Brexit breakdown beckons


This was an issue of Scottish Left Review we could not put off any longer.

Since the referendum in June 2016, we have covered the decision of Britain to leave the EU and its attendant prospects every so often and with one or two articles. But until now we have not made it the theme of an issue – because while we might harbour our particular suspicions and thoughts about how things might turn out, this would have been little more than a combination of idle and informed speculation. Now that the 29 March 2019 date of leaving is very nearly upon us and the fault lines have become relatively clearer – not so much in terms of what different sections of the Tory party want and more in terms of the interplay of what the EU has demanded and the British government has been prepared to concede – we can with less speculation and more insight cover and analyse some of the main salient issues.

‘Car crash’ and ‘train wreck’ are over-used phrases in the present day political lexicon but they seem increasingly apt as the ever more likely deleterious and disruptive impact of a Brexit under the Tories becomes clear. The issuing of statements by the government on various matters in the event of a ‘no deal’ as well as the impact on workers’ pay and jobs as a result of employers’ recent decisions on investment and production have headed up the trouble ahead. That is why the title to this editorial comment, ‘Brexit breakdown beckons’, seems appropriate.

What is so marked about the political situation is that despite the clear and present danger to their profits from the ensuing uncertainty and disruption, employers have not had more influence on their political party, the Tories, to make sure there is a smooth transition to a single market or customs union. Somewhat ironically given her weakness, this must be because May’s parliamentary majority depends on trying to assuage the rampant Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party.

So, in this issue, we have an array of leading figures from the left writing about what their positions are on Brexit and what their preferred options are after Britain has left the EU (or not). But we also cover the likely ramifications of Brexit for politics and economics. These articles cover issues of both process and outcome. Of course, there is much we still don’t know, especially concerning what any Westminster government will do with powers repatriated from the EU and where it might place them (Westminster or Holyrood, Cardiff Bay or Stormont). Much will depend here on which party is in government. If there is a general election which Labour wins, then the post-Brexit outcome is likely to shaped in a very different way from if the Tories hold on to office. The SNP Scottish government has often talked up the politics of the power grab and the prospects for further devolution would very much depend on what happens at Westminster.

Map of Europe with EU logo on top
Map of Europe with EU logo on top

It was tantamount to political harikari or self-immolation to raise the issue of any kind of referendum on the deal negotiated by the British government to exit the EU any time soon after 23 June 2016. This is now not so and this is correct – simply because the vote to leave (as with the vote to remain) reflected a number of different, sometimes conflicting, concerns so that it was also the case that voting to leave was not synonymous with a particular type of deal to leave, be it a ‘soft’,’ hard’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit, where the configurations of single markets, custom unions and WTO rules could be very different indeed.

Any notion of popular sovereignty does demand that the deal negotiated to leave is not only voted upon by parliament – a concession grudgingly rung out of the Tories – but also subject to a popular vote. Only time will tell whether this then becomes a de facto second Brexit referendum – but, as some fear, the danger of that cannot be allowed to prevent the referendum on the terms of leaving from happening at all. It is also legitimate that any deal also has the agreement of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If there is another simple ‘in/out’ referendum on whether to continue to leave or re-enter the EU, there must be tight controls on not only expenditure but campaign claims.

One of the Brexit outcomes that might have been prophesised was a tightening labour market as migrants from within and without the EU no longer arrive and many who were here (sic) leave. In days gone by, this would have led to a downturn in the supply of labour, pushing up wages. Yet since the financial crash at least and despite the reduction in unemployment, wages have (in real terms) stagnated or fallen for most. Job insecurity and in-work poverty abound and it is likely these factors help explain why workers in Britain are unlikely to receive a fillip from what might have been a Brexit bounce. Somewhat similarly, the costs of leaving – direct and indirect – never featured in the arguments of the main ‘leave’ campaigners. The now iconic claim of £350m per week being saved and destined for the NHS has long since faded into political oblivion.

For those on the left advocating a left Brexit – a lexit – it should have become apparent long before the referendum that now was not the time. It’s not their arguments for leaving are without merit – far from it. The EU was always a capitalist institution from the ‘get go’ and it was captured by the neo-liberals so that any of its (limited) benign characteristics have increasingly been dispensed with. A number of what count for its minimum social protections were fought for and won in Britain given that EU members must have only have in place national laws which meet the minimum requirements of EU directives. Only a few things like the limit on the working week (with the British-inspired opt out) came from Brussels and Strasbourg and not London, requiring a directive to be implemented in law through regulations.

