We drove to Italy from Bristol, Ame and I – and Poncho the YorkiePoo. Driving down the M4 and the M20 you pass acre after acre of fallow land, rolling countryside of meadow and open spaces that were once ploughed – pretty waste. As soon as you leave Calais, and continuing until you reach the Italian border you pass field after field under the vigours of agriculture. At the same time, the biting tension of being under constant camera surveillance on English roads lifts as you ease onto the relatively free-wheeling driving of the French and Swiss motorway systems. Within hours of leaving a country that supposedly prides itself on its historical traditions you pass through whole, living medieval towns and villages and through countries with more immediate and substantive living relationships with their histories. Like all borders across the world, the transition is immediate, tangible in its geography and culture.
The progressive, social democracy that we believe England (at least) to be lags way behind its European counterparts in numerous respects. Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next? highlights this in often startling ways – look at this clip where he learns about Italian labour laws which are many times more favourable to workers than in the UK or the USA:
And yet, once in interaction with people, cultural and political divides dissolve. Conversations about austerity, the rise of right-wing politics, university tuition fees, families, immigration, health services, the crisis of spirituality, the price of houses, Trump-preoccupations – and all the rest of it – are perfectly coherent, insightful and useful. I talked with my Genoese academic friend Ubaldo until late into a couple of nights about our common experience as university workers, about our struggle against the paradigm police and the managerial manager. Few are the frontiers of mind and experience. Culture is a thin disguise.
Of course, Brexit is talked of almost exclusively as an economic issue, as though economics came first, and then the society we want followed – as though economic values mattered first and most. This is dangerously naive, and one that suits the economic ‘winners’. But take away the economics and Brexit is complex – it shifts and moves as its elements collide and are mutually-bracketing. You cannot be simplistically ‘for’ or ‘against’. All positions have to be nuanced. This is a relationship, not a sculpture; a river, not a lake.
The reasons for voting ‘Remain’ are clear and strong. With the rise of super-massive economies like China, India and Indonesia the hitherto wealthy countries have to shelter behind the economic defences of a major trading bloc – at least to transition to lower economic status gradually; the UK gains enormously from its intensifying trade and labour exchange with a widening European market; the tendency (hegemonic right-wing economics notwithstanding) in associations like this is towards liberalism and moral advancement; our shared European histories insist upon some form of unification – we Europeans all live in a post Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world; if we cannot resolve all political and military tensions that implicate us we can at least engineer them to take place beyond our castle walls (the Balkans, Ukraine, Turkey) leaving ourselves with extended periods of peace. Close relations with Europe have allowed us to retain London’s status as one of the two leading world financial centres. A European Union is a better vehicle for globalising our workforce (though it is painfully slow). The major geo-political problems of the day, such as mass migrations, the rise of the militarised poor and climate change demand action that is integrated, not just co-ordinated. It makes sense to resist Brexit.
Less easy and more difficult to defend are arguments in favour of Brexit – though these, too, can be strong. To see this we have to crowbar out decent claims from the extremist, often clownish Brexit arguments. So this is the focus of this Blog. Here, then, are four moral, honourable, democratic reasons for voting Brexit:
- The EU is an egregious example of technocracy. It is ruled by unelected officials more responsive to economists and bankers than to any other constituency. Those unelected officials dominate and dictate to the elected Parliament. There are, for example, no checks and balances against the awarding of privileged access to the International Monetary Fund in deciding European fiscal policies. Brexit might give some much-needed leverage to Parliamentarians, and, at least, remind Commissioners that there is a suppressed democratic base. A Brexit shock – in a sense, using Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ against the political elite – would spur reflection and possibly reform.
- Richard Branson, George Osborne, bankers and other corporate interests were vigorously urging us to vote Remain. Their appeal was to the principle that ‘we are all in this together’ – that Remain being in the interest of the corporate elite meant ipso facto that it was in our interests, too. This is a treacherous fiction. It was important to take a stand and assert that there are, indeed, competing values and interests, and that we are not at all ‘together’ in this – that the interests of working people do not coincide with the accumulation and concentration of unreasonable wealth and power. If Branson is ‘for’, there is at least a presumptive case for scepticism.
- A win for Remain would cement the Conservatives and likely lead to George Osborne becoming Prime Minister, sealing the determination to impose indefinite austerity on the country. A Brexit vote would unseat Cameron/Osborne and inflict a probably fatal wound on the Conservative Party. In this sense a Brexit vote is almost inevitably an anti-austerity vote. In any event, the calculation to support Brexit was that by far the greater threat in the immediate term to working people, the sick, vulnerable and poor was not Brexit, but austerity. the strategic political priority was destabilise the austerity wing.
- Brexit was always a weak starter, unlikely to finish. Those financial interests in favour of Remain (by far the greatest weight among the financial elite) would never allow it to happen. It would be naive to think that ‘meeting the will of the people’ figured in bankers’ priorities higher than losing London as a world financial centre, one of the more immediate threats of Brexit. Bankers and corporate elites are part of a culture based in London: banks, gentleman’s clubs, English language-based culture, properties and relationships – all have historically acted as a drag on the always threatened ‘flight of capital’ should things not go the way of the elite.
So – let’s review progress against each of these:
- A shock to technocracy: Britain’s stunning incompetence in negotiations somewhat blunts the desired effect – possibly even shores up the technocrats by making them appear more sophisticated, self-assured and in command. The threat of a domino-effect in other EU countries has receded, though the game is far from over. Brexit and other possible EU exits are linked more in the public mind to extreme right-wing interests than to those of democracy, so this one scores low on a result – as yet. 4/10…?
- ‘We are all in this together’: As I wrote in a previous Blog this damaging fiction is finally being exposed, and the prospect of Brexit certainly helps. As I noted in that Blog, what journalists lament as a “divided Britain” is a country that has, at long last, rediscovered ideological and material differences across the wealth/poverty divide. There are many factors underpinning this new division – the frustratingly slow realisation of what austerity means is key among them. But, for sure, snubbing Branson and the rest of the financial elite by voting against their counsels has counted, has given space, perhaps even political capital to an otherwise passive electorate. Whether we are ‘all in this together’ or not is now a claim that has to be proven, not just asserted. And if Jeremy Corbyn can keep his eye on political strategy more than on his personal feelings he now has a strong base on which to test those claims. This, too, is an ongoing project with as yet unforeseen possibilities. But latency has been created. 6/10
- Destabilise austerity politics: Get rid of Camborne, weaken the Conservative party, hole austerity below the water-line, refocus attention away from the interests of the financial elite and towards those of the majority in this country? We might even get a reconstructionist Labour government. 9/10
- Brexit will not come to pass: It is too early to say, though even Jeremy Corbyn has come to accept the reality that there is no such singular event as ‘Brexit’, and that, like all relationships, ours with the EU cannot be killed off, it can only be changed. The proposed ‘extended transition’ period sounds more and more like the long grass into which the ball may be kicked. The ‘will of the people’ (a tidy fiction in itself) is only one element in a complex game of political values and material interests. Politicians assert it as a priority only when it suits their interests. There have been three occasions in the past when the ‘will of the people’ was rejected in favour of a second EU referendum: Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty, Ireland on the Nice Treaty and Ireland again on the Lisbon Treaty – in each case the first vote was overturned. It is still too early to say, but there has been a score. 5/10 suggests even odds on Brexit not happening; 8/10 suggests that so-called ‘hard-Brexit’ is all but a dead duck; 9/10 suggests a widespread acceptance that the relationship with the EU will change as a result of the Brexit vote, and perhaps radically.
The necessity for a common Treaty and common universal principles aside, the logic of the EU and its diversity is that all relationships between nation states and the collective should be living relationships, adapting to changing circumstance, ebbing and flowing with the currents of values and realities. Normative rigidity has had a damaging effect on the EU’s reputation and legitimacy. Taking a broader historical perspective, the EU relationship has never been a comfortable one, and it was, perhaps, inevitable that the failure to allow the relationship to evolve would eventuate in this all-too abrupt attempt at closure.
(The goals of the EU – suppression of inter-State war, strengthening economic capacity – were never so specific or relevant to immediate challenges as were, for example, the EU’s most immediate predecessor, the Zollverein. There, a concrete, realisable goal to unify the German States held together a set of sensitive commercial relationships and negotiations.)
To reiterate: arguments on each side of the argument are persuasive, such that having to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ is a nonsense and a violation of democratic principles. This more than any other contemporary issue – bar one – should be the subject of ongoing argumentation and a determination to change not terminate a relationship. That other issue, which surely outweighs Brexit in terms of the immediate threat to the welfare of our most vulnerable and which should have the privileged position Brexit demands in the public consciousness, is the austerity project. In the lived experience and in the concerns of most of the electorate looms the dismantling of the NHS and the welfare state, the victimisation of the poor, the shrinking of the economy and of personal wealth, and the horror of rising child poverty. Perhaps Brexit will make their lives more precarious, perhaps Brexit will make a welfare state more costly, perhaps, Brexit will encourage mean-minded nationalism – ♫ ‘quizas, quizas, quizas’! ♬♩. Meanwhile each additional month of austerity does launch more people into hunger and poverty, does kill the sick, does rob young people of their futures, does undermine women more than men, does increase economic inequity.
The very people urging us to Remain coincide with those who manage the project of austerity and those who are sheltered from – even benefit from – it. Until the last General Election Brexit served to distract us from the main issue at hand. But ask your local politicians how often Brexit was raised on doorsteps in that election, and how often austerity. You might be surprised.