History’s revenge

The Brexit sage rolls on. Only a minimal shift in public opinion against Brexit. Most seem to hope that the political theatre of the negotiations will result in an agreement of some sort. It is hard to see what that would look like. If it isn’t the ‘clean break’ of the believers in a global Britain it has to be a variation of the ‘Norway’ option. In other words, even a ‘bespoke’ agreement on trade (and services!) must leave Britain  paying for access to the single market without any political influence over it. So much for taking back control! It is unlikely that such an agreement could be made to stick, or that it would last very long. How have we come to this point?

Leave aside the internecine disputes in the Tory party and the miscalculations of Cameron and the EU. The roots of the Brexit debacle lie deeper, in a ‘British’ national identity bound up with empire. That empire once ruled the waves, played off one European power against another to maintain a balance of power that wouldn’t threaten Britain, and relied after the second world war on maintaining a relationship with the world’s new superpower in America to cover up its enfeeblement. But ideologies and identities outlive their origins. The pretensions of global Britain are the last gasp of the post-war illusion that nuclear weapons would shore up British status, of the long bloody retreat from colonial possessions, of the haughty refusal to engage directly with Europe. In the 1950s Britain was still trying to position itself as the linchpin between the EEC and a wider free trade area. It had to give that up as a lost cause (soft Brexiteers please note) and finally joined the EU in 1973.

Ever a reluctant member, looking for opt-outs and exceptions, remaining aloof from the Euro, clinging still to the idea that Europe could be a ‘free-trade area’ without any political superstructures, Britain is now on the exit threshold with only past illusions as a guide to the future.

It is important to understand that the political impetus for exit did not only come from the ‘left-behind’, a desperate, inarticulate, cry of protest from people in the deindustrialised north. Its heartland was in the Tory shires where deep-seated unthinking conservatism almost defines itself in ‘national’ terms. It was that toxic combination that swung it. If it has a rationale it is the conviction that Britain is not a ‘merely European kingdom’ as the Times put it in 1891.

The illusion of power, still at the core of a disintegrating ‘British’ identity, that we are ‘different’, that others must come to terms, is at the heart  of Brexit and it is extremely difficult to see how it can be changed without long and painful experience.

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Repression and separatism in Spain

The action of Spanish police in repressing the Catalonian referendum will do more to stoke the fires of separatism than almost anything the Catalans have done. What is at stake here? First, a principle, the right of ‘nations’ to self determination. Spain cannot remain united by putting Catalonia in chains. In the end, if the Catalans want it so much they must be allowed to separate.

That doesn’t make it the right thing to do, and it certainly doesn’t make it progressive. Why do the Catalans want ‘independence’? For some it is the mystical aura of nationhood; for others the illusion that democracy will be more real if we can draw a boundary around ethnicity or language or other markers of identity and exclude the rest. But there is calculation too. The complaint that Spain takes much more from the region, one of the richest parts of Spain, than the Catalans get back. Well of course it does. Catalonia has 16% of the population but 20% of GDP, 23% of industry and 25% of exports. Who should pay more, the poorest regions?

The Catalan complaint is heard in one form or another across Europe. Britain got her ‘rebate’ from the EU; Germany and the richer north complain continually that they have to stump up for the poorer south; The Italian Northern League would dearly love to cut themselves off from the Sicilian south. If the Euro fails it will be because national interests prevented Europe from building a European economy. Actually, because Europeans failed to build a European culture and politics that would make such an economy possible. We will not get one step closer to a European politics through independence for Catalonia, or Scotland, or other regions yet to emerge from the contradictions of globalization, only more deeply entrench ‘national’ interests.

For some on the left the sight of demonstrations and a  vote denied seems to go to the head. Paul Mason in the Guardian completely lost his. The fact that there is a revolt, that the slogan is democracy – ‘our’ democracy of course, not ‘theirs’ – is enough. Self-interested Catalan nationalism is progressive as long as it remains ‘cosmopolitan’. Oh dear! And after everything he has written elsewhere how can he seriously suppose that Catalonia can achieve  ‘independence within both the EU and the Eurozone’. Independence? Really?

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Brexit Left?

Is there a case for Brexit on the left? Larry Elliott made the argument recently in the Guardian. He thinks the EU was only another crutch that British capitalism sought to lean on. Moreover, he thinks the EU would outlaw a radical socialist programme, and that the impetus for change that Corbyn represents would dissipate with a return to the status quo. The British economy remains fundamentally dysfunctional but it can be re-built and re-balanced more equitably outside the EU.

There are 4 obvious flaws in this argument. First, it lacks historical or international perspective. Elliott actually endorses Gaitskell’s fear that European political union would end a 1,000 years of British history, an unfortunate phrase if ever there was one, and one rooted in Brit-centred myopia. Second, the EU might well outlaw a radical socialist programme but Corbyn’s Labour doesn’t have such a programme. And if it were to develop one we can rest assured that international capital would outlaw it in an ‘independent Britain’ as surely as the EU. Third, there is no consideration of the international division of labour or world political alignments and their implications for rebuilding a British economy. And fourth, if Brexit, like war, does present a ‘disruptive’ opportunity for positive change it is not Brexit itself (or war) that counts but what you do with it. Hoping to salvage something from a war or Brexit is a desperate strategy.

The nub of the issue is the politics of Brexit. Socialists have a long history of internationalist convictions cramped and confined by national identity and sentiment. It is time to spell out the realities of Britain’s place in the world and create the political and cultural links across national boundaries that would make the management of an international division of labour possible. Where can this best be done? The socialist-cum-social-democratic case for managed, democratic economies and societies is certainly not enhanced by leaving a neoliberal EU for a rampantly neoliberal globalising world. With the political will it might be done within the EU by constructing a dialogue for reform with other socialists. If Corbyn’s Labour did strike out in a socialist direction the chances of winning support within the EU against its present neoliberal leadership would be greater than it would from outside.

In truth there been no debate about a left Brexit for the simple reason that it is a non-starter. It has no popular support; indeed no one with any political clout has proposed it. Manuel Cortes, the General Secretary of the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) dismissed the argument. The left that argues for Brexit ‘gives our ruling class a get-out-of-jail free card’; they blame the EU for neoliberal policies that are firmly entrenched in Britain. Cortes also made the argument against ‘soft Brexit’, the illusion that there is an economically safe haven on the periphery of Europe. ‘Why’, he asks, ‘should we confine ourselves to the second rate option of EEA or EFTA membership when what we already have is something far better? I can’t see how we win the hearts and minds of those who voted for Brexit by telling them that we should now enter into a new arrangement which, in exchange for a large fee, will allow the EU to make all the rules for us because we gave up our EU seat and ability to shape things’.

Labour should look for the opportunity and the courage, as events develop, to make the argument for continued membership of the EU. Timing in this is everything. There are huge risks but if Labour gets this right it will build a new social coalition to displace the Tories.


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Soft Brexit is the worst of all worlds

There seems to be a head of steam building among Conservatives for a 2-3 year ‘transition period’ after Britain formally leaves the EU before separation is complete. This could be an ‘off the peg’ arrangement, i.e., membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) alongside Norway. Virtually all existing provisions of EU membership including membership of the single market and customs union, free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court, and of course Britain’s contribution to the EU budget would remain in place but Britain would no longer be a member. Brexiteers like Liam Fox may sink it because they will balk at the continuation of free movement and/or the jurisdiction of EU courts; some probably suspect that the intention is to turn the ‘transition’ into a permanent arrangement. The goal is to retain membership of the single market and the customs union.

Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, spelled out what this would mean and why it should be unacceptable. It entails all the obligations of EU membership with none of the political rights, something that would reduce Britain to the status of a ‘vassal state’. The language was provocative but the logic impeccable. He was immediately attacked by many of his Labour colleagues who are desperate to remain in the single market at any cost. Some of them like Heidi Alexander tried to dress up membership of the EEA by arguing that the EU still has to consult with its members, and pointing to provisions allowing the suspension of free movement where a country faces crisis conditions. This is truly hopeless. There is nothing new here, no substance to the right to consultation, no reason to suppose that the EU 27 would agree to emergency suspension of free movement, and no reason to believe it would satisfy anyone if it did. But Labour is being pulled this way and that with Corbyn announcing that Labour would leave the single market and his closest allies saying it would all depend on the negotiations.

It is easy to see why ‘remainers’ would be attracted to ‘soft Brexit’. It seems like the next best thing to membership, a way of staying close to the EU, retaining more positive relations with Europe and making renewed membership of the EU at some point easier to attain. But they focus on the economics of the single market, not the politics. Apologies to citizens of small nations but the 5th largest economy in the world is not going to surrender the right to shape the rules of the EU so it can sit in the EEA to access the single market. Yet Labour and as well as Tory politicians are talking about this as if it were a real possibility. Labour’s ‘jobs first Brexit’ slogan is small minded, even trivial.  Someone in Labour’s ranks should be talking about Britain’s place in the world and the future of the country, setting out a vision of co-operative, collaborative engagement with like-minded movements for European reform against the globalist neoliberalism of the hard Brexiteers.

What is certain is that if put to the political test ‘soft Brexit’ would fall apart in no time at all. And this is the key point, the political test to come. If there is a transitional arrangement with the EU it will be coming to an end around 2022 at about the same time that the next general election is due if the present Parliament lasts 5 years. It shouldn’t. Labour must do everything it can to force a general election at the point when the Tories have to set out their plans for the period after formal exit. But Labour can’t go into that election still trying to sit on the fence, talking about negotiating better ‘access’ to the single market. It says it is waiting to see if public opinion shifts. Fair enough, but it will have to help public opinion shift, and it can’t leave it till the last minute to take sides. At some point Labour will have to pose the question whether membership of the EU with a commitment to reform is better than any of the leave options and fight for that in the subsequent general election. It has to start to prepare the ground for this. One way to do that is to expose the shallow, second-best shelter of the EEA and soft Brexit.

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Brexit Politics and Britain in the world economy

One of the many painful ironies of Brexit is the popular belief among ‘leave’ supporters that it means taking back control of our borders. David Goodhart gave this theme a novel twist with his characterisation of people with roots in communities coming from ‘somewhere’ and their globalising cousins from ‘nowhere’. In fact Brexit in the hands of the right – and they are making the running – means full-on globalisation, deregulated trade, and unfettered markets. No room for communities here.

Let’s start with conclusions. Britain’s place in the world, and in the world economy, is as a part of Europe not as a stand-alone global player whether as born-again entrepreneurial capitalist or socialist pioneer. Think about Brexit in Britain’s history. At the end of the 19thC Britain was still (just) the dominant world power, the world’s industrial workshop, imperial power, and investment banker, free trade its slogan. But new competitors were appearing. The Times reflected in 1891 on the need for Britain to hold its empire close lest ‘we sink to the position of a merely European kingdom’.

Even as British power was eroded through two world wars and the slump, the idea of a ‘mere European kingdom’ remained unthinkable, to Attlee and Bevin as much as Churchill. The latter thought Britain could prosper at the centre of three overlapping circles created by a united Europe, America, and the Empire. That prospect soon faded. In the 1950s Britain tried to negotiate a European industrial free trade area to include the EEC, Britain, and other non-EEC countries, still trying to play lynchpin. The EEC resisted and in 1960 Britain negotiated a smaller industrial free trade area with Austria, Switzerland, Portugal and the three Scandinavian countries. This was unsatisfactory and almost immediately Britain changed course and made the first application to join the EEC, actually joining more than a decade later in 1973. According to historian Kevin O’Rourke the ‘the transition from Empire to Europe was complete’. The judgement may have been premature. Brexit illustrates the inability of Conservatives to come to terms with Britain’s real as opposed to imagined world status. Little wonder civil servants have dubbed the Conservative strategy ‘Empire 2’.

But Conservative opposition to Europe is not homogeneous. It includes the Tory shires where old fashioned national identity and insularity generate hostility to ‘Brussels’, and an altogether more ambitious and outward looking element that has provided the rationale for ‘leave’. They think the EU is ‘a pointless middleman as a vast new global single market takes over’ (Roland Smith Adam Smith Institute). Theirs is to be an ‘open globalist Britain with free trade as wide as possible and sensible economic regulation’ (The Institute of Economic Affairs).  Sensible here means a lot less of it, and trade free to take advantage of lower world prices wherever, and however they are to be obtained. They want control of immigration, not to reduce it to the tens of thousands, but to have it conform to world supply and demand for labour rather than privilege Europeans.

These differences are important. Brexit assembled a powerful coalition of the Tory shires, committed working class conservatives, and former Labour supporters in economically devastated parts of the country, backed by a buccaneering section of financial capital, all gathered together under the national flag. Anyone hostile to Brexit should be working to break that coalition apart. Old fashioned Conservatives are not all on the extreme neoliberal wing of the party; socially conservative working class leave supporters are rarely free marketers. None of them will find increased immigration from India an acceptable alternative to free movement within Europe.

Economic questions remain an important part of the argument. On some measures Britain is still the fifth biggest economy in the world, the second biggest in the EU, and despite its shrunken manufacturing sector, the 10th largest exporter of goods. London, of course, is the preeminent global financial centre. But Britain also has an economy which is seriously unbalanced across sectors and regions, has desperately low productivity and investment, and a huge deficit on the balance of trade. Its comparative advantage in services relies too heavily on the most unstable and unproductive arena of all, the financial sector. It simply does not have the resources in depth to operate as a world player. The special relationship with the USA is nothing more than a British comfort blanket, the remains of Empire an occasion for ceremony or embarrassment. Britain will earn hostility not partnership from the EU. We will be a supplicant for trade deals and investment outside Europe trading political control for economic advantage, exactly the complaint made against the EU.

