Hard, soft or no Brexit?
The working class needs a strategy that tails neither big capital nor backward-looking politicians, argues Jack Conrad
Speaking on Monday January 22, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, called upon the government to present a “clear agenda” when it comes to negotiations with Brussels. Otherwise technology, aerospace, pharmaceutical, energy, manufacturing, banking and financial services firms will trigger plans to relocate various UK operations in mainland Europe.1
A no-deal Brexit, said Fairbairn, would amount to an act of “great economic self-harm”. Billions of pounds of extra costs would be imposed on UK goods and services and vice versa. Not that a Canadian or Norwegian trade deal would provide the CBI with an acceptable outcome: “Economics and prosperity must be put ahead of politics and red lines,” Fairbairn insisted. In short, the UK must stay inside the customs union and maintain strong trade links with what is, after all, by far its largest market.
A year ago, of course, Theresa May specifically ruled out remaining a member of the single market and the customs union. Instead the concept was to speedily negotiate trade deals with the United States, China, India, etc. Britain would become a giant Singapore … according to Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. Doubtless that absurd line chimes with the Express, The Sun and the Daily Mail. But it is as delusional as it is destabilising. Needless to say, by contrast, the CBI’s director general, stresses industrial capital’s craving for stability: “Frictionless trade within the European Union is worth more than having the potentially unknown value of trade deals in other parts of the world.”
There can be no doubt that the dominant sections of capital look upon the prospect of Brexit with a combination of disbelief and dread. That is why Downing Street’s attempts to persuade big private companies and selected FT-100 firms to endorse the hard Brexiteer vision of a “global Britain” were met with contempt and derision. Many capitalists fear they will face tariffs and other barriers after the two-year transition … if Brexit goes ahead. Nor do British capitalists have any liking for repeated government pledges to limit immigration to the tens of thousands.
That Theresa May and her government could even imagine that they could gain big-business backing for a hard Brexit shows in no mistaken terms that the preferred party of capital simply does not understand the elementary needs of capital. Political short-termism and Britain’s half-crazed rightwing press addles ministerial brains.
A diagnosis amply confirmed by the visit of Philip Hammond and David Davis to Germany the other week. The two ministers seriously seemed to believe they would get a sympathetic hearing from Germany’s political and business elite. Writing in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung the double act pleaded: “It makes no sense to either Germany or Britain to put in place unnecessary barriers to trade in goods and services that would only damage businesses and economic growth on both sides of the Channel.”2
The visit culminated in a set-piece address to the Die Welt economic summit. Before that there was a series of specially arranged meetings. Davis dealt with the politicians; Hammond business leaders. Their aim was to shift German opinion in the direction of a bespoke deal for Britain. Not surprisingly, neither Germany’s business leaders nor Germany’s politicians were in any mood to sign up. Angela Merkel’s spokesperson told the press corps that Berlin would not divide the ranks of the EU’s 27.
After all, what is at stake with Brexit is not merely the relationship between the EU and the UK. It is the integrity of the EU itself. Germany doubtless values British customers, suppliers and global banking connections. However, what allows Germany to rank as the world’s third largest exporter, and run a huge trade surplus, is the existence of the single market and the customs union. For the sake of German industrial prowess that cannot be compromised. Hammond and Davis therefore returned to London empty-handed and humiliated.
The exact same message came from French president, Emmanuel Macron, during his Sandhurst talks with May. He likewise explained the elementary political and economic facts of life. To maintain frictionless access to the European single market Britain must continue with budgetary contributions and membership of the customs union. That means the free movement of goods, capital and people. There can be “no cherry-picking”, vowed Macron.
So the pressure to compromise is on Theresa May. She is, nonetheless, surely confronted with an impossible task. On the one hand, she is urged to prevent Brexit doing “great harm” economically; on the other hand, she is expected to satisfy the hard Brexit demands of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the frothing Tory Europhobes. That circle cannot be squared. Something has to give. My bet is that at the end of the day there will be no hard Brexit. Maybe no Brexit at all.
Though Boris Johnson famously told the EU to “go and whistle”, the UK has already agreed to pay a €50-€67 billion divorce bill. Even more to the point, the UK has committed itself to maintaining a frictionless Irish border. How that fits in with a hard Brexit - ie, leaving the single market and the customs union - is beyond me. It points to the “softest of soft Brexits” (former Tory minister Lord David Prior3). A terminological Brexit.
