After two and a half years of negotiations, it is still absolutely unclear what will or will not happen with Brexit. Joseph Choonara looks at the scale of the crisis for Theresa May’s government, but also at the potential opportunities for the left to shape events, rather than simply spectate.
It is astonishing that, as I write this article, two months before Britain was scheduled to leave the European Union (EU), and after two and a half years of negotiation and planning, it is entirely unclear what fate awaits us.
Back in summer 2016, few people predicted that one of the greatest stumbling blocks would prove to be the Irish question — an issue fusing the legacy of Britain’s colonial past with the EU’s determination to police its external borders.
The EU insists that a “backstop”, keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU, is required in the Brexit agreement to prevent a hard border being imposed between the north and the south of Ireland. For Unionists, both those in the Tory party and those of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that props up Theresa May’s government, this risks introducing a different status between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK, which is anathema to them.
There are a range of solutions to this problem — from Socialist Review’s preferred solution of an end to British rule and an all-Ireland referendum on unification, through to a unilateral commitment to keep the border open to people and goods post-Brexit — but these are unlikely to win majority support in parliament.
The latest phase in this process, at the end of January, involved MPs passing an amendment demanding that May go back to Brussels to demand some unspecified “alternative” to the backstop. Indeed May herself supported this amendment, even though both she and her interlocutors in Brussels had just days earlier ruled out such a possibility.
And so, the crisis grinds on for May, for her government and for the British ruling class.
James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary socialist, who viewed the partition of Ireland into north and south as a tragedy liable to lead to a “carnival of reaction” on both sides, must be chuckling in his grave. However, it is a different piece of wisdom from Connolly that has particular relevance today: “The only true prophets,” he once wrote, “are they who carve out the future which they announce.”
The difficulty with the current situation is precisely this: too much prophesying, too little carving.
One effect of the seemingly endless crisis surrounding Brexit is to induce a kind of paralysis across much of the left. Some are caught like spectators, fascinated by the chaos, as if rubber-necking a slow-motion road accident. Many more, one suspects, are simply tired of the endless speculation, hot air and confusion.
This is unfortunate. When the referendum on EU membership took place in June 2016, I argued in these pages that it would lead to a weak and divided Tory government — opening up opportunities for the left, if we could seize them. The logic of this was demonstrated not long after when Jeremy Corbyn, to nearly everyone’s surprise, came close to dislodging the Tories from government in the 2017 general election. The parliamentary lash-up between May and the DUP, which has made a Brexit deal even harder to achieve, was one result of the resulting weakening of the Conservatives.
Not only has the crisis become even deeper in recent weeks, but we also have a dramatic illustration from across the English Channel of the way a mass movement can pose an independent alternative to the various factions of a weak and divided ruling class. Emmanuel Macron, France’s supposedly iron president, the one who promised to impose a thoroughgoing neoliberal transformation of his country, and to prop up the centre-ground of politics for whom the EU is such a beloved institution, is seeing his administration destroyed by struggle from below.
Whatever the contradictions and complexities of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement, at its most basic it poses the possibility of a progressive working class challenge to the existing order.
This is what is desperately needed in Britain: something to drag the initiative away from parliament, onto the streets, into the workplace and communities.
Struggle is not simply necessary to break the paralysis and disorientation; it is the way to begin to repair the deep divisions that exist on the left and in the broader labour movement. Brexit, an issue that ought to be secondary for the left, continues to divide people who ought to be able to work together against our common enemies.
This is obviously the case with the division between left wing “Remainers” and those, like Socialist Review, who advocated a “left exit” (Lexit) position in 2016.
One reason a second referendum would be so disastrous is that it could further reinforce these divisions. For those who advocated Remain as an anti-racist choice, a second referendum would have the perverse outcome of driving many working class people who voted Leave closer to the racist hard right of British politics, which could tap in to the sense of betrayal, posing as an anti-establishment alternative.
For many of us who advocated a left Leave, it could force us into a position where we would have to build an abstentionist campaign — because we could neither support continued membership of the EU nor the kind of deal that May is proposing. This is a difficult proposition, and so it is fortunate that neither of the front benches in parliament presently seems keen on a second referendum.
Aside from the division between left Remainers and Leavers, there are also divisions within the Lexit camp. Over Christmas, the Communist newspaper Morning Star chose to offer a feature on Brexit to Maurice Glasman. Baron Glasman, to give him his full title, was a founder of Blue Labour — a current in the Labour Party that, in the name of rejecting neoliberalism, embraced a socially conservative, nationalistic, anti-migrant distortion of socialism.
The tone of Glasman’s article is captured by one bizarre quote: “Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are doing the work of socialism by supporting the primacy of democratic sovereignty.”
Sadly, some on the left accept this kind of logic. They are prepared to sacrifice freedom of movement for EU citizens out of some misplaced conflation of socialism with national “sovereignty”. Worse still, many, on both sides of the Leave-Remain divide, perpetuate the argument that migrants undercut “British” wages — ignoring the reality that antipathy towards migrants, and the resulting division within the working class, is, and has always been, the far greater danger to wages and conditions.
What can be done to free us from this morass of paralysis and division?
Many years ago, in the forerunner to this publication, Duncan Hallas helpfully set out the difference between “agitation” and “propaganda”. He started by citing the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov’s definitions: “A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas, but presents them to a mass of people.”
