When it comes to Brexit, has the left has vacated the field? Driven by the Conservative government, the UK is set to officially leave the European Union next year, but there remains no settled opinion among progressive forces on its ramifications. Over the next week or so, Conter will be running a selection of articles and essays, ranging from thorough analysis to light reflection. Kicking us off with this in-depth long read, Neil Davidson looks at the limitations of socialist Remain arguments, draws parallels with Soviet apologists, and says tying Scottish independence to Brexit is a mistake…
Large sections of the British left treat Brexit as a catastrophe, in some cases expressing outright panic at what it might portend. And these reactions aren’t confined to the left liberals of The Guardian or the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, but extend into sections of the radical and even revolutionary left. For example, English Marxist historian, Neil Faulkner says on p137 of ‘Free Movement and Beyond: Agenda Setting for Brexit Britain’ that the argument that Brexit represents an opportunity for the left is a “desperate attempt to avoid admitting serious mistakes“.
This virtual mirror-image of reality was written in late 2016, but is it possible in early 2018 to continue denying the Tories have been responsible for one of the most spectacular self-inflicted strategic blunders since Iraq, perhaps even since Suez? And unlike those essentially geopolitical disasters, this one strikes much more closely at the economic interests of the British capitalist class.
The Tories are committed to carry out a policy–exit from the EU – opposed by a majority of the class they exist to represent – which is why the party is currently tearing itself apart. Forces further to the right aren’t faring any better: UKIP is haemorrhaging members, has seen its vote fall by 10.8% between 2015 and 2017, and is about to lose its fourth leader in just over 18 months. The fascists of the English and Scottish Defence Leagues are as marginal as ever and the former have attempted to gain support by (unsuccessfully) denying their real politics in the guise of the Football Lads Alliance. On the other hand, the Labour Party has elected and re-elected its most left-wing leader since the 1930s, has seen a massive growth in membership and did much better than anyone predicted in the snap 2017 General Election.
Even at the level of formal ‘official’ politics, then, without taking account of the revival of the women’s movement, it’s perverse to claim there’s only been a pronounced shift to the right. Polarisation certainly exists, but that’s not a one-way process, and in many respects the mood is more ‘left’ than it has been anywhere in the UK since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. True, the radical left outside the Labour Party is small and fragmented, but politics is not a zero-sum game and our weakness does not necessarily equal our opponents’ strength. Why then have sections of the left succumbed to hysteria, despair, and rendered themselves incapable of registering, let alone taking advantage of the present difficulties experienced by either the Tories or the class whose interests they are–in this respect at least–failing to advance adequately? The answer appears to be their attitude towards the EU, and fear of what rejection of the EU apparently involves.
Now, it’s true that some sections of the leave-supporting left made extraordinarily misjudged claims about the referendum result. Charlie Kimber argued in the Socialist Worker, for example that “the central feature of the referendum result was a revolt against the establishment”. He continued: “People who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at delivered a stunning blow against the people at the top of society. The reasons for that rebellion are contradictory, but that does not change the essential character of what has taken place.”
Leaving aside what this says about those sections of the working class, including the two thirds of Labour voters, who voted Remain, this interpretation seems to me to be untenable. It’s true that motivations for voting Leave were wide-ranging and complex: one Guardian journalist encountered the ‘Fortress Europe’ argument relating to Europeans being given preference over those Commonwealth origin being side, as well as British Asian shopkeepers unhappy about Polish shops “stealing business”.
Some Leave voters did indeed reject those who they perceive as those at the top of society particularly elites who made the case for the EU, but you cannot uncomplicatedly say that this is some kind of conscious movement from below against neo-liberalism. The views of someone who voted Leave out of solidarity with the people of Greece are unlikely to be compatible with those of someone who voted the same way in order to block Syrian refugees from entering the UK via the EU, just because they were both disinclined to follow the advice of David Cameron or George Osborne: reasons matter as much as results. Laurie Penny put it well in the aftermath: “This was a working-class revolt, but it is not a working-class victory.”
However, the weak arguments employed by some left Leavers don’t automatically render the left Remain position any more credible. For it involves a local variant of a global process – most recently observable in the US and French Presidential elections – in which large sections of the liberal and radical left have effectively turned themselves into cheerleaders for the existing neoliberal order. In the UK, this has meant support for remaining in the EU – a folly for which there are, alas, 20th century precedents.
Historical analogy, as sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson has one of his characters remark in the book Red Mars, is the last refuge of people incapable of grasping the current situation. Perhaps it would be truer to say that inappropriate historical analogy plays this role. There are certainly none which will help us understand the nature of the EU, which is a sui generis formation in the development of capitalism, but there is at least one which may clarify the attitude of sections of the British left towards it: the appeal which Stalinist Russia exercised over the same political constituency during the 1930s.
For the sake of absolute clarity, let me make clear I’m not comparing the EU to the USSR. Both could be described as multi-national entities, but scarcely of the same sort. Furthermore, whatever crimes we may justifiably lay at the door of the former institution, they’re not of the same order as those associated with Stalinism. There’s however another kind of difference which is less flattering to the EU. The USSR was originally a revolutionary state and the Stalinist regime its counter-revolutionary negation, but the EU today is not in any sense a reversal of its earlier incarnations – on the contrary, it has developed out of them.
And this third point of difference also points towards two areas of genuine affinity: both represent the ‘highest’ development of particular forms of capitalist development associated with their respective periods, bureaucratic state capitalism in the case of the USSR, neo-liberalism in its ‘social’ form in the case of the EU; and both have been presented as the only bulwarks against the historical or contemporary rise of the far right. So it’s worth considering them in historical order.
The consolidation of the Stalinist regime was completed in 1928, only a year before the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. The apparent immunity of the Russian economy to crisis and unemployment was one reason why it appeared to be a viable alternative to Western capitalism. But another more important reason was Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933. On p132 of his classic account of fellow-travelling, The Fellow-Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment, David Caute wrote that its history must be divided into two periods: “before Hitler and after Hitler”. After Hitler, the USSR appeared to be the only obstacle preventing fascism from sweeping across Europe, particularly after the shift towards the Popular Front in 1934-5. As Paul Flewers writes: “The appeal to democrats as well as socialists … confirmed that Moscow was aiming to use the parties of the Comintern to bring together anyone from any class who, for whatever reason, favoured an alliance between the democratic capitalist powers and the Soviet Union, in order to forestall any aggression from Nazi Germany.”
Three overlapping groups can be discerned among those who looked to the USSR as the source of their salvation. A first and smallest group were committed to the USSR, knowing and approving of what the reality was like: these were people famously described by Trotsky as ‘the friends of the Soviet Union’. What did they care if kulaks or other ‘backward elements’ were, as the euphemism had it, eliminated? Progress was never costless, after all – a claim often supported by ruminations on the relationship between omelettes and eggs.
Some of these people were former activists who had found a niche for themselves as Communist Party bureaucrats, but many others, including several Fabians, had quite different domestic politics and had been indifferent or even hostile to Russia in its revolutionary phase. What both wings of this group saw in Stalin’s Russia was not an antechamber to the realm of human freedom, but a solution to what they regarded as the irrationality of Western capitalism, its inefficiency and resistance to planning. Above all the USSR seemed to be the kind of society in which the talents of people like them would be suitably recognised and rewarded – although for obvious reasons this was not a position which tended to articulated in quite these terms, at least in public.
Hal Draper wrote in his classic dissection of ‘socialism from above’: “The relatively privileged position of managerial, bureaucratic and intellectual-flunky elements in the Russian collectivist system can be pointedly contrasted with the situation in the West, where these same elements are subordinated to the owners of capital and manipulators of wealth. At this point the appeal of the Soviet system of statified economy coincides with the historic appeal of middle-class socialisms, to disgruntled class-elements of intellectuals, technologists, scientists and scientific employees, administrative bureaucrats and organization men of various types, who can most easily identify themselves with a new ruling class based on state power rather than on money power and ownership, and therefore visualize themselves as the new men of power in a non-capitalist but elitist setup.”
More recently, John Gray has highlighted how far these attitudes penetrated even existing, if ‘dissident’ members of the British ruling class: “The Webbs took it for granted that when socialism came to Britain, they and people like them would still be giving the orders. … For these and others in the upper reaches of British life in the 1930s, it was clear that British imperial power was in decline. Identifying themselves with the Soviet cause was a way of securing their place in the new world order.