Meanwhile, of course, Keir Starmer has succeeded in getting the shadow cabinet to oppose a hard Brexit. The mantra is exactly the same as the CBI’s: “put jobs and the economy first”.4 Hence the striking paradox: on Europe it is not the Conservative but the Labour Party which is articulating the interests of big capital. Not that big capital will reciprocate and back the Labour Party in the next general election. It is, after all, led by Jeremy Corbyn: pro-trade union, pacifistic and a friend of all manner of unacceptable leftists.
Contrary to the opinion of many on the left, referendums are not the apogee of democracy. In fact they serve to hoodwink people, to lead them by the nose. That is exactly why Louis Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler favoured them. It is also why Marxists have traditionally condemned referendums and instead championed representative democracy and building mass workers’ parties. Referendums bypass democratic institutions, reduce complex questions to a false binary choice and tend to split the electorate along artificial, non-class lines.5
Hence, it would certainly be a big mistake to tail behind the Tony Blair-John Major call for a “second referendum” (an idea momentarily toyed with by Nigel Farage and which constitutes the “immediate slogan” of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty social imperialists6). Journalists are making much of recent opinion polls showing a majority favouring a second referendum … if there is a no-deal Brexit. In fact a second referendum would just be another opportunity to con the population by presenting another false binary choice.
To all intents and purposes, David Cameron’s June 23 referendum was designed as a repeat of the first European referendum in June 1975. Harold Wilson staged that not because he was unhappy with the European Economic Community. No, it was a “ploy” dictated largely by “domestic politics”.7 Ted Heath oversaw Britain’s EEC entry in 1973; nevertheless, Labour could gain electoral advantage by promising a “fundamental renegotiation” of Britain’s terms of membership … to be followed by a 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, and 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.8
Cameron’s referendum had nothing to do with 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 too came back from his Brussels negotiations 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 acceptance 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, 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, Ukip checked and Tory Europhobes conciliated.
Of course, 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.
Under such circumstances, for leftwingers and working class partisans to have taken sides was a fool’s game. No, what was needed was an active boycott. That is why the CPGB urged people to go to the polling station and spoil their ballot paper: instead of voting ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, we said, write ‘For a socialist Europe’. There were, in fact, 25,359 spoilt ballot papers - how many of them involved writing ‘For a socialist Europe’ is impossible to tell.
The whole EU referendum campaign was from the start characterised by lies, lies and more lies … on both sides. The cross-party Britain Stronger in Europe sneakily implied that three million jobs would be lost following a withdrawal.9 Today, of course, the government boasts of record levels of employment (true, accompanied with stagnant levels of productivity and shrinking real wages). For its part, Another Europe is Possible - a typical soft-left lash-up - told us that “walking away from the EU would boost rightwing movements and parties like Ukip and hurt ordinary people in Britain”.10 Ironically the Brexit vote robbed Ukip of its purpose. Nowadays, it limps on … as a political joke.
Vote Leave traded on the politics of a backward-looking hope. It wanted Britain to “regain control over things like trade, tax, economic regulation, energy and food bills, migration, crime and civil liberties”.11 Then there was Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million a week’ promise to boost NHS finances. In exactly the same lying spirit Get Britain Out sought to “bring back UK democracy”.12 The Morning Star patriotically rejected the “EU superstate project” and likewise sought a restoration of Britain’s “democracy”.13
Bringing back democracy assumes, of course, that prior to the January 1 1973 accession to the European Economic Community, Britain was democratic and is now undemocratic. Obviously, both propositions are radically wrong. Bourgeois democracy is largely formal, every four or five years it requires establishment politicians to make many extravagant promises and seek out scapegoats to explain their many failures. So, necessarily, bourgeois democracy involves the fostering of sectional hatreds and produces widespread cynicism. But, though it can be highly mediated, that is how the rule of capital is maintained. Genuine democracy is only possible when the majority - ie, the working class - rules. The demand to “bring back UK democracy” amounts to a forlorn bid to restore past glories and in practice upholding the monarchy, the second chamber, the presidential prime minister, judicial review, the established church, the secret state and other grossly anti-democratic parts of the constitution. As for regaining control, as negotiations in Brussels are proving, that was always illusory.
