Editorial – Bastards of Brexit and the ‘national interest’

Happy New Year to all our subscribers, readers and supporters. And, with the pleasantries now done, let’s get back to the matters at hand – of hard politics.

Over the last few months, day-in-and-day-out in the pages of the Guardian, its parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, has lambasted Theresa May as an automaton, a robot called Maybot. Maybot has, according to Crace, entered such a state of malfunction that she is only able to repeat that she is ‘very clear’ about ‘being clear’. Her behaviour would seem, according to some, to amount to the tip of one almighty mess in British politics over Brexit. After the pulling of the meaningful vote in parliament and the inability to gain any further concessions, the prospect of falling off the cliff of a ‘no deal’ departure is seen as a literal crashing out of the EU. To this, others moan that the political system has been so skewered on the knife of Brexit that there’s a policy vacuum on other matters (although it should be noted – as Chris Stephens points out in his article – Universal Credit continues as does austerity). Others go further and called this mess downright chaos and crisis. And, many more bemoan that the whole system of politics itself in Britain is in a mess. No politician or party stands out with any dignity or stature in this situation according to this view.

The problem with such an analysis is that it tends to depoliticise what remains an intensely political process. The view is almost as if there were at hand competent and skilled politicians prepared to work together in the ‘national interest’ that the situation would be different and so much better. But this is a deeply apolitical and naïve appraisal. The reason why May’s deal is unlikely to get passed in parliament is because the Tory party is not only weak (reliant upon the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)) and badly split (with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg of the European Research Group and Boris Johnson being the obvious ‘hard’ Brexiteers). But behind this are a few seldom recognised realities.

First, the likelihood of May negotiating a deal that would satisfy both hard Brexiteers and DUP was always going to be extremely slight because although Britain is a substantial economy it is, nevertheless, just one economy negotiating against twenty seven others (in the form of the EU which includes Germany, France, Italy and Spain as the major constituents). This is a moment of power play where the balance of forces needs to be realistically appraised. Second, clubs which are engaged in the job of self-preservation and expansion (which the increasingly intergrationist EU very much is) do not allow members to leave the club and maintain the benefits of the membership of the club (especially without paying for them). This was always going to be a no-brainer. Both points eluded the quite deluded brash and buccaneering perspective of the likes of Boris Johnson (with Tory leadership pretensions), who grandstanding and playing to the audience of Tory activists, told us that all that was needed was to say ‘give us what we want or we won’t play ball’ (or handover £39bn). These are the instances of the most obvious cases of the bastards of Brexit. But there are many others too, like Dominic Raab, Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. What binds them together is that they want to use Brexit as a means to deliver an even smaller state, with protections from the market on workers’ rights, environmental regulation and consumer rights even further reduced. Sounds like England as a green and pleasant land of the Victorian or Edwardian eras.

The political crisis around Brexit is now so profound that the case for a referendum on either May’s deal or a ‘no deal’ is very much required. This is not a betrayal of the ‘no’ vote in 2016 precisely because that referendum did not take a view on what form Brexit should take. It is clear that May’s deal is not a good one and a ‘no deal’ is even worse. Rather, another referendum would allow ‘no’ voters the opportunity to express their view on what kind of Brexit they wish for. Whether this turns into a referendum to reverse the decision of the 2016 one would depend on what the question (binary choice between May’s deal and ‘no deal’) was or questions (the binary choice plus the options to delay leaving, rescind Article 50, stay in the EU/rejoin the EU etc etc) were. Of course, what makes the political crisis as profound as it is are the intractable divisions in Labour, between ‘leavers’ like Corbyn and ‘remainers’ like Keir Starmer and how this influences many tactical questions including the relationship between calling for a general election and any kind of further referendum. Corbyn and a section of the left in Labour have been against the EU for decades in the vein of Tony Benn. Starmer and others see membership of the EU as a condition for a cosmopolitan type of capitalism.    Signs EU and for Brexit going in opposite directions

Unfortunately, the echoes of Theresa May seeking to defend Britain’s so-called aforementioned ‘national interest’ can be found elsewhere. The ‘national interest’ is a compound of nationalism and power, a subterfuge of and for ideology and material interests. In a class-based society such as Britain, there can be no ‘national interest’ in the sense that it means that all citizens have the same interests and can benefit together and in equal measure from this or that government action. Instead, the ‘national interest’ is defined by the rich and powerful as the means to defend their interests – material (economic), political and ideological. And yet, Jeremy Corbyn still uses his version of this concept. Despite leading on political and economic priorities ‘for the many, not the few’, he has proclaimed his criticism of May and her Brexit deal because it does not work for ‘for the whole country’. On occasion, he has even used the term ’national interest’ too. Succumbing to the notion of the ’national interest’ in terms of British nationalism has its parallel in Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Sturgeon, whether in regard of independence for Scotland or opposing Brexit, has couched her arguments in terms of what is good for ‘Scotland’ and ‘the Scottish people’, as if class was but a ghost in the machine. Her followers including Derek MacKay, finance cabinet secretary, talk of the SNP Scottish Government’s budget being ‘a Budget for all of Scotland’ as if there were no rich and poor, no ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ – or that the Scottish Government could simultaneously serve the interests of all such groups in equal measure.

