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Off with Henry VIII’s Head! The Need to Reclaim Brexit from the Executive

3 Apr

Nine months after the UK voted to leave the EU, the government has now invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, signalling Britain’s intention to depart and beginning two years of complex negotiations. TCM has supported Brexit as a necessary step for reviving Britain’s degraded representative democracy, and thereby popular control over politics, against the twin perils of technocracy and populism. We have never been under the illusion that Brexit would instantly achieve this goal, still less create some leftist paradise. Whether representative democracy is revived depends on how political forces act now. The Brexit process involves two major challenges to popular control: the Article 50 negotiation process itself, and the “Great Repeal Bill”, both of which risk centralising power in the hands of a narrow, technocratic elite.

First, the Article 50 process re-submits the UK to anti-democratic EU processes. Against those Brexiters who argued, in a populist manner, for the immediate triggering of Article 50 after the referendum, TCM warned that this was a technocratic trap. Article 50 was deliberately designed to make it difficult for member-states to leave. The cacophony of voices now warning that a deal cannot be done in two years merely illustrates the point: by imposing an unrealistically tight deadline, Article 50 clearly seeks to deter anyone from even daring to leave. More importantly, the negotiating process will convert the democratic moment of the EU referendum into a technocratic process. In keeping with an institution that has transformed public policymaking into nineteenth-century-style secret diplomacy, the negotiations must be conducted in private, with representatives of the Council and the Commission. We wanted as much democratic contestation over the terms of Brexit before UK officials entered this technocratic process to decide our future.

Remainers have squandered this collective opportunity to shape the process by indulging in pointless fantasies of parliamentary revolt against the electorate. The last nine months have not seen substantive debates over what form Brexit should take, but rather an anti-climactic struggle over who – the executive or parliament – has the right to pull the Article 50 lever. This legal battle was only waged in the hope that parliament would refuse to pull it; but parliament could not deliver. Parliament’s “victory” was empty because it was a gift of the courts. It was the government that retained the democratic mandate of the referendum, and parliament had nothing of substance to add. The government was forced to produce a White Paper, but this provided scant detail. The main commitments made were on leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but little else of substance has been discussed, and the bill was not seriously opposed in the Commons despite widespread disquiet about these terms. MPs finally seemed to realise that they could not oppose Brexit, but they completely failed to offer any vision for it.

Parliament therefore passed a pro-forma act, authorising the triggering of Article 50 but not imposing any significant conditions on the negotiations. The government merely pledged to report regularly to parliament – necessary, but hardly sufficient for popular control over the process – and to permit a final vote on the outcome – which, as we have argued, does not create real democratic choice. Most bizarrely, it was only after the bill was passed that the sclerotic Labour Party issued a list of “conditions” that the final deal must meet to gain their support in 2019. Remainers taunt Theresa May for having no plan for Brexit, but in reality it was they who had nothing substantive to offer, and therefore – feebly and irresponsibly – released the executive into Article 50 talks with the freedom to negotiate whatever it likes.

Parliament’s inability or unwillingness to take any real ownership of the process bodes very badly for the so-called “Great Repeal Bill”. The government plans to leave the EU by first domesticating the entire body of EU laws (the acquis communitaire), which parliament can then amend or repeal. This would be an appropriate restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. However, the executive is seeking a so-called “Henry VIII clause”, which would allow ministers to issue “secondary legislation” (edicts) that would amend this primary legislation. This is justified partly in technical terms: there is a lot of law to enact (over 170,000 pages), and much of it needs tweaking for the UK context.

The threat to representative democracy is obvious enough from the sinister “Henry VIII” label. Allowing ministers to dictate primary legislation is incredibly dangerous and amounts to a massive “Whitehall power grab”. Parliamentary sovereignty would be restored with one hand, then stolen away with the other.

