My small intervention a couple of days ago into the debate about the UK referendum on EU membership provoked more reaction than I expected. If it had a central message, I suppose my blog post was addressed to thoughtful people on the left in the UK who are inclined to vote ‘no’ and it was a plea to see the EU not as an autonomous entity instigating a neoliberal assault on working people but as part of a broader terrain on which contests between different stakeholders are played out. In other words, I was saying: Please do not confuse the field with the farmer.
Even though I wrote about the anger against neoliberalism that is so evident in Britain, I was still astonished at the emotional charge behind some of the responses to this, from people who are normally quite restrained: ‘Yes but look at how HORRIBLE they were to Greece. How can you possibly expect me to vote for them?’. So this short post is addressed more explicitly to Brexiters who see themselves as on the left, not in a spirit of trying to prove you wrong (who am I to be sure I am right?) but in a genuine spirit of wanting to find out what alternative future you see after a no vote on June 23rd for England/Britain/the UK. In writing that sentence I realised that it is not easy even to define the geographical and political unit whose future is at stake in this question. The ‘United Kingdom’ as we now know it would be unlikely to survive such a decision for very long, so should the question refer separately to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland or some combination of these? Or should we be referring to all the British Isles (including perhaps even Ireland?) or just to the biggest island? (in which case what happens to places like the Isle of Man. or Jersey?). In the end, I ducked it, but it is nevertheless part of the problem.
I suspect that many left Brexiters may have some romantic attachment to the idea of the nation state as some natural unit of government which, once seized, whether through the ballot box or by revolution, can make possible an alternative political system, perhaps a kind of socialism in one country in which citizens can gain more control over their lives and create a more equitable society. This has a huge common-sense logical appeal. You identify where the power is (whether this is military power, the power to extract taxes, the power to make laws or whatever) and then you seize control. And bingo you have a people’s government. For many that source of power has for centuries seemed to be the nation state and, if you happen to be a full citizen of that state this is not so problematic (though you might hear a different story from some residents of, say, Wales, Bosnia, Catalunya or Lapland as well as more far-flung parts of the colonised world).
It certainly makes a difference what kind of a national government you have and it is of course an absolutely legitimate goal to try to get a government that fits your political ideals, so let’s stick with this model for the time being. My two linked questions remain: What kind of England/Britain/United Kingdom do you want? And how do you think voting no will help you get it?
Do you want to be like Norway?
Nordic social democracy is often held up as an aspirational model by the left.Compared with the rest of the world, it has certainly delivered high standards of living, relatively low levels of inequality and enviable lifestyles. But the neoliberal era has thrown up growing contradictions for their governments. How can strong welfare states in countries with small populations survive in a context of open borders? Decent egalitarian humanitarian values are under growing pressure: on one side from xenophobic populist groups; on another from global corporate lobbies wanting them to open up their markets (including privatising their public services). It is becoming harder to integrate immigrants, and gaps are widening between rich and poor. And of course, whether in or out, each of these states has had to negotiate its relationship with the EU (ironically enough using the English language as its vehicle for doing so).
But even leaving these quibbles aside, what evidence is there that the political will exists in England/Britain/the UK to follow this path, which has has been an aspiration for some sections of the Labour Party for at least 60 years? What political forces will take us there? And how?
Do you want to be like Cuba?
Alternative models for socialism in one country come from parts of the developing world that successfully resisted US imperialism, such as Vietnam and Cuba. Anybody who has visited these countries knows that they have delivered incalculable benefits to the majority of their populations measured in terms of things like health care, education and artistic attainment. It is hard not to admire their pluck, and hold them up as a model of what can be achieved when profit-seeking is not the dominant driver of progress. Some might even forgive their repression of political and intellectual freedom as a necessity forced on them by the unrelenting hostility of the capitalist world. But in the era of neoliberal globalisation they are only able to survive by making ever-larger compromises with global capitalism.
Perhaps you think that in a much richer, much larger economy like that of England/Britain/the UK such a model may be sustainable. But how will we get there? Do tell.
Do you want world revolution?
‘Workers of the world unite’ is a prescription often offered as the basis for an alliance that can topple global capitalism and bring about a more equitable system that transcends national borders. If this is what you want, how will leaving the EU help us move towards this goal? What mechanisms for building up international solidarity will be available to a country (or group of countries) that is separate from the EU that are not already available (and probably more freely so) in a country that is linked to others across Europe through a variety of institutions, bureaucratic though these may be. It is clear that if this is your goal then you will want to think beyond Europe. But surely Europe will remain part of the broader world you wish to engage with. How do you propose that these broader connections will be made?