Further Thoughts on the Left Case for Brexit

22 Jun

On the 6th June, Richard Tuck, professor of political theory at Harvard University, published an article in Dissent Magazine entitled ‘The Left Case for Brexit‘. It was a source of some controversy and here is his reply to his critics.

So far, most responses to my ‘Left Case for Brexit’ have fallen into three groups.  The first is the simple and understandable fear that Brexit will hand power in Britain to the people who have been most vocal in its support, and they do not include many figures on the Left: Brexit would therefore represent an historic defeat for the Left in Britain.

The point of my article, however, was that there has always been a Left case for Brexit, and that abandoning the field to the Right was the historic mistake which there should be some attempt, even at this late stage, to reverse.  Continuing to oppose Brexit simply means doubling down on this mistake. Moreover, the defeat of the Left after Brexit is inevitable only if the default Left position continues to be support for the EU. If there is the possibility of accepting or even welcoming the UK’s departure from the EU and turning it to the advantage of Left politics, the defeat is not inevitable.  In the article I asked the question, Why is there no British Bernie Sanders? Brexit might allow one to appear, since it would transform the political landscape in many ways.  Without it, it is hard to see any such revival of the Left at a popular level.

More substantial are the other two responses.  One concentrates on the possible economic damage of Brexit, damage that (it is argued) will necessarily affect the poor more than the rich.  This is of course the central argument of the official Remain campaign, but it is a frustrating one.  Much of the debate has simply consisted in citing authorities, and in the process the Left has found itself in the odd position of treating as sages economists and think-tanks it would normally disregard in (say) a General Election. How often have socialist policies been criticised by those same authorities?  The tone of the economic debate is indeed exactly like that of a General Election, in which each side seizes upon suggestions by economists that support their case and disregard the rest.

That is understandable when there are reasonable arguments of a non-economic kind to incline people towards their particular party, and when the economic arguments are rhetoric; but in this instance, allegedly, it is only the economic considerations upon which people are basing their decision.  This is highly dangerous: there are perfectly good economists, particularly in the US where they can take a more neutral view, who argue that Brexit would make little economic difference to the UK.  For example, Ashoka Mody, formerly the assistant director of the IMF’s European Department and now the Charles and Marie Robertson Professor at Princeton, published a formidable article in the Independent on 31 May refuting point by point the claims of the British Treasury, and accusing the community of economists of “groupthink” on the subject.  Mody is easily as well qualified as everyone else in the debate, and has been closer to the economics of the EU than most; we could add to him Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, who knows what he is talking about and has described the Remain campaign’s economic arguments as “wildly exaggerated”.  Relying on authority, in this area as in most others, is a risky intellectual and political strategy.

There are in fact a number of features of the economic relationship between the UK and the EU that are rarely mentioned in the debate.  For example, as of 2014 the UK ran a balance of trade deficit with 18 of the 27 member countries of the EU, and a surplus of less than £1 billion with each of another eight.  But it had a trade surplus of almost £10 billion with the remaining country: Ireland.[1]  What this illustrates is that almost all statistics that treat the EU as a single economic unit, from the point of view of the UK, are grossly misleading; strip out Ireland and the EU looks very different.  Given the high degree of integration of the Irish and British economies (indeed, I have heard it said that the Irish economy is more integrated into the English economy than the Scottish one is), it is inconceivable that post-Brexit the close economic relationship will not continue, even if there are some minor tariffs: after all, having separate currencies potentially adds more costs to import/export trade than the kinds of tariffs which might be imposed post-Brexit.

And it is not clear whether there would be tariffs of any significance.  “Project Fear” has insinuated that in the event of Brexit the UK would be punished by the imposition of trading barriers: but some calm reflection would show that that is highly implausible.  Most of the debate in Britain has concentrated on the self-interest of EU countries in continuing to trade easily with Britain, but that is really the least of it.  Under WTO rules to which all the relevant countries have signed up, it is simply illegal to raise tariffs once they have been agreed at a particular level; moreover, punitive tariffs unjustified by domestic economic considerations are exactly the things which the WTO came into existence to prevent.  And for the second or third largest economy in the world (the EU minus Britain) to impose punitive tariffs on the fifth or sixth largest (Britain) would be to move decisively into an era of global protectionism and trade warfare with implications going far beyond Europe.  Both “Remainers” and “Brexiters” are fixated on ways of remaining legally in the single market, but it is not at all clear that in the modern trading world single regional markets matter very much, except (as I said in my original article) as devices to enforce a certain kind of neo-liberal economic policy.

The third set of objections to my argument amount to the claim that I am guilty of baby-boomer utopian nostalgia, and that a realistic view of the modern world, and of current British politics, shows that a revival of classic Labour policies in the UK is simply impossible.  On the charge that I am a baby-boomer, I plead guilty, of course.  I would say, however, that there is a romance of realism as well as a romance of utopianism – indeed, realism is often a form of utopianism.  The self-image of the realist is as someone who has seen truths which their idealistic contemporaries disregard, and who has thereby gained a special insight into the future: but a genuinely realistic sense of politics shows us that idealists often triumph.  More to the point, no one to my knowledge has given a convincing account of why policies and attitudes that were possible in the 1940s and again in the 1960s should not be possible again.

My central claim in the article was that we should not overlook the self-imposed character of the constraints under which the Left now labours.  Just as the US Constitution almost made the New Deal impossible, and it was FDR’s threat to flood the Supreme Court that permitted the social transformation of the US in the 1930s, so the new constitutional order of the EU makes radical policies in Britain impossible, and no British government can flood the European courts.  It is easy to think of these kinds of structures as facts of nature, just as the US Constitution now seems to be. But they are not facts of nature.

The “realists” say that the global situation has changed, and we can no longer have (as they often say to me) “socialism in one country”.  But was what the Attlee government put in place “socialism in one country”?  Were the Scandinavian welfare states in their heyday “socialism in one country”?  Is a world of interdependent but independent states, much like the world for most of the modern era, now impossible?  If socialism has to wait for a global state, or even a European state, then most people who currently call themselves socialists may as well abandon the label, since there is no foreseeable route to what they want: that is the inevitable consequence of their “realism”.  I have a more limited ambition, but (I would say) in practice a more genuinely realistic one, that the scope for Left politics can be broadened in Britain beyond its current narrow confines; but that is only possible if the political structures in Britain once again permit it.

[1]  House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No 06091, 13 April 2016, p.14.


One Response to “Further Thoughts on the Left Case for Brexit”

  1. nonmanifestation June 22, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    This post seems to be conflating two questions that I think should be separated: 1) is better, from a leftist perspective, for the UK to be outside the EU? and 2) should leftists vote ‘Leave’ on 23 June? I think it’s perfectly coherent to say ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second.

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