New stage of Brexit politics
In or out of the EU, argues Mike Macnair, we need a united workers’ movement on a European scale
The publication of the draft ‘Withdrawal agreement’1 and ‘Political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom’2 has opened a new stage in the politics of Brexit. This article introduces a short motion - to be put before the CPGB membership - on the politics of Brexit in the light of this new stage. Though the motion is commissioned by the Provisional Central Committee, this article expresses my individual opinion of the present situation of the politics of Brexit, not a collective PCC view.
What is the new stage? In the first place, the ‘Withdrawal agreement’ unsurprisingly amounts for most purposes to the UK continuing to comply with EU law, without a vote on how it is made, for the transition period. The UK government has simply failed to achieve what it claimed it could: conditionality of the exit agreement on some sort of permanent free-trade agreement.
The ‘Political declaration’ is no more than an agenda for future negotiations - or, as The Times sketch commented, “Pings can only get better, as PM kicks another can down the road” (November 23).
Theresa May’s government tried to kick another can down the road by appealing to the UK supreme court against the decision of the Scots court of session to refer to the European court of justice whether the article 50 withdrawal notice can be revoked. The only possible point of such an appeal was to delay proceedings and preserve uncertainty about the issue for as long as possible with a view to political advantage.
It did not work: on November 20 the supreme court refused leave to appeal, on the fairly simple ground that it only had jurisdiction to entertain an appeal if the court of session’s decision to refer the issue to the ECJ was “a decision constituting final judgment” - which it clearly was not. The ECJ has now heard oral argument, which has been reported in the British press on November 27. The arguments are themselves politically important, but the ‘agreements’ need to be discussed first.
The hot-potato issue of free movement receives plain contradictory statements in the ‘Political declaration,’ paragraph 4:
The future relationship will be based on a balance of rights and obligations, taking into account the principles of each party. This balance [must] ensure the autonomy of the Union’s decision-making and be consistent with the Union’s principles, in particular with respect to the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union and the indivisibility of the four freedoms. It must also ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market, while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum, including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people between the Union and the United Kingdom.
On this basis the UK would exit from the transition arrangements in 2021 with no agreement for the future, since the EU and UK positions stated here are plainly irreconcilable. But on the other hand, the ‘Withdrawal agreement’ as published, in article 132 (1), gives the EU-UK Joint Committee, which is to be created by the agreement, power, until July 1 2020, to extend the transition period until “20XX”: that is, for up to 80 years. This may have been amended in the version actually agreed by the EU council, but we have not been told so …
Overall, the shape of the agenda of the ‘Political declaration’ points very strongly towards a permanent relationship to the EU which will look like Norway’s. The agenda covers, in essence, creating ‘special relationships’ along the lines of all the existing EU legislation and common projects.
The common characterisation of this result as ‘vassalage’ is misleading: a feudal lord was expected to consult his vassals before making decisions. It will be closer to ‘taxation without representation’ - the power of the 18th century British parliament to legislate for the colonies, without their representation in that parliament.
This shows, as far as those Brexiteers who are willing to back the May proposals are concerned, the completely fraudulent character of claims that Brexit was about democracy or national sovereignty: they are willing to settle for less democracy than existed with EU membership, while still losing national sovereignty. The whole exercise, from David Cameron’s referendum on, is displayed as being merely about party political advantages for the Tory Party.
Backing the deal
The core of the Tory Party and a large part of big capital seems to have coalesced round the promotion of the idea that this is the best possible Brexit deal and should be supported for fear of ‘chaos’ as the alternative. The Confederation of British Industry and other business bodies have made direct statements in support (though briefing privately that the deal is a bad one).3 The Rothermeres had already moved behind May, with the replacement of Paul Dacre by Geordie Greig as Daily Mail editor.4 The Daily Express has toned its Brexiteering coverage down substantially since November 14, and so has The Daily Telegraph. Little has been heard since November 17 from the ‘gang of five’ (Fox, Gove, Grayling, Leadsom, Mordaunt), who were supposed to be arguing within the cabinet for May to demand further concessions from the EU side.
The supporters of the draft deal and declaration argue to the Brexiteers that the alternative is no Brexit at all, or a Corbyn government; to remainers they argue that the alternative is a no-deal Brexit. That this rather obvious doublespeak has not so far been punished by sharp criticism in the media again illustrates the appearance of the beginnings of a ruling class consensus on the issue.
Capital, after all, rules mainly through lobbying, bribes and litigation, not through getting its open agents elected. And a May-style deal, while denying British voters any voice in European affairs, will not deny ‘British’ companies access to lobbying the European institutions, bribing officials or litigation in the European courts.