This is clearly unacceptable, but it also underscores a key reason for leaving the EU. It is precisely because law-making has been transferred from parliament to internationally-networked executive agencies that this problem exists. For decades, laws and regulations have been initiated by the unaccountable European Commission, then adapted and finalized via secret negotiations between national ministers and European Parliament representatives in so-called “trilogues”, far removed from either public scrutiny or political debate (see here, pp.37-41, for more details). The vast acquis that now governs our lives – and must now be either retained or discarded – has been made primarily through the secretive exercise of executive power, not through our elected representatives. The proposed “Henry VIII” clause seeks to perpetuate this misallocation of authority by allowing UK ministers to decide which laws will stand or fall, or how they should be adapted to the UK. Nonsensically, it posits excessive executive power as the solution to a problem caused, in large part, by excessive executive power facilitated by EU structures.

The failure of parliament to influence the Brexit process so far, and the risk that it will be further sidelined, speaks to the degradation of representative democracy that was both expressed in, and accelerated by, the EU’s formation. As TCM’s Chris Bickerton has argued, as part of a general crisis of political representation, European governments retreated from their citizens into secret negotiations with one another behind closed doors, creating structures that further undermined democracy. European states thereby became “member-states”. As Britain leaves the EU, it casts off the legal form of member statehood, but the rotten content still remains: a political class disconnected from the masses, a parliament unused to exercising popular sovereignty, and an executive and bureaucracy accustomed to unaccountable rule.

The rot is most obvious in the party that ostensibly “leads” the official opposition. Jeremy Corbyn, betraying his own Eurosceptic principles, lost the opportunity to lead a progressive Brexit campaign. Labour, fatally alienated from the working classes it claims to represent, could not lead Remain to victory. Corbyn’s residual democratic principles, plus straightforward electoral calculus, meant Labour lacked the spine to oppose the referendum result; yet it now has absolutely nothing meaningful to offer on Brexit. Its total disarray, its inability to lead – borne of its decades-long alienation from ordinary citizens – is what allows a political pygmy like Theresa May to dominate the political scene, and the polls. She at least seems to grasp that there is a solid block of opinion requiring representation and leadership, and is seeking – however objectionably – to provide it.

The next few months will be decisive in determining whether there is anyone in the UK willing to recognize and then tackle this rot directly. Parliament needs to recover its function in representing social constituencies, take charge of the Great Repeal Bill, and exercise meaningful oversight over the executive’s conduct of the Article 50 talks. If the Remainer opposition merely persists in sneering from the sidelines, hoping to thwart Brexit two years hence, it will squander any chance of influence and, more importantly, the enormous opportunity for democratic renewal that Brexit has created.

Lee Jones

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The High Court Undermines Parliamentary Sovereignty

6 Nov

On 3 November, the High Court of England and Wales ruled that parliament, not the government, has the power to invoke Article 50 and trigger the UK’s departure from the European Union. This has generated glee from Remainers, and a bitter and sometimes ugly backlash from Brexiters. While the ruling is unlikely to lead to Brexit being thwarted, it is certainly a blow to democracy, one that illustrates the deep crisis of political representation that afflicts the UK.

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The ruling: undermining parliamentary sovereignty

Much Brexiter outrage focuses on the fact that three unelected judges are seen to be thwarting the democratic will of 17.4 million voters. Indeed, the Remainers who brought this case were not motivated by democratic impulses. They know that three-quarters of current Members of Parliament (MPs) are Remainers. By shifting control over Article 50 to parliament, their hope is that MPs will block Brexit, by overturning the referendum result of 23 June or, failing that, by kicking Brexit into the long grass.

The central question in the case was who has the right to repeal the legal rights and duties associated with EU membership that will necessarily follow from invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In the UK’s constitution the conduct of foreign relations, particularly the (un)making of treaties, is a matter for the ‘Crown’, whose ‘prerogative’ is exercised by the executive branch; hence, the government argued that it had the right to invoke Article 50. Remainers argued that the EU treaties are special because EU laws enacted under those treaties directly affect the rights and obligations of British citizens. Since the civil wars of the seventeenth century, only parliament has had the constitutional authority to repeal laws or make new law. Invoking Article 50 would lead to withdrawal from the EU and this will effectively repeal a wide range of laws giving British citizens various rights and obligations. Therefore, the Remainers argued, only the (the overwhelmingly Remainer) parliament has the constitutional authority to set that process in motion.

The judges sided with parliament – which may appear to be a victory for democracy. But considered in its political context, the judges’ legal argument actually subverts the democratic content of parliamentary sovereignty.

