The in-out kabuki dance
James Marshall of Labour Party Marxists says a passive boycott is not as good as an active boycott. But it is far better than participating in Stronger in Europe
Even before it officially begins, a floodtide of hyperbole has been generated by the stay-leave Euro referendum campaign.
HM government’s £9 million pamphlet ominously warns that an ‘out’ vote will “create years of uncertainty”.1 Building upon the doomsday scenario, the cross-party Britain Stronger in Europe implies that three million jobs could be lost.2 For its part, Another Europe is Possible, a typical soft-left lash-up, is convinced that “walking away from the EU would boost rightwing movements and parties like Ukip and hurt ordinary people in Britain”.3 Similarly, Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, maintains that a Brexit will put the country’s vital financial sector at “risk”.4 As for Maurice Obstfeld, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist, his widely reported claim is that a leave vote will do “severe regional and global damage by disrupting established trading relationships.”5
For its part, Vote Leave trades on the politics of a backward-looking hope. It wants Britain to “regain control over things like trade, tax, economic regulation, energy and food bills, migration, crime and civil liberties”.6 Same with the other ‘leave’ campaigns. Recommending the UK Independence Party’s Grassroots Go campaign, Nigel Farage says that voters have a “once-in-a-lifetime chance to break free from the European Union”.7 In exactly the same spirit Get Britain Out seeks to “bring back UK democracy”.8 Not to be left out the Morning Star patriotically rejects the “EU superstate project” and likewise seeks the restoration of Britain’s “democracy”.9
Hence both sides claim that some existential choice is about to be made. Yet, frankly, unlike crucial questions such as Trident renewal, climate change, Syrian refugees and Labour Party rule changes, the whole referendum debate lacks any real substance.
It is not just the likes of me who think it is all smoke and mirrors. Writing an opinion piece in the Financial Times, Andrew Moravcsik, professor of politics at Princeton, convincingly argues that, regardless of the result on June 23, “under no circumstances will Britain leave Europe”.10
The learned professor equates the whole referendum exercise with a “long kabuki drama”. Kabuki - the classical Japanese dance-drama known for its illusions, masks and striking make-up - nowadays serves as synonym used by American journalists for elaborate, but essentially empty posturing. Despite the appearance of fundamental conflict or an uncertain outcome, with kabuki politics the end result is, in fact, already known. Eg, surely, no intelligent US citizen can really believe that a president Donald Trump would actually build his 2,000-mile border wall, let alone succeed in getting the Mexican government to cover the estimated $8 billion price tag.11
With Vote Leave, kabuki politics has surely been taken to a new level of cynicism. Formally headed by Labour’s useful idiot, Gisela Stuart, and incorporating mavericks such as David Owen, Frank Field and Douglass Carswell, Vote Leave crucially unites Tory heavyweights, such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. Yet, needless to say, their ringing declarations calling for British independence, an end to mass European migration and freedom from EU bureaucracy have no chance whatsoever of ever being implemented.
Britain’s second Europe referendum, in point of fact, closely maps the first. Harold Wilson’s June 1975 referendum was staged not because he was unhappy with the European Economic Community. No, it was a “ploy” dictated largely by “domestic politics”.12 Ted Heath oversaw Britain’s EEC entry in 1973, having won a clear parliamentary majority. Nevertheless, Labour could gain additional general election votes by promising a “fundamental renegotiation” of Britain’s terms of membership … to be followed by a popular referendum.
Wilson also wanted to show Labour’s Europhobes - ie, Tony Benn, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot - who was boss (he did so thanks to the Mirror, the BBC and big business finance). On June 5 1975, 67% voted ‘yes’ and a mere 33% voted ‘no’ to Britain’s continued membership. Despite that overwhelming mandate, given the abundant promises that joining the EEC would bring substantial material benefits, it is hardly surprising that Europe became a “scapegoat for economic malaise”: the 1974-79 Labour government could do nothing to reverse Britain’s relative economic decline.13
The illusory nature of Britain’s second Euro referendum is no less obvious. The European Union Referendum Act (2015) had nothing to do with David Cameron having some grand plan for a British geopolitical reorientation. By calculation, if not conviction, Cameron is a soft Europhile. And, despite tough talk of negotiating “fundamental, far-reaching change” and gaining a “special status” for Britain, just like Harold Wilson, he came back from Brussels with precious little. Apart from two minor adjustments - a reduction in non-resident child benefits, which Germany too favoured, and a temporary cut in tax credits - what Cameron secured was purely symbolic (ie, the agreement that Britain did not necessarily favour “ever closer union”).
Transparently Cameron never had any intention of Britain leaving the EU. His commitment to holding a referendum was dictated solely by domestic considerations - above all, him remaining as prime minister. By holding out the promise of a referendum, Cameron - together with his close advisors - figured he could harness popular dissatisfaction with the EU - not least as generated by the rightwing press. Moreover, in terms of party politics, Ed Miliband could be wrong-footed, Tory Europhobes conciliated and Ukip checked.
