Three tactics and the challenge of continental unity

Jack Conrad looks at the debate around the euro

At present the situation in Britain around the euro is as follows: Tony Blair is determined that the country will adopt the euro as soon as politically feasible. Differences within the cabinet are those of nuance, not substance. Moreover, as reported by Christopher Adams and Scheherazade Danenshkha in the Financial Times, behind the scenes Gordon Brown is presiding over what is to be a "massive" report (April 3).

Compiled by two teams of 10 elite treasury officials apiece, it is to be published with much fanfare ahead of his June 2003 deadline. If the political smoke signals are judged propitious, the report is set to explain, in painstaking detail, how Brown's "back of an envelope" five economic criteria for entering the euro zone have been fully met. Tony Blair is to jointly supervise writing the vital sections - the introduction and conclusion. So there can be little doubt that within the next few years the government is intending to launch a carefully choreographed referendum campaign. Blair is determined to get the 'yes' answer he needs to "what is arguably Britain's greatest constitutional question" (ibid). How should the Socialist Alliance movement view this referendum? The political spectrum is deeply divided - but not along the standard right-left axis. Instead an inward-looking British nationalism couples the far right with the reformist left against the outward-looking British nationalism of the centre. Each camp is a kind of popular front - with in each case the working class confined to the subordinate pole. Hence the outward-looking camp, the Britain in Europe 'yes' campaign, is headed by the triumvirate of Tony Blair and, sitting on either side of him, Charles Kennedy and Kenneth Clarke. Ranged behind them and their party machines, or party factions, is a broad coalition of big business interests, pro-European Union think tanks, liberal newspapers and trade union officials from John Monks to Sir Ken Jackson. An eccentric, and completely marginal, left exists in the form of London mayor Ken Livingstone and Red Pepper's John Palmer. Essentially, however, the pro-euro camp promises that workers will be better off exploited by European capital. Dark warnings solemnly come forth claiming that job massacres - from Corus steel to Consignia - are due not to the innate workings of capital, but to an "overvalued" pound. When Britain embraces the euro, everything will miraculously improve, runs the well-rehearsed message.

The 'no' campaign is unmistakably dominated by Iain Duncan Smith. Elected by the Tory rank and file on an explicit pledge to maintain the pound in perpetuity - not just for the lifetime of two parliaments, as his hapless predecessor William Hague said - Duncan Smith has inherited an unlikely anti-euro army. Besides the leader of her majesty's opposition and the shadow cabinet, the 'no' camp consists of a very motley crew: the least competitive sections of business and marooned 'official communists'; the Monday Club and Aims of Industry; weights and measures resisters and the fox-hunting landed aristocracy; foreign media magnets and the leftwing trade unions they love to hate; the United Kingdom Independence Party and Tony Benn; British National Party and National Front fascists and Arthur Scargill. Bob Crow and Mick Rix and other leftwing trade unionists find themselves passionately denouncing the sinister threat posed by the euro to Britain's sovereignty in an eerie echo of ennobled enemies such as Norman Lamont, Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit; unrepentant Nazis like the BNP might perhaps soon discover kindred spirits in Stalinite rumps, such as the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, the Revolutionary Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) and the New Communist Party; the Green Party has already affiliated to David Owen's bizarre anti-euro grouping.

During the referendum campaign the slogan from this melange of traditional privilege, English-speaking money, the disappointed and the plain dotty will though be quite straightforward: 'Keep the pound' and defend Britain. What draws them all together is the conviction that the nation-state is the subject of history. Alike post-imperial dreams of renewed glory and the national socialist utopia appear what they actually are in the context of the euro and a federal European Union - ridiculous. Communists - genuine communists, that is - have to be quite clear. Both the 'no' and the 'yes' camps are reactionary. We certainly oppose the 'no' camp - not simply because to associate with it puts us in obnoxious company, but for another, more important, reason. Communists positively favour a united Europe - even if that unity comes about under the conditions of capitalism. As long as it is arrived at democratically, it is a process that should be welcomed - and, through developing our own independent working class programme, critically engaged with. Yet being for European unity does not commit us to support every measure that comes from the EU bureaucracy and the reactionary integrationists. Far from it. The fact of the matter is that the euro comes as part of an anti-working class package of restraints on public - ie, welfare - spending and curbing wage demands. A strong common currency is designed, by binding treaty, to enforce an external discipline upon member-governments and encourage them not to buckle under pressure from below. Borrowing levels are supposedly rigidly capped.

The European Central Bank is already boasting quite openly that the introduction of the euro is directly responsible for recent falls in the size of pay increases. Therefore our Socialist Alliance 2001 general election manifesto was undoubtedly correct when it said we "neither advocate the euro nor defend the pound" (People before profit p19). Hence, when it comes to the 'euro versus the pound sterling' referendum, the Communist Party of Great Britain says that the Socialist Alliance movement should refuse to take sides. Revolutionary socialists and communists must constitute themselves as the third camp, the camp of independent working class politics. Tactically that means launching an active boycott campaign, through which our democratic slogans and socialist perspectives can be highlighted. Blair's referendum on the euro will, of course, be timed to get exactly the right result for him. It will also come with a catch-22 proposition on the ballot paper. Blair and his closest advisors are carefully crafting the two options. Hence to vote 'yes' will surely be to vote against the interests of the working class. To vote 'no' will by the same measure be to vote against the interests of the working class. No third option can be allowed where we can put our mark in favour of a massive extension of democracy in Europe and a working class agenda. Put another way, the Blair government is planning to use the forthcoming referendum in a totally manipulative manner. Not surprisingly, during their resistible rises Louis Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler and Charles de Gaulle did exactly the same - all used this very device to grant themselves overarching powers. Framing the proposition is everything. Referendums need not always be like that, of course. Often they are forced upon an unwilling government by the sheer concentrated weight of popular force. This can find constitutional expression. Citizens in Switzerland can, for example, table their own referendum questions simply by securing a certain level of popular support - 300,000 signatures. The same principle of plebiscitory democracy applies in California. There is no such right for subjects in the United Kingdom, however. Her majesty's government exercises a monopoly over referendums and they use them to get the desired result - eg, Wilson and the Common Market in 1975, Blair and the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly in 1997, the all-Ireland vote for the Good Friday deal in 1998.

It would, of course, be stupid to insist that the Socialist Alliance should permanently renounce taking sides in a referendum framed from above. It all depends on concrete circumstances. Take the referendum in Ireland over abortion on March 6 2002. The ultra-reactionary right, the catholic hierarchy and a desperate Fine Gael government combined to launch an attack on the technical right to an abortion, which was won for rape victims after a fierce fight. Their target was the principle of abortion itself. To have opted for a boycott in the name of free abortion on demand would have been facile posturing and a big mistake. Our forces were weak, disorganised, on the defensive and expectations were desperately low. Equally to have quietly gone along with those who were intent on merely retaining the completely unacceptable status quo - liberals, Sinn Fein, Labour, etc - would have been sheer opportunism. Voting 'no' against a full-scale frontal attack on the principle of abortion by the massed forces of bigotry should have gone hand-in-hand with energetically campaigning for what is needed. The welcome, albeit narrow, defeat of the government and the catholic theocrats could then have been used as a launch pad to achieve a women's right to choose whether or not have an abortion - free from any interference from either church or state. So how do things stand in the Socialist Alliance movement (a term used to indicate the Socialist Alliance, Welsh Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party)? There can be no doubt that there exists profound differences.

On the one side there are the active boycottists - the CPGB, Alliance for Workers' Liberty and Workers Power. This wing stands for independent working class politics. On the other the International Socialist Group, which calls for a 'no' vote (along with the Socialist Workers Party - which for the moment still keeps its cards close to its chest). This wing seeks to inflict an embarrassment upon the Blair government - and in the case of the ISG set the stage for an eventual British withdrawal from the EU brought about from below. The model appears to be Denmark. Thanks to a red-green-conservative grand coalition, the country rejected the euro in the referendum of June 2000 - and then in November 2001 voted into power the rightwing People's Party for the first time since 1918. There might be those who want a 'yes' vote, but I do not know them. However, Hugh Kerr, former Labour MEP and now full-time advisor to Tommy Sheridan, reported to the SSP's March 3-4 Dundee conference that there was a three-way split in the SSP - 'no', 'boycott' and 'yes'. Within comrade Sheridan's very own office, the comrade let it be known that there is just such a three-way divide. Wisely SSP delegates voted not to decide which line to adopt without having a full democratic debate. A special conference has been announced in Glasgow for June 22. However, in spite of the battle that rages between Tommy Sheridan and the other two comrades in his Holyrood office the general mood in the SSP and the SA is palpable - for joining the 'no' camp. Obviously then the argument for a boycott must be redoubled and redoubled again. Our clash with Alan McCombes, the SSP's main thinker, over the boycott tactic not so long ago is therefore instructive. Comrade McCombes contemptuously dismissed any thought of launching boycotts of referendums as "completely ludicrous". He argued that under capitalism "all referenda - and for that matter, all elections - are rigged to one degree or another". "If the CPGB's attitude" was followed through to its "logical conclusion", they would advocate boycotting all elections, he said. A boycott would relegate us to the "status of complete irrelevance" and play into the hands of the Labour leadership and the Tories (A McCombes, 'Referenda statement' Weekly Worker April 10 1997).