To begin with, what Remainers are ultimately in favour of is not the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty over the powers of the executive but remaining within the EU, and remaining within the EU necessitates parliament relinquishing a considerable part of its power to make law to the executive. The European Communities Act 1972 automatically enacts EU law as UK law, without requiring parliament to pass any further statutes each time EU law changes. UK ministers contribute to making EU law through their activity in the European institutions. The power that ministers are exercising when they make those EU laws is nothing other than the Crown’s prerogative to conduct international relations. The result is that Remainers who loudly claim to be upholding the sovereignty of parliament against Theresa May’s reliance on the prerogative are the same people who want parliament to continue to surrender a significant part of its law-making powers to the Crown in the form of EU law-making.

If the prime minister did use prerogative powers to implement Article 50, this would not involve the Crown taking powers away from parliament. Parliament asked the British people in the referendum whether we wanted to retain the rights associated with EU membership, and a majority voted not to. If the government invokes Article 50, it would simply be implementing a democratic decision called for by parliament itself. Moreover the government has pledged to maintain all of the legal rights and duties in domestic law that arise from EU law, allowing parliament to retain, repeal or amend them after Brexit.

Parliamentary sovereignty is threatened far more by the legal ruling than it is by Theresa May. The judges’ insistence that parliament’s sovereignty requires parliament to make the decision on Article 50 pretends that the decision has not already been made by the people that parliament is supposed to represent. The judges’ ruling therefore opposes parliamentary sovereignty to popular sovereignty. The political authority of parliament ultimately derives solely from the extent to which it represents the people. By encouraging and empowering our political representatives to set themselves against the majority decision, the ruling has the effect of undermining the true sovereignty of parliament in the name of upholding it.

The crisis of representation

The ruling underscores the deep crisis of political representation in Britain. Theresa May’s reluctance to hand the authority over Article 50 to parliament is not simply because she thinks ‘revealing our hand’ is a bad negotiating tactic. It is because she cannot trust the predominantly Remainer MPs to accept the referendum result, and can foresee disaster should they refuse to do so. A large majority of the public backed May on this, suggesting that they, too, do not trust MPs to represent them. The same sentiment is conveyed by the shrill Leaver reaction to the court’s judgement.

This is not a ‘constitutional crisis’, as some are saying; it is a crisis of political representation, expressing the disconnection of the political elite from the electorate. Parliament has been exposed as highly unrepresentative: 74% of them – and every political party bar UKIP and the Ulster Unionist parties – backed Remain, versus just 48% of the voters. Many MPs have openly expressed a desire to frustrate the outcome. This creates a situation where it is the executive branch that more accurately represents popular sentiment by pledging that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

This is hugely problematic precisely because, as TCM has repeatedly argued, open debate and participatory democratic processes are now vital to determine what Brexit actually means in practice. The majority of people favoured leaving the EU, thereby authorising the government to change the law accordingly, including by repealing rights associated with EU membership. Nevertheless, the exact nature of Brexit was never defined during the campaign; no one can seriously argue Leave voters endorsed any particular option.

From the democratic point of view, it would be good to have as wide a political debate on this question as possible. The Brexit negotiations are not a matter for secret diplomacy, still less are they a poker game. The terms of Britain’s departure concerns us all. If Brexit is going to restore representative democracy, and strengthen parliamentary sovereignty, then the process should begin with collective political debate on defining what Brexit means. This involves representing the interests of both Leavers and Remainers. The referendum produced a clear result, but 16 million people still voted to Remain. They must accept that they lost on the fundamental question of EU membership, but are fully entitled to have their concerns and interests reflected in discussions on the nature of Britain’s departure.

However, the crisis of representation is such that, although parliament should be making decisions on the form of Brexit, it is unrepresentative with respect to Brexit itself, and therefore ought not to be given a veto over Britain’s departure from the EU – which is what giving MPs a final say over Article 50 does.

