It’s no secret that the bulk of the support for the campaign to pull the UK out of the European Union last year came from the Right — UKIP and large sections of the Tory party — but it has been part of the hard Left’s campaign for decades as well, was Labour policy in the early 1980s and has the support of a number of Labour MPs; Jeremy Corbyn’s support for remaining in was thought to be lukewarm. The other day I saw a conversation between two online friends after one of them asked if anyone she knew who had voted for Brexit could tell her why. The other responded that the EU was “neoliberal, ruled by people lacking both public support and expertise, vindictive, selfish and tyrannical”, examples being the treatment of Greece and migrants. As true as these things might be, they are all at least as much British diseases as European ones.
Neoliberalism is an ideology which has found most favour in the UK, the USA and in various dictatorships allied to US interests, most famously Chile under General Pinochet who offered US-trained economists what were described as “laboratory conditions”, i.e. an oppressed populace that they did not need to answer to at the ballot box. It favours controlling the money supply so as to reduce inflation to the minimum (monetarism) and reducing state regulation on businesses, the doctrine being that regulation deters and hinders investment and economic activity and, by extension, jobs. This is typically associated with Tory policies in the 1980s and then Blair in the 1990s and 2000s. It is widely acknowledged that we do not really live in a free market and that companies receive favour rather than merely light-touch regulation from the state, and that risks are often socialised and profits privatised.
It is a fact that Britain has privatised industries that remain in state hands in much of Europe, and indeed that some of our industries are owned by foreign state enterprises such as Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway authority (which owns the Arriva bus company as well as a number of rail franchises). It is also a fact that John Major’s government, when negotiating Britain’s accession to the 1992 Maastricht treaty, negotiated an opt-out for Britain from the Social Chapter which includes a number of improvements to workers’ rights including maternity leave, rights for temporary workers, limitations on child labour and a 48-hour maximum working week. (This policy was reversed when Labour came to power in 1997.) Other countries in Europe have laws protecting tenants that are much stronger than ours, to the extent that in many countries renting is the norm, not something people do just because they cannot afford to buy. In much of developed mainland Europe and Scandinavia, rent laws are assessed as being pro-tenant or strongly pro-tenant, while in the UK and the less developed parts of Europe, they are assessed as being pro-landlord.
So, while the EU is certainly a free-trade union devoted to abolishing tariffs and other barriers to the movement of goods and people, it nonetheless accommodates the strong mixed economies of northern and western Europe as well as avowedly neo-liberal ones such as ours. If the EU can be called neo-liberal, it will be very largely the result of British influence and withdrawing the UK from the EU will not make the UK less neo-liberal, but rather, remove a strongly pro-business and anti-regulation voice from the room when future European laws and treaties are negotiated. At best, this is no guarantee of moving towards a socialist UK; if anything, it will make it much easier for the Tories to pass more laws that strip workers and tenants of rights.
As for its treatment of migrants, again, Britain is no better in this regard. Britain detains asylum seekers, often those with well-founded fears of persecution including rape and other torture, and well into the Blair years it detained children and families as well as adult asylum seekers. It routinely refuses asylum claims of people from countries where political repression and sectarian violence is known (e.g. Uganda), often on the basis of backroom deals with the countries concerned. The UK instigated a crackdown on “foreign criminals”, detaining a number of people who had been convicted of minor offences years ago who had served their time, on the whim of the Daily Mail, which has also been a prominent voice against European integration and in favour of Brexit. The EU does not stop Germany taking a very substantial number of refugees from Syria, nor other countries from refusing them. Withdrawing the UK will not make us any more liberal in this regard; more likely the opposite.
She then said she would accept a “difficult transition” under Theresa May as a sort of stepping stone to a Corbyn-run left-wing government outside the EU. That, sadly, is something that will not happen; Brexit will bring crises as crops remain unpicked (this is already happening), home-grown and imported food will be more expensive as will imports of other manufactured goods which are currently subject to unified WTO tariffs through the EU. This could easily cause major unrest and the instinct of many will be to blame foreigners and the EU rather than to consider how to mitigate the problems. We are likely to see a rise in racist attacks on any foreign-looking or foreign-sounding people, including British citizens, and distraction stories about terrorist plots, Muslims refusing to integrate, FGM and the such like.
There is no valid left-wing case for withdrawing the UK from the EU as things stand. This may, of course, change, but in 2017 the pressure towards Neo-liberalism in the EU is coming largely from the UK and the countries with strong protections for workers’ and tenants’ rights, with state education systems that the wealthy and powerful use as well as everyone else’s, with nationalised railways etc. will be left in and will be more powerful as a result, to the benefit of their citizens and not to us. There is no evidence that the British public will rush to Corbyn once the Tory Brexiteers plunge the country into the abyss; he failed to win the last election and in fact lost seats in the Labour northern heartlands and failed to win back those lost by Miliband in 2015. I think it irresponsible to advocate a course of action that will lead to avoidable crisis and unrest in the vain hope that something better will come out of it.
Image source: Ash Crow, via Wikipedia; original here. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence.
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