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.