Claire Laker-Mansfield, London
Three years on from the referendum on EU membership, Britain's Brexit crisis has reached a dramatic climax. The issue has dominated the political landscape since as far back as 2015. As time has gone on, and as the crisis has deepened, the question has become ever more all-consuming. It has claimed the careers of two Tory prime ministers. It has broken apart the Conservative Party. It has been a perennial headache for Jeremy Corbyn and a point of attack for the Blairites.
But despite thousands of column inches, hundreds of television debates and hours upon hours of parliamentary wrangling, the 'fog' that has surrounded Brexit has only thickened. In this article, we aim to assist in lifting that fog. By posing some of the more fundamental questions which lie underneath the crisis, and by challenging the dominant media narrative – which ultimately views this crisis through the eyes of the rich – in this article we hope to provide some clarity on the question of Brexit, and to point towards a socialist approach on this most thorny of issues.
1. What is the European Union?
“It's your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer. Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers - visible or invisible - giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world's wealthiest and most prosperous people.”
This quote, from a speech delivered by Margaret Thatcher, articulates the enthusiasm with which the ruling class greeted the foundation of the EU's Single Market. It summarises the real purpose of the project we call the European Union.
One of the most fundamental questions that has been posed by this crisis, but which has rarely been addressed in the political mainstream, is this seemingly basic one. It's the question of what the EU is – of who it's for.
How people perceive the answer can have an important bearing on how they voted in the referendum, and on how they view the current criss. What's more, the lack of clarity, especially from the workers' movement, on what the answer to this question actually is, has contributed to the huge confusion which exists within society on the issue.
What we have seen develop, both in the run-up to the referendum, but perhaps especially in its aftermath, is huge polarisation. In many ways this is a false polarisation. That's because it's not a polarisation which sits along clear class lines. It doesn't straightforwardly reflect the real and most important division which exists within our society – the division between the interests of the capitalist class - the rich 0.1% - and the working class.
This false polarisation has at its root the failure of the labour movement's leadership. In particular, this is a failure of both the trade unions and Jeremy Corbyn to offer a clear, independent, pro-working-class approach to both to the referendum itself and what has followed.
Many workers who voted Remain did so out of a sense that the EU represents an antidote to xenophobic Little Englander-ism. Others did so based on the conviction that the EU protects workers' rights – a notion encouraged by many trade union leaders in the run up to the vote.
At the same time, the dominant mainstream voices supporting Brexit have emphasised the question of immigration. The official campaigns – both for Leave and Remain – were shot through with anti-migrant and sometimes openly racist rhetoric. Rightly, thousands of workers, and especially a majority of young people, were repulsed by this.
But what is the reality? How do socialists understand the EU? And how should that inform our approach to the Brexit crisis as it continues to unfold?
Fundamentally, the EU represents the institutionalisation of a series of treaties and agreements which have been entered into by the capitalist governments of its 28 member states.
As the Thatcher quote indicates, the ultimate aim of these treaties is to create the maximum-sized market for European multinationals. And within that market, to create a 'level playing-field' for big business.
This means creating certain common standards and regulations. Occasionally, as with regulations limiting the supply of poor-quality chlorinated chicken, for example, these can have some benefit to the majority of ordinary people. But far more often, and more importantly, the overall effect of these agreements is to undermine workers' rights. In particular, they tend to create a race-to-the-bottom in wages and conditions – a 'levelling down' for workers. One example of how this is implemented is that of the posted workers' directive. This is a policy which allows companies to employ migrant workers based on the terms and conditions they would receive in their home countries, giving the green light to employers to ignore existing trade union agreements and pay far below the rate for the job. This encourages not only the super-exploitation of migrant workers, but also the undercutting of the terms and conditions of their non-migrant brothers and sisters.
And this anti-worker approach extends further into the sphere of politics. In reality, a condition for membership of the existing EU Single Market, as well as of the Eurozone, is preparedness to implement neo-liberal economic policies.
