Conceptualising Brexit

By Tom Wood

Brexit happened. Much to the disbelief and displeasure of many people, the UK left the EU. The world has not ended, albeit Brexit has caused much disruption.

The crises of British capitalism have been compounded by Brexit. The transportation of goods was recently brought to a standstill. This is because the transport industry relied upon the exploitation of European labour to transport goods cheap and fast. When these workers were shown the door after Brexit, there was a huge labour shortage. Labour shortages are just one of the many problems that have been caused by Britain’s departure from the EU. This has caused many in the pro-EU camp to remark that Brexiteers are getting what they deserve.

Brexit, by all accounts, is blowing up in the faces of those who orchestrated it. Those on the right wing of the anti-EU camp are stating that it is the EU who are frustrating the process. The reality is that Britain and the EU are both guilty of this. Both are looking to secure and consolidate their own interests at the expense of their rival. Those being caught in the middle of this are the working classes on both sides.

Workers in Britain are faced with food shortages and rising prices as transport is disrupted. Workers from the EU who relied upon jobs in transport and food picking in this country, despite being amongst the exploited, have been unceremoniously booted out. Working class populations in Ireland are nothing more than collateral damage as Britain’s and the EU’s imperialist interests clash regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol.

To properly address this injustice, it is more important than ever to attempt to conceptualise this whole battle, and carve a clear path going forward that leads to Socialism.

Firstly, Brexit is seen as a different thing entirely depending upon whom you ask. The right wing of the anti-EU camp believes British capitalism has been saved from the restrictions of the EU. They see Brexit as an uber-globalist move as Britain, free from the loyalties to its EU partners, is now free to open negotiations with its apparent equals, namely the US and China.

This is a purely delusional mindset. This camp still believe that Britain is at the peak of its power, level with the days when the sun never set upon Britain’s imperial possessions. But much has happened since this heyday of British capitalism. It is safe to say that at least since the Suez Crisis, British capitalism has been declining.

This decline is still ongoing. This year British imperialism was handed another embarrassing defeat when it withdrew from Afghanistan. Evidently, Britain is in no position to be pursuing an uber-globalist economic and foreign policy.

Some British capitalists, on the other hand, see Brexit as a huge disaster for British capitalism and a reflection of the fact that the ruling class have lost their grip over British politics. They believe the Tory party, which is the political mouthpiece of the ruling class, has been seized by a sect of extreme Little Englanders. This sect is not governed by the interests held by most British capitalists, but instead devoted to pursuing their own inflated vision of what they think Britain is capable of outside of the EU.

The EU offered British capitalists long-term stability as the EU’s constitution protected them from too much government intervention. This is because this constitution demanded a degree of uniformity in how member states approached their economies. Additionally, the EU protects the four freedoms – freedom of movement for people, goods, capital, and services. These freedoms cannot be infringed upon and preclude any bold socialist reforms that might interfere with them. Thus, British capitalists were free from invasive government intervention in the economy, had access to European labour that they could exploit to a greater degree than they can get away with when employing their native population, and had tariff-free trade with other member states.

These are benefits for the 1%. The EU empowers businesses, not people. The wealth that British capitalist procure because of EU membership does not trickle down but gets stuffed into already overflowing coffers.

Despite the fact that the EU has an essentially anti-socialist constitution and only stands to benefit those who are already wealthy, there are still those on the left who are pro-EU. This group possess this stance for good reasons. The EU does include protections for workers, health and safety laws, and food safety standards.

These are decent examples of what the EU offers but there is nothing the EU offers Britain that Britain can’t introduce itself. These protections and regulations pale in comparison to what Socialism offers the working class. However, as already stated, the EU prevents any bold socialist programme from being implemented. Crucially, for this camp the EU represented that a third way in capitalism was possible.

Brexit shatters the myth that capitalism can be tamed and that long term liberal, capitalist cooperation is possible. There are also those on the right wing of the Labour Party who see membership to the EU as a means of demobilising and disempowering their left wing counterparts because the EU’s constitution precludes any bold socialist programme. Brexit has dealt irreparable damage to the Third Way delusions on liberal cooperation. It also poses a direct threat to the supremacy of the right wing of the Labour Party.

Lastly, there are anti-EU voices on the left. From this perspective the EU, far from being a means to achieving socialism, is a purposeful obstruction to it. People in this camp would argue that while Brexit Britain may be at risk of being led down a blind alley by the uber-globalists, it is also, in equal measure, able to pursue Socialism. In a post-Brexit Britain, socialists would not be restricted as they had been since Britain joined the EU.

The Attlee government’s large-scale nationalisation of coal and healthcare would have been impossible if Britain had been in the EU. This is because such an interventionist move would have been ruled illegal.

It must be acknowledged that there is no going back. People who call for a second referendum or re-joining the EU will stifle the progress of socialist reformism in Britain. The task for socialists is to carve out a clear path and communicate this clearly to working class voters. The pernicious influence of the pro-EU camp stymied Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to clearly communicate Labour’s position on Brexit in the run up to the 2019 election. This indecision and vagueness stood in stark comparison to the Tories’ clear, if entirely untrue, claims of an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit.

One benefit of leaving the EU is that Scottish nationalism has been undermined. Scotland could now never conceivably leave the UK as this would lead to the erection of a genuine border between Scotland and England, which the Scottish people would never vote for. The idea of independence now carries a heavy cost for the Scots. Labour must seize upon this opportunity to regain the ground it lost to the SNP. This task is relatively easier as SNP claims to seats in Parliament have been weakened by Brexit. Labour, not the SNP, offers the working class people of Scotland a socialist future.

Internationalist socialism can benefit from Brexit. Many people would argue the opposite as Britain now appears isolated from Europe. However, the EU has not disappeared. Rather than promoting socialism in one state, we should be advocating the case for a Socialist European coalition.

The EU has demonstrated that long-term cooperation under capitalism is not possible, mainly due to the contradictions of the nation-state. However the working class knows no borders. We could empower other left-wingers across Europe to pursue their exits from the EU by demonstrating that socialist reform is free to flourish following Brexit. Free from the constitutional constraints of the EU, the door would be wide open for socialist European countries to build a Socialist coalition where intervention on behalf of the many would always be legal. Admittedly, this would require every country in the EU to go through their own form of Brexit. Given that the EU has looked to make an example out of Britain’s exit, to discourage other member states from leaving, this may be slow to materialise. 

We must now offer the working class a clear socialist vision for the future in post-Brexit Britain. Leaving the EU has put us at an advantage to deliver socialist reform more effectively.

Tom Wood is a graduate in History with Political Science and International Relations from the University of Birmingham, a member of the Labour Party and of Unite.

Image: Brexit. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/69057297@N04/33661354141. Author: ChiralJon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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