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Brexit is a strange, dreary spectacle: a grand political project floundering in a world empty of political imagination

5 Mar

Britain is taking back its national sovereignty without a vision of what national sovereignty is for. At the referendum the British people demanded their sovereignty, but in a time when their political and intellectual leaders have been talking down the idea of popular sovereignty for decades. The Mother of Parliaments is taking back its sovereignty, but the Mother of Parliaments is full of Remainer politicians who would have preferred that Brussels kept that responsibility instead.

And in amongst this is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition, which has just proposed ‘a new comprehensive customs union’ with the EU after Brexit.

This may pay off for Corbyn as an opportunistic manoeuvre at home: a gesture to differentiate more clearly the opposition from the government on Brexit, a gesture to attract Remainer support, a gesture of ‘moderation’ in anticipation of office, and a gesture to Tory Remainer rebels to undermine Mrs May.

But it is hardly the kind of political vision that Brexit Britain needs. Taken as a vision of the future, Britain outside the EU but in a customs union with it seems the worst of both worlds: lacking both EU membership and sovereign independence – dictated to by the EU, but without the say in EU decision-making it would have had as an EU member. Who would choose such an option, unless forced to do so by the political failure to achieve anything better?

Some Brexiteers have denounced Corbyn’s betrayal of Brexit and of working-class Brexit voters. They have a point. It is worth sparing a moment to appreciate how Corbyn – supposedly the spin-less ’conviction politician’ – has so coldly treated his own Bennite Euro-sceptic convictions. See also the veteran leftie protester being applauded by representatives of Britain’s decrepit bourgeoisie for selling out popular sovereignty in the name of economic caution, and for being a better conservative than the Conservatives. But then, arguably, why should we expect any better from a minor Bennite fossil leading a half-dead Blairite party reliant on an excruciating alliance with the left-overs of the twentieth-century Left, who have already cravenly surrendered the responsibility of sovereign democracy with the absurd excuse that Brexit is somehow intrinsically fascist?

But Brexiteers’ snarling tone suggests their own insecurity on the subject of Brexit. For the real ‘betrayal’ of Brexit was months ago.

Brexit had historic promise to be the beginning of a revival of sovereign representative democracy in Britain by breaking with the condition of EU member-statehood. That revival should have begun with the Brexit process itself. A UK government which had taken the time and effort to trust democracy and unite a majority of voters behind a vision of Brexit would have been much stronger entering the negotiating room with the EU. It might even have had the democratic support and political will to threaten to walk away from a harmful deal dictated by the EU, which is so necessary in such negotiations.

But, as The Current Moment argued all along, Brexiteers made the mistake of failing to trust representative democracy, and instead rushed to trigger Article 50 and marched unprepared straight into the EU’s favoured terrain: meeting-rooms safely closed off from democracy where they may bully smaller negotiating partners.

Instead of an open democratic Brexit, Britain has this mess. Instead of a democratic debate from the beginning about what to take into negotiations, the British people get this opportunistic manoeuvre by the opposition with the two-year negotiation period already half run. If Labour gains from this manoeuvre, it will only be because it, as the opposition, can profit from dissatisfaction with the failures of the government and the Brexiteers who have so badly bungled the task of leading a democratic Brexit.

Without political ideas that are up to the challenge of sovereignty and a break with member-statehood, this kind of opportunistic party manoeuvring within a decaying democracy is the future of Brexit Britain. Brexit is a beginning rather than the end of the break with member-statehood and the revival of representative democracy in Britain. Following Mr Corbyn’s path may very well lead Britain to end up maintaining the conditions of member-statehood outside EU membership. And that should be an especially pressing concern for the followers of Mr Corbyn, since the condition of member-statehood proves to be a singularly toxic environment for social-democratic parties like Labour.

James Aber

 

 

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A Brexit Proposal – Bickerton and Tuck

20 Nov

Chris Bickerton (TCM contributor) and Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard University, are publishing today their pamphlet, ‘A Brexit Proposal’, which can be downloaded here – Brexit proposal 20 Nov final.

As two prominent supporters of Brexit, they lay out why Brexit is so important for the future of democratic politics in the United Kingdom and beyond, and they give details of what a vision of Brexit for the Left might amount to. They explain why the British Left has embraced a pro-EU position and why this belies a profound misunderstanding of the nature of ‘ever closer union’. The pamphlet looks at all the outstanding issues in the negotiations – a financial settlement, Northern Ireland and EU citizens’ rights – and what a solution to each of them might look like.

 

 

Yanis Varoufakis’s fantasy politics

12 Sep

TCM contributing editor Lee Jones has a piece in Jacobin magazine critiquing Yanis Varoufakis and his DIEM 25 movement. You can read it here.

 

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.

 

Why Brexit is more than Lexit: Left Euroscepticism after Corbyn

14 Sep

Among the many questions flowing from Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership contest on 12 September, is that of Corbyn’s stance on the European Union (EU), and Britain’s place within it. Corbyn has openly expressed his scepticism towards the EU while also claiming he would be happy to stay in a reformed EU. Veteran Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee identified Corbyn’s Euroscepticism as one of the greatest dangers of a Corbyn victory, while Financial Times columnist Phillip Stephens argues that Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has tilted the balance of British politics towards exit from the EU. Leading Blairite Chukka Umuna has resigned from the Labour shadow cabinet, citing Corbyn’s alleged Euroscepticism as the reason. But before launching into predictions of how Corbyn’s victory will affect the referendum’s outcome, it is necessary to examine some of the contradiction and confusion within British left Euroscepticism.

