Brexit Left Politics

THE BUTT NAKED EMPEROR

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Or the journey of a socialist YESSER to reluctant support for a no-deal Brexit.

“Fanatics have their dreams/Wherewith they weave/A paradise for a sect/The savage too/ From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep/Guesses at Heaven.”

John Keates

At the time of writing this nothing is certain but uncertainty.

The business class and the elites who still overwhelmingly run society and create its manufactured consensus almost always treat uncertainty as a bad thing: ‘Uncertainty’ for the markets, uncertainty about jobs and so on. And, of course, sometimes uncertainty IS a bad thing – certainly as individual human beings we are hardwired in evolutionary terms to prefer a certain amount of certainty over chaos and randomness…But uncertainty is not always a bad thing, sometimes it opens up new possibilities, sometimes it can cause a radical re-evaluation of old ideas. 

When, as a new media writer and analyst who voted Leave, I was asked to write a piece for ‘Ungagged’ putting a pro-left, pro-Scottish independence view for Leaving the EU, the troubles that now assail Theresa May over her draft deal with Barnier and the EU were still in the future. Now, we do not know whether she will survive as Prime Minister another week or month, whether her ‘deal’ has the remotest chance of getting through the UK Parliament (the arithmetic suggests not), or whether there may even be a third General Election in the space of four years.

Multiple class forces and political interests are now in full play here. As Frederick Engels once wrote to a friend

“…history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a wholeunconsciouslyand without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.

I’d ask readers to keep that early stab at chaos theory in politics in mind as I unfold the tale of my own EU journey

A short history of an EU dissenter who tacked with the wind…and changed his mind because of a coup

Way back before the EU referendum of 2016 and the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, the party I was once a member of – Solidarity – decided to stand under the banner of No2EU, a platform that stood exactly for what it said on the tin. Organised by the late Bob Crow, the RMT and other left forces, it was intended to bring a left wing perspective and voice to the anti-EU argument beginning to be dominated by the right wing, xenophobic, Atlanticist and immigrant scape-goating narratives of UKIP.

I was opposed to the whole idea. And my reasons were two fold. 

Firstly, many who had signed up to the idea of the SSP or Solidarity as a semi-mass coherent Scottish left in previous years either as members or as voters saw the EU – rightly or wrongly- as providing some kind of protection from the worst that either the Thatcherites or Blairites and now Cameron in Westminster had to offer. And although I understood and conceived of the EU as a fundamentally capitalist institution whose rules and regulations would make it more difficult for any future independent Scottish state to carry out really radical socialist policies, I did not see the advantage in clouding and complicating the political environment at that time.

Secondly, and with direct relevance, the possibility of a majority SNP Government in Scotland, and therefore the possibility of an independence referendum loomed large as a possibility…whereas there seemed NO possibility anytime soon of either a referendum on the EU or of leaving it. 

My political instincts at that time told me there was no point in concentrating on what could and would be a divisive issue when indy would need every vote it could get (we’ll return to that argument in a different form later),

I recall having a friendly discussion at a Radical Independence event on 2013 in Inverness with two socialist comrades of long standing who were promoting the anti-EU stance. I had not argument with their arguments as such, but now was not the time, I argued. What we need was to get independence first, then return to the flaws of the EU and the reasons we’d be better off out of it later. Besides, I argued…with the developments in Greece and the possible election of a Syriza Government, and the development of the left elsewhere, notably Podemos in Spain – perhaps the idea of the left reforming the EU was not one that should be dismissed.

In politics as in life timing is everything.

In January of 2015 Syriza was elected to Government in Greece on a radical left anti-austerity program. The Greek bailout crisis pre-existed that election, of course, and formed the background to it. The election of Syriza was seen as a slap in the face to neo-liberal norms across Europe and was more than the EU could stand and allow. In his book Adults in the Room Yanis Varoufakis – the lead negotiator for the Syriza Government at the time – gives a revealing account of how the Greek debt crisis was used to off-load German bank debt created by the world financial crisis of 2008 onto the Greek people, and the absolutely inhumane and undemocratic manoeuvrings of the ‘troika’ – the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF – in order to crush the democratic will of the Greek people and force mega austerity onto Greece. By July of 2015 the famous OXI referendum was conducted in Greece, where nearly 64% of people voted to reject the EU/Troika bailout proposals. Democracy mattered not a whit.

Within a few weeks, the EU and its allies had carried out a virtual coup in Greece, a coup made by ‘banks instead of tanks’ to use Paul Mason’s now celebrated phrase. Who was in Government, what their mandate was, and what the Greek people voted for was irrelevant. Massive austerity that saw waves of privatisations, the doubling of unemployment, the slashing of public sector jobs, pensions and social provision were forced through.

It was a hard lesson and one that I will never forget. For me, it now seemed clear that the EU was fundamentally unreformable from the left. It seems bizarre to me that Varoufakis and others, then and now, continue to call for reform of the EU from within. With right wing governments dominating amongst the EU’s 27 nations, the veto, the EU’s own constitution and rules (which limit the socialist measures open to sovereign governments) the euphemistic condition of membership that member countries MUST have a ‘functioning market economy’,and the right rising in Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain, it seems that left reform of the EU is a pipe dream…and that it would be better for European lefts to tear it all down and start again.

Form

To be fair, the EU had previous form in both ignoring the niceties of democracy and promoting a ruthless neo-liberal, pro-market agenda.  

There was the imposition of a ‘technocrat’ government in Italy in 2011 i.e. a Government no Italian actually voted for, to ensure’ stability’ – the euphemism for the EU favoured pro-market conditions and fiscal targets.

In Portugal the EU worked hand in glove in 2015 with Portugal’s right wing President to try and stop elected left anti EU representatives taking seats in the left government of Antonio Costa.

Ex-Warsaw Pact countries have been seen as grist to the mill of both the EU and NATO. Of course, as a socialist I stand for the right of all nations to self-determination, but the bringing of ex-Waraw pact counties into the orbit of the EU has been seen as provocative and an ‘encircling’ move by Russia, as well as providing the EU with some of its most extreme right wing member states, such as Poland and Hungary.

And let’s not forget the EU’s virtual silence on the treatment by Spain’s right wing Government of democratically elected Catalonia independence politicians – over 200 of whom are now in jail or facing charges for the crime of carrying out a democratic mandate to organise an independence referendum

The EU is posed by its most ardent supporters in the most one-sided and naïve of terms, its few environmental and social protections (which are there as window dressing and social democratic cover), its nice flag, its lovely Beethoven anthem, and it’s four ‘freedoms’. I only half joshed, when debating this with some Green and SNP supporters of a left bent, that they seem to mistakenly believe that the EU is some sort of beneficent proto Galactic Federation a la Star Trek.

I believe this comes from a long period of UK politics when the EU was seen as offering some basic protections compared to Blue Tory or Pink Tory Westminster Governments. I certainly believe that a lot of people who voted Remain, both in Scotland and elsewhere, did so because of this narrative, and because the mainstream media and the left’s own logical incompetence on the issue allowed the jingoistic and racist numpties of UKIP to hijack any sensible debate about the EU and make it all about immigration.

But the idea that the EU is necessary for these protections is illusory. A future independent Scotland or Corbyn Westminster Government independent of the EU could vote through far greater and more effective environmental, worker and human rights protections than the EU’s fig leaves. 

The idea that immigrants had a fantastic time and a wonderful life under the EU is illusory. A future independent Scotland or Corbyn Westminster Government can have as much immigration as they choose and ensure immigrants are welcomed and protected from racist stereo-typing and scapegoating. 

The unsound argument that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (‘I realise the EU is problematic but I couldn’t possibly vote the same way as UKIP’) is illusory. Whether we supported Farage or Johnson was NOT the question on the ballot paper, Leaving the EU or Remaining a member was. And the EU is not, and never has been a friend of socialism or the working class.

The EU is often conceptualised by its left defenders as regulating capitalism on behalf of its sovereign states, but this is to turn on its head the real nature of the EU’s function, which is to regulate sovereign states on behalf of capitalism. Once the window dressing is swept away and that fundamental switch of perspective takes place support for the EU begins to disappear like ‘snow aff a dyke’, as we say in Scotland.

AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S A BAD DEAL OR NO DEAL, OR A VICTORY FOR THE STATUS QUO CENTRE

I absolutely do not believe that we shouldn’t sell goods or services to the EU, or the US or any other ‘capitalist club’, or trade with them freely. Whilst we live in a capitalist system – and even in any socialist system in the future I might imagine- trade of goods and services, whether it be between nations, communities or individuals – is a good thing. 

