Most of us saw the EU as the most expedient route to a more prosperous, peaceful world. Now, there's a chance to fight for a socialist futureby Robert Maisey / October 2, 2017 / Leave a comment
Which way to vote on June 23rd, 2016 was never in any question. We, the cosmopolitan children of the Great British middle class, approached the campaign in the surety that our values were everyone’s values (everyone worth knowing, anyway) and that the tides of history flowed decisively in our direction.
The guiding principles of the EU seemed good: international co-operation, freedom for personal and professional aspirations across borders and an apparently continent-wide rejection of the racist, homophobic, small town values that I’ve despised from my earliest childhood. My unquestioning liberalism was a source of pride, and any challenge to the basis upon which I’d voted was unworthy, and almost certainly a gateway to unsavoury thinking.
If anything, I thought, this pointless exercise in internal Tory Party (mis)management would be a valuable moral call-to-arms for the apathetic stragglers in the ongoing millennial awakening which the Corbyn project had invoked.
Needless to say, the UK’s knife edge decision to pull out of the European Union was an unwelcome shock. But rather than sending me spiralling off into the many stages of grief that seem, still, to afflict the wider business, media and political class, it caused me to ask a strange and alien question: what if I was wrong?
A united movement
It was already understood that, despite being loudly championed and funded by the most anarchic elements of the ruling class, the grassroots of the Leave vote was the left behind, taken for granted and ignored: a working class treated with contempt since the deliberate and calculated demolition of Britain’s industrial economy. If being a socialist meant fighting for the political and democratic enfranchisement of the working class, then either Brexit was wrong and I was no socialist, or I needed to scrutinise my hitherto unscrutinised pro-EU convictions.
The campaign leading up to the referendum, and the savage political fallout afterwards, was marked by a bewildering array of ideas about what leaving the EU actually meant. As a net contributor, were we about to save billions and free ourselves up for lucrative global trade agreements or were we about to pull the plug on a dynamic system of economic interdependence that would absolutely, definitely crash our economy and send us back to the dark ages?
The kind of capitalism on which social democracy is built requires stability and careful management. The EU was created with the idea of maintaining this, utilising an increasingly integrated economic community. The aims of this project were, first and foremost, to make war in Europe unthinkable, but also to make tax and spend welfare systems sustainable and provide an economic bloc to counter the Soviet threat encroaching on its Eastern borders.
Little wonder, then, with the threat of communism fading into the distant past, that ultra-capitalists like Nigel Farage are so determined to smash the EU. Equally, since Britain’s membership of EU has done nothing to prevent our decline as an industrial power or disintegration of our welfare system, those that consented to the EU as a guarantor of social stability are also keen to see it punished.
What we talk about when we talk about the EU
The EU is, in theory, the last line of defence against the excesses of nationalism, unfettered capitalism and communism—in short, against substantial change of any kind. It allows for a certain amount of give in either direction, but resists fundamental restructuring, as the people of Greece found out to their misfortune.
It is true that it is perfectly possible to bypass state-aid rules preventing rail nationalisation (for example) by creating arms-length government owned operating companies that compete for contracts alongside the private sector; but it is equally true that the EU’s body of rules will become a massive obstacle to any leftist government seeking to rewrite the relationship between the state and the economy wholesale.
Even if you believe that the EU’s role in locking Europe into a stable, liberal middle ground is a good thing, its hardly been succeeding even on its own terms. Not only did it not prevent the crash of 2008, but failed to suppress the rise of the ugly nationalism that followed in its wake.
Corbyn’s half-hearted support of the remain campaign reflected this. His vision for a new economic settlement could have been attempted within the confines of the EU, but now that barrier to radical change has been lifted, he likely doesn’t see much reason to look back.
Despite their longstanding Euroscepticism, the architects of the Corbyn project have not, as so many predicted, found themselves at the centre of a collapsing coalition since June 2016. Their voter base has not been torn apart by the hardline pro-EU Liberal Democrats on one side, and a newly statist Conservative Party on the other. In fact, quite the opposite has happened.
Forward to Brexit
The truth is, only a tiny handful of ideologues ever really believed that the European Union had an unconditional right to exist as a political body. Most people within the pro-EU camp just wanted a kinder, more tolerant world in which to live peacefully and prosperously and they saw support for the EU as the most expedient way towards that shared goal.
Some of them, overtaken by abject fatalism, believe domestic politics no longer has the power to affect positive change at all, and therefore believe that campaigning to save Britain’s place in the EU is the only way to defend these values—a position implied by Blair and his centrist fellow travellers by their repeated insistence that a left-leaning Labour movement would be just as incapable of providing progressive government as the Conservatives.
Yet more people are coming to accept that the best hope for a better Britain is via a socialist Labour government, and that the best hope for that is in strengthening—not attacking—the alliance between the anti-EU working class who currently return the majority of the country’s Labour MPs, albeit with many on fragile majorities and the pro-EU middle classes who tend to live and vote in the country’s safest Labour seats.
Presented with an opportunity to take control, the British left must not succumb to the inertia, panic and lack of vision that has caused our sister parties across the continent to fall into terminal decline. We must be the dominant force as Britain crashes of the EU.
Freed from the decaying neoliberal superstructures of the European Union, the Labour Movement will continue its transformation into a major force for radical reform for Britain. We must grasp firmly the future, galvanising and inspiring progressive movements across the world. Forward to Brexit, forward to socialism!