Corbyn’s studied ambivalence towards the EU expresses the currently inchoate character of leftwing British Eurosceptisicm. As Europe’s social democratic parties tacked towards the centre over the last 30 years and committed themselves to the technocratic modernisation embodied in the EU project, Euro-babble has tended to substitute itself for genuine internationalism on much of the left. Only a rump of isolated old social democrats were left clinging to Euroscepticism. The late Tony Benn denounced the EU for its oligarchic model of power that insulates bureaucrats from popular accountability, while late union leader Bob Crow attacked the EU for dismantling the border controls he argued were necessary to protect the welfare state and working class living standards. Corbyn himself has criticised the EU for allowing tax havens to flourish in its borders, and – piling up his ambivalent Euroscepticism to new levels of convolution and complexity – suggested that he would support leaving the EU if it agrees to trade away its vaunted ‘social protections’ in negotiations with British prime minister David Cameron. In other words, Corbyn may argue that Britain should leave the EU if the EU agrees to meet the British prime minister’s conditions for Britain remaining in the EU.

Corbyn’s equivocation on EU membership subordinates questions of democratic principle to a pragmatic calculation of the extent to which membership of the EU will advance or inhibit Labour Party economic and social policy. This unprincipled approach to such a fundamental political question is a warning of what is to come from Corbyn’s leadership, and it characterises the wider left case against the EU.

Earlier this year, Owen Jones sought to rally the Eurosceptic British Left with a call for ‘Lexit’ – the leftwing case for a British exit from the EU. As Jones made clear, much of this newfound Lexit sympathy is driven by witnessing the economic punishment inflicted on Greece by the EU creditor nations. Political commentators are of course entitled to change their mind just as much as anyone else. Yet the ease with which left-wing belief in the EU has dissipated exposes just how thin and naïve that belief in the EU must have been to begin with. To turn against the EU solely for its austerity policies is to obscure the history of EU political diktat, such as the repeat referendums inflicted on Ireland or how the EU ignored the outcome of the 2005 French and Dutch referendums. These crude impositions of technocratic rule were enforced long before the economic crisis gave the justification of urgency to EU technocracy. To accept arguments for Lexit only after its treatment of Greece would be to interpret the EU as a progressive project gone awry, rather than what it is, an institution designed to evade popular rule and democratic choice. Moreover, however brutal the EU’s treatment of Greece, it ultimately tells us little about whether or not Britain should remain a member-state – particularly given that Britain is not even a member of the Eurozone. So where does this leave the case for ‘Lexit’?

The very fact that Jones felt the need to rebrand British exit from the EU as ‘Lexit’ exposes his fear of making an argument openly in terms of national sovereignty. Jones’ fears of boosting nationalism and prompting a xenophobic rampage reveals more about Jones’ contempt and fear of the British working class than it tells us about working class voters themselves. Instead of staking a leftist claim to universal interests, evidently Jones believes he can only coax his readers into leaving the EU if the issue is cast in sectional terms that exclusively appeal to them. Unwilling to make an argument for popular sovereignty, Jones is left unable to provide any political coherence to left Euroscepticism. On the one hand, Jones positions the EU as a sinister foreign power intruding on Britain from the outside to thwart economic nationalisation and redistribution – as if Thatcherism had no domestic roots. On the other hand, Jones claims that the threat of Lexit is more important than actually leaving the EU. The threat alone, argues Jones, will encourage Germany to loosen its austerian stranglehold on the Eurozone’s weaker economies, and boost the flagging electoral fortunes of Podemos and Syriza.

It is difficult to think of an argument for Britain leaving the EU that undercuts itself so effectively, and that sacrifices international solidarity so readily. Let us leave Greece and Spain shackled to a more benign German hegemon, Jones tells us, while Britain retreats behind the walls of a social democratic Jerusalem once the corporate hirelings from Brussels have been thrown out. Here, there is no principled position on British membership of the EU, or even an appeal to the British demos – only an instrumental calculation about preserving the vote of struggling leftist parties across Europe. Surveying the arguments offered by Corbyn, Jones and their allies, the only common position that can underpin Lexit is economic nationalism. In other words, the EU cramps the nation-state’s capacity to protect national industries and defend welfare provisions and entitlements.

The problem with this position is that it is about the content of economic policy rather than the means through which such policy is decided. Ultimately, the democratic case against the EU is not about the content of economic policy – such as nationalisation versus privatisation – but about carving out the space democratically to decide on economic policy – or any other policy, for that matter. What is at stake in the question of EU membership is political form not content. And for better or worse, the political form of collective self-determination is still inescapably national – the sovereign state. There is no avoiding the fact that what is at stake in a British referendum is democratic restoration and popular sovereignty within Britain itself. That alone should be sufficient to garner leftwing support for Brexit.

Of course, democracy gives no immediate guarantee of the economic outcomes that Jones desires – and perhaps it is popular acceptance of austerity that Left Eurosceptics hope to outflank by imagining that an argument over Lexit can also win the popular battle against austerity. Yet popular sovereignty and democracy must remain the political priority for any progressive political opposition to the EU. The case for British exit from Europe is a national and popular one, not one that can be carried by an alliance of Islington Guardianistas and northern Labour voters. The democratic case against the EU also exposes the limited and parochial character of Jones’ Lexit vision, in which international solidarity is restricted to vainly hoping for German magnanimity towards Europe’s weaker economies. The democratic case against the EU requires not just Britain leaving the EU or more votes for Podemos and Syriza, but dismantling the EU as a whole across the entire continent, through a process of internal democratic renewal within each European nation. Brexit would be as good a place as any to start this process.

Philip Cunliffe

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