Some of us thought this day would never come. Others prayed it never would. The long awaited referendum on Britain’s EU membership will take place tomorrow. The results will be out by Friday morning. Project Fear is still going strong. But it looks unlikely to settle one of the biggest divisions in UK politics.
How did it come to this? The reasons are political in the worst sense. David Cameron gave an ‘iron-clad pledge’ for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He did so to throw some red meat to the hard-right. Yet this did not have the desired effect. UKIP continued to grow, feeding off of the resentment of lower middle-class Tory voters in particular. The Conservative base was under threat from an ultra-rightist outlier.
By 2014, the British press had bestowed ‘fourth party’ status on UKIP. The Conservatives lost two seats after Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless defected. It looked like Nigel Farage would take Thanet South. But this was not to be. UKIP rapidly lost momentum despite winning 3.8 million votes in 2015. Farage was thwarted in South Thanet, Reckless lost his seat and Carswell clung on.
Yet the chasm over the EU in the Conservative Party has not narrowed. David Cameron could not ignore the votes lost to UKIP. He sought to placate Tory rebels and maintain the party’s support. This is why the referendum was called. There was no grand national interest in holding this vote. It wasn’t about democracy or security. It was about the Cameron legacy.
This has meant that the whole debate has been dominated by rival factions within the Conservative Party. Naturally, David Cameron and George Osborne have led the Tory Remain campaign, while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have positioned themselves as ‘renegade’ Eurosceptics. In other words, the national debate has been a bun-fight between the entitled sons of gentlemen.
Towards the fatherlands
The so-called ‘debate’ has been unbearably parochial. It’s either anti-migrant populism, or complacent liberal arguments for the status quo. Neither the Remain or Leave campaign offers a serious account of the EU. Nationalism is taking on the role of the opposition in European politics, as Slavoj Žižek argued years ago, while the establishment takes on the guise of liberal capitalism. This is what politics has become.
We’ve seen far-right parties make major gains from Austria, Switzerland and Hungary to Germany, France and Poland. Even Scandinavia has not been immune to this resurgent nationalism. We have only to look at the True Finns and the Swedish Democrats. The neo-fascists see Europe as a cultural theme park lacking the vitality of nationalism. So they propose a rupture with the Whitehall consensus.
Meanwhile the mainstream looks increasingly decrepit. Conservative parties have become market liberal, while social democratic parties have turned from their traditional Keynesian policies and now stare death in the face. PASOK in Greece died on its feet, but its fate should send a message to every European centre-left party. SYRIZA filled the vacuum in its wake. But the defeat of the Greek radical Left poses a new crisis.
It’s unclear where the Greek people will turn. The Eurozone has become the means by which the EU core states (e.g. Germany and France) impose austerity on the periphery (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). The EU now resembles a neoliberal machine, much more so than the social Europe envisioned by Labour activists. There is a real danger that the opposition will rally to calls for a ‘Europe of fatherlands’.
However, the referendum will not dispel the threat of a fascist resurgence in Europe, nor will it abolish the intolerable economic conditions perpetuated by governments. Whether we stay or withdraw, the real battles will be fought after the vote. This is why the stakes are so high. And this is why the outcome will not settle the European question.
As Edward Luce points out in the Financial Times, Washington fears Brexit would be a catalytic moment for the EU, after which all smaller countries could leave. This could threaten the transatlantic alliance. A gap could emerge between NATO and European political economy. No wonder Obama came running to tell us to stay. Though Brexit would not sever the alliance on its own, it could be the catalyst for a break-up.
This would be a dream come true for Putin. The separation of Europe from NATO would mean Russia could maintain its own sphere of influence. Not that this would equal anything like the Eastern bloc of Soviet client-states. Russia cannot even exercise anything like the kind of influence it could in 1980. Nevertheless, Putin casts a long shadow in the minds of American and European policy-makers.
The Left and Brexit
Although there has been speculation that Brexit could throw the UK economy into disarray, it is debatable. For starters, growth in the UK has been lacklustre for years. It’s likely much of the country would not notice the difference between Osborne’s “economic miracle” and a recession. In short, working-class voters have little to lose. After four decades of Thatcherism, it’s understandable why working-class people are willing to take the risk of a Brexit vote.
The so-called ‘Lexit’ argument – for a left exit, as it were – has a great deal of appeal. The European Union is not fully democratic, nor is it open to any pressure short of an international mass movement. It’s parliament has limited powers, and the European Commission has a monopoly on initiating legislation. It is a neoliberal project today, and may not be open to reform.. This is why Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Corbyn were all of the left Eurosceptic tradition. But this isn’t the 1970s.
Today the contemporary Left is split. Typically, you have the liberal crowd who are reflexively pro-EU, but you also have Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell arguing for staying and fighting for a different kind of union, alluding to the internationalist position that a post-nation state construct is indeed preferable, but that it must be redirected towards socialist ends. Unsurprisingly, Momentum and a host of activists in the party base support this manoeuvre. Indeed, the Labour Party is, by a clear majority, for Britain remaining an EU member. Corbyn could never win that fight.
So the mainstream Left has no real presence on this issue. Instead, the radical Leave campaign has been relegated to activist circles. This has contained the central division to the Tory Party. In one sense, this means the balance of forces are conservative whether the UK leaves or stays. But the vote could spell civil war for the Conservatives. The best case scenario may be a close call, where Cameron is ousted and policy is left paralysed.
Notice that even this hypothetical scenario limits the question to Britain. What Europe needs is an international movement capable of challenging its institutions. The problem is that the Left is still reconstructing itself at the national level. If the Left cannot do so, then Europe may be doomed to continue on the same track.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit