Lexiters were on the same side as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. CC image.It is perhaps an inevitability of such a broad question as Leave or Remain, in a referendum campaign where those words themselves became only synonyms for Open or Closed, that the debate around the UK’s EU membership, potentially highly complex, has frequently been distilled into simple idioms.
In that spirit, and on the idea of “Lexit” – that pet-name given to the left-wing version of Brexit – another one: You cannot polish a turd.
Brexit, whatever its nuances, is a right-wing, extremist project. This much is in its blood. Politics should seldom be reduced to such easy heuristics as “their enemy is my friend”, but, if Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and ISIS were all encouraging the idea of a UK leave vote, it is perhaps safe to assume that any with a leftist, leftish, or vaguely socially-spirited calling might have felt at least trepidation and at most horror at the prospect of helping to launder a project endorsed by some of the world’s most craven, bellicose, and volatile men.
There is a tendency within leftist, and perhaps especially anarchist, circles, that is easily animated by the prospect of self-reliance. It is often a very important and admirable tendency; I have only respect for those carpenters I know who set out to Calais in 2015 and constructed buildings that made the refugee camps there more habitable. There is a Swiss Family Robinson romance to the idea of starting anew, but to be dead to the prospect of renewal in politics is no less dangerous than ready excitability at false hope. In the promise of Lexit, we risk setting up a soup kitchen, albeit one built with our own hands, rather than moulding a whole continent towards the ideals we wish for.
In numerical terms, if the left believes in solidarity, I cannot understand of a 60million nation representing as much more effectively than a European bloc of 500million. If the left believes in ridding the UK of the Tories, it seems clear that the final burial of their Brexit project, with the help of Tory Cameroons, would have split that party in a fashion far more fatal than we currently see, with Theresa May a zombie Prime Minister still able to hold it cosmetically together, for a while.
If the UK left does genuinely believe the EU a nefarious monolith, incapable of reform, then why abandon our European sisters and brothers to as much, rather than using our voting rights, our rotating presidencies, our budgets, to advance the causes we would champion?
If EU member states are so paralysed within the EU monolith, why do Swedes fear the loss of the UK as a fellow advocate of free trade, to counter the powerful voices of French and German labour? How does even Emmanuel Macron successfully nationalise the strategic interests of French ports? How does he find common cause with even Yanis Varoufakis in arguing the EU need to refigure its austere fiscal relations with southern Europe? Self-important Blairite though he may be – if Macron can advocate for the rights of posted-workers within the UK, why can’t Jeremy Corbyn and the UK Labour Party? Why do we seriously debate whether the EU prohibits state-owned railways while DeutscheBahn and SNCF operate as just that? There is an intellectual laziness by which many on the left have capitulated to poor information and heady ideals, so that mere mention of “EU state aid rules” is now bandied as if it were in itself a rigorous legal argument.
This is not to endorse alliances with David Cameron, George Osborne, the architects of austerity and the men responsible for so much, including Brexit, that has now ravaged UK society and economy. Those of the left, those who truly believe our values strong and visionary enough to win the hearts of all the world, must accept that the ultimate prize in politics is now to have George Osborne voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, because he sees it as the only way of maintaining an EU with the UK inside of it.
British workers profit from strong labour movements in France and elsewhere, why disconnect? Wikimedia/PD.In the EU, those of a left-wing perspective for once have a carrot to offer the UK centre in return for their full endorsement of socialism. If “eat your cake and have it” has also been a recurring theme during and since the referendum, some in Labour have taken-in the logic that they must choose, must concede Europe to get socialism, where the reality ought be that we want both and can have just that. The centre ground of UK voters will believe more passionately, for longer, and with greater accuracy, that the EU is a force for good in the UK than dispossessed communities of the UK will continue to believe in the quick, slippery snake-oil promises of Murdoch and Farage. Most agree, meanwhile, that Brexit will only intensify the causes of that dispossession, with the immediate slide in sterling offering strong supporting evidence.
All of the above is only strategic and moral; I reason that I think it is morally right to remain, or politically astute to remain. What this argument so far takes as given is the idea that, once out of the EU, the most recalcitrant and economically right-wing EU nation will somehow become more left than it was within that lefter-leaning confederacy of nations it will have departed. Clearly, this is unlikely. Brexit – of whatever colour – is a shortcut, a firework display, a Falklands, a distraction in that vast tradition that is the delusion of British grandeur.
Lexiteers, often fuelled by only the most decent of intentions, are taking to the fallout of Cameron’s referendum cowardice and considering how we might build anew, within a political, legislative and social rubble that everything of the left should compel us to reject. None of this is a defence of the EU in its entirety, so much as a steadfast assertion of two things: 1. The UK can make the EU better and 2. The UK, as is already the case at present (to largely negative effect; witness UK versus EU rules on non-EU spouses), can nevertheless be the country it wants to be inside of that bloc.
If the twentieth century taught us anything, it is that socialism in one country does not work, and one spirited election result and a hung parliament for a Corbyn-led Labour does not elevate us to a position whereby the historic strength of the UK right-wing, of UK capital and press barons, is undone at a stroke, so that suddenly we can teach Belgians about equality, Germans about shutting down nuclear lobbyists, Swedes about gender equality.
The UK left has a proud tradition, so marginalised and ridiculed within UK culture that it takes a great and conscious effort to remind ourselves and others of the historic and noble tradition of Diggers, Levellers, miners. What Lexit risks doing, however, is to divorce those noble figures of British social justice from their rightful compatriots in Europe. They belong in the same tradition as Rosa Luxembourg, not distinct from it, and should that severance be completed, the Left will only have succumbed to the “red, white and blue Brexit” of the Tory Party, albeit with different icons and heroes.
Whether or not Brexit must ultimately happen, and what form it should take, might as well be a moot point. After an ugly referendum that antagonised all and informed few, what is now of paramount importance is better information and dialogue that urgently scrutinises, not least of all, the question; does the left need Brexit?