Much ado about nothing
History does repeat itself, says Eddie Ford. Just as with the 1975 referendum, once again we have a government trying to pull a fast one
Though you could be forgiven for thinking it started ages ago, April 15 saw the official beginning of the European Union referendum campaign. In its bureaucratic wisdom, the Electoral Commission - having to decide who has the greatest “breadth of support” - gave the ‘remain’ franchise to the Tory-dominated Vote Leave, as opposed to the more oddball Grassroots Out. The latter is widely seen as a front for the UK Independence Party, but includes amongst its ranks the weirdly pro-fox-hunting Kate Hoey and - perhaps stranger - George Galloway, who appeared at a GO rally alongside Nigel Farage. This was unfortunately reminiscent of the 1975 referendum campaign, which saw Tony Benn and Enoch Powell campaigning together for a UK withdrawal from the then European Economic Community.
Totally predictably, the ridiculous - if not slightly surreal - bid by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to get recognised as the official campaign came to nothing - though it is still innocently complaining about the EC “bowing to political pressure”.1 For the other side, Britain Stronger in Europe’s application was uncontested and hence got the EC’s imprimatur. The two official campaigns can spend up to £7 million each on campaigning, with £600,000 in public funds, and both get a free mailshot and national TV broadcast. Of course, the government got in first with its £9 million taxpayer-funded pamphlet warning of the dire consequences of Brexit.
On the day before official kick-off, Jeremy Corbyn finally delivered his long-awaited speech in favour of continued membership - formally reversing his historic Bennite hostility to the “bosses’ club”, despite refusing to rule out backing Brexit only last summer. Admitting that he was still critical of Brussels’ “shortcomings”, he urged support for the EU “warts and all” - arguing that a Conservative government would use Brexit as an opportunity to attack workers in a “bonfire of rights”. He went to say, not particularly convincingly, that the EU had helped to underpin “investment, jobs and protections for workers, consumers and the environment”, and working together with European allies offered the “best chance of meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century”.
For Corbyn then - or at least the new Corbyn - there is a “strong socialist case” for remaining in the EU, just as there is for “reform and progressive change” in Europe. In remarks about migrants virtually ignored by the liberal press (ie, The Guardian), but picked up immediately by the rightwing media, he did not think “too many have come” - rather the issue is of “wages and regulations”: hence his call for a “minimum wage tied to the cost of living” across the entire EU. Naturally, The Sun slammed Corbyn’s “wacky” comments (April 14).2
However, whatever TheSun or The Daily Telegraph might think, his speech was welcomed by everyone from David Cameron, Chuka Ummuna and Alastair Campbell to the Financial Times3 - and you can see why. The polls are still alarmingly close for the twitchy ‘remainers’. For example, the FT’s ‘poll of polls’ instant tracker has ‘stay’ on 44% and ‘leave’ on 42%, whilst the ‘What UK thinks’ poll of polls has the scores respectively on 52% and 48%.4 Meanwhile, an April 17 online ICM survey actually has ‘leave’ ahead by one percentage point.
Of course, what really worries the ‘remain’ camp - quite understandably from their perspective - is the question of turnout: the fact of the matter is that Brexiters are more ideologically committed than ‘stayers’, especially the older ones. In turn, younger ‘remainers’ tend to be less committed. Meaning, obviously, that ‘leavers’ - though Europe may not be top of their agenda - are just more likely to vote on June 23. Hence the relief expressed after Corbyn’s intervention, especially given that the 66-year-old has a considerable base among younger people, especially young Labour voters (or potential voters). From a ‘stay’ point of view, what Corbyn says matters - it could tilt the balance.
Further emphasising this point, an ORB poll for the Telegraph shows that currently 41% of the British population would vote ‘leave’, but a rather larger 52% say that leaving the EU would “improve” the UK’s immigration system.5 Therefore, concludes Sir Lynton Crosby, guru of the dark electoral arts, if the ‘leave’ campaign can advocate changes to the immigration system that would “make them more important in voters’ decision-making”, there is possibly up to 11% of the population they can win over. The June 23 result? Close - very close.
However, despite Corbyn’s April 14 contribution - or maybe because of it - there are still loud voices complaining that the Labour leader’s ‘pro-EU’ stance is still too tepid: indeed, that he is effectively mounting a passive boycott, the evidence being that the shadow front bench is not expected to actively campaign or participate in Britain Stronger in Europe. More condemnatory still, albeit from the other end of the referendum telescope, Ian Davidson - former MP and coordinator of Labour Leave - remarked that “Jeremy Corbyn believes every word of his speech, but not necessarily in that order”.