This language of populism is more pernicious now than for a long time because the current erosion of the centre ground in British politics means that the hard right is using it as a way to deflect attention from the actual causes of the crises as well as whose interests are being defended in doing this. Populism is defined as juxtaposing the masses against elites. Is there a case for the left trying to use the same terms and language for its own purposes? Put more starkly, can the left refashion what is usually the preserve of the right, turning it against the right? Recall, David Cameron’s ‘we are all in it together’ mantra of the Coalition government era. In Gramscian terms, this would mean establishing a counter-hegemony with it. Certainly, Corbyn’s ‘for the many, not the few’ slogan is compatible with this perspective but that does not make it synonymous with it. It is altogether different ground when the more singular terms of ‘country’, ‘nation’ and ‘people’ are used – for reasons given above – as ‘for the many, not the few’ could at least be taken to suggest there is some kind of class system in existence. Contrast that with the launch by the People’s Assembly in December just gone of its ‘Britain is broken – we can’t afford the Tories’ campaign against austerity. In unfortunate echoes of Unite’s similarly named campaign just after Len McCluskey was elected to the position of its general secretary, it cannot be said that Britain is broken for there is at least one sizable section of society in Britain which is ‘doing very well, thank you very much’. Comprised of landlords, senior managers, investment banker and the like, this is an elite which keeps getting richer as wealth inequality across society widens.

But that cannot be the end of the linguistic matter because – as these editorials have repeatedly pointed out before – when the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Richard Leonard and now new Welsh Labour leader, Mark Drakeford, say that they are socialists and advocate socialism, what they actually mean is they are social democrats advocating social democracy (sometimes also called democratic socialism – as per Labour’s constitution and membership cards – in order to contrast itself to Soviet communism and Stalinism). This misnaming of socialism is repeated by the likes of the Morning Star and former Trotskyist Militant Tendency member and de facto leader of Liverpool City Council in the mid-1980s, Derek Hatton (who has rejoined Labour). There are also some examples of it in this issue of Scottish Left Review. Of course, while it is good that the term ‘socialism’ has re-entered the lexicon of the political mainstream as a term of commendation as result of Corbyn et al., this does not mean it comes without its own problems when used in this manner. Indeed, the imprecision of use here has in parallel in the imprecision of using the other terms discussed above. This is not to suggest that properly using terms like socialism would miraculously strengthen Labour’s electoral standing or its radicalism. But it is to suggest for the longer term that socialism rather than social democracy is what is required to address and end the ills of capitalism.

Speaking of Labour’s electoral standing, with three left leaders now in place, it is strange that Welsh Labour is more popular than Scottish or British Labour. Incredibly, British Labour has still not pulled away in the polls from the Tories despite May’s Brexit ‘shambles’ and their patent divisions. They remain neck and neck with each other. Something similar can be said about Scottish Labour – the SNP still has some Teflon-like qualities even though it has presided over the shambles of Scotrail and the running down of public services despite its protestations of shielding ‘Scotland’ against Tory austerity. Even when Sturgeon challenged the opposition parties to say where they would make cuts in spending to allow increases in spending elsewhere, this did not become an open goal for left opponents like Scottish Labour. So, Scottish Labour has made limited polling progress in reclaiming its former position despite a shift to the left in its policy positions and its willingness to deploy for progressive ends as yet unused legislative powers in the Scottish Parliament. We have two articles looking at the state of Scottish Labour since Leonard became leader in November 2017.

All that said, the theme of this issue is the Just Transition. When powerful and articulate, if nonetheless maverick, voices like Gary Smith, GMB Scotland regional secretary, attack the arguments from the left about a just green transition to a low-carbon economy as ‘pie in the sky’ and wanting to turn his boiler fitting members into ballet dancers, the left has to be able to respond in a credible way. We hope the theme of this issue helps in this cause. In this connection, and remarked upon by Stephen Smellie in his lead article, it is interesting to note that the GMB, Prospect, UNISON and UNITE unions, with 200,000 members in the energy sector, have produced a blueprint so workers and communities can be helped to adapt to the advent of the low carbon economy called ‘Demanding a Just Transition for Energy Workers’. The four key elements to ‘a just transition’ were spelt out by the unions to be: i) a balanced low carbon energy mix; ii) investment in skills and infrastructure; iii) protecting and creating high-quality jobs and employment; and iv) no community left behind.