Labour must come clean on Brexit

16 June 2018

By Peter Main 

THIS MONTH sees the second anniversary of the “Brexit Referendum” and, a few days later, the opening of a crucial EU summit on 28 June. Until now, it has been possible for Theresa May to hold her party together by publicly echoing the rhetoric of the “hard Brexiteers” whilst, in the actual negotiations, conceding to the EU’s positions on virtually all fronts. Now, time is running out and this policy or, rather, absence of any policy cannot be maintained very much longer. Reality, in the shape of the EU’s very much stronger negotiating position, will have to be faced.

The referendum result was unexpected and, from the point of view of Britain’s ruling class, unwanted. All the major representatives of big business, commerce, banking, export industries, not to mention the majority of MPs and the leaderships of the parliamentary parties, had favoured Remain. And yet, although by a small margin, the vote went in favour of Leave, creating a huge, apparently democratic obstacle to British capital’s future progress.

The referendum itself was called to resolve the clashes within the Tory party. David Cameron expected to use a Remain victory to finally silence his disloyal rivals for the top job. However, the membership of the Tory party more closely reflects the attitudes of small scale, locally focused businesses than of high finance and international corporations. The likes of Johnson and Gove, who assumed like everyone else that Leave would lose, nonetheless sided with it to bolster their support amongst the membership, whose backing they would need to challenge Cameron. It is a measure of the degeneracy of the British ruling class that it should allow the leadership of its traditional political party to fall into the hands of such self-serving political chancers.


It is widely accepted that the Leave vote represented a protest against the “establishment” but, apart from stating the glaringly obvious, that does not tell us much. What matters is the political direction of that protest. For UKIP, it represented the patriotic voice of the British people, quietly ignoring the Scots and Irish, as UK patriots so often do. On the other hand, for Charlie Kimber of the SWP, it was “a revolt against the establishment. People who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at delivered a stunning blow against the people at the top of society; this was a rejection of the governing class.” (ISJ 192)

The SWP supported “Lexit”, that is, a vote to leave in order to open the way for “left”, working class policies that would be unacceptable to Brussels. As Kimber explains it, their rationale for this was entirely negative: “Firstly, the EU is an openly pro-capitalist institution. Secondly, the EU, through its Fortress Europe structures, acts to repel migrants and refugees from outside Europe. Thirdly, the EU is part of the imperialist world order that, along with NATO, delivers important support for the United States and provides reliable partners in its murderous actions.” And an “independent” UK would not be all of these things, and more?

Tellingly, Kimber ignores the fact that Brexit was also a blow against the 2.4 million workers from other EU countries already here, and that Britain was a loyal partner of US imperialism, and imposed tight racist immigration controls on workers from the West Indies, the Sub-Continent and Africa long before it joined the EU. Brexit as a move towards freer movement of labour rather than away from it? Does he think we are all stupid?

What the Lexit campaign ignored was that the idea of leaving the EU was inherently a backward-looking, national chauvinist project whose political content could not be altered by wishful thinking. In the Lexit campaign, the SWP were joined by, or rather they joined with, the Communist Party of Britain (CP) and implicitly accepted its political strategy, the British Road to Socialism, the CP’s programme since the 1950s, against which the founders of the SWP rightly polemicised. The CP, be it remembered has long been in favour of immigration controls, only claiming they could be “non-racist” ones. 

While Charlie Kimber might take comfort from his belief that Lexit was a “demonstration of how to mount a principled anti-racist, anti-capitalist, internationalist campaign” it was, in reality, a textbook case of unprincipled accommodation to British nationalism, camouflaged with left wing vocabulary that was little more than self-delusion. 


Everything that has happened since the referendum, particularly the increase in racism and racist attacks, confirms that the vote to leave marked a serious advance for the most reactionary forces in British politics. On the other hand, those two years have also deepened the political crisis facing Britain’s ruling class. 

Both the ludicrous posturing of Boris Johnson and company, and the ineffectual floundering of Theresa May confirm that our rulers do not have any strategy for dealing with this crisis of their own making. By default, most would prefer to just keep postponing any definitive decision via “transitional periods” and “extended implementation” until it is politically acceptable to find a way to reverse the referendum result. That, however, will be very difficult to achieve.

Nor is it the only option. It is also conceivable that the UK could leave the EU without any agreed deal on 29 March, 2019, the so-called “hard Brexit”. David Davis’ scenario of an independent UK then concluding advantageous deals with the rest of the world is sheer fantasy. After four decades of participation in the EU’s trading agreements, Britain does not even have the necessary team of experienced trade negotiators and, in any event, trade deals famously take years to negotiate. However, there is a section of capital that could expect to benefit from “crashing out of Europe”.

