Initial reflections on Brexit

I returned from Brazil to the UK to vote in the referendum, and now find myself observing another crisis. It may well eventually lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, given the large majority in favour of remaining in Europe in Scotland and the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Ironically, to the extent that the referendum result reflects popular dissatisfaction with the established political class, it replicates tendencies within continental Europe itself, the root causes of which lie in economic power relations. Although Brexit might damage London’s position as an international financial centre, under current political management it will not matter much which side of the English channel people live on: in or out of the European Union, for the moment they will continue to live under the yoke of financialised, rent-seeking, capitalist economy, governed by people and institutions committed to austerity as the only conceivable solution to the system’s deepening contradictions, US-sponsored treaties designed to undermine national sovereignty in the interests of North Atlantic capitalist corporations, and indifferent to the social problems that deepening inequality causes (except, that is, in so far as those problems are seen as security issues demanding a repressive response).

It is, of course, clear that concerns about immigration played a central role in persuading working class people in England’s derelict industrial heartlands to vote to leave the European union, a misrecognition of the real causes of their problems that has been assiduously cultivated by populist politicians of the Right throughout Europe, and expressed itself in the xenophobic character of much of the campaign to leave.  Arguments in favour of Brexit from the Left which offered a critique of the European Union that could have countered that misrecognition did not make the front stage in the debates. Arguments that accepted the democratic deficits of the EU and argued for remaining in the club with a platform of deep reform of its governance structures and radically different economic policies, whilst emphasising the downsides of an exit under the aegis of the political Right, to the extent that they were made at all, proved too little, too late.

David Cameron is resigning, and it seems inevitable that the conservatives who lead the campaign to leave will have taken over the leadership of the Conservatives by October, although more radical shifts in the party political order in England may result in the longer term. Cameron’s plea to Europe’s leaders is to be allowed to delay the invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty so that a new leadership can negotiate the terms of exit and future relations with the remaining member states of the EU and the European free trade zone. But Europe may not play ball, and it is far from clear that being associated with the leave vote is enough to justify the accession to command of the government of a new group within the Conservative party, since their other policy positions may not be what the electorate would choose, given a choice. This suggests the desirability of an early general election, although the question of Scotland complicates this. So too, in a slightly different way, does the fact that Northern Ireland also produced a majority in favour of remaining in Europe, since this could renew conflict around the historical nationalist demand for union with the Irish Republic, also still an EU member.

Since the die is irreversibly cast, the big issue is whether any political forces in England and Wales are willing to promote a vision of the future which offers a real alternative to the social and economic system in place. The immediate reaction of some Labour Party MPs to the result was to demand Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation, on the grounds that his leadership made a contribution to the outcome because of his weak and unenthusiastic campaign on behalf of the Remain position, a clear reflection of his own personal scepticism about the actually existing European Union as both an economic and geopolitical entity. As usual, Tony Blair and his followers in parliament refused to engage in a moment’s self-reflection on their own contributions to this crisis, and in particular the party’s loss of working class votes to UKIP. It is delusional to argue that what Labour needs to do is return to the so-called Centre-Left politics of the Blair and Brown eras. Beyond the immediate impact of separation from the EU, there are major longer-term structural shifts taking place in the global capitalist economy that demand radical rethinking from the Left, not a move back to centrist position whose policies were thoroughly neoliberal and shaped by an electoral calculus that is likely to become out of date quite quickly now.

When the English no longer have immigration to blame for their problems, many more people are going to start looking at what is not very democratic about British political institutions and, more importantly, at the way English class structure, the dominant role of London financial institutions, and transnational capitalist power (especially that centred on the USA) affect their lives. These kinds of issues can be raised by both the Left and the populist Right. Getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn and returning control of parliamentary party to the “social democratic centre” is, in reality, a recipe for ensuring the continued growth of the popularity of the latter. This is in fact a global dilemma, for Europe and the United States as well as for Britain. Simple and traditional oppositions between Left and Right are clearly outdated, even if part of the international resurgence of the Right, such as that which has been occurring in post-coup Brazil, is seeking to put the clock back in some, extremely disturbing, ways. What is needed is a radically new politics, one which would, inter alia, recognise that one of the principal defects of the EU has been its centralisation of command, control and management, and that the distancing of professional political classes from “the people” is a problem everywhere. But if it is to be a new politics of the Left, it cannot be based on appeasement of, and compromise with, the capitalist system as it now exists. A reinvigorated Left must project a real alternative that is convincing in terms of preventing further deterioration of living standards and public services, whilst also able to address global challenges (including climate change and the consequences of uneven development, violence and conflicts for mass movements of people). Neither the Blairite centre not the populist Right seem capable of articulating such an alternative, but the former are in serious danger of impeding the Labour Party’s possibilities of formulating one, leaving the English political field in the hands of the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, on the one hand, and new movements of the ultra-right on the other. This would be a tragic betrayal.

From the narrower perspective of Higher Education, Brexit seems likely to prove very bad news, since increasing EU funding has been reducing the impacts of cuts by the UK government and inter-European collaboration has become very important for British Universities. No doubt supporters of Scottish independence will soon be making that point vigorously.