As far as the Labour leader is concerned, there are a lot more important things to be concentrating on than the sodding referendum - and in one sense the CPGB thinks he is right. The plain truth is that we are not having this referendum because Cameron and other fellow-thinkers in the Tory Party and beyond have come to the considered opinion that Britain needs a complete strategic reorientation of its position in the world - quite the opposite. This makes it totally unlike 1956 following the Suez debacle, when British imperialism was told in no uncertain terms by the US that it was not going to be allowed to play the role of a third superpower. Therefore US imperialism pressurised Britain to join the EEC in order to act as its agent, or proxy, from within (something that Charles de Gaulle was acutely aware of).
No, Cameron’s referendum is not the result of a ‘big idea’ or ‘vision thing’, but naked political expediency - proving that history does repeat itself. The 1975 referendum too was not the result of a strategic rethink, but Harold Wilson trying to pull a fast one on Ted Heath and also show the ‘Europhobes’ within his own ranks – most notably Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and the aforementioned Tony Benn – who the boss is. Fast forward over 40 years and this is essentially what we have now. Cameron may boast about having achieved a “fundamental renegotiation” of the terms and conditions of Britain’s EU membership, but exactly the same words were used by Wilson in 1975 regarding the EEC - and it was meaningless nonsense then, as it is now. Cameron, just like Labour’s foreign secretary Jim Callaghan, before him, came back from Brussels with a piece of paper that did not amount to a row of beans - pseudo-negotiations leading to pseudo-concessions.
Rather, the June 23 referendum has everything to do with Cameron holding on to his position as prime minister. He calculated that he could check the rise of Ukip by stealing its demand for a referendum: if you really want a referendum, vote Tory, not Ukip - which obviously would be a wasted vote in any case. At the same time, he could out-manoeuvre Ed Miliband with regards to his own Eurosceptics and also throw a piece of red meat to his backbenchers - who for years had been calling for a referendum, partly due to electoral fears and partly because of primordial ideological instincts.
But Cameron never imagined that he would have to deliver on his ‘promise’. He thought he would still be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election and they would veto any proposals for a referendum, thus letting him off the hook. Yet things did not turn out that way and he is now fighting for his political life. Ken Clarke was surely right when he said that, in the event of an exit vote, Cameron would not last “30 seconds” - the idea that he could stay to oversee Brexit negotiations is utterly fantastic.
Yes, clearly, big business and the City - the movers and shakers - want to stay in. For that reason alone, in a strict betting shop sense, you go for David Cameron to win on June 23. Also helping, letters and ‘other forms of communication’ from bosses to employees are bound to increase over subsequent weeks - if you want to keep your job, you know how to vote. More importantly still, Obama’s visit to Britain on April 22 will make the position of US imperialism perfectly clear: he may not be giving an actual speech on Europe and the referendum, but journalists afterwards will ask him questions - and we all know what they will be about. So does Obama, not being an idiot, and hence will have his answers primed and ready: while it is not for the US to say what Britain should do, the US would prefer Britain to remain within the EU. You can also guarantee that in the closed talks following the speech he will be unambiguous in his views. The US is in charge, not the British people or even the UK government.
Hammering home the point in a joint letter-cum-article for The Times, no less than eight former US treasury secretaries warned that Brexit is a “risky bet” that could threaten London’s pre-eminence as a financial capital - it would be “difficult” to negotiate trade agreements outside the EU, they pointed out.6 The eight go on to say that, though it is the UK’s decision alone, naturally, the US has a “critical interest” in the outcome - so get it right. “Shared economic views and interests”, they continue, have been at the “heart of the special relationship between the two countries” - and in recent times the US has appreciated how Britain has “taken the lead” in rescuing the banking industry and “confronting Russian aggression”. They finish by urging the UK not to “turn inward” at a critical juncture for the European and global economies, fearing that to do so could open up a “Pandora’s box” of problems for the continent.
It goes without saying that Downing Street, which denied coordinating the letter - perish the thought - were delighted by the intervention from the ex-treasury secretaries. George Osborne and Cameron himself tweeted that the “important” letter showed the UK’s influence was stronger as part of the EU. Less happy, Vote Leave declared that, “not content with doing down Britain’s economy”, the British government is “now soliciting help from across the pond” - with Farage stupidly describing Obama as the “most anti-British president” of the modern era. As for Johnson, we are familiar with his recent outburst about Obama being a “hypocrite” for wanting the UK to remain within the EU - which makes no sense at all. What is ‘hypocritical’ about US imperialism outlining what is in its strategic interests?