The real threat to parliamentary sovereignty arises from legislators’ continuing willingness to hold Brexit hostage, which is only encouraged by the High Court’s judgement. If MPs really respected the true basis of parliamentary sovereignty – the will of the electorate – they would stop blackmailing the electorate. They would unambiguously commit themselves to respecting the referendum result and leave invoking Article 50 to the executive. They would confine themselves to debating how best to implement the judgement of those who give them their authority. As long as they refuse to do this, too many electors will not trust them to be involved and the government can correctly stake a greater claim to true representativeness and to the political authority to keep the negotiations secretive.

Will the judgement foil Brexit?

Despite Leaver anxiety, the simmering mutual antipathy between the Leave majority in the electorate and the Remain majority in parliament will probably keep the UK on course to leave the EU. Work to model the EU referendum results at constituency level shows that 421 out of 574 English and Welsh constituencies probably voted Leave, and 270 definitely did, while only 152 constituencies probably voted Remain, while only 76 definitely did so. If MPs defy the referendum result, they would face an enormous backlash and many could lose their seats.

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Theresa May understands this – which is why she has doubled down on Brexit, reiterating her intention to invoke Article 50 by March. Many Remainer MPs too are hearing the electoral message, and now say that parliament’s role is to scrutinise the government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain pursues an approach that protects British interests – from their perspective, staying in the single market. Following the ruling the Labour Party leadership has reiterated that Labour will not block Article 50, but will just ‘fight for a Brexit that works for Britain’. True, some MPs are still clinging to the idea of a second referendum on the final deal, but for reasons we have outlined previously, that is both politically unacceptable and impractical, making it very unlikely to fly in the Commons. The betrayal of the referendum result is therefore technically enabled by the High Court’s judgement, but remains politically unlikely.

If it does happen, the consequences will be unpredictable. One possibility is that Leave voters will rebel against their turncoat MPs, forcing their deselection or defecting to other parties – possibly reviving the disintegrating shambles that is now UKIP. While this revival would be a regrettable result of Remainer intransigence, it would at least have the positive outcome of disciplining the people’s representatives, showing them that they cannot continually defy the voters’ will. That might actually strengthen representative democracy. However, another possibility is that parliament’s frustration of the referendum result deepens popular cynicism towards the electoral system and the elitist Remainer parties populating it. The electorate will then increasingly look for solutions that attack and circumvent this system, making them prey to extremist populist appeals.

Although Remain MPs appear to be seeing sense, the possibility that parliament might frustrate the majority decision in the referendum is still a greater threat to democracy than giving the executive wide discretion to interpret the result, undesirable as that is.

The Supreme Court may yet dig parliament out of the mess it has got itself into by finding a way to reverse the High Court ruling when the government appeals in December, though it would be unwise to set too much store by the judges’ democratic instincts. The highly personalised attacks on the High Court judges in the Brexit-supporting media are no doubt intended to intimidate the Supreme Court. If the court does not overturn the ruling, a general election may be the only solution. Whatever the final result of the legal proceedings, parliament is at a crossroads. MPs can choose to undermine democracy further by continuing to delay or frustrate the implementation of the majority’s decision. Or they can participate in the renewal of democracy by giving up their claim to have a right to do so.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

Invoke Article 50 Now? Be Careful What You Wish For

30 Jul

This is a follow-up to our earlier post, where we argued that invoking Article 50 immediately, as some are demanding, is a mistake.

A majority of voters in the referendum issued a clear instruction: “leave the EU”. The problem, however, is that “leaving the EU” could mean anything from Little Englander isolationism to “Brexit in name only”, retaining EU regulation, budget contributions and freedom of movement without formal EU membership. There is no clarity on what “leave the EU” actually means because the referendum was a democratic moment, not a democratic movement. Just as Remainers offered no positive vision of the EU, so Leave campaigners failed to offer a compelling, detailed vision of a post-Brexit Britain, relying instead on fearmongering and dubious spending commitments. They have not emerged as a triumphant, coherent force leading Britain towards a clearly specified destination; instead, they promptly imploded.

This matters because, when Article 50 is invoked, someone must instruct Britain’s negotiators what to actually bargain for. This is how international negotiations work: political leaders instruct technocrats on the broad objectives and “red lines”, then leave them to work out the details. At present, the task of defining Britain’s objectives falls entirely to an unelected prime minister and a handful of Tory ministers.