But it is the politics of Britain in the world economy rather than the economic balance sheet that counts. Labour must find the courage to confront the illusions of British power and national independence. For more than a century British policy was aimed at sustaining a balance of power in Europe to her own advantage. That era has gone for good; Britain can only exercise real influence in association with European partners. Taking back control means creating political and cultural links across national boundaries that would make the management of an international economy possible. We can’t abolish the international division of labour; we can re-shape it and manage it but not if we lock ourselves up within national boundaries.

It is not an easy argument to make. The risks for Labour are very great because to make headway Labour must go head-to-head with working class conservatism. An appeal to economic interests won’t penetrate the fog of ‘national identity’ that has become the hallmark of hostility to the EU. For this very reason trying to stitch up a deal that puts Britain in the EEA alongside Norway, trading political voice for access to the single market won’t work. This is the subject of the next post.

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Left, right, about turn

The call for Labour politicians to reconnect with its working class base used to come from the left. It was shorthand for reconnect with socialism, the ‘historic mission’ of the working class. Now it is Labour’s right, starting with Tom Watson and followed by Gloria De Piero and Graham Jones in the Guardian (4th July), who demand that Labour ‘reach out to the party’s heartlands’ to win the next election. It is an appeal to working class conservatism and a renewal of the attack on Corbyn. They are not wrong about the need for Labour to win back support among workers. In 2017 Labour only regained the level of support among ‘workers’ it had in 2005, and is still way below the support it attracted in 2001. But they are wrong about everything else.

Jones thinks the concerns of their former core voters are being ignored by the elite: concerns about ‘counter-terrorism, nationalism, defence and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism’. Corbyn has a different story to tell about these things but ignored by the elite? Pressed on his argument Jones falls back on falling wages, hardly something that Corbyn and his supporters have ignored.

We should have said already that all descriptions of ‘class’ appear in inverted commas because the measurement of class, like the social structures it hopes to describe, are in disarray. If we continue to use them it is with a pinch of salt and because there is nothing better available. On any measure, what were Labour heartlands are in steep and irreversible decline as the ‘older working class’ has shrunk to around 30% of the population. When Piero describes former coalfield areas as ‘the beating heart of our movement’ we can only be grateful she isn’t working in accident and emergency.

As those areas have declined a mixture of resentment, democratic sentiment, and Brexit inspired nationalism have come to the fore, finding a home first in UKIP, and latterly in support for the Conservatives. It is important to understand that a significant part of this vote was always  Conservative, attracted by the idea of a national community in which class divisions are submerged unless you happen to be engaged in a particularly bitter dispute affecting immediate economic interests.

Politics has too often been about playing to this or that demographic, finding policies that appeal to its pocket or its prejudices. Labour does have to reconnect with workers in its de-industrialised, one-time heartlands who have been ignored and taken for granted by politicians of all stripes. But the way to do it is to challenge its social conservatism not pander to it. Most importantly, build on those democratic sentiments and invite Labour’s alienated working class supporters to really take back control instead of chasing the hares set running by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

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Corbyn Clarification Clarified

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell say Labour will negotiate a free trade agreement outside the EU single market. Maybe yes, maybe no say Barry Gardner, shadow secretary for international trade and Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, the following day. It all depends on the negotiations you see.

Their positions are separated by degrees of unreality. Corbyn and McDonnell envisage a free trade agreement that gives us the equivalent of the single market, Gardner and Starmer think the EU might throw in single market membership as well. And why not? If the EU were going to concede a free trade agreement that gives Britain pretty much what we have now, why let a formality like membership get in the way?

All four are making an ambitious pitch for a bespoke agreement that retains as much “access” to the single market as possible, in-or-out, members or not. None of them are saying what that they will give in return on free movement, EU law and the jurisdiction of EU courts, and contributions to the EU budget. And all might, like Theresa May, say we can’t possibly say anything about that because it would ‘reveal our negotiating hand’.

This is absurd. And undemocratic. The British negotiating position can’t simply be a wish-list. Negotiators can’t return from Brussels after two years of posturing at home to reveal the things they have conceded to reach whatever agreement they manage to come to. There will be consequences if they do. Instead Labour should talk straight to people, at least about the boundaries of possible agreement, and invite public debate as if the public themselves were participants. And that is the point. Not everyone can be around the table but they must be participants.

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