Some EU officials, briefing British journalists, have held out the possibility that the March 2019 Brexit date might be delayed if there was to be a new referendum with the option of ‘remain’ on the table. Rerunning the referendum on slightly different terms would be a traditional EU way of doing things, as in Denmark on the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, and Ireland on the Treaties of Nice in 2002, and of Lisbon in 2009. But British politics practically rules it out. Diane Abbott has rightly said that a new referendum under present conditions would probably be won by ‘leave’ again.
Meanwhile, however, the remaining EU states have been taking a pretty hard public line on the issue. On November 25, after the EU council meeting, ministers and officials were lining up to take their turn to say that they regretted the UK leaving, but nothing other than the May deal is or can be on offer.5
The underlying point was made explicit in the November 27 oral arguments in the ECJ, where lawyers for the EU council and commission argued that it would be intolerable for member-states to be allowed to endlessly threaten withdrawal to extract concessions, and then reverse themselves.6 It would from this point of view be better for the EU for the UK to actually leave and, if it wanted to rejoin, apply in the regular way (and therefore, incidentally, accept Schengen and the euro and lose its various other opt-outs negotiated with threats of withdrawal between 1975 and now). The fact that the commission and council have been prepared to commit to arguing this point openly (the UK government’s lawyers, in contrast, tried to postpone any decision being reached)7 strongly suggests that we are now past the Brexit point of no return, as far as the remaining EU members are concerned.
Though technically the Brexit referendum decision could be reversed, the fact that big capital and senior parliamentary Tories seem to have fallen in behind the current proposals as the ‘least worst’ option means that reversal is now very unlikely.
At the date of writing, there is still no obvious parliamentary majority for the proposals, since the Democratic Unionist Party, a good many Tory Brexiteers and the Labour Party have all announced that they will vote against them.
The arguments of the supporters of the deal have been to considerable extent addressed to Labour ‘remainer’ MPs. Statements that ‘The alternative is no deal’ and ‘the alternative is chaos’ are in reality demands that these MPs should provide the parliamentary backing which the government lacks without them.
Since the DUP has announced that if this agreement passes it will reconsider its ‘confidence and supply’ support for May’s government generally, the logic of such a vote would very plainly be towards either a snap general election or some sort of ‘government of national unity’. “Senior Tory” negotiations with “some” Labour MPs for the latter have already been reported in The Sun (November 16).
Without actually committing the government to anything very definite beyond the transition period (except to new treaty commitments to further entrench neoliberalism), the new proposals potentially impale the Labour Party on a four-way political fork, or caltrop.
If the Labour leadership sticks with voting against the proposals, the Tories may be able to entice a large number of Labour rightwingers into voting for them: hence into a split in the Labour Party which would - as in 1982-83 - give the Tories another 14 years in government, and perhaps into a ‘government of national unity’ to see through Brexit or to ‘deal with the Brexit problem’.
If the Labour Party stays united in voting against the proposals and they are defeated, the Tory Party could dump May and unite for a snap general election, in which Labour is accused of obstructing Brexit and thereby the will of the people - and, specifically, the will of those Labour constituencies which voted ‘leave’. Such an election could achieve for England what Cameron achieved for Scotland in 2014 - the representation of Labour as the party of the metropolitan elite, which had betrayed its class roots.
If the Labour Party bites the bullet and votes for the proposals, the Tory Party could not play this card. But a new populist party led by Nigel Farage (who is right now bidding against the current UK Independence Party leadership over the ‘Tommy Robinson’ issue) could run effectively in Labour ‘leave’ constituencies.
The fourth spike of the caltrop has been in operation for the last 18 months, and has so far proved blunt: that is, that failing to draw the Labour Party leadership into clear ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ commitments, which could be used against them to accuse Labour of betraying the working class (‘remain’) or the youth (‘leave’), the BBC and capitalist media have gone on and on about Labour failing its voters and the country by not intervening decisively. This spike seems blunt, in the sense that Labour’s standing in the polls has not been seriously damaged by this long-running campaign.8
But the pressure from Labour ‘remain’ campaigners has recently intensified;9 May has embarked on intensive lobbying of Labour MPs;10 and panic might produce tipping the thing over onto one of the sharper points, where it would do more damage.
If the Labour Party could be lamed by the caltrop, then, once it has been clearly defeated (whether by a national unity government, a split, or defeat in a general election after a right-populist campaign), British capital and the majority of the Parliamentary Tory Party could comfortably settle for a ‘May-style’ deal which preserved the entrenchment of neoliberalism by the Single European Act and treaties of Maastricht and Nice, while denying the British electorate any votes as to European policy.