But you didn’t need a crystal ball to see that the balance of political ideologies and class forces meant then and now that a ‘lexit’ was not – and has not been – possible. Indeed, any left votes for Brexit have benefitted the right by giving it a narrow mandate (52%:48%) to pursue its policy of the further deregulating capital over a whole host of issues like workplace health and safety and other forms of corporate responsibility over the environment. This is now quite an argument for ‘better the devil you know’ by staying in the neo-liberal EU or a backdoor argument that the EU can be reformed from the inside. Rather it is an argument for ‘don’t try to do anything that makes the situation even worse than it already is’. In other words, pick the fight at a time of your choosing when you’re likely, at least, to have a good chance of winning – and not when a faction fight inside the Tory party demands it. This requires the kind of tactical deft that the likes of Lynn Henderson, this year’s STUC president and vice-chair of Scottish Left Review’s sister organisation, the Jimmy Reid Foundation, showed when she voted ‘yes’ for independence in 2014, then for Labour led by Corbyn in 2015 and ‘remain’ in 2016.

Following the party political conference season, it is increasingly clear that Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell offers a genuinely social democratic alternative to the Tories and SNP. While the SNP promised to hold a consultation on establishing a state infrastructure company, Labour has already committed itself to do this and more with its investment plans. But there was no starker evidence of the clear ‘red water’ between Labour and the SNP than Labour’s proposals to transform corporate governance. Policy on worker directors (a third of a board) and employee share ownership (10% after ten years) show that Labour is prepared to use the levers of state power to progressively alter the way the market operates – even if searching questions can still be asked about how effective these proposals would be in practice. This is something we will examine in the first issue of 2019.

One of the reasons why the term social democracy – and not socialist – is used to describe Labour under Corbyn and McDonnelll is because Corbyn speaks of wishing to govern in the ‘national interest’ while McDonnell has made repeated appeals to employers that a Labour government would be in their best interests (because it would make investment in the infrastructure which businesses rely upon). Even where Labour today is predicated upon being ‘for the many and not the few’, this is not the language and practice of socialism where clashing class interests cannot be reconciled or subsumed within a single interest. It is disconcerting to note that even these ‘concessions’ to the right have not led to a lead in the polls. Despite the Brexit shambles presided over by Theresa May and the considerable internal Tory divisions, Labour is still behind. It would, therefore, not be entirely unreasonable to conclude that along with a most robust form of leadership from Corbyn and a more socialist-inclined outlook, Labour could do better than it actually is doing.

After the mammoth independence march in Edinburgh on 6 October, the continuing strength of support amongst the activist-orientated milieu cannot be doubted. But that is not the same as there being majority support for independence. Polls suggest there is still some way to go there, and this is what is pre-occupying the SNP leadership. Will Brexit make the difference given that most people living in Scotland voted to ‘remain’? The credibility of the SNP’s leadership’s hope there is a rather tenuous one. It reckons the worse a Brexit is, the more support there will be for independence so that Scotland could re-enter the EU. But any serious prospect of independence requires a consent motion for another referendum from Westminster. If the Tories get their way on Brexit, the clamour for another independence referendum might be greater but that would not change the will of the Tories. If Labour enters Downing St due to the Brexit breakdown, it is more likely to give consent for another referendum but the clamour for one might be a lot less because Brexit might not be quite as bad as many expected as Labour smooth offs the Tories’ rough edges. An interesting fly in the ointment here is that Scottish Labour under Richard Leonard’s leadership has signalled its intention to oppose a second independence referendum, repudiating the 1989 Claim of Right which Scottish Labour signed, and putting it on a difference course from British Labour under Corbyn. If there is a snap general election occasioned by Brexit, it will be interesting to see how reliant a potential prime minister Corbyn will be on Scottish Labour MPs and what sway those MPs will hold to make him not concede said consent motion.

In all this, there is a clear parallel between the 2014 and 2016 referenda. Referenda almost inevitably condense complex issues into binary questions. Just as those that voted for Brexit could not know what shape Brexit would take, the same is true for those that voted for independence. The 45% of those voting for independence did so for many different, often conflicting, reasons. What independence could or should mean was essentially a battle to be fought out after a vote for it. Just the same as in the case of Brexit – but with one key difference. Proportionately, more citizens in Scotland voted for progressive social change in 2014 than did citizens in Britain in 2016. Oh, and happy Xmas and New Year when the holiday season comes!