A Curse On Both Your Brexits

by Jules Joanne Gleeson / April 4, 2019

Photo :scot2342

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Both the Conservative and Labour Party have found themselves divided over Brexit, but neither calls for a People's Vote or 'Lexit' are an adequate response to an insurgent nationalism 2854 words / 12 min read

While Brexit has become a chaotic and altogether unpredictable process, the individual actors involved in this mayhem can be understood much more easily in terms of their political affiliations, and associated worldview. Perhaps jarring, perhaps predictably, few voices in parliamentary politics are addressing the immediate mess of Brexit in relation to a broader crisis of insurgent nationalism. This piece considers their positions in those terms.

Headbangers and Wets

The Conservative Party are well known for their schism over Europe. One wing of the party (well represented among its parliamentarians, much loathed among its grassroots) remains sceptical of the departure from the European Union. Their aim is resolving a mess they were landed with by former party leader David Cameron’s historic miscalculation. These ‘decent Tories’ include many venerable figures such as Michael Heseltine, long used to serving as the party establishment’s moderate voice. This wing holds true to the Conservative Party’s role of representing the interests of larger businesses, who have voiced alarm at the potential ramifications of too rough an exit.

The second ‘Brexit means Brexit’ wing instead sees Brexit as the culmination of a defining row within the party: a chance to finally achieve the ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and freedom from red tape that they had argued for in cosy Westminster drawing rooms for decades. For the hardliners within this tendency, Brexit at once promises a realignment of Britain’s formal place in the world, and a vindication of their worldview over their more cosmopolitan counterparts within the Conservative Party. This faction is at once monomaniacal in its focus on Britain’s departure from the EU, and increasingly inchoate in its vision of what that process should look like, now authorised. Derided by their nemesis Kenneth Clarke as ‘headbangers’, this faction is guided by a jumble of historical references they overload with unlikely nationalistic significance.

This division is clear enough, if apparently intractable. Having announced her pending resignation, Theresa May will surely not be the last Conservative leader to be felled by this defining feud.

Rematch, or Lexit?

By contrast voices within Labour have a hazier conception of how best to respond to historic results of the 2016 poll. While the Corbyn-led Labour Party’s unexpected success in the 2017 elections prevented this apparent mandate for nativism becoming a full rout for the left, how to resolve the mandate given nationally to Brexit (although opposed by 65% of Labour voters) seems less apparent. The clearer edges this uncertainty hums between are advocates of a re-run, and those who celebrate the prospect of separation from what they perceive as an anti-socialist guarantor of centrism.

Primarily, ‘People’s Vote’ proponents call for a repeat of the previous election to validate whatever deal parliament and the EU eventually reach. Supporters of a People’s Vote are most prominently key Blairites, including Alasdair Campbell. However the campaign has attracted widespread support among Labour’s younger activists, including many on the party’s left.

The primary failing in People’s Vote arguments is that it seems entirely unclear why those who make them expect a second national referendum to unfold all that differently to the first. While resolving the question of democratic support for Brexit (in the form of seeking a ‘second opinion’ from an electorate after over two years of chaos), this stance seems all too forgetful of the forces unleashed by the previous nation-wide polling. The 2016 election saw migrants depicted by the official Leave campaign as both a menacing wave, and muddy footprints (implausibly entering the country via Turkey, not an EU member state for the foreseeable future). The campaign culminated in the murder of a Labour MP, Jo Cox by a long-time member of the far-right.

There seems little reason to imagine less virulence would accompany a re-run, and indeed every indication that a second vote would be still more ferocious, and costly to Britain’s already vulnerable communities. The following rhetoric by Steve Baker, former chair of the parliamentary pro-Brexit European Research Group, responded to an address by his party leader Theresa May:

What is our liberty for if not to govern ourselves? Like all of you I have wrestled with my conscience about what to do. I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river.

These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand. We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of no Brexit or this deal.

Clearly, any second referendum would be a contest between members of the right, with each straining their voices hoarse not to be outdone.

While a successful defeat of Brexit by popular vote would achieve the aim of providing legitimacy to a prolonged extension of the status quo of the UK’s EU membership, at best this would come at the cost of granting voices such as Steve Baker with a platform they would be well supported in both financially (despite the dent the prospect of Brexit put in Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin’s personal fortune), and vocally by the bulk of the popular press. In much the same way that the Catholic Church has deployed attempted constitutional reforms around marriage in countries such as Croatia as an opportunity to propagate homophobia publically throughout the campaign, the cost of a second People’s Vote would be another field day for British nativists.

To argue for embarking on a second vote could be acceptable if twinned with a frank assessment of the odds of a repeated Brexit victory. Regretfully, People’s Vote campaigners tend to be either silent, or outright patronising, when pressed on why it was so much of the electorate decided against the EU in the first place.

