Brexit crunches Britain

October 21, 2018

The European Union elites have rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposals (known as the Chequers plan) on the basis that they breach the fundamental principles of the EU; i.e. the internal market and free movement. Alan Davies write that this has increased the likelihood of a disorderly (“no deal”) exit from the EU — and increased support for a second referendum on the issue.

In Scotland, it has resulted in a surge of support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish independence, with some polls showing a majority for the first time. It has also increased support for a second referendum on independence — as reflected at the huge pro-independence demonstration in Edinburgh on October 6.

May’s response has been — once again — to play the racist card, which she knows will go down well with most Brexit supporters. Her message from the September 30-October 2 Tory Party conference was: stick with me on Brexit and I’ll impose a harsh immigration regime and keep foreigners out.

And this will shore up support, at least in England. The core support for a hard Brexit remains rabidly racist, “put Britain first” people. Many have little interest in whatever else happens around Brexit. Even if it involves a drop in the standard of living, this will be acceptable as long as the government driving it has an English nationalist, look back to the empire, keep migrants out position.

Huge contradictions

Will it be enough? Probably not, because May’s Brexit shambles is shot through with huge contradictions.

When pressed, she will still say that no deal (i.e. crashing out of the EU on World Trade Organisation terms) is better than a bad deal. She will also readily say, when asked, that her reddest of redlines is that there will be no physical border either between the north of Ireland that Britain controls and the independent Irish state in the south, or between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the pro-British unionist party in Northern Ireland that props up May’s government, is also saying in even stronger terms — redder lines — that they would find any such border totally unacceptable.

But crashing out of the EU onto WTO rules is the quickest way to ensure the full implementation of a physical border between the Irish republic and Britain. WTO rules would require it, as would the rules of the EU, since it would become an external EU border.

May’s response to this glaring contradiction, when the BBC’s Andrew Marr asked her this question four times in a row, was to completely ignore it. All she would say was that she intended to get an agreement, so it would not apply.

But this goes to the heart of the issue. She says that no deal is better than a bad deal to appease the EU, but to implement it would breach her reddest of red lines.

One answer to this conundrum could be in recent speculation that May will go for any deal she can get even if it breaches the Chequers plan — i.e. remaining within the internal market and the customs union and challenging the EU to see her voted down in parliament, opening the door to a left-wing Jeremy Corbyn government. May would also hope to win some Labour votes in such a situation.

At the moment, there are not the numbers in parliament to win a vote for anything May is likely to bring back or a no-deal solution. This seems unlikely to change.

Economic pain

Meanwhile, an escalating string of big companies — financial and manufacturing — are protesting about the looming consequences of a hard or disorderly Brexit. Car manufacturers want to know what is going to happen to their just-in-time production set-ups as border checks increase. Many big companies are preparing to relocate.

Crashing out of the EU with no deal or a hard Brexit would be a disaster in the current situation. It would be on WTO terms, involving a big cut in living standards. It would also be in the framework of a right-wing, racist project and in an international situation moving rightwards.

Under such conditions, the left should not only oppose crashing out on a hard Brexit, but support ending the whole Brexit process and staying in the EU until very different political circumstances prevail.

The EU is a reactionary neoliberal entity that offers nothing to the working class in terms of a road to socialism. We should be ready to leave it in order to defend or advance a progressive agenda. Syriza made a big mistake in Greece in ruling such an exit out.

There was nothing progressive, however, about the vote for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Brexit is a project of the Tory hard right and is being shaped by the politics of the Tory hard right. It has become even more dangerous since the impact of Trump, who sees himself as a Brexiteer, on the level of the world order.

New referendum

The key to the issue is a second referendum. It is not about the general principles of referenda. It was a referendum that determined the situation we are in — and only another referendum can convincingly reverse that.

In any case, given the nature of the first referendum and the different circumstances that prevail today, there is a democratic right of a second vote. The fact that it has been a cause celebre of the Blairites is irrelevant.

There is no guarantee that the original decision would be reversed, of course, although the signs are encouraging. But the alternative of sitting back and waiting for the inevitable political disaster is unacceptable.

The key to an eventual referendum rests with Labour’s Corbyn leadership. It has been reluctant to come out clearly for a referendum because of the split in Labour’s base on the issue, but there has been a clear direction of travel towards a referendum, alongside the position that it would only support a deal proposed by May providing it met Labour’s criteria.

These criteria are that it ensures a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU; delivers the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union; ensures the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities; defends rights and protections, and prevents a race to the bottom; protects national security and the capacity to tackle cross-border crime; and delivers for all regions and nations within Britain.

From this point of view, there is virtually no chance of Labour supporting any deal that May could conceivably bring back from the EU in the next few weeks. Nor would Labour support a proposal to crash out with no deal and would impose a whip to ensure all Labour MPs voted accordingly on the issue.

Since this position is also held by the SNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats and a significant number of Tory MPs, we can say that at the moment there is no majority for either proposition.

The most significant advance made at Labour’s September 24-25 conference was to strengthen the position on a second referendum, which was elevated to a position of “on the table”. This remains vague, but is important given the momentum that is now behind the proposal and the lack of other rational proposals for when the crunch (or crash) comes.

Labour’s leaders still say that their first choice is for a general election. The problem is that while it would be extremely welcome, it would not settle the issue of Brexit. It would not carry with it the authority to trump a referendum vote.

Nor could it avoid the issue of a referendum, which would never go away. In fact, the denial of a referendum — or the proposal to trump it with a vote in parliament — would give the right an ideal platform to defend the original decision and discredit Labour.

Election manifesto

Labour, therefore, in the event of a general election, should put a referendum on Brexit in its manifesto — making it clear that the vote would include an option to stay in the EU.

Crucially, after a Labour victory in a general election arising from the Brexit crisis, it should not fall into the trap of taking over the Brexit negotiations with the prospect of getting a better exit deal than May. It should move to end the whole exercise with a new referendum, with a recommendation to vote to reverse the previous decision.

There is no Brexit deal available in the current situation that would equal staying in the EU at this stage.

The most likely road to a referendum is via parliament after the rejection of May’s proposals (whatever they might be) or a no-deal exit — which would probably also involve a general election.

Such conditions could well produce a parliamentary majority for a second referendum — particularly with the SNP saying it  would vote for it. But even if it failed to get a majority at that stage, it would strengthen Labour’s appeal and probably its vote, since anyone proposing a rational and democratic way out would gain respect.

[Abridged from Socialist Resistance.]

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