Britain, to state the obvious, no longer possesses a global empire. Its former position as world hegemon was taken over by the United States with World War II. The Suez fiasco in 1956 definitively saw Britain abandon its futile bid to expand its African and Middle Eastern colonies. Instead it settled for being America’s closest ally. A position that it quickly came to treasure and, as everybody knows, goes under name of the “special relationship” (a phrase coined by Winston Churchill in 1946). That is exactly why general Charles de Gaulle twice said non to British membership. He rightly saw Britain as a pliant US satrap. Even a US Trojan horse. And, once it was inside the EEC, that indeed was the role played by Britain. Either way, no country has full control over its own affairs. Each country is dependent on others. Britain is no exception. The only question is where a country stands in terms of the global pecking order. Nowadays, Britain ranks below China, Japan and Germany economically. And if Brexit goes ahead there can be no doubt that its value to the US will decline in importance.
Obviously, Cameron never thought he would lose the referendum. He did after all have the backing of big business, international institutions, celebrity endorsements ... and Barack Obama. Nevertheless, there was an obvious point to make: “Cameron is gambling on an often fickle electorate” and referendums can go “horribly awry for those who stage them, especially when issues such as austerity, mass migration and international terrorism are included in the mix.”14 The actual vote on June 23 2016 was narrow: but by 51.89% to 48.11% ‘leave’ won.
However, what I was convinced of - and still remain convinced of - is that, barring some major accident, even with a ‘leave’ vote, Britain will ‘remain’. The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 introduced a wild card. Hillary Clinton would have simply instructed David Cameron’s replacement to sort out the damn mess. Nevertheless, despite Trump’s sometimes unhinged rhetoric and wild outbursts, there is no US campaign to encourage or smooth Britain’s exit.
While it is far from impossible that negotiations between David Davis and Michel Barnier will end in a no-deal exit, the political and economic realities of 21st-century capitalism mean that, in all probability, the Brexit vote, and then the triggering of article 50, will represent nothing more than a long, costly and highly disruptive detour for British capitalism. The whole self-inflicted episode will accelerate relative decline and maybe eventually force establishment politicians to confront the reality of Britain’s much diminished position in the global pecking order. We shall see.
Communists do not uphold the ‘jobs and economy’ slogan. Nor do we advocate a second referendum or a Swiss or Norwegian ‘solution’. Nor do we oppose Brexit because we oppose Theresa May and the Tory government. No, there is a far more important reason to oppose Brexit. We positively favour a united Europe - even if that comes about under the conditions of capitalism.
That hardly commits us to supporting the existing EU. Far from it.
The fact of the matter is that the EU is only quasi-democratic. Jean Monnet, the Pater Europae, believed that the whole ‘project’ would have to rely on deception. Back in 1952 he wrote:
Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate, without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.15
The lustre of the Monnet ‘project’ has long worn off. Nevertheless, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU commission, comes from the same mould. He is contemptuous of democracy. Certainly, it is the unelected commissioners - and behind these appointees the council of ministers - who make the decisions. The directly elected European parliament is almost entirely a talking shop. It possesses very little in the way of real power.
Today’s EU is no superstate, nor even Monnet’s federation. It is a creaking confederation of often fractious states, which show precious little in the way of solidarity the one for the other. Britain wants out. Poland defies EU rulings over its press and judiciary. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia refuse to take their quotas of refugees. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the EU, ECB and IMF imposed a savage austerity regime on Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain and Greece. Indeed under the leftwing Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras, Greece has been reduced to an impoverished debt colony. Because of that deeply disappointing reality, Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and potential deputy chancellor, has renewed the call for a United States of Europe. After all, that is what “ever closer union” unmistakably implies.
As for the single currency, it is clearly malfunctioning. The launch of the euro in 1999 was widely greeted as an historic triumph. No longer. During the financial crisis there were serious concerns for its very survival. Hence Macron’s proposals for a separate euro zone budget to lessen the impact of future economic shocks.
Yes, the EU is undoubtedly a ‘bosses’ club’ which aims to increase the exploitation of European workers in order to allow European capital to compete more effectively in world markets. Revealingly, the EU constitution includes a binding commitment to neoliberal economics in its text. That is why the likes of Carolyn Fairbairn and the CBI feel so at home in the EU and are so reluctant to leave. And then there is the infamous Laval and Viking Line judgments. With them the ECJ imposed “substantive new restrictions on the lawfulness of industrial action” and “provided employers with a potent new weapon with which to oppose industrial action” (Daniel Ornstein and Herbert Smith).16 The claim that Brexit poses a threat to workers’ rights is certainly true; doubtless the Tories are eager to use the so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ to that effect. But those trade union leaders, such as Frances O’Grady and Dave Prentis, who paint the EU as some kind of a friend of the working class are clearly talking rubbish.