We need to be clear that June 23 is not a general election by a different name. There is no way that Nigel Farage will become prime minister: thanks to the electoral system, he and Ukip are a parliamentary irrelevance. The House of Commons will remain the same and the Tory Party will remain the same - except that in place of Cameron, not exactly a friend of the working class, we will have Boris Johnson instead (or maybe somebody else might come through the pack).
More fundamentally, in the event of a Brexit vote on June 23, Britain will not leave the EU - it will not happen. This is something that cannot be said too many times. Johnson, the most likely replacement for Cameron, has already made his position clear when valiant Cameron came ‘triumphantly’ back from Brussels. According to the London mayor, he converted to Brexit at the last minute - a stance totally inconsistent with his previous views on the matter - because Cameron did not return with a promise to put forward legislation enshrining “parliamentary sovereignty”, etc. And then he picked up on an idea mooted by former Tory leader Michael Howard: a second referendum after renegotiations with the EU would result in further ‘concessions’.
In other words, Johnson’s game plan is obvious - he opportunistically calculated that attaching himself to the ‘exit’ cause would considerably enhance his prospects of becoming Tory leader and hence prime minister, even if ‘remain’ wins the day on June 23. But if it does not, newly elected prime minister Johnson will come back from Brussels waving his own piece of paper proposing a new bill to the effect that British sovereignty cannot be overruled by the EU (as is the case in Germany, which has a much more formal constitution). Then Johnson would claim to be satisfied.
At the moment, needless to say, both Cameron and Johnson are dismissing the idea of a second referendum - but you would not expect them to do anything else at this stage in the game. Cameron cannot recognise the possibility, of course, because he is compelled to go through the pretence that he will still remain prime minister if the exit vote wins - pigs might fly too. Johnson, equally, has to pretend to be a great defender of British freedoms and democracy, not a power-hungry cynical conniver. But for anyone sceptical about the idea of a second referendum, there is an easy response - look at France, Ireland, Denmark and Netherlands. All these countries had referendums that went the wrong way, so they just held more until until the people voted the right way. Job done.
The straightforward reality is that Britain is politically and strategically wedded to the US order and the architecture that was put in place after World War II - specifically the post-1956 order. Britain is not inside the EU to further the project of “ever closer union”, but quite the opposite - in order to block the process of “ever closer union”. Note Britain’s key role in expanding the EU to the east. Anyone who thinks that is about creating a European superstate needs their head examined: rather, it was about wateringdown closer union. As any half-intelligent economist will readily tell you, a euro project incorporating Germany, Luxembourg, France, Holland and Belgium is a viable option - the economies are sufficiently alike and at similar levels of development. But, as soon as you extend it eastwards - say, to a country like Greece - then disaster is inevitable: many predicted that it would either break Greece or break the EU. Look at what happened.
Expanding the EU was also about expanding Nato - and thus US power - whilst buggering up any plans that Jacques Delors or any of the EU’s founding fathers had for a United States of Europe. Britain will not allow it, in line with the larger interests of US imperialism, which does not want a rival power bloc. Everyone knows it.
Taking it on the level of economics, the UK will not and cannot leave the EU in any meaningful sense. Brexiters say if Britain leaves the EU it will be ‘free’ of stifling EU laws and regulations - complete fantasy. You cannot trade with the EU unless you buy into all the bureaucracy, give or take this trifling sub-clause or coda. Ukip types moan about regulations for cabbages being 30,000 words long, which might well be true - this writer has absolutely no idea. But, whatever the word length, you will not be able to tear up the regulations on cabbages: you have to abide by them. Otherwise France or Germany will just say that your cabbages are not allowed in and, sure as night follows day, that also applies to cars, aeroplanes and medicines - in a word, to everything. The same goes in terms of financial contributions to the EU. Sorry, Nigel, but per head Switzerland and Norway pay in more to the EU than Britain. So, when you listen to Farage waxing on lyrically about the ‘freedoms’ supposedly enjoyed by those two countries, we have to remember that they conform to all the EU’s laws and regulations, but have no real say in how they are constructed and implemented.
