Brexit, for a friend abroad

Friends in various parts of the world, busy with their local or global issues, sometimes end their messages by asking what on earth Brexit is about, how they can make sense of it, how something so bizarre could have happened. Feeling that they had not been paying enough attention perhaps, they ask for clarification. An email from a friend in Athens triggered this reply: an open letter.

In my daily life in England I rarely have to discuss Brexit or give an account of my views about it but I do feel a need to get something down in writing, if only for friends abroad. It’s tricky because I’m ambivalent on some dimensions of the issues, while others —especially around the Labour Party— have become toxic.

I don’t find it easy even to start. Perhaps I’ll begin with the EU as I experienced it in recent decades. I have always been ambivalent about the EU because it has so many attributes of the capitalist state, many of them built in by design from the outset but others added later as part of the rise of corporate capital and the neoliberal mental apparatus it sponsors. On the other hand the EU embodied from the first some features of historic compromise between capital and labour —some attachment to welfare systems, labour market regulation, the protection of reproduction and of environment. Like any other state apparatus it was the arena for struggles between social forces, for compromise and so on. I never really studied it so these are amateur comments. Increasingly, via the later treaties, the EU became more of an explicit instrument for capitalist liberalisation but it always retained positive support for education, research and exchanges —Erasmus, Socrates and so on— which I was most directly involved in. It enabled thousands of us to collaborate, to travel in doing so, to be students across the continent, to expand perspectives and build networks —even quite critical networks. Those wonderful EU functions still go on, of course, except for the British. In hindsight I realise how elite it all was/is. Bus drivers and cleaners and care workers don’t get to do international exchanges; school groups travel to some extent but I think it’s very limited in extent and depth: trips rather than living abroad. So the dissolved frontiers were essentially for elites, elites of left as well as right, but all part of the reproduction and consolidation of class.

[Fetches a glass of Rioja.] ***************

Where did the Brexit idea come from and how did it move from being a freak/fringe position to a contender for actual implementation? I’m no expert on this either. What seemed important to me was that some malign operators were shrewd enough to see a whole raft of disparate grievances, spread across social strata and geographies, which could be herded like a menagerie behind the Brexit campaign. Partly this drew on the internal contradictions of the Tory Party as representing (rather badly) big corporate business in productive sectors, PLUS (rather obediently) the banking and finance sectors (recently the geese with golden eggs) PLUS a lot of conservative people in various social strata, mainly nostalgic and/or xenophobic. Similarly the Labour Party had become very dysfunctional, less and less representative of (and composed of) working class people, estranged in large measure even from trades unions, often itself racist and never integrated with social movements in environment, housing, migrant rights or sexual politics. So both those political parties had a lot of potential voters who could be diverted by the blandishments and lies of the Brexit campaign.

A big issue in the UK (at least in England where I live) is how the referendum vote in 2016 should be interpreted.

Image from Billy Bragg

I’m very much persuaded by Lisa McKenzie’s studies in the Nottinghamshire coalfield from which she concluded that working class people’s votes for Brexit were primarily votes against a status quo which had abandoned them, trashed their economy and culture. In a more egghead vein I was also much impressed by my friend Jamie Gough’s argument back then that the Brexit votes of many working class people (in the popular sense) were substantially votes against the state, local, national and European, as useless at delivering for them. He also argued that blaming migrants for shortages of homes, jobs and services was a quite understandable response in the absence of any alternative political analysis and offer within formal politics.

Part of what went wrong in all this was a kind of guilt trap: it has been commonly held on the left that a lot of the working class Brexit vote was a wake-up call by abandoned, unrepresented, people for an alternative politics. OK so far: I’m sure that’s largely right. But those of us who consider that leaving the EU would be against the interests of most of those voters weren’t supposed to say so because that would disrespect the working class or disrespect democracy. Neither Corbyn nor anyone else picked up the challenge of developing a strategy for socialist approaches to Britain’s problems inside the EU, working alongside allies across Europe. A lot of us were politically homeless and the pressures on Corbyn and co led them to pull away from their clear Brexit position and hold out the prospect of a fresh referendum. This is widely credited with much the blame for Labour loosing the 2019 election. I don’t know, but certainly it was all disastrous.

The campaigns in opposition to Brexit, between the referendum and the implementation were, to me, deeply toxic: an impossible coalition of Liberal Democrats (the much hated junior members of the ‘coalition’ government), some Greens and miscellaneous dissenters form the main parties. I went nervously on one of their marches and found the patriotic waving of blue EU flags as offensive as patriotic waving of national flags. Who could be patriotic for the Berlaymont?

The strong support for Brexit among the supporters of the Tory party is a different kind of mystery. Clearly there were property-owning and business owning people in England who stood to loose a great deal from the Common Agricultural Policy or other aspects of Brexit but who made themselves visible leavers by erecting huge posters on their land beside highways or in their shops, echoing the Countryside Alliance against a threatened ban on fox hunting of a few years earlier. That was alongside the much more sinister presence within the Tory party of the kind of vulture capitalists, eager for chaos and ready to pick the bones of the welfare state if its death could be arranged.

The greatest practical problem for me was maintaining friendly relations with the few people whom I had always regarded as real political allies but who were pro-Brexit on the grounds that the EU was, or had evolved into, a hideously neoliberal enforcement machine (true) which we should quit so that, led by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others, Britain could begin to develop in a socialist direction. This was in 2016/17 when the Corbyn project was going well and this optimism was plausible. Why didn’t I share that perspective, since I was (and am) very pro-Corbyn/McDonnell?

I think for two reasons. Firstly I do think that the modern nation state tends to be a horrible thing & the more it can be diluted and constrained by supra-national powers the better. I guess I keep hoping that the kind of humane consensus which has flourished in the ILO, WHO and some branches of EU activity can help keep nationalists & xenophobes in check. Added to that, most of my friends across Europe (and friends in London irrespective of national origins) were devoting their energies to anti-capitalist work. So a position like Varoufakis, seeking pan-European alliances to challenge and supersede the neoliberal elements in the EU was appealing. The satisfactions of transnational campaigning which I have experienced in INURA (the International Network for Urban Research and Action) and now see in the European Coalition for Rights to Housing and the City are great, and perhaps too beguiling.

So there we are. Out of the EU.

Undoubtedly this will bring, indeed was always intended to bring, serious further declines in living standards for working class people in the UK, occasioning further inequalities, collapse of investment in most sectors and attrition of protections on working conditions, environment and rights. This is all under way in the first month. Impacts in Ireland and in other places for which the UK was an important export destination (mainly German I think) will also be painful. There is a recent and again excellent analysis by Jamie Gough of why so many sections of ‘UK capital’ are supportive of Brexit or are keeping quiet while they construct ways around it.* All of this will of course combine with the long downward haul of UK austerity through much of the last 20 years and with the disastrous damage caused by the Johnson regime’s mismanagement of the Covid19 pandemic. Rival blame games are going to be very unproductive. I have no idea whether we (and who is the ‘we’, for god’s sake) can forge any progressive way through the mess. At a London level it does seem to offer some glimmers of hope for insubordination. But that’s another story and needs discussion among friends, discussions which are so elusive in this lockdown.

Meanwhile back to Brexit. Keith Flett’s blog today draws attention to 2 new articles by Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books which I must read because he is a real wise owl. (They appear to be outside the paywall.)

The text above is not a coherent story, much less an analysis. In writing, I’m imagining that I’m sitting with a drink talking to my friends in Athens. I hope that will happen again.

Do comment if you want.

  • We are getting many anecdotes and jokes about what is and isn’t “British” capital at the moment. But my favourite remains the episode when Margaret Thatcher was briefly in hospital for an eye operation and asked for mineral water. She was given Perrier but refused it as French, asking for British water. She was brought Highland Spring which she accepted. The Financial Times enjoyed this, explaining that the Perrier brand was owned by an English aristocrat while Highland Spring was owned by Saudi Arabian royalty – who had just recently annoyed the prime minister by booking seats for the state opening of parliament and then not turning up.