More recently Alan Thornett of the ISG has argued against us in similar fashion. An active boycott campaign is equated with an "abstention", which is by definition a passive stance, that would "leave the left wringing our hands on the sidelines, with nothing to say, while the Tories held forth" (Socialist Outlook February 2002). All elections under capitalism are, yes, to one degree or another "rigged". But, as argued above, that hardly leads, logically or otherwise, to boycotting every referendum. Tactics can hardly be based on the undeniable fact that establishment politicians cheat and constantly strive to deceive people. Tactics must be decided upon only after assessing class relations in the round and analysing the development of extraparliamentary and parliamentary struggles. For example in a referendum what is the question? Why is the government asking it? How purposeful and combative is the working class? Are the reactionaries on the rampage or retreating? Does a widespread popular hunger exist for more than is on offer? All such factors must be taken into account. As to boycotting all elections, practice speaks volumes here. The CPGB believes it "obligatory" under today's political conditions to stand in parliamentary and local elections "because we want to use every avenue to propagate the ideas of communism" (J Conrad In the enemy camp London 1993, p7). Elections can be turned from a means to lull the masses and gain their submission into a weapon of the class struggle - and one of the sharpest at that. So minded within the Socialist Alliance, it was the communists who took the lead in boldly arguing for the biggest possible challenge in the June 2001 general election. Fact. During a gathering revolutionary storm communists and revolutionary socialists might decide to boycott Westminster or other such Edinburgh or Cardiff elections. The same would certainly go for a referendum with a heavily loaded question - 'Do you favour the restoration of peace, stability and good governance?' or 'Do you favour national collapse, anarchy and mob rule?'

If the working class were forming councils of action and establishing defence corps, countenancing participation in such a counterrevolutionary stunt would be to betray the cause of socialism. Under such welcome circumstances we would surely demand an end to all the many shortcoming and violations of democracy that exist under the existing United Kingdom constitution. Absence of PR, the corrupting role of big money, the unelected second chamber, the royal prerogative in choosing the prime minister, etc. Perhaps we would demand that power be transferred from an unrepresentative House of Commons and House of Lords to the new organs of power that were rising from below. Naturally though, any decision to call a boycott is a purely tactical one. There is no principle involved. What about the notion that an active boycott would "relegate" us to an "irrelevance" and allow New Labour and the Tories all the running?

That such a comrade as Alan McCombes is forced to completely misrepresent the position of the CPGB says everything about the weakness of his own tactics and programme. An active boycott is hardly akin to bowing out of politics. Not surprisingly in their polemics neither comrade McCombes nor comrade Thornett devote a single word to the active boycott tactic. Instead resort to dishonest sleight of hand by which they substitute 'passive' for 'active' Incidentally, as both comrades McCombes and Thornett might recall, the Bolsheviks firmly distinguished between a "passive abstention" and an "active boycott", which implies, as Lenin explained, "increasing agitation tenfold" (VI Lenin CW Vol 9, Moscow 1977, p182). In that militant spirit the CPGB says we should stand against the twin reactionary 'yes' and 'no' camps in the euro referendum - not passively, "on the sidelines", but actively. We are not interested in solving official Britain's dilemma over the euro and EU integration. Nor are we interested in taking cheap polemical shots at rivals (which so spectacularly miss the mark). We are interested in carving out a space for socialist politics, increasing the profile of the Socialist Alliance and spreading the idea of working class unity in one party throughout the whole European Union. That cannot be advanced either through a 'yes' or a 'no' campaign.

There is, we will forthrightly explain, no need to choose between two evils. Oppose the 'yes' alliance of pro-big business politicians, EU bureaucrats and bankers on the one hand. And on the other oppose the little Britain nationalists - left and right (and, even more risible, little Scotland and little Welsh nationalists - left and right). Deliver a double blow. The energy, imagination and innovation we supply will obviously be material factors. Success will certainly not be judged by whether or not we upset the government and inadvertently give a fillip to Duncan Smith's Tories. Rather our criteria of success will be the strength of the organisation we build on the ground, and the extent our message is heard and has engaged layers of the working class. The Socialist Alliance must increase its agitation "tenfold". Practical ideas are needed so as to launch the most militant campaign objective circumstances allow - from simple agitational posters to symbolic occupations of key sites in the City of London, from local public debates to appearances on nationwide TV, from motions in trade union branches to political strikes, from door-to-door leafleting to mass demonstrations against the Europe of capital and for a social Europe. As Nice, Genoa, Brussels, Barcelona and above all Rome show - another Europe is possible.