What will now happen is undoubtedly very uncertain. This uncertainty has in a sense characterised the whole process since the 2016 referendum delivered its unexpected result. However, the motion which follows is framed on the assumption that it has now become not only possible, but quite likely, that the UK will in fact exit the EU, through the transition period and, ending with some sort of ‘May-style deal’, a very prolonged transition period, or a Norway-style deal. How, in these circumstances, is it possible to pursue a working class politics which does not reduce the movement to a tail for the nationalists (‘Left exit’ or ‘Lexit’) or a tail for the liberals and Blairites (left ‘remain’)?
1. The CPGB from the outset characterised Cameron’s Brexit referendum as a scam. The outcome, assuming the present proposals or something like them are adopted, will turn out to be most of the features of EU membership, but with reduced political democracy. Our view that this was a scam will be confirmed if this does turn out to be the result.
Equally, we argued that neither ‘Lexit’ (left Brexit) nor ‘left remain’ would allow the left to develop a political line which would promote working class political independence. This too has been confirmed. The Morning Star’s ‘Lexitism’ has not promoted any concrete agenda beyond hostility to Labour Party ‘remainers’. The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales have been quite quiet about their lines on the issue, as if ashamed of it. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, which has most vigorously defended a ‘left remain’ perspective, has been led to prettify the EU’s neoliberal aspects and airbrush the treatment of migrants by ‘fortress Europe’; and has itself recently admitted that ‘Another Europe is Possible’ has turned into ‘NGO politics’ - in effect, astroturf for a neoliberal ‘remain’.
2. It appeared at first sight that the 2016 referendum result was an accident, which could be relatively easily reversed. The election of Donald Trump as US president in November 2016 made it clear that it was, on the contrary, part of the general trend towards rightwing nationalist populism, directed against the neoliberal elites of ‘financial globalisation’, which had begun elsewhere well before these events. The UK and US merely came late to this party.
It is this background which has made both the Labour leadership and Tory remainers understandably cautious about being seen to be ‘enemies of the people’ (as Dacre tagged the senior judiciary in November 2016) by openly championing reversal of the decision.
In reality, forms of rightwing nationalist populism have been growing since the late 1990s, for two reasons:
The first is that the true character of neoliberalism has gradually become clear. That is, it creates radical insecurity, and not rising prosperity - except temporarily for places to which production is for a while moved in search of cheap labour and other forms of regulatory arbitrage.
The second is that the left has remained committed to forms of politics which self-identify the left with the dead end of Stalinism - bureaucratic centralism, nationalism, downplaying constitutional issues, broad-frontism and people’s frontism, desperation to get into government, and so on - and hence sterilise any leftward radicalisation. With the left crippling itself, what remains as a (so-called) radical opposition to neoliberal financial globalism is rightwing populism.
The result is the one seen in the political incapacity of both ‘Lexit’ and ‘left remain’. A people’s front with the liberals (left remainism) tags the left with responsibility for the policies which have called forth rightwing populism. Vote Clinton - get Trump. A people’s front with the nationalists (Lexiteering) is merely to tail the rightwing populists. In fact, we know perfectly well that these latter do not deliver on the ‘anti-capitalist’ element of their promises. Vote Trump - get tax cuts for the rich.
3. The same issues explain the inability of the left on a European scale actually to campaign for the idea that ‘another Europe is possible’. This European left is divided into two groups. On the one side are elements of surviving ‘official’ communism, which cling to ‘socialism in one country’ against the idea of European unity, seeking instead unity with local rightists, or merely providing astroturf for European support for the foreign policy of the Putin administration. On the other side are groups of Eurocommunist origin - or of far-left origin, but influenced by Eurocommunist ideas - which cling to alliance with the liberals and to the constitutional orders of the EU and the member-states, thus ending as apologists for the EU itself and its policy.
The political institutions of the EU - in particular the parliament and, all the more, the direct parliamentary elections which started in 1979 - created the possibility of common political action of the workers’ movement on an EU-wide scale. It was this possibility which the workers’ movement could haveexploited to develop a political challenge to the rule of capital on a European scale. Any real ‘left remain’ policy would have depended on the European workers’ movement having sufficiently pursued this agenda before 2016, for it to have appeared in 2016 as a real policy alternative to nationalist populism. As it is, it is in Europe as well as in Britain that the left ends up tailing either nationalism or liberalism.
4. Socialist construction in a single country, and even a left-nationalist or national-reformist break in a single country from the iron cage of the diktats of US imperialist capital and its international institutions (International Monetary Fund and so on), is illusory. The crisis in Venezuela and the liberalising turn in Cuba are examples of this. Production is now too much internationally integrated to be carried on at any level beyond the marginal without access to trade. Through the control of finance, and the elaboration of sanctions against the supply of ‘strategic’ capital goods, the US can effectively choke the economy of any single nation-state. In Europe, the Greek tragedy shows the ability of the EU and its controllers to do the same to any single country. The inability of the Tory Brexiteers to offer a realistic alternative to May’s agreement is yet another symptom of the same thing - eg, Dominic Raab’s failure before he became Brexit minister to appreciate the dependence of UK production on the port of Dover.