However, Cameron’s expectation was that he would never have to deliver. Most pundits predicted a continuation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition after the 2015 general election. With Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander still sitting around the cabinet table, there would be no referendum. They would have blocked such a proposal with threats of resignation. Yet, as we all know, despite the opinion polls, the Tories secured a narrow House of Commons majority. So Cameron was lumbered with his referendum.
At this moment in time, the two camps are running neck and neck: a recent Telegraph poll of polls has 51% for ‘stay’ and 49% for ‘leave’.14 Despite that, probably, the status quo will ultimately triumph. Backing from big business, international institutions, celebrity endorsements ... and fear of the unknown will swing popular opinion. Nevertheless, establishment critics are undoubtedly right: Cameron is gambling on an often fickle electorate. Referendums can go horribly awry for those who stage them, especially when issues such as austerity, tax avoidance, mass migration and international terrorism are included in the mix.
Yet, as Andrew Moravcsik stresses, the danger of losing would be a genuine worry for the ruling class “if the referendum really mattered”. But it is highly “unlikely” that there will be a Brexit, even if a majority votes to leave on June 23. Sure, David Cameron would step down - but not to be replaced by Nigel Farage. There will still be a Tory government. It could be headed by Boris Johnson, Teresa May, George Osborne or some less likely contender. The chances are, therefore, that a reshuffled cabinet would do just what other EU members - Denmark, France, Ireland and Holland - have done after a referendum has gone the wrong way. It would negotiate “a new agreement, nearly identical to the old one, disguise it in opaque language and ratify it”.15 Amid the post-referendum shock and awe, the people would be scared, fooled or bribed into acquiescence.
Boris Johnson has already given the game away. He is now using the standard ‘leave’ rhetoric: eg, the sunlight of freedom, breaking out of the EU jail, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to “take back control over our borders and control over our democracy”.16 But he readily admits that his support for Brexit only came after Cameron’s final EU deal failed to include his proposed wording enshrining British “parliamentary sovereignty”. Just the kind of meaningless drivel that could easily be conceded in future negotiations and be successfully put to a second referendum - an idea originally mooted by former Tory leader Michael Howard. Naturally, Cameron dismisses the second referendum option. He is in no position to do otherwise. But if Johnson were to become prime minister we know exactly what to expect. He would seek an EU agreement to a highfalutin phrase that he could sell to the British electorate.
So what the referendum boils down to is an internal power struggle in the Conservative Party. Eg, Teresa May decided, eventually, to stay loyal because she reckoned that this was the best way to fulfil her ambition of replacing Cameron; and Boris Johnson went rebel, at the last minute, in an attempt to achieve exactly the same objective.
Under these circumstances Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell appear to have adopted tactics that amount to a passive boycott. An active boycott that exposes the whole referendum charade would be far better. But even a passive boycott is far better than campaigning alongside Tories, Lib Dems, the Greens, Scottish National Party, etc, under the Britain Stronger in Europe umbrella. In Scotland the Better Together led to electoral disaster for Labour and there is every reason not to repeat such a popular-front exercise today. Understandably, Corbyn and McDonnell have no wish to rescue Cameron from the hole that he has dug himself into.
Hence the urgent call from the Blairite right - former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds, along with Chris Leslie, Ben Bradshaw and Adrian Bailey - for Corbyn to play a “bigger role” in the ‘stay’ campaign. They berate him for failing to recognise that the “fate of the country” lies not only in the hands of the prime minister, but the leader of the Labour Party too.17
Obviously, utter nonsense. True, in the event of a ‘leave’ vote, the remaining 27 EU members might prove unwilling to go along with the new Tory PM. Frustrated by perfidious Albion, maybe they will insist on immediate exit negotiations. Not further rounds of renegotiation. Even then Britain will not really leave the EU though. It is surely too important a country to shut out - in terms of gross domestic product Britain still ranks as the world’s fifth largest economy. Yes, it might have to settle for the status of an oversized Switzerland. To access the single market the Swiss have no choice but to accept the Schengen agreement, contribute to EU development funds and abide by the whole panoply of rules and regulations. The 2014 “popular initiative” against “mass immigration” into Switzerland is bound to be overturned.
However, a Britain-into-Switzerland outcome is extremely unlikely. The whole architecture of the US-dominated world order dictates that in terms of the immediate future Britain will continue to play its allotted role: blocking Franco-German aspirations of an “ever closer union” that eventually results in a United States of Europe. Washington will quietly bend both Brussels and Westminster to its will. Britain is therefore surely ordained to stay in the EU because of the hard realities of global politics.
1. HM government, ‘Why the government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK’. 2. www.strongerin.co.uk/get_the_facts#iQAmHJOlGfmYbztJ.97.
4. The Daily Telegraph March 8 2016.
5. The Guardian April 12 2016.
9. Editorial Morning Star March 4 2016.
10. Financial Times April 9-10 2016.
12. D Reynolds Britannia overruled London 1991, p249.
13. Ibid p250.
14. The Daily Telegraph April 12 2016.
15. Financial Times April 9-10 2016.
16. The Independent March 6 2016.