by W Stephen Gilbert
Last Christmas, as you do, we received the usual batch of greetings cards from people we’re only in touch with at that time of year. Almost without exception, these cards included a message to the effect: “isn’t it terrible about Trump and Brexit?” As we are perceived as (ex-)metropolitan, enlightened, middle class professionals, we obviously must subscribe to all the views prescribed for that demographic.
My partner can speak for himself. But I voted to leave. This is an outrage that many of my friends cannot understand and find difficult to forgive. They tolerate my intolerance of that ugly, specious, coined term that Theresa May likes to use twice in one mantra. But by my vote they think I’ve taken leave of my senses or become a class traitor or revealed myself as a closet fascist.
Bracketing Trump and the 2016 referendum result is thought a legitimate summary of a year that was in many ways the most ghastly anyone can recall. It’s almost as though the leave campaign was implicated in the premature deaths of Victoria Wood and David Bowie, let alone the inability of the American electorate to prevent a supremely unsuitable candidate being handed “the most powerful job in the world”. A hitherto intelligent friend bracketed me on Facebook with unacceptable supporters of the leave campaign: “Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – nice company you keep”, as though voting is something to do with fashion and celebrity. He must be so relieved to have voted the same way as Victoria Beckham, Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson.
There is much said in the media and at Westminster about the abuse heaped on people in the public eye. Those who oppose Jeremy Corbyn are apt to accuse Corbyn supporters in particular of perpetrating this abuse and Corbyn in turn of failing to stem the flow, as though he possesses the power to discipline people who tweet anonymously. But abuse is a two-way street and the digital deterioration of political rhetoric is not confined to one faction. Those who voted to leave are routinely accounted ‘morons’, ‘racists’ and solely responsible for every hate crime that occurs in Britain. I resent this. As Canon Giles Fraser has observed, there are not 17 million racists in Britain.
There is no basis for the assumption that a perceived rise in hate crime and racist attacks is caused by the result of the referendum; indeed, logic rather suggests that a vote to remain would have provoked bitterness and retaliation among those for whom immigration is a dominant issue. Nor is there any merit in all leavers being thought of as Little Englanders. This is as shallow and demeaning as the argument that remainers were only concerned that their holidays in Umbria or Provence might be somehow circumscribed if we left the EU, that they are tourist, fair-weather Europeans. Nevertheless, there is certainly a romantic fantasy underpinning the bitterness that many thwarted remainers express, making it necessary and pertinent for Jeremy Corbyn to keep pointing out that we’ve not leaving Europe, we’re just leaving the EU.
Initially, I was minded to vote status quo. I imagined that the remain campaign would be making a case that I could understand and accept. In fact, this would have been unprecedented. From Harold Macmillan on, Europhiles have felt no obligation to spell out the case for being in what began as the EEC and became the EU. All British governments have been broadly in favour of membership (not excluding the Thatcher administrations), but they have adopted the stance most nakedly embodied by Roy Jenkins: just leave it to us who know, and don’t you worry your pretty little head about things that don’t concern you. The media have played along, making minimal effort to report the workings of the European market, save for mocking perceived anomalies. Over the years, the Tory press has hardened its opposition to the EU, obeying the deregulatory requirements of its cabal of owners.
Perhaps unduly influenced by the press, certainly alienated by the failure of Europhiles to make the case, millions of Britons have come to regard the EU as indifferent to their needs and concerns. “Decades of pro-EU spin have failed to convince the mass of working people of its worth;” wrote John King two years ago, “the only reason their opposition has been so restrained is the secrecy and speed of the takeover. This has occurred across generations, a slow-motion transfer of control, driven by the rich and powerful. Our leaders are complicit, know where their futures rest. There are careers to protect and promote, fortunes to be made. The feelings of the wider society are ignored” [New Statesman June 11th 2015].
Even the most enthusiastic long-term supporter of the EU among the Tories, Kenneth Clarke MP, understood the anti-European sentiment of the electorate as expressed in the referendum, though he seemed to find British governments more culpable: “I think it was mounting anger about economic inequality, the unfair distribution of the rewards of economic success, the gap between different parts of the country, with London and the south-east having a booming economy, and nothing happening in some of the old industrial cities of the north and the north midlands” [The Guardian, February 6th 2017].
But David Cameron and his allies eschewed any positive and constructive arguments. They preferred to mount an anti-Farage barrage of threats and doom-prediction. As it became clear that no pro-EU exegesis was ever to be offered, I began to incline towards spoiling my ballot paper in a positive way, writing something across it about being repelled by two campaigns each as negative and infantile as the other. At the count, such a message would have had to be formally noted.
Not the least repellent aspect of both campaigns was the emphasis on “the British interest”. Why would the EU want us to stay if we were only concerned for our own prospects? What about the European interest? I would go further: my primary concern is the global interest. I am as alarmed by our emphasis on self-interest as I am by “America first, America first”. We are all dependent on the survival of the planet. The only useful statespersons are those concerned with the welfare of everyone.
But in trying to inform myself about the issue, I began to discover that there were good left reasons to vote to leave. And as I took to thinking about those, I learned to ignore the vapid arguments of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and to see that the prospects for being outside the EU were actually rather encouraging.
Indeed, for most of the first year after the referendum, economic commentators regularly exclaimed at how unexpectedly well the British economy was doing as the sky resolutely declined to fall in. If the picture has clouded a little recently, it is no longer possible to separate the impact of the referendum vote from the uncertainty created by the sow’s ear that the government has made of its approach to the negotiations with the EU.
Again, Ken Clarke put blue water between himself and his government. Recorded as long ago as last December, he told Michael Crick: “Nobody, probably from the prime minister down, has the first idea how events are going to evolve next year … [The government’s] policy wouldn’t fill one side of A4 at the moment”.
Or as fellow Tory remainer Anna Soubry put it in the same programme: “It’s all gone tits up” [Brexit Means Brexit: The Unofficial Version BBC/Oxford Film & Television June 21st 2017].
But what about those good left reasons? The first item to consider is that identified by Tony Benn, mentor to Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed the Common Market in the 1975 referendum and remained a leaver for the rest of his days.
In Britain you vote for the government and therefore the government has to listen to you,” he told the Oxford Union in the last year of his life, “and if you don’t like it you can change it. But in Europe all the key positions are appointed, not elected – the Commission, for example. All appointed, not one of them elected … My view about the European Union has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners but that I am in favour of democracy” [March 25th 2013]
Another question of democracy is the intended future development of the EU. It has to be faced that remaining in the union would have gradually subsumed the unwritten British constitution under laws carved in European stone. The ability of British voters to change the direction of British travel by voting in general elections would have been eradicated by mid-century because the room for manoeuvre of national governments – and, most pertinently for the British, the sovereign House of Commons – would have been incrementally surrendered to Brussels. Half of all British legislation in recent years originated in the EU, and it is the half that cannot be rescinded while in the union. That in which Karl Marx most anchored his hope for the revolutionary potential of the British workers’ movement has been in certain danger of being castrated by the EU until now.
Paul Mason put it baldly:
The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime” [The Guardian May 16th 2016]
Had we remained in the EU, future Labour governments would have been powerless to reverse the privatisation of the NHS upon which the Tory government is embarked. What’s more, taking public utilities back into public hands – proposals that command wide public support – would have been thwarted by Brussels. For instance:
The fourth rail package [approved April 2016]… categorically seeks to dismantle incumbent state monopolies in … EU countries. This rules out reinstating mainland Britain’s old state monopoly, British Rail. While public sector organisations will still be able to run rail services, any service or route will need to be contracted out and not simply awarded.
By liberalising the European rail industry, the fourth rail package is continuing a longstanding EU objective. The EU appears to share the British ideological mindset of the 1990s that led to a fragmented rail network and privatisation. It is arguing for this under the mantra that competition will bring better and cheaper services for passengers” [Nicole Badstuber, The Conversation website June 20th 2016]
As Prof Danny Nicol adds:
Britain is … bound by the EU treaties. Indeed, every British court is duty-bound to enforce every EU law in preference to any conflicting British statute. Under Article 106, the EU prohibits public monopolies exercising exclusive rights where this violates EU competition rules. The EU’s Court of Justice has interpreted Article 106 as giving private companies the right to argue before the national courts that services should continue to be open to private-sector competition. Nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed by the judiciary for their ‘necessity’. Thus the EU has given companies a legal right to run to court to scupper programmes of public ownership” [Left Futures website September 18th 2015]
Looking wider, there is an historic chasm between progressives and reactionaries concerning governance. Progressives hold that civil rights can only be maintained by the implementation of law, that workers and others can only be protected from exploitation and oppression by rules. Reactionaries argue that economies can only prosper if they are released from legal restriction, that regulation (including progressive taxation) stifles the entrepreneurship that creates industries and jobs.
The opposition of multinationals and their supporters to the EU arises primarily from the accumulation of law and regulation. But insofar as the EU’s regulations prevent governments from implementing progressive policies, the deregulation argument for leaving touches hands with progressives. Laws securing workers’ rights are welcome. Laws restricting those rights are not. The notion that the EU is somehow an acceptably regulated multinational market arrangement, whereas neither the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) nor the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) would be, is incoherent. Donald Trump’s dissent from these enterprises – he has withdrawn the US from TTP – is an unexpectedly encouraging sign. Both TTP and TTIP tend to free business interests from the constraints of international law and indeed will allow multinationals to bring actions – not excluding vexatious litigation – against national governments.
When the text of the proposed TPP deal was made public as the US election campaign got under way, Bernie Sanders said:
“I will do everything I can to defeat the TTP. We need trade policies in this country that work for the working families of our nation and not just the CEOs of large, multinational corporations” [his website November 5th 2015]
Pursued almost wholly in camera by the EU and the Obama government, the on-going TTIP negotiations would have opened up European public utilities (which would include the NHS) to US and multinational ownership and have brought European trading standards and environmental regulations into line with those laid down in Washington. Trump’s ambiguity over TTIP is causing major irritation in the EU. The problem is that he is notoriously capable of performing a 180-degree turn and brushing it off as “fake news”. So he may yet do a TTIP deal with Brussels. Happily its proposed bonfire of regulations need not affect our post-EU arrangements. But they make it all the more urgent that Britain sheds its Tory government sooner rather than later so that EU regulations copied and pasted benefit the majority in Britain.
There can be little doubt that, if elected, the Corbyn project has better prospects of succeeding outside the EU than inside. He would be able actually to abandon the austerity that is in fact an EU treaty requirement, take public utilities back into British public ownership (rather than, as so many of them are, in the hands of foreign state enterprises), rescue otherwise doomed industries and invest in infrastructure.
Austerity is a busted flush. On the eve of the 2017 election in Britain, the economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote:
Austerity has not only damaged the European economies, including the UK, but actually threatens future growth. For instance, when you have young people not learning, or in jobs inappropriate to their skills, they’re not increasing their human capital in the way they could be. Without that human capital, future economic growth will be lower than it could have been. It is remarkable that there are still governments, including here in the UK, that still believe in austerity” [The Guardian June 7th 2017].
No wonder the young support Corbyn.
As the economics editor of The Guardian, Larry Elliott, wrote recently, Corbyn and the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are…
…exploring the freedom Brexit would provide for public ownership, lower rates of VAT to help those on the lowest incomes, state aid to support sunrise industries, and fairtrade agreements with developing countries … A radical socialist programme that included a different approach to state aid, state ownership, public procurement and managed trade would be deemed illegal under European laws” [July 21st 2017]
There is presently a certain amount of tension on the Labour front bench over the question of Britain’s continued membership both of the so-called single market and of that arm of the EU known as the customs union. “The only countries that can have full membership of the single market are EU member states,” writes Bert Schouwenburg, International officer of the GMB union. “Others, such as Efta members, can participate in it by belonging to the European Economic Area but have to accept the EU’s four freedoms in goods, services, capital and people. What this means is that a post-Brexit British government would be obliged to tender its public services and utilities to the benefit of European multinational capital. It would be unable to prevent the further privatisation of the public realm and powerless to stop unscrupulous employers undermining collective bargaining by the deployment of cheap labour from other parts of the EU. As for the customs union, outside its own borders the EU is extremely protectionist, and its neoliberal free trade policy is not something that should be emulated” [Letters to The Guardian July 20th 2017].