Therefore, we in the CPGB are convinced that, even if disaster occurs - from a ruling class point of view - and there is a large enough exit vote to make the EU turn around unanimously and give the UK its marching orders, the worst that will happen is Britain becoming an oversized version of Switzerland or Norway. But, to stress, this is an extremely improbable scenario. Much more likely is a second referendum - maybe called for by Boris Johnson, this time leading the call for a ‘stay’ vote. Ultimately, that is what we saw in 1975. Wilson said Heath got a “rotten deal” in Europe, but produced something that was virtually indistinguishable - and went on to win a two-thirds majority in the referendum.
Even though the official campaign is less than a week old, we have been presented with all sorts of doomsday scenarios - but especially from the government and ‘remain’ camp in general. The latest being a 200-page treasury ‘analysis’ making out that the country would be “permanently poorer” if the UK leaves the EU and negotiates a bilateral trade agreement with the bloc - the government apparently stands to lose £36 billion in net tax receipts, shrinking GDP by 6.2% by 2030 and costing every household the equivalent of £4,300 a year.7
This is obviously pure speculation and nothing but economic science fiction - the same goes for the claim from Britain Stronger in Europe that Brexit might lead to the loss of three million jobs. Evidence? Facts? Mocking such apocalyptic talk, the Daily Mash spoof news ran the headline: “No more sex if we leave the EU, warns Osborne”.8
Alas though, the left is coming out with its own version of doomsday - a common story being that an exit vote would lead to an immediate attack on migrants, employers dumping them on the boat back home. Again, utter rubbish. Why are bosses suddenly going to employ more expensive British workers rather than cheaper migrants? Such a claim is irrational scaremongering of the worst sort. Ditto with the idea from soft-left types like Another Europe is Possible that Brexit would lead to a “carnival of reaction”, and so on. The Weekly Worker letters pages have also featured correspondence from those worrying that politics would move radically to the right following an exit vote on June 23.
Comrades, your imagination is running away with you. Now you could say that replacing Cameron with Johnson on the back of a narrow ‘leave’ vote (say 51% to 49%) would represent a marginal move to the right. But in terms of overall British politics, a radical shift to the right? This seems like a complete misreading of the present situation or political period. In terms of the forthcoming general election we would surely see a battle between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the most leftwing leader Labour has ever had by a mile - hard to explain if society is charging to the right.
Post-Panama papers, opinion polls for the first time are showing Labour in the lead - ie, an April 14 YouGov survey has Labour on 34% and the Tories lagging on 31%, with Ukip getting 17%.9 Possibly of more significance in the same poll are Corbyn’s personal ratings, which are higher than Cameron’s (28% to 21%). Remember, this is the man who cannot talk properly in parliament, dresses terribly, loves terrorists, is soft on anti-Semitism, does not know the words to the national anthem, supports strikes, prefers Glastonbury to Whitehall ... No, rather than a carnival of reaction or a radical shift to the right, we are witnessing a polarisation of politics - which for communists can only be a healthy development after the dog days of Blair, Brown and Miliband.
What is the CPGB’s vision of Europe? Can the EU be reformed? Yes, of course, it can - Schengen Treaty, Single European Act, Maastricht Treaty, Amsterdam Treaty, Nice Treaty, Lisbon Treaty … all of which involved major economic, legal and political changes, not just name changes. Obviously, the EU can be reformed this way or that way - pulled here or there depending on the tempo of the class struggle.
But for communists the EU (even reformed) can never deliver socialism, unless you think King Charles III will preside over the introduction of the lower stage of communism. No, you have to do away with the EU constitution and overthrow the existing 28 state machines. But, on other hand, the fact that the leading capitalist powers have come together in some sort ofconfederal relationship gives the working class in Europe the potential for a qualitative breakthrough in terms of the world balance of forces - something the Russian Revolution was never able to do, or could ever do, and the same applies to even a genuinely socialist revolution in a Latin American country (or China or India, for that matter). The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc and has the most experienced and cultured working class on the planet. The revolution may not begin in Europe, but a revolutionary upsurge and victory on that continent is the only way to challenge the hegemonic role of US imperialism.
Our vision of Europe, however, does not involve saving Cameron’s bacon - why should communists prefer a Cameron to a Johnson, or vice versa? No, on June 23 take your ballot paper and register your politics by writing ‘For a socialist Europe’ across it.
3. On the basis that “Labour and the other opposition parties must do more to fight their way into the debate to prevent it becoming about the future of the Tory Party rather than the future of the UK” (April 16).