The referendum over Britain’s membership of the EU has from inception involved two wings of the Tory Party engaged in an internecine war, pitching the free marketeers of Cameron, Osborne and company against the empire loyalists of Johnson, Gove, and IDS et al. In the words of the song we’re talking “clowns to the left and jokers to the right.”e
But what the clowns led by Cameron and Osborne have in their favour vis-a-vis the EU that the jokers do not is that the case for Remain approximates to something that resembles the real world – i.e. the risk to investment, jobs and trade should Brexit come to pass.
Learning lessons of the Falklands War
Strip away the embroidery and Brexit is a far right project driven by the most reactionary and regressive political current in British political life today, fuelled by anti-immigration and xenophobia in service to a mythological British identity that harks back to the 19th century when Britannia ruled the waves, Johnny Foreigner knew his place, and the Union Jack flew wherever it damn well pleased. The last time this mythological identity, underpinned by an eruption of right wing consciousness, gained prominence was in the aftermath of the Falklands War in 1982.
In the lead up the conflict over the Falklands with Argentina, Thatcher was down in the polls. The free market structural adjustment of the economy her government unleashed upon entering Downing Street in 1980 had by the start of 1982 led the country into recession with a concomitant spike in unemployment and interest rates as aggregate demand was sucked out of the economy in obeisance to the obsession with controlling inflation.
Post Falklands War and the Iron Lady was the woman of the hour as jingoism swept the land and the false consciousness of patriotism – which as Oscar Wilde reminds us the virtue of the vicious – took its course.
Thatcher rode the wave of her new-found popularity in order to continue her assault on the collectivist ideas that underpinned the welfare state, public services and the trade union movement, leading directly to her epic confrontation with the miners, British worked infamously labelled ‘the enemy within’.
False arguments of the pro-Brexit left
Learning from this history is a non negotiable condition of ensuring we do not repeat it, yet when it comes to Brexit the collection of rump left wing voices supporting it have not only failed to they have surrendered to right wing nostrums on controlling our own borders, sovereignty, democracy and the claim that the EU is an ‘imperialist project’.
Let us deal with those arguments seriatim:
- Controlling our own borders: Anyone who has ever experienced the interminable wait to pass through immigration control at Heathrow’s Terminal Five will confirm that the assertion being made that UK is not in control of its own borders is false.
When it comes to the free movement of people, which the UK has signed up to as part of its membership of the single market, just over two million British citizens are currently beneficiaries of this right, which has done more to foment cultural ties across Europe than any number of trade delegations or state visits ever have. Moreover, the ability to travel freely across Europe for tourists: is this a bad thing? Is this something to be scrapped?
Those on the left who have subscribed to this mantra are engaging in a reactionary response to what is a symptom of the free movement of capital. In the beggar-thy-neighbour global economy we currently have, otherwise known as neoliberalism, workers are forced into a race to the bottom as global corporations and investors force governments to compete for jobs and investment. This benefits richer economies, such as the UK’s, at the expense of their poorer counterparts, such as those of Eastern and Southern Europe, which then compels workers to uproot and travel to richer countries in the pursuit of better wages and the means of survival for themselves and their families. In doing so they are merely upholding their natural and moral right.
The stats on immigration are irrefutable. They reveal that EU migrant workers are a net contributor to the economy. Yes, there is an issue with the additional pressure on services, schools, and housing, etc. But this is because under the rubric of austerity the Tories have taken a scalpel to public spending. It is this policy, formulated and administered by the Tories not the EU, that is the enemy of working people in Britain. It is not EU migrant workers. In focusing on immigration we deflect responsibility for austerity from the Tories, where it belongs, onto people whose only crime is that they arrive here seeking improved wages and conditions, just as two million British citizens have done across the EU in return.
- Sovereignty: A myth that needs to be confronted and disabused is that national sovereignty exists under a global economic system that transcends borders. Political sovereignty without economic sovereignty is no sovereignty at all. Is the EU a threat to sovereignty? Nonsense. A mere 13 percent of current UK legislation is derived from the EU and it is by far the most progressive legislation we have on everything from workers’ rights, consumer rights, maternity leave, and paid holidays, all of which will be at the mercy of a rejuvenated right wing of the Tory Party in the event of Brexit.
- Democracy: It is laughable to listen to and read the pro-Brexit left arguing that the EU is anti-democratic while living in a country with an unelected head of state, the Monarchy, and an unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. Taken together both institutions stand as relics of Britain’s feudal past and are long past the day when they should have been relegated to the dustbin of history. In 2016 it is those institutions that constitute an impediment to democracy in Britain not the EU.
- The EU is an imperialist project: Here a quick history lesson is obviously required to remind people that Britain’s history of colonialism and imperialism predates its membership of the EU by around 400 years. Furthermore, in 2003 Tony Blair did not require the sanction of the EU to attach Britain to Washington’s coattails and embark on the most disastrous and devastating war since the Vietnam War, the consequences of which the Iraqi people, people living in the wider region, and people here at home and elsewhere throughout the EU, victims of the terrorism and extremism that has proliferated as a result, continue to suffer.
The inference that the British state independent of the EU would automatically shed its imperialist character just cannot be taken seriously. On the contrary, as Noam Chomskyclaimed recently, a Tory government post-Brexit would likely place even more emphasis on the Atlantic Alliance with Washington than it does now, along with more importance on its role as a member of NATO, in order to maintain Britain’s seat at the imperialist table.
While there may well be solid progressive reasons for opposing the EU, this Brexit campaign is taking place and exists in a right wing political context and its beneficiaries will be those forces rather than the left. If and when Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister and his attempt to run a deficit for the purposes of capital investment in the country’s infrastructure, housing, and industry is blocked by the EU, along with his intention of returning the railways to public ownership where they belong, that is the time for the left to support Brexit – for then it will be taking place in a progressive context, underpinned by a progressive political consciousness in the country at large.
Ultimately, at a time when the Conservative Party and the right is ripping itself to shreds in a civil war over the EU, it behooves the left to unite behind the most progressive leader that Labour has had in its entire history in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn, along with the bulk of the trade union movement and the TUC.
The rump of left organisations and voices who are supporting a Brexit campaign driven by the right, part of a right wing response to the economic crisis and austerity, merely confirm the wisdom of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s assertion that, ‘The worse illiterate is the political illiterate.”
This article was written by John Wight for American Herald Tribune on June 16, 2016. John’s work appears regularly at RT, Counterpunch, the Morning Star, and he is a regular commentator on BBC Radio Scotland.