Hallas went on: “For the most part socialists in Britain are not talking to thousands or tens of thousands. We are talking to small numbers of people, usually trying to win them through general socialist politics, rather than on the basis of mass agitation. So what we are arguing is basically propaganda. But it is here that the confusion arises. Because there is more than one sort of propaganda. There is a distinction between abstract propaganda, and that propaganda which can hopefully lead to activity — concrete or realistic propaganda.”
In practice, what we can offer at present is a combination of agitation and concrete propaganda.
The main issue on which we can help mobilise large numbers of people is that of racism. After all, what issue is bigger in global politics today? The machinery of US government was shut down for 35 days in December and January, all in an effort by Donald Trump to force Congress to pay for his proposed anti-immigrant wall between the US and Mexico. Across Europe and beyond the radical right, and sometimes fascist, political forces continue to grow, exploiting the racist narrative created by mainstream politicians to strengthen their support.
In the Brexit debate too, the issue of EU migrants again and again comes to the fore.
Victories are possible here. Easy to miss in the parliamentary babble of recent weeks, the £65 fee that May intended to impose on EU migrants to register to stay in Britain after Brexit, a policy that a few weeks ago was being assiduously defended by the government’s hapless immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, was quietly dropped.
This is the moment to push harder on these issues — to raise the fate of EU migrants in every union branch and workplace, in every college and university.
The national protests organised by Stand Up to Racism on 16 March in London, Glasgow and Cardiff, part of an annual, and increasingly global, series of demonstrations, come at an opportune moment — a fortnight before Brexit is supposed to occur. The demonstrations can provide a focus for all those concerned with the impact of Brexit on EU citizens.
Socialists should have no hesitation in calling for a defence of free movement of EU migrants, detaching this freedom from the others of the “four freedoms” — the movement of goods, services and capital — enforced by the EU.
It was a horrible blunder for the Labour front bench, including figures with a proud anti-racist record, to surrender on this issue, to first propose that they abstain on the government’s Immigration Bill, which will end free movement after Brexit, and then, after some outcry, to oppose it with a non-binding “single-line whip”. However, the fact that there was an outcry suggests there are plenty of people within the orbit of the Labour Party who would be willing to mobilise on this question.
Stand up to Racism does not simply challenge the attacks on EU migrants. It has also campaigned over the fate of refugees denied access to the EU. According to the Missing Migrants Project, over 200 drowned in the Mediterranean in January alone this year, a figure certain to rise in spring and summer as increasing numbers attempt the crossing.
Thousands more are stranded in horrendous conditions in the area surrounding Calais, where refugees seeking access to Britain are routinely beaten to unconsciousness, teargassed or subject to the destruction of whatever belongings they have manged to cling on to. More still are held in EU-funded detention camps outside of the EU, like those in Libya where rape, torture and neglect are a day-to-day occurrence.
The demand to let the refugees in will be central to the 16 March protest, and can unite those on both sides of the Brexit divide.
It is not simply on the issue of racism that the left can begin to pose its demands. The argument for a general election, initially raised by Corbyn as part of his response to May’s deal, is one that makes considerable sense.
It is nothing short of astonishing that May is still (at least at time of writing) prime minister. Her Brexit deal was defeated by 230 votes when put to MPs last month — by far the largest Commons defeat for any British government. By way of comparison, the three next largest defeats, by 140, 161 and 166 votes, were all suffered by Ramsay McDonald’s administration in 1924. This weak and ineffectual minority Labour government, the first ever in Britain, elected at the end of 1923 with just 191 out of 615 MPs, was entirely dependent on Liberal backing. It clung to power for nine months, before its inevitable collapse.
Incapacity of parliament
May’s survival speaks volumes about the incapacity of parliament to resolve the current crisis.
Of course, the tiny forces of the revolutionary left are not in a position to mobilise the working class to demand a new election. But there is certainly concrete propaganda to be made here. Would it not be feasible for the Labour leadership, the Momentum organisation and the major trade unions to back — and actively mobilise their members to fight for — the demand for an election made by the People’s Assembly and others?
An incoming Labour government would not have an easy time negotiating with the EU.
Nonetheless, Jeremy Corbyn could seek to delay Britain’s departure from the EU and propose a new, progressive Brexit deal defending working class interests, including those of both British-born and migrant workers. Precisely what trade arrangements this would entail is a largely tactical question — the socialist left cannot have a one-size-fits-all position in favour of protectionism or of free trade. But any progressive deal would have to free the British government from constraints such as the restrictions on creating state-run monopolies imposed by the EU.
Of course, the EU might refuse these terms. It is quite wrong to assume, as some on the left do, that the EU is a benevolent actor in this process. On the contrary, the EU represents a constellation of capitalist interests. However, it would be far better to force the EU to expose its role as a guarantor of neoliberalism and corporate interests, and fight against it, than to suffer the current choice between the EU and various Tory free market utopias.
Again, one thing that would increase the room for manoeuvre of an incoming Corbyn government in its negotiations, as Alex Callinicos points out in a recent column in Socialist Worker, would be to advocate free movement. This is all the more reason why, quite apart from basic international solidarity, Labour ought to advocate such a policy.
This remains a moment of crisis for the establishment and potentially one of opportunity for the left. Our job is to move beyond the speculation and prophesy and to argue for the kind of action that can carve out the future for which we yearn.
Joseph Choonara is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (Second edition, Bookmarks, 2017).