The sight of Yanis Varoufakis standing shoulder to shoulder with Chuka Umunna was difficult to stomach. The common cause: keeping Britain in the single market. This is what brings together the grassroots coordinating group (GCG) in its mission to save Britain from the worst ravages of the Brexiteers.
Although I won’t be adding Varoufakis to my enemies list anytime soon, the decision to side with the ‘moderate’ faction of the Labour Party over the single market is bad politics. It was bad enough when Varoufakis found common cause with Emmanuel Macron, even though it was an understandable manoeuvre.
After all, Varoufakis has a principled stake in building a pan-European movement for expanding the reach of democracy in the EU. By contrast, Umunna has only recently come up with his pro-single market mission as a way of uniting centrists against Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May. He was calling for the UK to leave the single market to end freedom of movement not so long ago. It’s only partly opportunism.
There is something else going on here. It’s worth asking why the liberal cross section of centrist opinion has coalesced around the European project. Strangely, the EU stands for all the progressive values that these people claim to uphold but often fail to defend. The die-hard Remainers will insist that the European Union is a peace project, guaranteeing no war will ever be fought on the European mainland ever again.
This is what people like Tony Blair would want you to believe. Most of the big names involved in the pro-EU campaigns were not so mobilised by austerity measures and the privatisation of public assets. AC Grayling’s response to the tuition fees hike was to found the New School for the Humanities and charge students £18k a year to study philosophy.
It’s almost as if everything was fine for these people before 23 June 2016 and they just want to get back there. Indeed, many of the Blairites were playing the anti-immigrant tune for more than two decades – asylum seekers being the primary target. If anything is clear it’s that the liberal centrists don’t really care if people are dying in the corridors of hospitals thanks to Tory spending cuts.
Say what you will about the flaws of the Lexit argument, the possible break with the EU has produced some progressive outcomes: David Cameron is gone, TTIP is dead, the Tories are doomed to infighting and Corbyn may be on the road to government. This could mean the end of austerity and even of neoliberalism in the UK.
Of course, the social and political fallout of Brexit is immense and will not be fully clear for decades to come. The end of freedom of movement could lead to a far harsher border policy when it comes to EU nationals. The UK will no longer be able to pursue the same economic strategy that it has for decades.
This may mean that Britain will have to stop relying on the financial sector to generate most of its economic growth. The next Labour government will have to rebuild the industrial base of the country to pursue an export-led growth strategy. At the same time, Corbyn should hold a constitutional convention to settle many of the urgent questions raised by Brexit.
If this transition goes wrong, the UK will be stuck with the consequences for decades to come but equally, if the left can win battles over economic policy then Britain could be a completely different country for at least a generation. But liberal centrists don’t want to hear this. They want politics to stop again. They want to go back to managerialism.
Yet this is after 25 years of managerial politics, where all the major parties agreed with each other on all the issues. At one point the neoliberal centre ground was so strong it didn’t matter who you voted for because you would have got a Blair clone anyway. That era is over. And that’s what terrifies the centrists.
Photograph courtesy of Sam. Published under a Creative Commons license.