponent of it. Or, if Trump were currently, to hold a referendum, in the US, to garner support for his ban on Muslims entering the country, Labour would say,“Oh well, we lost that vote, so we will have to tag along behind Trump’s racist and reactionary policies.”
The parallel drawn here is not merely similar to the Brexit vote; in the immediate sense it is identical. The Trump measures against refugees and the citizens of seven countries is a clear attack on peoples’ ability to move and to seek a better life in another country. The Brexit vote was led by just the same sort of xenophobic and racist politics that motivated the reactionary Trump campaign, even if not all who voted for Brexit were xenophobes or racists, just like Trump voters, who weren’t all bigots and racists either.
The parallel is identical because a core principle socialists are trying to defend by opposing Brexit is the freedom of movement of working people in the EU, just like the freedom of movement of refugees and citizens of mainly Muslim countries to the US. Working class solidarity is hardly a credible proposition if you don’t defend the ability of workers of different nations to work together. It is much harder to make it a reality if it is prevented. We know this, amongst other reasosn, because we know that the Brexit vote did not succeed in areas with the largest number of immigrants but often in areas with low numbers.
The third argument is that the Labour strategy of seeking to amend the Brexit process “will seek to ensure parliament has oversight of and influence over the kind of Brexit we get” and “does not lend power to the idea that Labour is ‘opposed to democracy’ and actually offers the prospect of pro-EU Tories supporting amendments which could make a real difference in preventing what is being called ‘hard Brexit’.”
Aside from the strength of an opposition that ultimately promises to vote in favour of triggering Article 50 it is unfortunately the case that a hard Brexit is the only one on offer. An end to the free movement of workers in the EU is already a given, as is the exit from existing free trade arrangements, the disruption of which will impact on British capitalism and thereby on British workers, not to mention those in the EU.
As I have already argued, the strategy of a low-tax, deregulated and low wage Britain is the most credible one for an isolated nation seeking to insert itself into an international system in which every other large economy is part of a free-trade arrangement. The exposure that Britain will impose on itself was illustrated by an article in Monday’s ‘Financial Times’, which reported a study that 46% of goods and services exports from the UK’s 62 cities went to the EU. In contrast China accounted for only 4%, so that in order to make up a drop of 10% in EU exports would require a doubling of them to China or an increase by nearly one-third to the US.
Given that we know that a hard Brexit is coming it makes no sense to pretend the Tories will deliver anything else. Could anyone seriously believe the Tories want to exit the rules and regulations of the EU because they want to make the regulations governing working conditions and employment rights better?
To pretend they will do anything else is a stand-out illustration of the weakness of an approach that tail-ends the Tories confusion and incompetence and that has allowed them to get away with taking over six months before even giving the broadest of outlines of what they wanted. Leaving opposition to some final vote that the Tories can ignore is to play parliamentary games with workers’ futures when you aren’t in control of the rules. There appears no guarantee that even defeating a Tory Brexit deal will not allow them to exit with no deal, as they have threatened. A movement that would make this outcome politically unacceptable might prevent employment of such a device.
The only honest approach is to explain that a hard Brexit is inevitable and to build opposition to it on this basis, not wait for it to happen. Having (sometimes) stated that the Tories will deliver a hard Brexit, the Labour Party is open to increasing incredulity and anger that they are not now opposing it. The shadow-Brexit secretary Kier Starmer has told everyone that it is now impossible to oppose Brexit, making it clear that a single consideration trumps every other concern, while it took the old Tory Ken Clarke to make the points Starmer would not:
“Let me give an analogy in explaining the position for members of parliament after this referendum. I have fought Lord knows how many elections over the past 50 years and I have always advocated voting Conservative. The British public in their wisdom have occasionally failed to take my advice and they have actually by a majority voted Labour. And I have found myself here facing a Labour government.”
“I do not recall an occasion where I was told it was now my democratic duty to support Labour policies under Labour governments on the other side of the House. That proposition would have been treated with ridicule and scorn. “
“We are combining withdrawal from the single market and the customs union with this great new globalised future, which offers tremendous opportunities for us. Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that previously we had never been able to achieve as part of the European Union. Nice men like President Trump and President Erdogan are just impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access.”
“Don’t let me be too cynical – I hope that is right. I want the best outcome for the United Kingdom from this process. No doubt there is somewhere a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”
This third argument has been put most pithily by Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman – “accept the result.” Except the real result of the referendum is not yet in and it would be criminal to accept it.
The third argument on accepting Brexit relies on the undoubtedly true argument that the referendum result “has been decades in the making. Parties across the political spectrum have happily blamed the EU as an easy scapegoat for domestic decisions (even the SNP blamed the EU in the row over privatising Calmac) while politicians have at best ignored popular hostility towards immigration and at worst fanned it. In my lifetime it has been common for politicians to use the rhetoric of the far right on immigration, push increasingly intolerant policies on asylum and immigration and engage in a perverse arms race on who can be ‘toughest‘ on the issue.”
However, while true, this can hardly be an argument not to fight back now and, as I mentioned at the end of the first post, “in some ways Brexit provides better ground to take up this fight against nationalism and racism than before.” This is because the reactionary politics of nationalism and racism which has created Brexit will not benefit workers, and their continued pursuit of them will hurt them rather quickly and rather directly.
Brexit allows the reactionary import of nationalism and racism to be demonstrated through the attacks on workers’ rights, conditions and living standards that Brexit will inevitably involve. It provides the grounds to clearly separate the hardened ideological bigots from workers mistakenly attracted to false and simple-minded solutions that are nor in their interest. Now is not the time to entertain the idea that restrictions on immigration and deference to reactionary nationalism can be combined with protection of workers to produce a mildly progressive ‘soft’ Brexit.
There is no combination of nationalism and racism with state ‘national’ socialism that will be in the interests of workers. By pointing this out and fighting for an alternative the Labour Party will be proved right if or when Brexit either becomes a reality, or its disastrous effects become visible and palpable before this happens. To prepare for this means opposing Brexit now and being best placed to build the movement that stops it and inflicts a defeat on the forces of reaction behind it. Which leads to a final argument put up against opposition to Brexit now.
“This brings us to probably the most profoundly scary reason why Labour (and indeed other politicians) trying to prevent Brexit in parliament is such a terrible idea. As we’ve seen, rhetoric around ‘elites’ trying to ‘subvert democracy’ has been common in the aftermath of the referendum and we’ve heard how bigotry has surged. Yet if politicians were to actually prevent the result of the referendum being implemented as the worst extremes of the right keep suggesting they want to, this would provide a founding myth for the far-right of the kind we have not seen in my lifetime. There is no doubt in my mind that not only would UKIP surge dramatically in this scenario but that less ‘respectable’ fascists like the EDL would explode in popularity, emboldened by the simple and powerful narrative that the ‘elite’ were ignoring ‘the people’.”
There is no doubt some truth in this as well but it is rather like the truth that Brexit will be shown to be the shitshow predicted when it comes to pass. Will the working class and the socialist movement be better off for having been proved right or will we have suffered a bitter defeat from which we will have to struggle to recover? And similarly, if we defeat Brexit – the right of the Tory party and UKIP plus their ‘respectable’ fascists – will they be stronger or weaker for their defeat? The right can have its myths and its narrative if the labour and socialist movement can have its victory.
Back to part 1