Tomorrow, the United Kingdom will vote on whether to leave the European Union or to remain a member. This historic ballot could fundamentally shape Britain’s future — and that of Europe as a whole.
Two unholy alliances have driven mainstream debate on the referendum. The Remain forces are dominated by the Britain Stronger in Europe coalition, which comprises a substantial chunk of the Conservative Party cohering around David Cameron and George Osborne, together with much of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. Leading sections of British capital also back Remain.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has come out clearly for Remain. But he has wisely kept his distance from the Tory-dominated coalition — his support is widely seen to be lukewarm, at best. Figures from Labour’s center and right have been most actively involved — and have looked the most comfortable — in the “Stronger In” campaign.
The Vote Leave campaign, led by figures from the Eurosceptic hard right of the Tories such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, dominates the other side. Nearly half of Tory members of parliament (MPs) and probably the large majority of its activist and membership base also support Brexit. They are working with a smattering of Labour politicians and big business backers to promote the Leave vote.
The right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) is also involved in Vote Leave. But its leader, Nigel Farage — jockeying for position on the British right with his Tory rivals — is more closely associated with the competing Leave.EU campaign. (There does seem to have been some rapprochement between the two campaigns — and between Farage and Johnson in particular — recently.)
Right-wing forces are leading both sides of the Brexit debate, and thus the debate’s terms pivot on a largely neoliberal terrain: economic issues, like trade and investment, situated almost entirely in terms of what’s best for big capital.
Leave’s exaggerated claims about EU laws superseding “our own” often raises the issue of British “sovereignty.” They have pitched this issue in terms of border control — and indeed, immigration more and more dominates the referendum debate.
Although Leave made immigration the centerpiece of its campaign, the Remain camp has certainly helped. The mainstream Remain boosters are desperate to avoid appearing too soft on migration.
But Leave’s focus on immigration has been relentless, plumbing new depths last Thursday with the release of a UKIP campaign poster that many compared to Nazi propaganda.
In a terrible coincidence, the launch of this poster — clearly designed to whip up xenophobic hatred — came only a few hours before the brutal killing of Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox. Many commentators have connected the murder to the divisive, anti-immigrant, and nationalist tenor of recent British political discourse. The suspect has links with the far right, and gave his name in court as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
These are dark times in British politics.
But even though neoliberals and the Right control the mainstream debate, left-wing Remain and Leave campaigns are also being fought — though sadly both are marginal.
The Left Exit (Lexit) campaign — an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and other small revolutionary groups — argues that withdrawal from the pro-austerity, anti-democratic “bosses’ club” of the European Union would represent a serious blow to the interests of dominant sections of the British capital, and to European elites as well. It would also weaken David Cameron’s government, opening up opportunities for workers’ struggle in the United Kingdom.
Lexit’s radical counterpart is the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign. The collection of left forces — which include Momentum, the activist organization of mostly young Labour Party members set up to support Corbyn — promote a radical, internationalist vision of a Europe-wide left movement that could democratize and transform EU structures from within.
Though I’m sympathetic to AEiP, I’m not particularly convinced that it could accomplish what it promises.
For one thing, the coalition tends to downplay the EU’s close ties to national and trans-national capitalist accumulation imperatives. Among other things, the EU is where these imperatives are transformed into coherent strategies to organize and embed the hegemony of dominant sections of European capital. This is why it has become one of the main vectors for the imposition of neoliberal and austerity measures across the continent.
The AEiP approach tends to miss, too, how the European Union manifests and expresses the unequal power dynamics between member states.
In addition, they overlook how EU institutions are relatively insulated from popular pressures in a way that national states cannot be if they are to maintain their legitimacy. The unelected European Commission wields huge power, and the virtually ornamental European Parliament — and indeed the absence of a European demos to speak of — cannot balance it.
Also, the European Union might function, partially, to bolster national state legitimacy: the union takes responsibility for neoliberal reforms “imposed from without” that state elites — who helped draw up the measures in the first place — can then disavow.
Finally, the pro-Remain left softens how dismantling internal EU borders has been paralleled by a simultaneous strengthening of external ones. The relative freedom of movement within the European Union has been bought at the expense of the exclusion of those beyond the borders of “Fortress Europe,” including the thousands of migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean.
So the European Union does not seem like fertile terrain for leftist transformation. The pro-Remain is far too sanguine about the social goods — actual or potential — that membership offers. We should have no illusions about the union.
Denying the Right a Victory
The strongest arguments for a left Remain lie elsewhere. The troubling fact is that while staying in the European Union is certainly a horrible idea, the prospect of withdrawal seems, as things currently stand, much worse.
The case for a left Remain should pivot on a sober assessment of the balance of social and political forces at play and the likely consequences of a victory for Leave. It should rest fundamentally on the observation that the existing Brexit campaign is led by reactionary and dangerous arguments, ideas, and political forces. Lexit is simply not on the agenda.
The hard right has dominated the Leave campaign from the start, shaping the entire terrain of the debate. This is largely because the vote was Cameron’s panicked concession to the right wing of his party and its voter base. As Bertie Russell has pointed out, the political leverage generated by UKIP and its successful construction of a narrative that blames deteriorating living standards on an “open door” immigration policy — which, it asserts, is a condition of continuing EU membership — motivated Cameron to call the referendum.
Indeed, UKIP’s narrative has come increasingly to define the key political terms of the referendum. And so, a vote for Lexit is still a vote for Brexit — and all the xenophobic fearmongering the debate has produced.
The referendum — like any other vote — is not an abstract, static question hovering above political struggle and cannot be understood separately from the context that frames and shapes it. The prevailing interpretation of the issues at stake — not merely the literal wording of the referendum question itself, which, of course, says nothing about immigration — is what matters. And the hard right has been extraordinarily successful in constructing this prevailing interpretation.
They have, as James Butler has rightly suggested, transformed the referendum into a proxy plebiscite on immigration. Butler goes on to argue that most of the political class, media, and a large swath of the electorate would understand Leave’s victory in these terms.
Whatever the intentions of Lexit voters, they will place a cross in the same box on the ballot paper as everyone else voting Leave. Their votes will be amalgamated into the same mass when they are counted. Referendums don’t register subjective preferences.
Considering how badly British businesses need migrant workers, it might be argued that foreign nationals working in the United Kingdom won’t face many consequences in the case of Brexit. But Pete Green correctly argues that this “crudely economistic, politically naïve claim” fails to take seriously how political discourse has serious concrete effects.
EU migrants in Britain are decidedly anxious about the prospect of a Leave victory. The potential victims of any political consolidation of anti-immigrant feeling go far beyond their number (about two million), encompassing all migrants and indeed anyone who isn’t white — because an anti-immigrant climate is also a climate of generalized racism.
Furthermore, a Brexit victory would probably facilitate the promotion of key figures from the Leave camp to top positions in a reformulated government dominated by the Tory hard right. It seems unlikely that Cameron would survive the referendum’s defeat, and the figure poised to replace him as prime minister, many commentators agree, is Boris Johnson.
It wouldn’t, as Lexit supporters suggest, be Jeremy Corbyn. Even if Cameron resigned, the Tories still wouldn’t be obligated to call a general election until 2020. Johnson — or one of his cronies — would likely introduce draconian anti-migrant measures in response to the xenophobic feelings that the Leave camp is now doing its best to ramp up.
In addition to immigrant bashing, a Johnson-led government would almost certainly withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, which senior Tories have been angling to reject for quite some time.
It would also likely push through radical neoliberal economic reform. As Paul Mason recently put it:
Johnson and the Tory right are seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism: less employment regulation, lower wages, fewer constraints on business. If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island.
A victory for Leave would represent a massive shift rightward in British politics. It’s difficult to see how Brexit could have any progressive effects at all. And, given the prevailing balance of political forces and the Left’s utter marginalization in the Leave campaign, it is — as Butler notes — simply “fatuous to imagine a constellation of minoritarian left-wing groups will be able to fundamentally change the political orientation of an exit.”
So the choice in this referendum is not, as the proponents of Lexit would have it, between a neoliberal Fortress Europe and a progressive Britain freed from the shackles of the bosses’ club. It’s a choice between a neoliberal Fortress Europe and an ultra-neoliberal Fortress Little Britain where the hard right has the upper hand.
The Broader View
What’s more, Brexit is almost certain to have major ramifications for the rest of the European Union — leading perhaps to an existential crisis.
If Britain withdraws on the terrain the Leave camp has laid out for it, it is unlikely to benefit progressive, left-wing forces across the continent. Instead, it would boost the arc of reaction developing across Europe — from the presidential campaign of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France to the rise of the AfD in Germany to the electoral successes of the Austrian Freedom Party. The prospect of the imminent collapse of the EU in such a climate is too terrifying to contemplate.
Migrants, workers, and the Left — in Britain and across Europe — have good reason to fear Brexit. The results are predicted to be close — and so every vote counts.
We cannot afford to act irresponsibly. Lexit supporters must think seriously about Leave’s likely political consequences. They must think soberly about the referendum that’s actually taking place, not the one that exists in their imagination. A vote for Leave is a vote for the political forces dominant in the Leave campaign — there is no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
Of course, the imperative to think honestly and realistically goes for left Remain too. There is good reason to be doubtful that a left-wing Britain can democratize the European Union.
But the likely bad consequences of a Leave vote seem to me to be much worse than the likely bad consequences of a victory for Remain. This is, unfortunately, a lesser-evil argument. But that’s just the reality of the situation we are in, and we must face up to it.