Siding with either the Brexiteers or the ‘remainers’ is fundamentally mistaken. Both sides are reactionary in their different ways. Nevertheless, the Marxist strategy for achieving socialism is predicated on large states: in our case the continental-wide terrain established by the treaty of Rome, Lisbon, Maastricht, Nice, etc. Communists argue and work towards the unity of our forces across the whole of Europe. Instead of the Europe of the bourgeois politicians, grasping capitalists and unelected bureaucrats, we stand for a Europe without monarchies and without standing armies: a fully democratic Europe, an indivisible Europe, which is constitutionally committed not to neoliberalism, but international socialism. Such a perspective points directly to organising across the EU at the highest level - crucially a Communist Party of the European Union.
It is in that revolutionary sense and that revolutionary sense alone we support continued UK membership of the EU.
Ideas that our side would be collectively strengthened if we aligned ourselves with an inward-looking faction of the ruling class with a view to forcing a Britain, a France, or a Greece to withdraw from the EU displays a lack of both internationalism and seriousness. Socialism in a breakaway country is the socialism of fools. Any reformist or revolutionary government that might arise amidst the national chaos would suffer instant retaliation - a legal coup or, that failing, isolation through asphyxiating trade embargoes and perhaps a joint EU-US military ‘peacemaking’ force.
Our strategy is resolutely opposed to any renewed ‘Balkanisation’ of Europe. The Socialist Workers Party’s Charlie Kimber, Peter Taaffe of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and Robert Griffiths of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain might irresponsibly campaign for such a scenario. But, whether it comes from right or left, the nationalist fragmentation of the EU can do the working class nothing but harm: xenophobia, economic regression, inter-state conflict leading, once again, to war on the continent.
Communists strive for working class unity within, but against, the existing EU. Winning the battle for democracy in the EU and securing working class rule over this small but politically important continent is by far the best service we can do for our comrades in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia.
The EU provides us with the wide sphere of operations needed to organise the working class not only into a ruling class, but a class that, having come to power, can realistically expect to make a decisive, strategic breakthrough in terms of the world socialist revolution. A United Socialist States of Europe could stand up to US imperialism and spread the flame of liberation to Africa, Latin America, Asia ... and finally North America. A socialist regime in France, a socialist regime in Greece, a socialist regime in Portugal could never do that.
Hence this seven-point programme:
1. For a republican United States of Europe. Abolish the council of ministers and sack the unelected commissioners. For a single-chamber executive and legislative continental congress of the peoples of Europe, elected by universal suffrage and proportional representation.
2. Nationalise all banks in the EU and put the ECB under the direct, democratic control of the European congress. No to the stability pact and spending limits. Stop privatisation and so-called private finance initiatives. End subsidies to, and tax breaks for, big business. Abolish VAT. Yes to workers’ control over big business and the overall direction of the economy. Yes to a massive programme of house-building and public works.
3. For the levelling up of wages and social provisions. For a maximum 35-hour week and a common minimum income. End all anti-trade union laws. For the right to organise and the right to strike. For top-quality healthcare, housing and education, allocated according to need. Abolish all restrictions on abortion. Fight for substantive equality between men and women.
4. End the Common Agricultural Policy. Stop all subsidies for big farms and the ecological destruction of the countryside. Nationalise all land. Temporary relief for small farmers. Green the cities. Free urban public transport. Create extensive wildernesses areas - forests, marshes, heath land - both for the preservation and rehabilitation of animal and plant life, and the enjoyment and fulfilment of the population.
5. No to the rapid reaction force, Nato and all standing armies. Yes to a popular democratic militia.
6. No to ‘Fortress Europe’. Yes to the free movement of people into and out of the EU. For citizenship and voting rights for all who have been resident in the EU for longer than six months.
7. For the closest coordination of all working class forces in the EU. Promote EU-wide industrial unions - eg, railways, energy, communications, engineering, civil service, print and media. For a democratic and effective EU Trade Union Congress. For a single, centralised, revolutionary party: ie, the Communist Party of the European Union.
1. The Guardian January 21 2018.
2. New Europe January 11 2018.
3. The Sun July 20 2017.
5. See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.
7. D Reynolds Britannia overruled London 1991, p249.
8. Ibid p250.
13. Editorial Morning Star March 4 2016.
14. Weekly Worker April 14 2016.
15. Quoted in www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Jean_Monnet.