Tariff free trade is VASTLY to be preferred to isolationism and trade wars – My objection to theEU is not that it promotes tariff free trade within its membership, but the democratic price it asks for being in that club. That price is to sign over some sovereign rights, accept statutes and regulations that place limits on our right to change things, and to live within what the EU euphemistically calls ‘a functioning market economy’. 

Might some people lose their jobs through Brexit? Perhaps. There will be some economic dislocation, I’ve always admitted that – but I do not think it will be anywhere near the ‘apocabrexit’ routinely raised as a bogeyman by some in the indy movement and much of the liberal press. Unionists will argue that jobs will be lost and the economy affected if Scotland becomes independent. I think that’s scaremongering too, but probably no big constitutional change can happen without a degree of economic dislocation to begin with. 

Do we give up the chance to be freer because a dozen professors, six newspapers and innumerable politicians tell us there will be economic consequences? MY personal preference is for an indy Scotland to be OUT of the EU…but I do fully appreciate that I am in the minority in the indy movement at the moment on that question. I’m happy to swim ‘against the stream’ but I’m also a democrat. I’ve always argued that independence is about choice and that when we get our independence we should have our own referendum on whether our indy Scotland should rejoin the EU, or EFTA, or not. When that day comes I’ll argue my piece, but if I’m outvoted I will accept the result – AND IMMEDIATELY CAL UPON THOSE WHO SAY REFORM THE EU FROM WITHIN TO BEGIN SHOWING THE COLOUR OF THEIR POLITICAL MONEY. 

Whether we agree on Leave or Remain, I hope we can at least agree that giving the Scottish people those kind of real choices is what independence is all about, and that’s why we fight for it.

Nevertheless, for all of the reasons outlined above, I would have preferred a ‘deal’ Brexit, rather than a no deal Brexit, and thought that a deal was always possible – even likely – since despite all of the posturing on either side, capitalists ultimately act in their own interests, and it is in the material interest of both European capitalism and UK capitalism to have relatively easy access to each others markets.

Unfortunately. the deal being promoted by Theresa May satisfies virtually no one – certainly not the Remainers who’ve fought to scupper the Leave vote from day one and want only the softest of Brexits – if Brexit at all. But neither can it satisfy those on the left who voted Leave for left wing, socialist reasons.

AS THE ‘DEAL’ INCLUDES SIGNING UP TO RESTRICTIVE EU RULES ON COMPETITION AND STATE AID HOW CAN ANY SOCIALIST SIGN UP TO IT?

The tub thumping huff, puff and guff from both centrist pro-EU Blairites and ultra right Brexiteers at May’s draft agreement on EU exit is as predictable as it is pantomime as it is pathetic. However, for those of us on the pro-independence left, it is now emerging that the May/EU draft presents insuperable problems. MY platform ‘The Point’ originally came out for ‘deal’ rather than ‘no deal’ on the basis of early information we had that it did not involve signing up to the single market or the customs union. Within a handful of ours we were forced to issue a Volte face, which I reproduce here extensively.

Earlier today we were mislead by some reports that suggested the deal on offer fulfilled the democratic requirements of the original vote by leaving the single market and customs union, and therefore the restrictive right wing neo-liberal rules that go with it. To paraphrase Rick in ‘Casablanca’, we were misinformed. Please ignore our previous post of today on this issue. THIS is The Point’s position on the ‘deal’ that is emerging.

We’re socialists and we are independence supporters. We have no faith In Theresa May or her Tory Government. However, neither have we any illusions that the EU is some kind of progressive institution. We want to see an independent Scotland, and a Corbyn Government in Westminster…but we also accept the fact is this: the UK voted to Leave the EU and any UK Government that expects to survive is bound to carry that mandate out.

The same will apply to any Scottish Government elected during or after a pro-independence vote in a second independence referendum.

