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

Decolonising the University, or Reviving Racialism?

30 Mar

This post – a very long one by TCM standards – is a critical assessment of calls to “decolonise” universities, through close analysis of the SOAS student union’s (SSU) report, Degrees of Racism: A Qualitative Investigation into Ethnicity Attainment Gaps at SOAS. The report, issued in September 2016, caused a furor in January 2017, with headlines reporting that it accused white lecturers of racism and being unable to teach black and minority-ethnic (BME) students. The report is broadly representative of the growing demand to “decolonise” higher education, most visible in the “Rhodes must fall” campaign. Indeed, it drew attention some months after its release precisely because SOAS student union had just issued a statement demanding the “decolonization” of SOAS’s curriculum, which many newspapers reported as a call to cease studying white philosophers.

Most media reports were extremely hostile to the students’ demands. Close analysis of Degrees of Racism shows this is partly justified: the demands are often incoherent and inadvertently racialist. However, our ire is best targeted not at students but the ideology guiding them: a confused mishmash of identity politics, relativistic postcolonial theory and consumerism. It is this ideological approach that leads them to tie themselves up in knots as they struggle to identify what is alienating and dissatisfying about their university experience. Continue reading

Will Angela Merkel Save the West?

16 Mar

TCM contributor Chris Bickerton has an essay on Merkel in the New York Times.

As Ms. Merkel prepares to meet this week with President Trump, many people may hope that she will stride into the White House and issue a robust defense of the liberal international order. Don’t count on it.

If the future of Western liberalism rests on Ms. Merkel’s shoulders, then it really is in trouble. She has often spoken in support of European and Western unity, but her actions have done little to strengthen them. Moreover, it’s not clear how deep her ideological commitment to liberalism really is — or, for that matter, whether she has any ideological commitments at all.

The full article is here.

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

The EU Has Migrant Blood on its Hands

1 Mar

Perhaps the most ludicrous claim made in defence of the European Union is that it is a bastion of cosmopolitanism and anti-racism, while all those opposed to the EU – like Brexit voters – are xenophobes and racists. The EU’s bloody borders give the lie to this cherished myth.

The EU’s cosmopolitanism rests on its supposed provision of “open borders”. But, like the classic national welfare state, this perk is selective: its existence rests on the exclusion of “outsiders”. Notwithstanding temporary “brakes”, EU citizens can move and work freely in EU countries. But EU “cosmopolitanism” is strictly for European citizens, not for people from Africa or Asia. Non-EU citizens face a wall of steel in trying to migrate into Europe.

This “Fortress Europe” approach is nothing new. Before the Arab Spring, the EU had cozied up to numerous North African dictators under its “neighbourhood” programme, bolstering their states’ capacities to interdict Arab and sub-Saharan African migrants headed through their territories for Europe. Libya’s Gadhafi regime was a leading EU partner. Italy pledged to pay the regime €5bn in 2008 to deal with “asylum seekers”, and in 2010 the European Commission gave Gadhafi €50m. In exchange, Libya organised joint naval patrols with Italy, accepted thousands of migrants intercepted by Italy, outlawed irregular migration, suppressed smuggling networks, and built a massive carceral system to intercept and deport migrants. The system was regularly denounced by Amnesty International and others, who noted that ‘rape, violence and torture were common’ in Libyan detention centres.

This was part of the gradual rescaling of European governance beyond the nation-state and even beyond the European region. Like other xenophobic Western polities – such as Australia and the United States – the EU essentially shifted its border management functions offshore. In Europe’s case, it has outsourced enforcement to vicious regimes that had not even ratified the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

This system was plunged into chaos following the Arab Spring, and this – coupled with disastrous Western intervention in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan – has led to what Europeans now call the “migrant crisis”.

Since then, however, EU officials have been painstakingly rebuilding this cordon sanitaire. In March 2016, the EU struck a deal with the increasingly despotic Turkish government whereby irregular migrants in or en route to Greece would be deported to Turkey for “processing” – in exchange, of course, for various economic concessions. This deal is explicitly aimed at ensuring zero new arrivals in the EU – a policy goal that Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders could have set. Unsurprisingly, just 8 percent of EU commitments for the resettlement of refugees have been met. EU officials have also been quietly rebuilding ties with North African governments and building their capacity to interdict migrants. Members of the European Parliament have noted the diversion of funds in the EU’s €2.5bn Africa Trust fund towards anti-migration projects.

This has been coupled with the deployment of hard military force. Barbed wire fences, abusive border guards and right-wing vigilantes have been deployed along the EU’s eastern land borders. In the Mediterranean, the EU has launched Operation Sophia, a naval force that tries to suppress irregular migration networks (“people traffickers”), as well as training Libyan forces in controlling migration. Perversely, for an operation designed to deter migrants from even trying to reach Europe, Sophia is named for a baby born to Somalian migrants rescued at sea in 2015, reflecting the thin humanitarian cloak draped over this naked use of force. The mask slipped this week as the EU’s borders chief openly attacked NGOs for rescuing migrants at sea and failing to cooperate with EU security forces.

Unsurprisingly, the atrocious conditions found in Libyan and other prisons before 2011 are now recurring across North Africa. In Sudan, which was allocated €100m in migration-related EU aid in April 2016, dozens of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees have been lashed, fined and deported. In Libya, government- and militia-run detention centres for migrants have been described by UNICEF as “living hellholes” where women and children are “beaten, raped and starved”, while border forces routinely abuse and extort migrants. Abuse is also reportedly widespread in Europe’s own migrant camps in Germany, Italy, Greece and elsewhere.

And what is the “cosmopolitan” EU’s response to such reports? The president of the European parliament, and Austria’s foreign minister, called for mass camps to be established in North Africa to intern migrants. Germany’s foreign minister rejected the proposal – but only because the (NATO-induced) chaos in Libya makes it “unrealistic”.

United Nations experts state that inhuman conditions in Libya are driving more migrants to attempt the risky sea crossing to Europe. The International Organisation for Migration states that migrant deaths on the Libya-Italy crossing from January to February this year are up 300 percent on 2016, to 326. At least 5,082 died crossing the Mediterranean last year.

Nonetheless, the EU’s brutal policies seem to be bearing fruit. Irregular migrant arrivals in the EU have fallen from 1.05m in 2015, to 387,739 in 2016, and arrivals in early 2017 are also dramatically lower than for the same period last year: 13,924 versus 105,427. These are the sort of figures the “cosmopolitan” EU touts as a “success”.

Inhuman attitudes towards refugees and economic migrants did not begin with, and were not caused by, Britain’s EU referendum. They are rife across Europe, following decades of economic decline and mainstream politicians of every stripe pandering to racist and anti-immigration sentiment, instead of confronting it. These attitudes are now at the heart of the EU’s migration policy. The human cost should shock the conscience of any cosmopolitan.

Restoring representative democracy at the national level, as TCM advocates, will not solve these problems overnight, but it will create an opportunity to do so. Making national political elites accountable to their own electorates again would make it far harder for them to outsource control over migration policy to remote supranational agencies, which then subcontract vicious regimes outside Europe. Moreover, this outsourcing of migration control has led people in Europe to see immigration as something “done to them” by the EU, as if it were an external, supranational force, not simply the consequence of their own political elites’ retreat from democratic engagement. If immigration controls are restored to national parliaments, we can have honest national debates about the appropriate policy to pursue, and we would then own those policies and their consequences – we would have no one else to blame. None of that guarantees a progressive or humane policy; but, crucially, nor does remaining within the EU, whose record is dire. The case for an internationalist migration policy must be made, and won. It is only by winning popular consent that we can ever hope to begin relating to migrants as what they are – our fellow human beings.

Lee Jones

Future posts on TCM will take up this theme and explore how a restoration of national sovereignty can be combined with a progressive and internationalist agenda.

Beyond Resistance

15 Feb

This week, TCM author Alex Gourevitch has an article at Jacobin on the limits of resistance and the tendency of the Left to substitute a short-term politics of fear and outrage for a long-term politics of freedom. This leaves the Left without an independent set of ideas or organization to which it might win people, and leaves it in the uncomfortable position of tacitly serving as the shock troops for the Democratic Party.

Readers of this blog can read the article here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/trump-gop-democrats-protests-marches-social-movement/

Whose Strike?

3 Feb

Following the massive Women’s March and the surprising partial success of protests against Trump’s immigration ban, many feel that the logical step is to escalate. Seize the momentum, put more pressure on the administration, disrupt and paralyze as much as possible. I feel it myself. There are ways in which there is more possibility in the air than there has been in a long time, and Trump has wasted little time going about his authoritarian business.

That, no doubt, is the reason why the idea of calling for a general strike – a general national strike – has caught the imagination over the past few days. After Francine Prose put the idea out in the Guardian, it spread rapidly throughout social media, and split into multiple proposals and counter-proposals.

Some, including Prose herself, see themselves carrying on in a venerable tradition of mass social disruption. But, as much as these proposals look like a natural response to the moment, they are severely disconnected from reality. Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past. The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude to history and their very distant relationship to the working class.

The United States has the most violent labor history of any major industrial country. General and other large-scale strikes in the US have nearly always been met with major repression, from police, National Guard, even federal troops. For instance, the general strike in San Francisco of 1934, which developed out of a longshoremen’s strike, led to running battles with the police and a number of deaths.

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Running battles on San Francisco’s Embarcadero 

National Guardsmen set up machine gun nests and tanks for strike suppression

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The massive strikes in the period of 1919-1922, involving more than 1 million workers in industries like railroads, steel and mining, were met with enormous violence. One of the most famous is the coal mining wars, which culminated in the Battle for Blair Mountain. It pitted armed and organized miners against a private militia, federal troops, bombing runs by employer-hired aircraft, and some of the first post-war uses of military planes. Hundreds of miners died in the battles.

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Rifles collected from defeated miners

During the Ludlow Massacre, National Guardsmen mounted a machine gun on a train, and mowed down strikers and their families living in tents.

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Machine gun nest at Ludlow 

During the massive Pullman Strike of 1894, during which Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was arrested, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and the Attorney General carpeted every state from Illinois to California with injunctions and martial law. Federal troops aided local police and private guards to suppress the strike.

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Federal troops guarding a train during Pullman  

We can tell similar stories for the suppression of the Great Strike of 1877, which included a general strike in St. Louis; for the strike wave of 1886; for the Lawrence strike of 1912; for the Little Steel Strike, Harland County strikes, the Auto-Lite Strike, the Minneapolis strike, and the textile strikes of the 1930s; and so on and so forth.

This isn’t just distant history.

On March 10, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “Local 1199,”* a radical local of drugstore and hospital workers, and spoke about the need for organizing the unorganized and for a trans-racial class alliance against exploitation and imperialism. Turning his attention to African-American sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit….just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” Less than a month after calling for a citywide general strike, King was assassinated in that very city.

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National Guardsmen at the Memphis Strike

The Phelps-Dodge strike of 1983 pitted local miners against riot police.

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Tear gas and cops at Phelps-Dodge

During the Hormel Strike of 1984-5 in Austin, MN the National Guard helped local police forces suspend civil liberties, impose deeply oppressive labor law, and undermine the strike.

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The National Guard helping break the Hormel Strike

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign was not exactly peaceful.

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The more seriously disruptive the strikes, the more dangerous they are. It is no doubt true that the American state has reduced its readiness to violently repress workers. But even that is as much a function of the decline in worker militancy itself as it is a more tolerant view of major strikes.

Even when not violent or repressed, strikes are serious business. They are often lost, and if strikers aren’t injured they can lose their jobs, friends, and even families. The law is pitted heavily against workers – they can be replaced, they lose free speech rights when at work, even the whiff of strike activity allows employers to shut down the entire factory, and legal protections of workers are poorly enforced. The police and the rest of the security apparatus are usually happy to enforce that law, and there is often no way for workers to carry out a proper strike without breaking those laws. To the degree we have forgotten this, it is because worker militancy has declined, strike rates are way down, and union memberships have dwindled into the low single-digits.

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Alex Gourevitch

* The original post said “SEIU Local 1199,” but Local 1199 only joined SEIU many years after MLK addressed them.

 

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