If Article 50 were to be invoked tomorrow, as some demand, what would their instructions be? Given the lack of any coherent plan among Leavers, one possibility is that we blunder in with poorly defined or impossible objectives, emerging with an extremely poor deal. Otherwise, given the risk aversion and pro-EU sentiment of the British establishment, the default position is likely to be one that safeguards as much of the status quo as possible. It is also likely to be strongly influenced by powerful corporate interests like the financial sector. They understand that everything is potentially up for grabs and have already begun lobbying government to ensure their interests shape Britain’s negotiating strategy. The risk, then, is an outcome of “Brexit in name only” – which is not what a majority of Leave voters wanted.

Some nonetheless suggest that we could mobilise to influence this process once it has begun. This betrays ignorance of the Article 50 process and the realpolitik of international negotiations. Firstly, when Article 50 is invoked, a two-year clock starts ticking down: after that, Britain is out. Britain’s bargaining power will diminish with every day that passes, because of the necessity of reaching a deal before that deadline to avoid the economic chaos that would otherwise result. If the government radically changes its negotiating objectives mid-way through, that halves the time available, vastly reducing Britain’s leverage. Any government would strenuously avoid this, making massive popular mobilisation necessary to force its hand.

Secondly, unless tremendous popular pressure is brought to bear to change the negotiating format, which seems unlikely, the Brexit talks will be virtually impervious to popular control and accountability. Brexit minister David Davis will not sit around a table with his counterparts from the 27 other member-states, each representing their own publics – that is not how EU negotiations work. Instead, British technocrats – their instructions in hand – will negotiate with EU technocrats with their own instructions, in secret, with no democratic oversight. Davis could only be held to account and prevented from “fudging” the outcome if there existed a clearly defined set of objectives against which the public could judge him. Currently, no such objectives exist.

Thirdly, if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, the EU negotiating team would likely be led by Eurocrats hostile to British interests. The EU itself is in some disarray following the vote, but a spiteful faction of committed federalists – led by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt – is already demanding that Britain be “punished” to deter further defections. The Commission and the Council are currently struggling over who gets to lead the negotiations, with Juncker pre-emptorily appointing Michel Barnier as chief negotiator. But importantly, they are united in demanding that Article 50 be invoked without delay – because this empowers them. This faction wants to shore up the EU project, and it lives and dies by the EU rulebook – which states that Britain must first exit the EU, and only then may negotiate a new trade deal. If this faction dominates proceedings, Britain will find it much harder to get a good deal.

Conversely, by delaying Article 50, May buys time to court the leaders of member-states, many of whom are more pragmatic. They recognise their own economic interests are best served by pragmatism and parallel deals, not spite and strict rule adherence. Britain’s best hope for a good deal is that these political leaders are persuaded to instruct the EU negotiating team to follow these national interests, not their own priorities. Inter-state consultations also allow Britain to develop a more realistic approach and find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage.

Delaying Article 50 categorically does not mean that citizens should simply get back in their box, and leave matters to the experts. On the contrary, it is essential to harness and expand the democratic moment. The sense of energy and potential generated by the referendum needs to be channelled into developing concrete demands for the Brexit negotiations and insisting that political leaders represent our interests. This is not a step back from a democratic demand, but a step forward to make more, and more concrete, demands.

This is difficult precisely because of what the EU has always represented and entrenched: the longstanding crisis of representative democracy. Ideally, political leaders would now engage the public in concrete discussions of what they want post-Brexit Britain to look like, through grassroots organisations, civic associations, mass meetings and so on. Ideally, parties would turn these demands into concrete platforms and allow the public to vote on them, with a general election determining who leads the Brexit talks and on what terms. This only seems unlikely because representative institutions have crumbled over the last three decades. Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another, not least through the EU.

This decay is not something easily reversed – but it is essential to try. Citizens should be demanding that parties return to their basic function of representing social groups’ interests. They should also be using every social, political, civic and economic organisation at their disposal to make concrete demands of the government. Universities, hi-tech businesses and the City of London are already doing this – citizens must follow suit.

A good example of a concrete popular demand was the petition demanding that EU nationals in Britain would have their residency rights protected. Despite anti-immigration sentiment, according to opinion polls, 84% of the public back this position, and this has quickly forced the government to include this as a negotiating principle.

This process of organising, formulating demands and insisting that the government represent our interests cannot be avoided if the people are to have any influence over the Brexit negotiations. It would be necessary if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, or next year, and there is no reason think it would be any easier under either scenario. A short delay in invoking it buys time for the uphill struggle of organising. It prevents the initiative passing immediately to the technocrats on either side, who would likely define objectives conservatively and operate with minimal popular oversight. The only way to hold the British government accountable for the outcome is for the public to do everything it can to shape the UK’s negotiating objectives, then hold their feet firmly to the fire.

This post is based on remarks by Lee Jones at the Invoke Democracy Now meeting in Brixton on 28 June.

Will the UK Actually Leave the EU?

30 Jul

A conspiratorial view is circulating among some Leavers, whereby UK prime minister Theresa May is deliberately delaying invoking Article 50 – perhaps indefinitely – in order to achieve her secret goal of never actually leaving the EU, or achieve some sort of ‘fudge’.

This cynicism is understandable. There was a huge anti-democratic backlash after the referendum. The EU and its member-governments have a habit of re-running referenda whose results they don’t like. The SNP wants to veto Brexit. Much of the Labour party would like a second referendum. There is legal action pending in the high court seeking to put the decision on invoking Article 50 into the hands of our predominantly pro-EU parliamentarians. And May herself, of course, was a Remainer.

But the idea that the government will never invoke Article 50 ignores a range of facts.

Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” because 60% of Tory voters opted for Brexit, against the will of their own party leader. The referendum was called partly to staunch the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to UKIP. Failing to invoke Article 50 would be electoral suicide. It was also called to manage Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who, if betrayed now, could bring down May’s government, given its slim parliamentary majority. The idea that there is no pressure on May, that she can do as she pleases, is absurd.

The referendum outcome is also the only democratic mandate that May claims for her administration. The last time a prime minister took office without a general election – when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 – the Tories denounced it as undemocratic and demanded a general election. The only way the Tories can fend off these demands now is to appeal to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

The Scottish question is also unlikely to delay departure indefinitely. It is absurd to suggest that 1.66m Scottish Remainers should be able to override the UK’s 17.4m Leave voters. The SNP’s ultimate trump card is a second independence referendum. However, Scotland’s economic prospects outside of Britain – particularly one outside the EU – are even worse now than in 2014, and this question proved decisive then. The SNP has no interest in calling a vote they would probably lose. May is not bowing to SNP sabre-rattling – she is trying to find a way to appease Scottish voters and contain the UK’s constitutional crisis.

Nor is it likely that the eventual deal on Brexit would be put to a second referendum, enabling Brexit to be overturned. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK will be on an irreversible two-year countdown to departure; to get back into the EU, the UK would have to reapply from scratch. Voting down the deal would not salvage Britain’s EU membership, it would only plunge the country into deeper uncertainty.

Finally, what lends this whole notion a truly conspiratorial air is the implication that all of May’s speeches, foreign trips, domestic appointments and institutional reordering are part of an expensive and elaborate charade to mask her true intentions.

The greater risk now is not that the government will not invoke Article 50 at some point. It is that it will define the objectives of the subsequent negotiations in a way that essentially maintains the status quo. The British establishment is overwhelmingly pro-EU and favours stability above all else. Powerful business interests are already lobbying the government to maintain as much of the existing framework as possible. If these groups are permitted to define the terms of the negotiations, the real risk is not never leaving the EU, but rather “Brexit in name only”, an EU-lite where vast areas of policymaking remain insulated from democratic control. If this happens, the opportunity of the current democratic moment will be squandered, with Leave voters becoming even more cynical about and disillusioned with democracy.

Lee Jones

The racism excuse

28 Jun

Last Wednesday, just before the UK referendum on membership of the EU, TCM pointed out that the true nature of the European Union had not been discussed in the UK referendum campaign because that would have required an honest confrontation with the political void between the rulers and the ruled in Europe. Neither the Remain campaign nor the Leave campaign was willing to address the breakdown in representation that left the interests of millions of voters effectively unrepresented and at the same time led national governments to seek refuge from political accountability in the EU.