Any deal with the EU that sought to maintain frictionless trade was always going to be a compromise. However, leaked details now indicate that the deal May proposes includes signing up to existing and restrictive EU rules on competition and state aid that make it harder to bring industries into public ownership efficiently and cheaply, that continues to force competitive tendering for vital public and lifeline services, and that makes it much harder for any future progressive state to play its necessary role in driving and developing new technologies for the common weal and not elite profits. No socialist or independenista worth their salt could possibly sign up to that – no matter how desperate they are to maintain friction free trade and avoid a no deal Brexit.

It now looks as if a no-deal Brexit is the only realistic option for all those seeking democratic freedom from the EU, or, possibly alternatively, a vote of no confidence in May and a General Election that could see a progressive Corbyn Government elected to restart the negotiation process from a principled basis. The problem with that, of course, are the pro-EU Blairites in Corbyn’s own party who are more than happy to sign up to these kind of restrictive rules and who want to reverse the EU referendum result.

It’s true that Scotland voted for the UK to stay in the EU in 2016 – but the Scots majority were outvoted elsewhere in the polity to which the referendum question referred. While drawing attention to many of the flaws in the EU we have never disputed that Scotland faces ongoing questions of a democratic deficit that can only be resolved through a second indy vote. If it turns out that Scotland IS treated differently from Northern Ireland in the draft deal – and that also very much looks like the case – that will strengthen the democratic deficit and two tier UK argument for full Scottish sovereignty….

This is a time for cool heads and reasoned thinking about the longer term, not political posturing or gesture politics, or a premature rush to the barricades. However, there are principled, truly ‘red’ lines that should not be crossed.

Lefts and pro-independence Leavers did not back Leave to end up with a bad Tory deal that leaves the worst things about the EU capitalist club in place.

Jeremy Corbyn should now make it clear that any Brexit deal negotiated by Labour – if elected to Government – will NOT sign up to the neo-liberal restrictions being promoted in the May/Barnier stitch up.”

CONCLUSION

Now I can only speak for myself – but although I am an unapologetic YES Left Leaver, I have always recognised that the 2016 vote showed up a fundamental problem with the British State, and the democratic deficit that exists – and will always exist – for we Scots…until we get independence. I would very much like to be a citizen of an independent Scotland that is also independent from the EU. But – while I will always make my arguments – I would far RATHER be a citizen of an independent Scotland that votes to be in the EU, against my advice, than be less than a citizen in a UK outside of the EU, where my democratic voice, like all my fellow Scots citizens, is all but drowned out. But I hope that will not be the case and that both a future indy Scotland and a future Corbyn Government in Westminster will have far more freedom of political movement than what the EU, its single market or its customs union allows

For the wider left beyond Scotland I would make this point. The EU is a creature and construct of what we might now reasonably call the Blairite centre, the professional political classes and late 20th century European capitalism. The Russian Revolutionary and anti-Stalinist dissident Leon Trotsky once ‘It’s not just a question of what is done, but who does it and why’. Who wouldn’t agree that people should have ‘freedom of movement’ – but in the context of the EU freedom of movement has meant freedom of the capitalist classes in western and northern Europe to exploit the natural movement of workers from southern and east central Europe to employ more pliable and cheaper workers than they can lay their hands on locally. It is no coincidence that it bosses from the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have led Remainer calls as much as centre politicians have. 

It should be an easy ask for the left to oppose such obvious capitalist chicanery, whilestanding up for the rights of immigrants and emigrants to seek a better life elsewhere, opposing jingoism and racism and immigrant scapegoating, while exposing how the EU uses ‘freedom of movement’ to exploit labour as a commodity. But all too often middle class and ultra elements within out own movement have lazily labelled the concerns of working class people as racism…and the sole result has been to drive a section of the working class that could otherwise be won to socialism into the arms of right wing ‘populists’ and reactionaries – not just here in the UK but across Europe and the world.

Internationalism should forever be our byword – but, like corporate giants appropriating punk or protest songs to sell their products through advertising – we should beware the alien class forces that will seek to exploit our anti-racism and internationalism for their own class purposes.

There’s more than one naughty little boy standing up and pointing. It’s time to realise the bloated and arrogant EU Emperor HAS no socialist clothes. 

Steve Arnott  21/11/18

Steve Arnott is a Scottish political activist and social media writer on the pro-independence left but belonging to no political party at present. He is currently the Editorial Co-ordinator of The Point online platform, which describes itself as ‘pro-left, pro-independence and pro-science.’

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