The second and probably largest group consisted of those who basically accepted the vision of life in the USSR conjured up by Stalinist propaganda, including not only the Communist Party rank and file, but also many other workers who wanted to believe that a place existed in which the structures and values of capitalist society had been reversed, where both the misery of unemployment and the tyranny of the workplace had been vanquished. The Glaswegian revolutionary Harry McShane, later to break with the CP in the early fifties, recalled on p82 of his book No Mean Fighter his own, entirely typical attitude after a visit to ‘the workers’ country’ in 1931: “One of the beliefs that carried us through the thirties was the existence of the Revolution in Russia and our role in defending it.”
The capitalist press may have claimed that famine had been deliberately engineered in the Ukraine, that atrocities had been committed during the collectivisation of agriculture, that slave labour camps were filled with workers and peasants, or that confessions made by defendants in the Moscow trials made no sense. What of it? Class-conscious workers knew from their own experience that literary servants of the employers lied about conditions at home, so why would they be any more truthful about the USSR, the very existence of which threatened their interests? Here, faith in a compensatory phantasm was reinforced by often entirely justified suspicions about the motives of those who criticised it – suspicions which CP apparatchiks tried with some success to extend from right to left-wing opponents of Stalinism.
Finally, the third group, and the one most subject to internal tensions, were those who knew that all – and perhaps everything – was not well in the ‘Socialist Sixth of the World’, but who partly explained this with reference to its isolation and the inevitable difficulties of building a new society in a hostile world. Even where they were less willing to find excuses for Stalinism, however, the role of the USSR in resisting fascism took precedence over any critique of its internal regime. ‘”I must fight the evil that is nearer and greater”, he said, softly. “I am fighting Hitlerism…”.’ These words by the French author Romain Rolland were recorded in 1937 by Eugene Lyons, a disillusioned radical US journalist and, as he commented on p620 of Assignment in Utopia: “It was not an explanation. It was an apology.”
Another US journalist, Louis Fischer, gives a typical example of this apologetic type of thinking, from a perspective of later total disenchantment. He said: “While deploring Soviet domestic policy I approved of Soviet foreign policy. Russia’s help to the Loyalists [i.e. in Spain] was in sharp contrast to the stupid, scandalous pro-Franco behaviour of the democracies–‘Non-intervention’ they called it. I realized that in the end the atrocities within Russia and the perversion of Bolshevism through nationalism would corrupt Soviet relations with the outside world. For the moment, however, the Moscow government’s role in Spain mellowed my emotional, if not my intellectual, antagonism to it and I hesitated to attack.”
Left-wingers who were prepared to tell the truth about the USSR were regularly denounced as actual fascist collaborators by communists. More typical of the third group, however, was an approach which didn’t (necessarily) cast doubt on the integrity of the naysayers, but focused instead on the effects of what they said. Towards the end of the Second World War, George Orwell (below) drew attention to the key phrase associated with this type of argument: “A phrase much used in political circles in this country is ‘playing into the hands of’. It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are ‘playing into the hands of’ some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.”
Orwell acknowledged that “objectively, this charge is often true”, but that it’s “always difﬁcult to attack one party to a dispute without temporarily helping the other”. But he also pointed out the impossibility of remaining silent: “And if you write anything truthful about the London slums, you are liable to hear it repeated on the Nazi radio a week later. But what, then, are you expected to do? Pretend there are no slums? Everyone who has ever had anything to do with publicity or propaganda can think of occasions when he was urged to tell lies about some vitally important matter, because to tell the truth would give ammunition to the enemy.”
Does any of this sound at all familiar? According to Gray, there are faint echoes today, but fundamentally times have changed: For some, “Europe” – the ethereal project, not the diverse and interesting continent – has replaced visions of socialism, but the fact is that European institutions are in disarray, possibly disintegrating and at best stagnant and immobile. This is however to confuse the strength of a faith with the solidity of its object: the former is not dependant on the latter. In fact, now, as then, we are being asked to put our faith in a ‘saviour from on high’ to deliver us from fascism, and not to utter any criticisms for fear of ‘playing into the hands of’ Farage – or, more realistically these days, Rees-Mogg – and co. If persisted with, it will have the same consequences of weakening the ability of the working class and the left to resist on their own behalf. But beyond the immediate situation, there will be longer-term effects as disillusionment sets in when the EU’s ