The vote in the 23 June referendum that Britain should leave the European Union was a victory for the forces of reaction and historical regression. It has fed the fires of reactionary nationalism and chauvinism in other EU countries, people who want to go back to a Europe of competing, and possibly warring, nation-states, to what degree and with what consequences remains to be seen. In Britain, it has triggered a wave of attacks on migrants.
The move to unite Europe economically and then, more slowly, politically, began with the Coal and Steel Community of the initial six countries in 1951 and, in 1958, the creation of a Common Market. It was, even under bourgeois rule, a tremendous step forward from the Europe which had triggered two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. It was good for the working class and its labour movements in that it created an extra-national framework for European working-class unity.
Britain’s withdrawal is movement in the other direction, movement that greatly encourages those in other parts of the EU who want it to break up. It encourages the European racists and fascists like France’s FN. In fact, of course, the referendum that has dealt such a blow at European unity was fought centrally not on European unity but on immigration and the free movement of labour in the EU. The vote was a product of the long campaign of politicians and much of the press — Murdoch’s Sun and Desmond’s Express for the worst examples — to intensify fear and resentment against immigrants. It was a response to the mass flight into Europe driven by the Syrian civil war, itself triggered by the “Arab Spring” of 2011.
The referendum result has so far created a crash in the financial markets and political chaos. The campaigners for exit probably did not expect to win and had made no plans of what to do if they did.
It is not even certain that Britain will in fact leave the EU. Legally the referendum result is a “recommendation” to the government, not a binding decision. Parliament could in theory decide not to implement it, or refuse to agree a deal designed to implement it. As of 27 June three and a half million people have signed an online petition for a second referendum. The majority for Leave was clear, but only 52% of the vote. One quarter of those entitled to do so did not vote; the electoral registers were depleted by new registration procedures; the Tories had voted down plans to let 16 and 17 year olds vote.
It is being argued that a decision of such immense consequence should not be decided by so small a majority, that at least a 60% vote should be required. Boris Johnson, the leading Leave campaigner, has declared he now plans for “intensifying European cooperation and partnership in a huge number of fields... British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down... There will continue to be... access to the single market”.
The bad joke here is that if Britain remains in the single market, it will still have to allow the free movement of EU workers, opposition to which fuelled the Leave referendum victory. If the opponents of exit have will and determination, all sort of blocking or limiting moves are possible. There are precedents.
Denmark had a second vote on the Maastricht Treaty. Ireland had second votes on the Nice Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty. After Norway voted against entry to the EU in 1994, its government negotiated entry to the European Economic Area (in effect, three-quarters EU membership), which remains stable.
A big majority in Scotland voted to stay in the EU. Scotland has its own government which may refuse abide by a UK decision to leave the EU. The Scottish nationalists see the chance of a second referendum on Scottish independence; the result of the Leave vote may be to accelerate the process of separation between England and Scotland.
In both the Six and the Twenty-Six counties of Ireland there is a decisive majority for staying in the EU. Sinn Fein has called for a referendum on a united Ireland. It is improbable that the desire of a majority in Northern Ireland to remain in the EU will be stronger than the Northern Ireland Unionists’ aversion to unity with the 26 County state. The effect of a Northern Ireland majority voting contrary to the English majority will add a new instability to the already fraught situation.
The Tory party is more divided and gripped by corrosive internal rancour than at any time since the fall of Margaret Thacher in 1990, and possibly more than since the Suez crisis of 1956. Boris Johnson, the Tory right-winger posing as a lovable buffoon who joined the Leave campaign as a career-building exercise, finds himself unexpectedly victorious in possession of Leave policies he may not even believe in. Large parts of the Tory party establishment are determined to stop him becoming leader.
The anti-Corbyn camp in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour shadow cabinet see their chance to unhorse Jeremy Corbyn, blaming him for the fact that 30-odd per cent of Labour voters went for Leave and ignored the party’s appeal to vote Remain. They accuse him of lacking conviction as an advocate of Remain.
Their attack on Corbyn by these politically bankrupt orphans of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is preconceived, and the referendum defeat a mere “good reason”. They have been planning to move against Corbyn since he was elected. To be sure, Corbyn lit up no landscape in the referendum campaign. Labour should have campaigned with fire and conviction for European working-class unity in a united Europe, for a socialist United Europe, and for radical democratic reform of the creaky system of bureaucracy than runs Europe under a democratic but weak European Parliament.
Instead, most prominent Labour figures mumbled “us too” after Cameron to recommend a Remain vote. Against that dismal background, Corbyn himself fought a decent, politically brave, and principled campaign. He insisted on separating himself from the Tories. He was the only Labour figure to openly defend the free movement of Labour. He gave specifically working-class reasons for voting Remain — to make a social Europe, not a neo-liberal Europe. That was a damn sight better than what any of his post-referendum critics did.
None of his critics dared follow Corbyn in confronting the anti-immigrant demagogy; not one of them dared defend the free movement of labour. The Leave camp ran a scandalously dishonest campaign, lining up working-class voters with demagogic anti-immigrant agitation. The Labour campaign should have defended free movement of workers, as Corbyn did, and countered the anti-immigrant demagogy positively by pointing out that the availability of housing, schooling, medical care, jobs, are not things fixed in iron and concrete foundations, but can be altered by government policies. It should have counterposed to the “Leave” demagogy a programme for what a Labour government would do in those fields. It should have campaigned positively for the unity of workers of all origins, and the unity of British and European workers. It should have used the fact that the leading Leave demagogues like Johnson and Gove are right-wingers and, by strong ideological conviction, anti-working-class.
It was in this field that the progressive element in a bourgeois united Europe fell down before the incapacity of the European bourgeoisies to satisfy the needs of “their own” workers. There was a “class” element in the Leave campaign. It is workers who feel most acutely the social pressures on resources. That those resources can be taken from the rich, and that workers, native and newcomer, should unite to fight for that, was no central part of the Remain campaign. For Cameron and his like, it could not have been. For a left-wing-led Labour Party, it should have been central, but despite some good individual statements by Corbyn and McDonnell, it was not.
The horrible truth is that most of the left “to the left” of Corbyn’s party did not do what was needed either, or mumbled incoherently when doing it.
The Socialist Party has come out against free movement of workers in the European Union — that is, in weasel words, they have endorsed the anti-immigrant demonology, on the grounds that “the workers wouldn’t understand” if they did otherwise. There were exceptions — Momentum, Left Unity, Socialist Appeal, Socialist Action, Red Flag, the Socialist Network, and of course ourselves — but groups like the SP, Counterfire, and the SWP continued the anti-EU politics that the kitsch-revolutionary left has peddled for decades, and in reality did that in tandem with right-wing agitation against immigration and immigrants dressed up as protest against the EU “elite”.
For decades it has been an article of faith for many groups on the left, from the Morning Star to Socialist Worker and beyond, that socialists should be against the EU and favour getting out of “the bosses’ united Europe” in situations where, as now, the alternative to the EU was in fact regression to walled-off bourgeois nation-states. Some of the left groups proclaimed themselves for a Socialist United States of Europe. But that was like the “holy water” that a priest sprinkles on the coffin at Catholic funerals: nothing to do with anything real. An afterthought. If Corbyn and McDonnell hold their nerve in face of the revolt of the unreconstructed Blairites and Brownites, then they can beat them. In that effort they are entitled to the support of all serious socialists.