British Referendum a victory for democracy

The left campaign for leaving the EU


The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. Its electorate has done so in spite of exhortations to remain from, among others, David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, a majority of FTSE 100 chief executives, Goldman Sachs, the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and Enda Kenny. It’s difficult, therefore, to overestimate the significance of this outcome. It has happened in spite of enormous scaremongering by the Remain campaign and its shameless exploitation of the murder of Jo Cox MP.      

Undoubtedly, strident attempts will now be made to attribute this result, in its entirety, to the impact of migration exploited by xenophobic British reactionaries within and outside the Conservative Party.  It would, of course, be wrong to dismiss the part played by racism. Britain is a former imperial power, and contempt for other peoples was an endemic feature of its past and has not been eradicated. Nevertheless, this tendentious argument deliberately ignores the fact that there have been waves of migration into Britain for decades, all accommodated thanks to an expanding economy.      

Worse than being a deliberate misrepresentation is the fact that concentrating entirely on resistance to migration denies what the Financial Timesdescribed as the “rage from Leave voters alienated by London and globalisation.”  No matter who legislated for the referendum or for what reason, voting was open to all, and the working-class movement had an opportunity to participate in a crucially important debate and decision-making event. Herein lay, perhaps, the most ominous aspect of the entire campaign. Apart from a small, coherent minority centred mainly on people in the RMT Union and the daily Morning Star, the left in Britain (in its widest definition) either failed to recognise or, worse, chose to ignore the despair felt by so many working people in the UK.      

In part because of the depoliticisation of large swathes of organised labour as a result of the pernicious right-wing influence of New Labour’s Blairite cohort, there was a general absence of any critical narrative, not to mention socialist analysis, in relation to the European Union. This weakness led to the mistaken assertion, when the referendum was first announced, that being anti-EU was tantamount to being anti-migrant and xenophobic. Stepping back from positive engagement meant that the debate was dominated at first by feuding reactionaries.      

Fearing a split in his Blairite-dominated parliamentary party, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, felt forced to support the Remain campaign, though offering a different rationale from that of William Hague or Theresa May. With little by way of evidence, he argued that the European Union protected workers’ rights and offered access to a lucrative market for British manufacturing.     

Depressingly, Corbyn’s lead was gladly followed by both the TUC in Britain and the ICTU in Northern Ireland. In fact the referendum debate in the North of Ireland paralleled that in Britain. The DUP supported quitting the EU for reasons similar to those of right-wing conservatives, while Sinn Féin argued a Remain case along lines employed by New Labour. The Northern Ireland committee of the ICTU strongly supported the Remain campaign but ,interestingly, did acknowledge its deep-seated flaws at public meetings attended by this writer.      

In the face of powerful opposition it seemed almost inevitable that the Leave campaign—including the well-reasoned left “Lexit” case—would succumb. That this did not happen is worth consideration. Over the past forty years many British working-class communities have endured deprivation, with industries closing, low wages, zero-hour contracts, the welfare state undermined, and public services being privatised. As a consequence, a large number of these societies have been damaged, and many less-well-off people feel alienated from the political establishment, whether it is in the EU or London.      

The EU is clearly not directly responsible for every socially destructive effect suffered by the British working class; but its overarching neo-liberal ethos has certainly facilitated the devastation. Equally pertinent is the fact that the right-of-centre social democrats of New Labour have not only failed to offer working people a viable remedy but have colluded with the free-marketeers in inflicting their punishing programme. Kevin McKenna, writing in the Herald (Glasgow), accurately reflected the feelings of working people in the north of England towards the party when he said that “during three successive Labour governments they had been made to feel like an embarrassment to the metropolitan Islington elite who thirsted for power and money . . .”¹      

While not underestimating the significance of a vote to leave the EU, it should not be taken in isolation from its wider European context. Disenchantment is not confined to Britain. A recent article in the Financial Times revealed the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly unpopular among people in its member-states.² Quoting from an extensive survey of opinion, Timothy Garton Ash mentioned that in eight of the ten member-states surveyed, a majority disapproved of how the EU manages the economy, and only 51 per cent are in favour of retaining the union.³      

Admittedly these statistics are garnered by a research company, employing opinion poll surveys, and so must be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless some facts are indisputable. One is that the European Union, with its treaties enshrining neo-liberal economic policies, has exacerbated austerity in many of the member-states, and offers no obvious way to correct this deficiency. Furthermore, the legal structures and constitution of the union not only make reforming its institutions practically impossible but also, as the Greek people (as well as the Irish and others) have learnt, makes futile resistance from within.      

As a consequence, working-class people throughout the EU have an objective need to dismantle the EU as an entity; equally important in the light of its rapidly diminishing popularity, there is now a realistic possibility of doing so. However, this will require a carefully crafted and enlightened strategy, because otherwise fascism will exploit the misery created and perpetuated by the neo-liberals.      

Essential to the success of such a strategy is challenging comprehensively and dismissing the illusion peddled by centrist social democrats that the EU can be reformed. The British referendum result shows that demolishing this myth is now a realistic option. Running in tandem with this, however, is the need to promote a clear and unambiguous socialist alternative that speaks to the needs of the majority throughout the continent. Undoubtedly this will pose challenges; but when has building socialism been easy? And when has that been a reason for not trying? 

Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in:   Socialist Voice July 2016
1. Kevin McKenna, “EU vote truly signals the end of a Union dearer to me,” Herald, 25 June 2016, at http://bit.ly/293ZNY8

2Timothy Garton Ash, “The fading of Europe is a result of both its failures and successes,” Financial Times, 11 June 2016. 

3. Pew Research Center, “Euroskepticism beyond Brexit (http://pewrsr.ch/1ZvrKcY)

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com