The EU and The Troubled Road To ‘British Socialism’

The second position, often known as ‘Lexit’ (Left-wing Brexit) proposes that exit from the EU will be beneficial to the local prospects of achieving socialism. This view extends beyond Labour, with internationalists who endorse this view arguing that the EU is a supra-nationalist capitalist body, that should be opposed as with any other part of the capitalist system. Those within the Labour Party endorsing this stance generally consider the European Union to be an institutional inhibitor of social democratic policies on the part of its member states. As such they consider the road to ‘British socialism’ best pursued outside any such authority capable of overruling policies aimed towards improving local living standards.

Lexit within the Labour Party is something of a curious fringe twinned with a still more curious fringe, known loosely as the ‘Labour Old Right’. Both Old Left and Old Right are by turns antagonistic and sympathetic wings of the Labour Party each prone to nostalgia, opposition to a loosely defined ‘neo-liberalism’, and uncritical admiration for the state (police force most certainly included).

This potential unity between the ‘Old’ wings of the party was previously teased out by the ‘Blue Labour’ group launched by academic Maurice Glasman. This effort to weld left opposition to neo-liberalism and social conservatism’s pride in communities had long seemed a dead letter. And more recently difficult to even recall, given the unremitting hostility of the Old Labour Right towards Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Since the 2017 general election results showed that Corbyn’s electability had been underestimated however, there had seemed to be unprecedented ground for mutually beneficial collaboration within the fringes of the Labour Party. (This seems to have drawn to a close with the recent parliamentary support of Corbyn for a second referendum).

At their best, Lexit arguments point towards the repressive aspects of the EU: the ‘fortress’ aspect of its migration policies (which regularly cause refugees to drown in the Mediterranean), the harsh treatment of troubled economies such as Greece, and the commitment to austerity which they see the European Union’s bureaucracy as locking any member nation into. In particular, Lexit-minded socialists have drawn attention to the European Central Bank (ECB) as a means of suppressing living standards and eroding workplace protections for Europe’s labourers. The ECB would serve to prohibit the monetary policies any ‘democratic socialist’ European state would at least in part rely. These are not baseless concerns. There is certainly a basis for describing the EU as a neoliberal institution through and through, with scholarly and historical understanding of that tendency as one which sought from the outset to constrain national sovereignty.

Especially of concern for contemporary socialists, the ECB has been well known for its orthodox economic attitude towards the perils of inflation. It is striking that in the United States, the main point of unity developing among the revived democratic socialist movement are proposals such as the ‘Green New Deal’ put forward by Queens congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Informed by Modern Monetary Theory, proponents of the Green New Deal push ambitious plans including a ‘job guarantee’ workforce that would be directed towards resolving ecological crises actively. It’s difficult to imagine any such bold visions of state reform, on the basis of sizable deficits, being permitted by the ECB.

These are features of the EU’s operations which are at once undeniable, and rarely (if ever) addressed by People’s Voters. Rarely does a call for continued British membership come accompanied with an actionable strategy for how the EU could be meaningfully reformed, or even horrors such as the regular drownings in the Mediterranean halted. While the leftmost People’s Vote group is named ‘Another Europe Is Possible’, an admission of existing failings, this falls rather short of explaining how the EU could be radically transformed.

Although a critical stance, or even open hostility, towards the European Union is not unwarranted, Lexit arguments tend to suffer from a certain failure of context. While it’s possible to conceive of a set of circumstances whereby (most likely in the far-flung future) a democratic socialist Britain finds itself stymied by formal EU membership, for the time being there is clearly no such constraint taking place. With footage leaked this week of British Army infantrymen using photographs of Jeremy Corbyn’s face for target practice, it seems likely the Labour Party would have to face down strenuous efforts to crush any radical programme rather closer to home.

It’s difficult not to see Lexit as failing to grasp the existing contours of national debate. The forces urging Britain out of Europe are primarily not the left. Supporters of Brexit are generally: solidly of the right (hoping to keep out migrants, and abolish such niceties as formally protected human rights), or inspired by an ‘anti-political’ hostility towards the establishment in general. While the latter population of disenchanted masses could potentially be recruited to socialist politics, there is little evidence that Lexit campaigners have been achieving this. It’s also unclear how any tactical alliance between the party’s socialists and pro-capitalist social conservatives could ultimately bring about the agenda of Corbyn and McDonnell (whose platform the Old Right endorse scarcely any of, save hiring more police).

Brexit And The 21st Century’s Crisis of Nationalism

This overview of the two clearest Labour positions shows they have respective failings, but there is also a shared lack of comprehension between them, that leads me to find either of these positions as unsatisfying:

Neither the People’s Vote advocates nor the Lexiteers are able to grasp the crisis of nationhood which propels Brexit as a global spectacular. And neither of them appreciate that the worst and best facets of the EU are wholly conjoined. The European Union has succeeded through taking the dull burden of bureaucracy from the shoulders of each of its constituent nations, at the expense of the regions of the world which were (historically and today) the victims of imperialism. Denying either aspect of this will ensure a lopsided perspective, which misses out on either why EU membership appeals to so many statesmen, or why it behaves in ways that make it intolerable for any internationalist.

The insecurities of the Tory right are not altogether baseless. Through its EU membership, Britain is indeed a member of a powerful set of committees, in which it is consistently underrepresented (if only because finding British bureaucrats with the requisite language skills has proven increasingly difficult), and over which parliament has limited control. Where the Brexiteers fall short is their failure to recognise that this is not to the loss of Britain, but its manifest advantage over the world’s poorer nations.

The problem for each side within the Labour Party is that the European Union achieves the worst domination it does over both its members (such as Greece, where living standards have declined severely after the EU-directed imposition of austerity), through much the same means it ensures its most palpable successes: through establishing and authorising governing committees that oversee standards of production, allocation of centralised resources, and norms for trade relations with external local economies.

While Brexiteers are keen to stress this as a sinister development, imposing an alien will onto the curvature of ordinary British bananas, the power of the European Union stems from the work that it does largely being altogether boring. Primarily its focus concerns anodyne matters such as agreeing on uniform standards, and pursuing ‘development’. Even where it urges weaker economies towards ‘discipline’, in other words away from the national spending required to lift their own citizens out of poverty, this is done mostly through the numbing recitation of ordoliberal orthodoxies.

In other words, the European Union ensures that the bridge under which either a rich or poor man might sleep remains standing.

Put simply, the ‘red tape’ bemoaned by the Tory right is a material means of ensuring reliability and internal cohesion, for a set of economies that are largely already the beneficiaries of a lopsided global economic order. The fixity and consistency of top-down imposed regulations bemoaned by Brexit enthusiasts are a powerful force in ensuring higher living standards, ease of trade, and predictable formal operations for all participant nations. They do work which local bodies would otherwise have to, and standardise over-arching norms in ways that they could never. That this comes at the expense of excluded nations, and indeed of those constituent countries which threaten to capsize this order, is not in question.

What has not yet been established is how the United Kingdom could meaningfully prise free from this order, in a fashion which was any less destructive towards the prospect of a socialist British state than continued membership. The damage done to the British Civil Service by the swingeing cuts of previous Conservative administrations make it hard to imagine the many fields of oversight currently managed by the supra-national EU committees (from medication, to food standards to…) being taken on more locally. As Mark Fisher often noted, efforts to eradicate bureaucracy are often the motor of its generation. In this case, extrication from the EU would surely require its replacement with a British equivalent to the United States’ Food and Drug Association, and many other such bodies besides. This seems quite a bleak point of departure for any move toward a ‘British socialism’: an empowered state managerial elite at home is surely as much of a problem as one abroad, and would prove equally assertive.

Nor is there any more realistic prospect of Britain exerting much leverage to reform the operations of the EU, given its current prolonged humiliation that will surely not be forgotten within living memory. Even if Article 50 is revoked, the EU will not cease its basic operations for its prodigal son. In or out, Britain will face a newfound marginalisation.

Out of Europe, or Beyond England?

While certainly an eye-catching spectacle, Brexit is in truth just a homegrown manifestation of a global tendency toward the rise of an insurgent nationalism. That nationalism is on the rise worldwide is exactly a responsive development to the integrity of the self-governing nation state being called more and more into question (from Brussels to Syria). Even on a basic strategic level, the Labour left has not confronted the realities of this crisis. In particular, it remains reflexively hostile towards other left-wing parties who’ve exploited the on-going breakdown of the ‘United Kingdom’. While the Conservative Party was perfectly happy to join with the far-right Democratic Unionist Party to keep themselves in government, the Labour Party remains far more squeamish. This is despite Brexit being an obviously aggravating factor promoting further pushes to independence from the Union by both Scotland and the north of Ireland (which both seem set to suffer heavily from the post-Brexit order). Rare indeed are the voices within the Labour Party such as Jeremy Gilbert, who called for a new approach from the Labour Party towards inclusivity, in his vision the leadership would:

Not lift another finger to prevent the Blairites from leaving the party. It would convene a national conference, inviting Greens, social democrats, communists, socialists, liberals, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, trade unionists, NGOs and others to discuss the political and social crisis facing the country.

In terms of the Labour left, this kind of a proposal might seem downright eccentric. Even in the face of a crisis like Brexit, the question of the nation state seems one that any given faction of the Labour Party is overridingly prone to avoiding confronting.