In the days following the referendum, that void has been impossible to ignore. Realising that the in-out vote would give them a one-off chance to have a real political impact, millions of traditional Labour voters in the relatively impoverished provincial towns and cities of England and Wales seized the chance that the referendum offered to give the finger to the political class in London and voted to Leave. Divisions between the constituent nations of the ‘United’ Kingdom were also sharpened by the result. A majority of voters in Scotland backed the separatist SNP’s call for a Remain vote, and a majority of voters in Northern Ireland also voted to Remain, leading Sinn Fein to demand unity with the Irish Republic.

The practical exposure of the lack of authority commanded by the British political elite has generated an unprecedented political crisis. In the first of a series on what the referendum tells us, Lee Jones looks critically at the idea promoted by many on the left: that the result is a consequence of rampant working-class racism.

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The EU referendum has exposed a deep class and cultural divide in Britain. Overwhelmingly, the data show that the lower social classes, particularly those who have lost out from the neoliberal socio-economic revolution of the past thirty years, voted Brexit. Immigration was undoubtedly a huge issue, too. 80% of those seeing immigration as a force for ill voted to Leave, while 79% of those seeing it as a force for good voted to Remain. Although the top reason Leave voters gave to explain their choice was the issue of democracy (49%), the second was immigration and border control (33%).

Accordingly, the dominant reaction of many Remain commentators and voters has been to call Leave voters are stupid, uneducated, and racist. The same attitudes were expressed during the campaign, particularly after the murder of Jo Cox MP, by someone who appears to be a white supremacist, and the release of UKIP’s notorious ‘breaking point’ poster. After the vote, Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with warnings about a ‘race shitstorm’ and ‘Brexit England… expecting the trucks to turn up next week deporting Poles from their council houses’. Leftist commentators openly prognosticate about ‘neofascist nightmares’. This has led many to demand that the referendum be re-run (3.9 million signatures and counting) and propose various other ways to overturn the result.

This response is as revealing as it is absurd. Even at its nastiest, the Leave campaign never proposed removing migrants already in the UK – just restraints on future immigration. There is no reason for any Leave voter to expect any deportations, and there are probably more Remain voters suggesting this, irresponsibly whipping up a frenzy of anxiety among non-citizens. It is, of course, undeniable that a minority of Britons harbour racist attitudes. Likewise these attitudes are – as with the EU vote – correlated with social class, and have risen recently with large-scale immigration. But the proportion describing themselves as ‘very’ racially prejudiced is just 3%. No doubt this small minority feel emboldened – reflected in a reported outburst of verbal abuse. But the idea that we inhabit ‘Weimar Britain’, with racist hordes slavering to take advantage of a Leave vote just doesn’t ring true. Far-right groups like Britain First can barely muster a few hundred protestors. The far-right British National Party received just 1,667 votes in the 2015 General Election. By contrast, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. To treat them all as racist xenophobes is itself an exercise in prejudice and stereotyping worthy of any racist. It is a sign of the ugly elitism that too many on the left seem willing to promote.

Much of the concern around immigration is obviously driven less by racism than by deindustrialisation, rising job insecurity, flat-lining or declining real pay and pensions, and deep cuts in social services. If voters blame those problems on immigration this is not solely a result of the influence of the right. The Labour Party and the wider left is also responsible for failing either to win people over to a pro-immigration position or to mitigate their relative economic decline.

Postwar British politics has always had a strong anti-immigration streak, and Labour and the trade unions have made major contributions to hostility to immigrants. The postwar Keynesian-welfarist settlement was always partly secured through constricting the labour supply by excluding foreigners. From the 1960s onwards, the Labour Party both supported Tory restrictions on immigration, and enacted its own. Left-wing elites only began to move in a more cosmopolitan direction from the 1970s, eventually coming to support large-scale immigration as they embraced wider market deregulation. Following the labour movement’s crushing defeat in the 1980s, left wing parties across Europe were reconfigured from a channel for working-class interests into ‘third way’ electoral machines, ruthlessly triangulating their way towards ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Increasingly staffed by cosmopolitan lawyers and professional politicos, their links to working-class communities were severed.  They pushed state policy in a formally anti-racist direction at exactly the moment that that their embrace of the market forced them to take their wider working class constituency for granted as mere electoral fodder. The Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class has now come back to bite it.

As argued by James Heartfield, Chris Bickerton and TCM, the EU expresses and entrenches this elite estrangement from the masses. Political elites have retreated into the structures of the state and then networked their states across borders, creating a transnational system of regulatory governance. Decisions that were once exposed to political contestation have thereby been transformed into matters for inter-bureaucratic bargaining and secret diplomacy. This has allowed elites to pursue policies that would not command democratic majorities at home. The free movement of people is just one of these, and part of a broader, neoliberal ‘economic constitutionalism’. Elites present these policies as beyond their control, as immutable outcomes of EU membership – when in reality they reflect and entrench their minority preferences, and those of big business.

The gulf between elites and the masses on immigration was obvious by the early 2000s. After coming to power in 1997, New Labour did nothing substantial to reverse two decades of deindustrialisation, under-employment and widening inequality. Social dissatisfaction rose noticeably as immigration surged – it was not created or ‘unleashed’ by the EU referendum – but politicians either sneered at it, or politely ignored it. Gordon Brown’s infamous description of a Labour voter concerned about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’ spoke volumes.

New Labour did nothing to win people over to a more positive view of immigration, abandoning the electorate to the right, which was happy to blame foreigners for people’s troubles. Indeed, Labour’s response to rising support for the British National Party was to promise a curb on immigration – a pledge reiterated in the 2015 general election, after years of inaction as austerity fuelled anti-immigration sentiment.

Importantly, both sides in the EU referendum campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, not just the Brexiters. The Remain campaign stressed that Britain is outside of Schengen and that David Cameron had negotiated a curb on benefits that ‘draw’ EU migrants to the UK.

immigration labour photo

The present anti-immigration mood – not just in Britain but across Europe – is not, therefore, a result of a sudden profusion of racist xenophobia; rather, it reflects a structural disconnect between elites and the working classes. The left in particular has abandoned the working class to the economic and political margins, not bothering either to persuade them of the benefits of migration or to do very much about their relative material decline. Instead, Europe’s political parties have clubbed together through the EU to impose their policies without popular consent. They have relied on EU treaties to justify free movement rather than winning the argument for open borders. The referendum outcome reminds us that one cannot rely indefinitely on undemocratic institutions to maintain policies that do not command popular support. This is equally true for those policies, like workers rights and environmental protection, that left Remainers wished to defend by staying in the EU, even while recognising its fundamentally undemocratic nature.

It is crucial for Remainers to recognise that staying in the EU would not have contained this dynamic forever. It is a structural product of the void between rulers and ruled. The idea that the EU is a bulkwark against right-wing populism is nonsense. It is the EU that causes populism to thrive by entrenching the elite-mass disconnect. Right-wing populism is rampant across the EU; indeed, it is stronger on the continent, and inside the Eurozone, than in Britain. There is no prospect of the EU closing the void. On the contrary it intends to rely on increasingly undemocratic methods to block right-wing populists from power.

If Remain had won, the void would still be there, with the opportunities for populist predation only increasing. The view that politicians are ‘all the same’, and ‘only in it for themselves’, is widespread, with many analysts warning of a crisis of democracy. Half of Leave supporters believed the referendum would be rigged, possibly by MI5. Having been systematically ignored for so long, many people do not believe that voting changes anything. Some Brexit voters openly expressed shock that their ballots – apparently cast only in protest – might actually compel political change.

If the rise of Donald Trump tells us anything, it is that these conditions are ripe for exploitation by the most opportunistic, unprincipled and dangerous forms of populism. Remainers who thought they could avoid this outcome by redoubling the conditions that produce it must now come to their senses. In the long run, it is far healthier for democracy that this situation be confronted now, that politicians be forced to engage with the masses, to actually listen to and have to argue with their views, and win genuine mass support for an open society.

The accusations of racism are an excuse for the failure to represent the interests of poorer workers. The left needs to stop branding people idiots and racists, and think about where it has gone wrong. If the left fails to do this, it will only help to create the very outcome it fears.

Lee Jones

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.

 

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