If you look further into the Thatcher speech quoted above, she describes the way in which she believes the Single Market will ensure that big business is allowed to bid for contracts when privatised public services are put out for tender – how all companies across Europe must be given the opportunity to carve up the proceeds of privatisation. EU competition and state aid laws create an obstacle to the implementation of socialist policies such as the renationalisation of the privatised utilities and railways. They present a barrier to a left government intervening to save jobs – for example in threatened industries such as steel and car-manufacturing.
In other words, these laws, unless they were consciously defied by a left-led government, would restrict the implementation of pro-working-class policies. And what's more, the EU is a deeply undemocratic institution. There is a thin democratic veneer represented by the European Parliament. But even this has no power to propose new laws – only to approve or amend them. The real power in the EU lies with the European Commission – a committee of appointed bureaucrats who essentially call the shots.
What is the EU? Ultimately, it's a capitalist club. It's designed to protect the interests of bankers, big business and the rich across Europe. It's Thatcherism on a continental scale.
2. What did the Leave vote represent?
What took place in June 2016 was an earthquake in British politics. The result was unexpected. It defied the polls and confounded the supposed experts. It symbolised the extent to which the British capitalist class was losing control of the situation. Their failure to predict the outcome was matched by an inability to understand it once it was fact. But the truth is, in a confused and inchoate way, that the Leave vote represented a revolt by primarily working-class voters. It was a revolt against a capitalist establishment responsible for a decade of austerity, for the decimation of communities wrought by de-industrialisation, for wrecked public services, privatisation, slashed benefits and food-bank Britain.
The most important factor determining how likely someone was to vote Leave in the referendum was class. Almost two thirds of low-paid workers – classified as 'C2DE' in surveys – did so. And while it would be wrong to minimise the reality of racism as a factor in the referendum – something present on both sides of the debate and consciously stirred up by pro-capitalist politicians – it would not be correct to characterise this as the primary cause of the Leave vote. When surveyed about their reasons for voting the way they did, only a third of Leave voters cited the issue of immigration as their main reason for doing so. By far the most common factor referred to – the reason given by almost 50% – was the issue of democratic control, the desire for a proper say over the decisions that affect our lives. What is this, if not an acknowledgement that the society we live in is 'rigged' in favour of the super-wealthy – that working class people lack a genuine voice in the way our society is run? Surely underlying this sentiment, even if it is not always clearly articulated, is an understanding that the European Union plays its part in the 'rigging' that is inherent in capitalism – that it is part and parcel of this establishment.
In other words, the Leave vote in reality represented an expression of raw class anger. And it has shaken British capitalism to the core.
3. So do socialists think Brexit is a good thing?
The Leave vote represented a revolt by working-class people. It dealt a major blow to the capitalist class. It forced the resignation of the austerity-monger David Cameron and plunged the Tory party into an historic and potentially terminal crisis.
All crises for the ruling class present opportunities for the workers' movement to make advances. But advances are never guaranteed.
Crucial in answering the question of whether leaving the European Union might be a 'good thing' for working-class people, is asking: leaving in what way? On what basis?
One thing that is clear is that any form of Tory Brexit, whether with a deal or without one, will not improve workers' lives one jot. Both of the Tory party's warring and increasingly separated wings - the 'sensible' capitalist wing represented by May and the right-populist wing represented by Johnson - have one thing in common: both are united in wanting a continuation of cuts, privatisation and wage restraint. Any successful deal struck by the Tories with the European Union will inevitably involve Britain continuing to implement most of the neo-liberal agreements that characterise the Single Market and the Customs Union.
And while the European negotiators would ultimately prefer a deal - an outcome which is preferable from the point of view of European big business - they have no incentive to give Britain an easy ride, let alone to agree to some form of 'pick and mix' Boris Brexit. Doing so would only feed the centrifugal forces already threatening to pull the EU apart. It would encourage the growing anti-EU mood that exists in Italy, France and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a no-deal outcome has the potential to significantly bring on the already developing downturn.