I defy anyone who is not a lawyer to hack their way through the legislation covering the customs union or to take a categorical position over Britain continuing to be a member. Is it beneficial or not to a trader in Britain if “any pecuniary charge, however small and whatever its designation and mode of application, which is imposed unilaterally on domestic or foreign goods by reason of the fact that they cross a frontier, and which is not a customs duty in the strict sense, constitutes a charge having equivalent effect within the meaning of Articles 9, 12, 13 and 16 of the Treaty, even if it is not imposed for the benefit of the state, is not discriminatory or protective in effect and if the product on which the charge is imposed is not in competition with any domestic product”? [European Court of Justice ruling July 1st 1969 on the Treaty of Rome of 1957, incorporated into Article 30 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union of 2007].
Go on, tell us how to interpret that.
While the fiscal implications of Europe argue for a life outside the Union, what about the geopolitical record of the institution? We are repeatedly told that the EEC/EU has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years. When I was a child, I was taught that Yugoslavia was in Europe. Throughout the 1970s, discussions took place over the possibility of Yugoslavia becoming the first Socialist member of the then EEC and agreements of trade cooperation were signed in 1970, 1973 and 1980. That country was ravaged by civil war throughout the 1990s, breaking up into six separate states. The UN and many nations including EU members became involved in the wars, and terms such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ were widely used. How apologists for the EU find themselves able to pretend that one of the cruellest and bitterest of modern conflicts is somehow relocated outside the continent and hence that the EU has held the peace is impossible to understand.
Meanwhile, the founding philosophy of the EEC was to be communautaire, which is to say that all the members would look out for each other. The two major challenges that the EU has faced so far this century have dramatically demonstrated how very far the Union has strayed from being at all communautaire. Those members whose economies have run into trouble, which is to say Greece, Italy and to a lesser extent Ireland, Spain and Portugal, have found membership of the EU has given them more pain and punishment than sympathy and succour.
And Europe’s handling of the migrant crisis has been one of the most shaming episodes since the Second World War, with an every-man-for-himself attitude, widely condemned as “fortress Europe” rather than a constructive and co-operative strategy dictating every nation’s improvisations. Further, no coherent policy has been forged concerning the wish of Turkey to gain membership, with the current stand-off dictated by the whims of the Turkish dictator. It is a sorry record.
Do remainers believe that the EU is a progressive, liberal, innovative force in the world? Are they deluded? People who cling to the EU idea appear to see it as some kind of romantic combination of médecins sans frontières, Oktoberfest, the Vienna Philharmonic, the smörgåsbord, the Venice-Simplon-Orient express and a remembered long weekend on Ibiza. But all these admirable enterprises will be there when Britain is out of the EU and, crucially, they will still be available to visitors from the UK.
Whether Britain can and will thrive outside the membership of the EU is impossible to know. After so many election results wrongly anticipated by the commentariat and the establishment and so many political developments emerging from left field, both in the sporting and in the political senses, no one can confidently pronounce on how situations will play out. We would not be where we are in summer 2017 if David Cameron had not sought to buy off his Europhobe backbenchers with the 2015 manifesto promise of a referendum, a promise cynically made because Cameron doubted the Tories would win in 2015, thereby calling his bluff. Having misread the electorate in 2015, he proceeded to do so again in 2016, whereupon his successor, Theresa May, misread it a third time in 2017.
Some remainers now claim that public opinion has turned against leaving the EU and that a further referendum on the terms negotiated by the government would see them rejected. Don’t bet the house on it. Wishful thinking plays a part in market research as well as in parliamentary calculation. There may be many Labour backbenchers who cling to the notion that somehow Britain will be restored to full membership of the EU and no questions asked. They are encouraged by knockabout pieces by Vince Cable who has an electoral interest in splitting Labour. But the electoral appeal of Corbyn’s innate respect for democracy has been underestimated before.
We are entitled to doubt that the gift of prophecy resides in Westminster. And developments can be willed as well as weathered. The best bet for a creative jolt to the negotiated departure from the EU would be for a further general election to propel a Labour team into the breach, allowing a fresh start to the process and a clear programme of government to define the intended outcome of that process. An authentic internationalist like Corbyn could be relied upon to secure a relationship with Europe that benefits not only the citizens of the continent but also those elsewhere who hope to see a progressive government in Westminster.
That surely is our best hope.