By David Osland
Call us the ‘on balance Remainers’. Millions of people – and I was one of them – backed Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in 2016, not from any commitment to some nebulously painted European ideal, but an entirely quotidian sense of pragmatism.
Nobody with a leftist outlook on politics, economics or social life will have approached the referendum ballot box that year unaware of the multiple structural fatuities and follies perpetrated by Brussels, not least because our attention was regularly drawn to them by a vociferous contingent of Lexit advocates.
Our eyes did not tear up in emotive Pavlovian response each time we heard an out of tune rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth from some substandard Belgian municipal symphony orchestra.
We knew all about the essentially neoliberal nature of the EU project, the enshrined freedom of movement for capital, the blatantly protectionist nature of the agricultural and fisheries policies, the substantial net cost in UK contributions.
But we did grasp that victory for the Leave campaigns would also represent triumph for the most ideologically driven elements of the Tory and Faragist right, creating a climate conducive to nationalism of the most rebarbative variety and chlorinated chicken alike.
And so, after weighing the pros and cons for ourselves personally, our families, the firms we work for, the British economy and British society as a whole, we came to the conclusion that remain and reform was the better option.
One politician captured ‘on balance Remainer’ sentiment perfectly, in a soundbite that attracted concentrated disapprobation at the time. That was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, when he famously described his level of enthusiasm for Remain as ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’.
Yes, but the critics immediately add, did he even believe that personally? Given his unblemished record of eurosceptic voting throughout his many years in parliament, surely Corbyn was a closet Lexiteer, boxed in to paying lip service to a stance out of kilter with his gut instincts?
Only Corbyn and his inner circle know the real answer to such accusations. But the obvious rejoinder is: it didn’t really matter. Dilemmas of that nature are baked in to leading democratic political parties.
I was told at the time that the Labour leadership didn’t see the issue in existential terms, either way. The principal determination was to implement the transformative manifesto, in or out of the EU. That’s pretty much how I saw it too.
To understand how the conclusion was reached, it needs to be stressed that Labour’s conversion to support for the EU is of relatively late provenance anyway, commencing only under Kinnock in 1988.
For anybody who joined before that point, opposition to ‘the bosses’ Common Market’ – as we used to brand it – was taken as read. Factionalism didn’t come into it. Withdrawal was official policy, with even the young Tony Blair including the demand on his election leaflets.
On the left, what was then the European Economic Community was viewed largely as an obstacle to carrying out the Alternative Economic Strategy, which encapsulated socialist thinking on economics.
It is often conveniently forgotten that euroscepticism was also deeply embedded on the Labour right. While pro-Europeanism was a key factor in the formation of the Social Democratic Party, quasi-nationalist opposition to the EU had been prominent in the revisionist tradition since Gaitskell’s famous ‘1000 years of British history’ conference speech as far back as 1962.
As late as the Bennite period, that perspective was alive and kicking in the shape of the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee around Shadow Chancellor Peter Shore, a tendency that combined patriotism with espousal of Keynesianism in one country.
The turning point was perhaps another speech, in the form of European Commission president Jacques Delors’ address to TUC conference in 1992, highlighting the EU’s social dimension.
From then on, consensus labour movement opinion was broadly pro-EU. Many of New Labour’s social reforms, usually hailed as some sort of cunning social democracy by stealth, actually emanated from Brussels rather than Blairism, and would have happened under Tory governments as well.
Nor does it matter greatly which way Corbyn whipped key withdrawal votes in the feverish atmosphere of the fag-end of the May administration and the birth of Johnson government, which was dictated by day to day tactical expediency. And rightly so, given the opportunities on offer to precipitate Tory collapse.
What wasn’t clear at the time is that Corbyn’s acceptance of the referendum outcome while seeking customs union – ‘a’ customs union, not necessarily membership of ‘the’ customs union – and single market access on broadly similar terms was the only viable means of securing Labour electoral prospects.
‘Jobs-first Brexit’, as it was packaged, would have had substantial appeal to the Leave heartlands, and was the last best hope of averting the 2019 collapse.
Instead, Corbyn was bounced into advocacy of a second referendum, and Britain will live with the consequences of hardline Tory Brexit for decades to come. It’s no small irony that the demolition contractor who knocked down the Red Wall won the competitive tender to reconstruct it.
We now stand just days away from denouement. Britain is heading for the door from 1st January, with what at the time of writing looked likely to be a spatchcocked trade deal, but could still be no deal at all.
For those on furlough from a zero-hours contract job in the middle of a pandemic, fishing quotas and state subsidy regimes might seem recondite niceties.
No-deal or bad-deal Brexit isn’t going to bring British capitalism down. Most forecasters accept that gross domestic product will be several percentage points lower than it would otherwise have been by 2030. But that’s a problem for the two-superyacht class.
The real danger is that the untrammelled madcap drive to turn Britain into Singapore-on-Thames will see the advent of a racist Detroit-on-Teeside with tough border controls instead.
The Tory right is in power and offering a coherent, sharply-defined and aggressive vision to reshape this country. Labour is in opposition and countering with a string of platitudes. As the 1980s showed, in those circumstances the Tory right wins by default.
To paraphrase Meatloaf, seven and a half out of ten ain’t bad. Especially when the alternative turns out to be the road down which we are about to embark.
David Osland is a member of Hackney North and Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time leftwing journalist and author.
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