It thus remains true that, whether the UK is in or out of the EU, we need working class political action on a continental scale - meaning, for this country, on a European scale - to pose the possibility of an alternative to the choice between neoliberalism and rightwing populism.
On a continental scale, it is possible to pose the possibility of an alternative - because Europe as a whole, unlike Venezuela, Greece, or even the UK, could face down the financial markets, the sanctions and the threats of US military action which would meet such an alternative. But the condition of doing so is to be willing to pose the alternative of radical democracy (and hence the overthrow of the treaties) and socialist reconstruction (and hence extensive socialisation and planning in natura of production). It requires a break with the people’s front policy and constitutional loyalism.
Being out of the EU will act as a disadvantage to pushing such a policy (shared with the Swiss and Norwegian movements) - but a rather marginal one, given the paralysis of the European left by its people’s frontism. Given the condition of the European left, this real disadvantage is not worth the cost of lining up behind the liberals to attempt in the last ditch to reverse the referendum result. Rather, we need to promote the idea of workers’ action on a European scale both within and beyond the EU institutions.
5. The Labour Party is also faced with this problem. As ‘Labour remainers’ have argued, Labour’s 2017 manifesto did not involve any violation of European Union law. It did not do so because it was, in fact, extremely timid - at most slightly to the left of the 2015 manifesto. Labour’s current expressed policy combines elements of nostalgia for a purely national economic solution, reflected in proposals to improve national ‘competitiveness’, with unwillingness to face up to the extent of neoliberal commitments in the current European (and British) legal regimes or to confront the constitutional issues. Labour thus stands Janus-faced in relation to liberalism and nationalism, unwilling to break with either. It does so because the Labour leadership hopes to win ‘power’ (meaning governmental office) without actually persuading a majority to change their minds. This position is reflected in its extreme difficulty in expressing any clear position in the face of the Tory attempts to manoeuvre Labour into a false position.
A Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn is a relatively unlikely option unless the present parliament runs its full term until 2022 and in the interim a good deal more reselection takes place, without there being a large enough split to hand victory to the Tories. A snap election in the near future, which produced a Labour majority, would result in a rightwing parliamentary party, and would therefore be more likely to lead to a ‘national unity’ government of the labour right with some part of the Tories. An actual Corbyn government would, however, be a worse outcome for the workers’ movement. Contrary to its claims to bring austerity to an end, its constitutional, national and economic commitments would mean that it would be as much imprisoned by the demands of the bankers as was the Syriza government in Greece. Britain is larger than Greece - but as much dependent on trade. The result would be nothing but demoralisation and a further boost for the nationalist right.
If, however, Labour were to break with its constitutionalism and nationalism, and its aspiration to hold office without winning the political support for real change, it could fight for a policy of common action on a European scale for socialism. To set out on the road of building a real and effective opposition, rather than aspiring to immediate governmental office, could be a road to building in the medium term a movement which could challenge for real power Europe-wide.
3. Eg, ‘CBI president to endorse Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal’ The Guardian November 19; but, on the other hand, ‘Theresa May’s Brexit deal sparks concern among business leaders, leaked emails reveal’ The Independent November 23.
4. See ‘So now will MPS listen?’ Daily Mail November 28. Here the paper claims a narrow majority (41%-38%) in favour of May’s deal and an overwhelming one (52%-19%) in favour of the idea that it is the “best on offer”.
6. ‘European court to rule on whether article 50 can be reversed’ The Guardian November 27; ‘Brexit reversal bombshell: EU warns plot to stop article 50 could plunge bloc into chaos’ Daily Express November 27.
7. According to the reports (see note 5), the lawyers for the UK government, opposing the claim that article 50 can be reversed, have avoided taking a clear position by arguing that the legal issue cannot arise until the UK parliament votes to reverse it. Neither this nor the UK government’s legal arguments in the Millar case and other Brexit litigation hitherto gives me a strong impression of the ability of the government’s lawyers, but it is probably just that their brief asks them to defend the untenable in order to keep the hands of the prime minister and cabinet as free as possible.
8. Polls published on November 18 show Labour in the lead, albeit within the margin of error: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk.
9. Eg, ‘Final say: Tony Blair claims Labour moving towards backing new Brexit referendum’ The Independent November 25.
10. ‘Theresa May invites Labour MPs to special Brexit briefings in last-ditch bid to get her Brexit deal through the Commons’ Daily Mail November 27.