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Lexit: The Fool’s Journey

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A recent poll (10 June) estimated that 44% of those who voted Labour in the 2015 General Election will support Brexit. This was perhaps the poll that began the general freak-out amongst remain supporters. That said, neither that number nor the top line figure of 55% leave are likely to survive the vote come Friday morning.

Brexit is an emotional, nationalistic movement, and my guess is that a strong majority of that 44% figure are not motivated by the Lexit arguments. Summed up, the basic argument is that the European Union has been little more than a neo-liberal project, concerned only with big business and trade, and worse, would prevent the UK from becoming the progressive, socialist paradise should we ever, you know, elect such a government. Most Labour-Brexit support want the same (ill-informed, misguided) things all Brexit supporters want: their “country back”, an end to unregulated immigration, and to snub their collective noses at the elite.  According to at least two vocal members of the audience of a panel I chaired a few weeks back debating a “better EU”, I represent said elite.  (I’m still waiting for my membership card, instructions for the secret handshake, and the financial stability that membership of the elite promises). But, there are those that genuinely believe that Britain, and the left in Britain, would be better off and in a better position to effect progressive chance should we leave the EU.

This is a good, brief read on the folly of Lexit-ism. It outlines how ignorance over the EU is driving the left as well as the right, albeit from different perspectives entirely such that the EU is rendered some sort of schizophrenic institutional blob:

If you listen to some left-wing voices – proponents of what is being called Lexit – the European Union is an undemocratic, neo-liberal empire. It is ruled by Angela Merkel and an army of cold-hearted, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who spend their lives plotting to privatise British public services and deliberately making life in Southern Europe as miserable as possible.

Listening to both left-wing and right-wing arguments for Brexit can be rather confusing. Similar to Schrödinger’s immigrant who lazes around on benefits while simultaneously stealing jobs, the EU seems to be at the same time both communist and predatory capitalist. It has transformed Europe into a fortress while at the same time opening its borders to mass immigration. The EU’s rescue packages for Southern Europe have been too stingy while at the same constituting an outrageous burden to British taxpayers.

But here’s some truth:

But that is not the case for the UK. Britain has been driven by neoliberal economic policy for the past four decades. The EU has actually brought back all kinds of protections for workers, consumers and the environment. Among other things the EU forced the UK to introduce the statutory right to paid leave. Before the implementation of the EU Working Time Directive in 1998, two million British employees did not receive any paid holiday at all.

European integration has clearly been a left-wing corrective to British neoliberalism. Meanwhile, it was actually the UK that has pushed many of those developments in the EU that the left opposes.

The government of the United Kingdom lacks any sort of real checks and balances that can be found in many democratic systems. Yes, there’s the toothless House of Lords, who can be somewhat of a nuisance to the government of the day if they so desire, but then said government can effectively quash any objection the House of Lords raises by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949. Within this constraint, their power is limited as the Lords can not muck around with supply bills or anything mentioned in the governing party’s electoral manifesto.  What does that leave?  The Queen.  The monarch hasn’t withheld royal assent since 1708, and I’m thinking that the left doesn’t want to rely on the monarch to share in its goals regardless.

The European Union effectively provides the left of the UK with an implicit check on the ability for Conservative parliaments to make life harsh. Furthermore, in the event that Britain elects a left-ish Labour government (where left-ish equates to the left of Blair and Brown) the EU does not prevent a lot of the left’s dream agenda (which is a common critique of the EU by Lexiters):

Nor do arguments about the EU holding Britain back from re-nationalising public services and the railways stand up to much scrutiny.

The privatisation of British public utilities had a lot to do with British politics and very little with European integration. While the EU Rail Directive opened up the railways for private competition, it did not oblige member states to privatise state-owned service providers. In fact, the UK was the only big EU state to do so.

If a left-wing British government tried to renationalise the railways, or any other utilities, the EU would be the least of its worries. The main obstacles would come from within the UK, most notably from the private sector and, indeed, the electorate. British voters are – whether the left likes it or not – far more economically conservative than most of continental Europe.

The piece correctly points out that the only way for this dream to work is for a left-leaning Labour government (or, let’s face it, a Lab-SNP coalition) to get elected. Alas, there are problems with this dream.

Brexit could only be in the left’s interest if it was followed up by consequential left-wing politics. It would require a Labour party that has significantly moved to the left to get into government very soon.

Giving up on the EU and the left-wing corrective it already provides in exchange for the slim hope of a genuine left-wing government coming to power in Britain is a rather risky gamble. In the short term, Brexit will empower the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who have never made a secret of their Thatcherite fantasies.

In the long term, Brexit might render Labour completely impotent. If Britain leaves the EU against the will of the majority of Scottish voters, their appetite for independence will surge again. Needless to say the left’s electoral potential will diminish for generations without the Scottish vote.

Unmentioned is that any future Conservative government, and there will be more Conservative governments than Labour governments, can simply undo whatever it is that a progressive left government established.

Should the UK vote for Brexit on Thursday, there’s a decent chance that we’ll be governed by some form of a Boris Johnson – Michael Gove administration. This would make Kansas appear well governed in comparison. Which leaves this for our Lexiters:

Any British left wingers thinking of voting to leave the EU over these issues should perhaps instead consider leaving Britain.

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