The hard-Brexit right in disarray - but Labour, too

Submitted by martin on 18 December, 2017 - 2:40 Author: Martin Thomas
Mail and Express

In mid-December, Theresa May agreed to keep British economic regulations "aligned" with the EU, thus opening the way to talks on a transition period and a Brexit trade deal. And rebellious Tory MPs defeated the Government in the House of Commons, to limit the Government's ability to legislate by decree over Brexit.

The hard-Brexit press, the Mail and the Express, backed the "alignment" deal, but were furious at the Tory rebel MPs. On 9 December the Mail's headline was: "Rejoice! We're On Our Way", and the Express had: "Huge Brexit Boost At Last".

On 14 December the Mail's front page accused the Tory rebel MPs of "betraying their leader, party and 17.4 million Brexit voters" and opening the way to "a Marxist in no.10". The Express said: "Outrageous! Rebellion by 11 stubborn MPs threatens Brexit chaos".

The hard-Brexiters are in disarray.

In 2016 Brexiters claimed that their choice was democratic because it would "take back control" of British affairs from the EU authorities. Now they assent to Britain being "aligned" with EU regulations in which, after Brexit, it has no say, but rage against Parliament saying that the Government cannot use the June 2016 referendum result as a mandate for autocratic powers to do what it likes.

The EU Single Market is a system of "regulatory alignment" within the EU to ease trade. No more, no less. If Northern Ireland remains sufficiently "aligned" with the EU to allow everyday free movement across the border within Ireland, and also "aligned" with Britain, then Britain must remain "aligned" with the EU.

Norway and Switzerland opt out of some Single Market provisions (on fisheries for Norway, for example), but in return comply with the rest, in bulk, without having any say in them. "Alignment" means Britain being either a Single Market member, or an associate of the same sort as Switzerland or Norway.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's talk of Britain being in "a single market" with the EU, but not "the Single Market", is obfuscatory.

In contemporary neoliberal capitalism - which, despite what its champions say, is a regime crammed with regulations and codes and box-ticking - easy trade involving rapid movement of relatively small items requires agreement over regulations. If you want to trade with the EU, with EU regulations.

A British government could change the Single Market from the inside, but it can't change the structure from the outside into a different single market.

Before June 2016 Brexiters talked of making many new trade deals which would allow a Britain outside the EU wider world trade. There is no movement on that front. The chances of a big deal to speed trade between Britain and the USA (by far the UK's leading export destination after the EU) are slight in the era of Trump.

So the Tory government, pushed on, no doubt, by big-business lobbyists who want the trade routes open, is edging crabwise towards some sort of "soft" Brexit. The explicit hard-Brexiters are on the back foot.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the few right-wing Tories who openly criticised the "alignment" agreement, is reconciled to May's way. He said on 17 December: "She has to stay until Brexit is completed".

In some ways all this is to our advantage. It means that the Tories are constrained to deflate, bit by bit, the hopes of those who really expected good things from Brexit. The evidence is that most Brexit voters didn't really expect good from Brexit, but rather voted to express "identity" and "values" and hostility to immigration; still, those who did expect good face discredit and demoralisation.

The Tories will still be avid to limit the rights of people wanting to move from EU countries to Britain, but are likely to settle for much looser limits than Ukip types would want.

All such advantages could however prove slight or entirely illusory. Mishaps and crises in the Brexit talks, causing higher barriers than any rational capitalist calculation wants, remain likely.

Needed, in order to give substance and sticking-power to the advantages, is a solid positive campaign for free movement, for keeping borders low and easy, for solidarity and social levelling-up across Europe - and, in fact, to give people the democratic right to a second verdict on Brexit when the shape of any deal emerges. Labour should be waging that campaign.

Instead, it is still equivocating. On 17 December, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, who spoke up occasionally for free movement in the months after the 2016 referendum, and had said in a constituency newsletter that the electorate should have the right to vote on a final deal, backtracked and said: "The Labour party does not support a second referendum".

John McDonnell is taking refuge in obfuscation about "a" single market and "the" single market. Labour still rules out continuing free movement, though front-bench Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer has talked vaguely of "easy movement".

All that must be turned round. Support the Labour Campaign for Free Movement!