While the stories hitting headlines threatening economic Armageddon in the event of a no-deal Brexit do contain a large element of 'project fear', they are not purely based on fantasy. The truth is, the threat posed by such an outcome is real. Even a two minute delay at the port of Dover, something which could easily be caused by the necessary new customs checks, would be likely to result in a queue stretching back for more than seventeen miles!
The potential for capitalists to carry out closures and job losses based on the frustration of supply chains is also not simple scaremongering. But neither is it an inevitability. Economics is not physics. And it would be possible for a left government to intervene to prevent closures and job losses – if it was prepared to take companies threatening closures or cuts into public ownership, guaranteeing the jobs and the conditions of those who work there.
This hints at something very important. Because a hard or soft Tory Brexit, or indeed a Remain outcome, are not the only options that exist.
Among the main things which differentiates a socialist approach to this question and others, is the fact that we believe working-class people have the potential to be actors in history. We argue that the intervention of the workers' movement, especially with clear leadership, has the potential to dramatically alter the situation and completely reframe this debate. Should Corbyn and the union leaders intervene decisively – mobilising the mass of working-class people around a clear programme – it would be possible to put workers' interests centre stage, to make use of this opportunity to deal a decisive blow to the super-rich and their rigged capitalist system.
4. So how should socialists approach the question of Brexit?
Socialists approach the question of Brexit from a fundamentally different starting point. Unlike the pro-capitalist representatives of both the Leave and Remain camps, we do not recognise the existence of British interests. That's because we live in a deeply unequal and fundamentally unfair society. We live a society in which the super-rich get richer based on the exploitation of working-class people. Because, despite the propaganda, wealth is not created by genius entrepreneurs, savvy speculators or mega-monopoly men. It is ordinary working people who turn the world's resources into goods people can use. It's working people who distribute those goods the world over, who provide services that keep society running. In other words, it is working-class people who create society's wealth. Profit comes from collectively not paying workers the full value of the wealth they produce.
This means that the interests of workers and the interests of the capitalist class - who own and control the major banks and businesses that dominate our economy - are diametrically opposed.
It's why genuine internationalism is the property of the workers' movement – not of any capitalist club. We recognise that workers in Britain have far more in common in terms of shared interests with the workers of France, Romania, South Africa or America than we do with any of the exploitative bosses who happen to share our nationality. That applies as much to Brexit as it does to any other issue you can name.
So what's needed from Corbyn and the trade union leaders is an approach which is based on fighting for the independent interests of working-class people. What's needed is an internationalist approach, which recognises the common struggle of workers across the continent of Europe against the brutality of austerity.
So what would such an approach involve? Well, for a start, it would require outlining a very different set of 'red-lines' to those laid out by any capitalist politician – including by the pro-capitalist Blairites who sit on the Labour benches. It would mean starting with a negotiating position based on pro-worker red lines – refusing to sign up to any treaty or agreement which undermines workers' rights, or which attempts to limit the implementation of pro-working class policies. Such a stand would need to be linked with a programme for ending austerity, making huge investment in starved public services, implementing a real living wage, ending pay restraint, bringing in free education, renationalising the railway and utilities, and so on. But such a stand, if it were taken and followed through with by a figure like Corbyn, would ultimately require going much further.
5. What about Greece?
Taking a determined pro-working-class position on Brexit, and fighting to implement policies which threaten the profits of the super-rich few, would inevitably bring down the wrath of the capitalist class, of Britain and of Europe, upon such a government. This ruthless determination to force through austerity policies was most brutally demonstrated in Greece in 2015, when the overwhelming mass of Greek workers voted for a break with cuts politics twice – once by electing the Syriza government, and again in the referendum on the proposed austerity memorandum. The successful attempt by the Troika – the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF - to crush the Syriza government is instructive. Because tragically, despite the tremendous heroism of the Greek workers, the then Prime Minister Tsipras ultimately capitulated to the Troika's demands.
In doing so, he went from being an anti-austerity figure to being the enforcer for the most brutal and punishing regimes of cuts in the whole of Greek history. He became an active participant in attempting to crush the Greek working class.
This example should stand as a stark warning to Corbyn. It is rich in lessons. What it shows is that a Corbyn-led government, if it were determined to fight for the interests of working-class people, would need to be prepared to challenge the power of capitalism – in Britain and in Europe – in order to succeed.
Doing so would require a preparedness to meet threats of economic sabotage with a preparedness to take power and control out of the hands of the capitalists and to place it in those of working-class people. To begin with, that would mean nationalising the banks – preventing attempts by the super-rich to take money out of the country. It would mean pledging to take into public ownership any company threatening job losses, closures and relocations, guaranteeing livelihoods of all workers. It would mean removing from capitalist control the major monopolies that dominate the economy, and by extension the lives of millions, nationalising them under democratic workers' control. And crucially it would mean relying not on parliament – full as it is with pro-capitalist politicians wearing rosettes of all colours – but on the active mobilisation of the working class, on the streets and in the workplaces, for all of its power and legitimacy.
Such an approach, were it fought for, and seen through, would electrify Europe. It would awaken the working class across a continent rich in revolutionary history – pointing towards the possibility of a decisive break with capitalism and with austerity. And it would open the door to a socialist confederation of Europe, and ultimately of the world.
Among the most thorny questions that has been raised by the Brexit debate is over the issue of a so-called 'backstop'.
Despite his self-presentation as a determined hard Brexiteer, it's clear Johnson would prefer to arrive at some form of agreement with the European Union. But for him to be able to justify such a deal to his own support base, both in Parliament and outside it, this would need to be one which included significant concessions, particularly on the question of the Irish backstop.
But such concessions are extremely difficult for the EU to agree to. The backstop agreement is designed as a supposed fail-safe. Its purpose to guarantee against the possibility of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland which, if implemented, would inflame sectarianism and has the potential to reignite the troubles.
On a capitalist basis, this problem is in many ways intractable. From the perspective of the EU, any arrangement in which the UK ends up outside of the Single Market or Customs Union without a deal which closely aligns Britain to its central regulations and agreements, would from their point of view necessitate some form of border - either north-south or east-west. The existence of either one of these would be a huge source of sectarian tension and should be strongly opposed by socialists.
Our sister organisation in Ireland – the Socialist Party – campaigns strongly against the hardening of any borders and argues for a united working-class struggle. They argue that, in this situation, the trade union movement – with its 800,000 members in Ireland and six million members in Britain – has a historic responsibility to take up the gauntlet and offer an alternative. The labour movement should organise its own conference to discuss the issue, representing workers across Ireland and Britain.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), and the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), should take responsibility for the convening of a conference along these lines. If they don’t face up to their responsibility, then a coalition of the trade union bodies prepared to do so should take the initiative. Such a conference should discuss how the economic interests of the working class in Ireland and Britain could be defended against those who wish to use Brexit to attack workers’ rights and conditions, including the possibility of co-ordinated industrial action. It would also have to discuss how we can defend the unity of the working class in the context of Brexit, preparing to counter any increase in sectarian tension and conflict with protests, demonstrations and industrial action to challenge the sectarian forces.
Ultimately, it is not our Single Market – and working-class people should not have to suffer in order to protect its 'integrity' on behalf of the capitalists. On the basis of socialist change – including public ownership of the big monopolies under democratic working-class control – it would be possible to completely eliminate the need for border checks of any kind and to build a society based on solidarity and unity.
What we fight for:
No to Boris coup! For mass protests, bringing together the trade unions, climate strikes movement and all those opposed to this attack on democratic rights
We can't trust capitalist MPs to protect workers and young people from a Tory No Deal Brexit! Fight for a general election and a Corbyn-led Labour government with socialist policies
Serious trade union-led action against every threatened cut, closure or redundancy
No to a Tory Brexit – deal or no deal. Oppose the capitalist EU. Build real solidarity and coordinated resistance to capitalist policies across Europe
For a socialist England, Wales and Scotland, alongside a socialist Ireland and Europe, where resources are democratically owned and planned