The clue here is the relationship to the USA. Although much was made of the indecent haste with which Theresa May made sure she was the first foreign head of government to visit Trump after his election, she was not the first leader of a foreign political party to congratulate him in person. That honour, if such it is, went to Nigel Farage of UKIP, and thereby hangs a tale.

The US Connection

Farage’s preferred image is that of a “man of the people”, happy to down a pint with the best of them and always ready with a quick sound bite that cheerfully sums up the dominant prejudices of the “little Englander”. That is, however, a carefully constructed fabrication. Farage is a former merchant banker who has for many years worked closely with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s campaign supremo and the front man for the Alt-Right news channel, Breitbart. He is also a close associate of Robert Mercer, one of Trump’s main financiers and reportedly a major shareholder in Cambridge Analytica, the firm involved, possibly illegally, in using personal data drawn from Facebook to support the Leave campaign. 

The involvement of such figures in the Leave campaign certainly helps to explain how it could be so effective. Although there is always a reservoir of reactionary ideas amongst the small business community and, for that matter, sections of the working class that have been “left behind” by the Thatcherite onslaught on industry, they are not normally an influential political force. A carefully targeted campaign, focused around the trigger issues of even relatively small numbers of people, as revealed by analysis of social media data, proved to be sufficient to change that.

While that may explain the “how?” of the Leave victory, it leaves wide open the “why?”. Who stands to gain from Britain leaving the EU? Certainly not the unemployed and low-waged in the de-industrialised regions; perhaps a layer of small businesses, oriented towards local markets and resentful of employment protection laws, environmental regulations and other restrictions on their profit-making that they equate with “rule from Brussels”. Such forces are not enough to out-campaign the dominant sections of British capital, as the Leave campaign undoubtedly did. 

No, as the proverb says, “Who pays the piper, calls the tune”. It is that part of the US bourgeoisie who have set their sights on the assets of the NHS, social housing, education, public transport, pension funds and local government. Outside of the EU, forced into a one-sided “trade deal” with “Britain’s closest ally” which outlaws state ownership, let alone subsidy, those assets would represent easy pickings for corporate America, with no doubt some crumbs for their British servants. Into the bargain, Brexit will also seriously destabilise and weaken the EU itself and thus open up new opportunities for US capital that has not been making sufficient profits at home for decades.

A workers’ alternative

Of course, being against Brexit does not put us in the same camp as the ruling classes of Britain and Europe. The European Union certainly is a “bosses’ club”, based on a neoliberal system. It is an enforcer of savage austerity, and it is anti-working class. But so too are Britain’s bosses, who pioneered most of these measures and opposed and opted out of many of the social provisions the European trade unions and workers’ parties tried to include in the various treaties.

The real question is not which ruling class trading bloc will be most favourable to British workers but where should we seek working class allies and an arena within which to fight for a socialist system? Internationally and without restriction, certainly, but while we are still in the European Union, whose workers’ organisations and parties remain amongst the largest and most combative in the world, we should not be throwing up new economic and political barriers which, under capitalism, will inevitably intensify the dynamic of nationalist and chauvinist competition amongst European workers.

Since we know any deal will be more dangerous and disruptive than the present situation, the Labour Party Conference should reaffirm its 2016 position of remaining in the EU. Now that the full damage of the Brexit deal is becoming ever clearer, we should demand a democratic decision on any proposed deal.

Instead of abandoning the anti-Brexit campaign to establishment liberals like Chuka Umunna or Keir Starmer, the left needs to make a positive case for a tectonic shift in the balance of forces between Europe’s states and classes. The fact that Labour and Tory governments have for decades agreed with – and encouraged – Europe’s neoliberal offensive, or the fact that the spineless leaders of Syriza capitulated without a fight does not mean resistance is futile.

EU members, from Hungary to France, via Poland, defy its rules all the time. Labour should openly recognise that its programme of reforms will meet resistance from the capitalist class firstly at a national and then at an  international level. The EU will not be the principal obstacle; it can barely threaten Italy and would be hard pushed to sanction the UK.

Overcoming capitalist resistance will require allies with the power to oppose the actions taken by their governments on behalf of British, European and international capital. Europe is not only where our closest and strongest allies are, but those allies are themselves waging the same struggle.

Labour should set a fighting example of collaborating with the workers of Europe to beat austerity, address the refugee crisis, oppose militarism in the East and Imperialism in Africa, and act on the climate. Or it can resign itself to irrelevance, and accept that it has neither the imagination nor the ambition to break with its reformist horizons and reshape the future by fighting for a socialist united states of Europe.

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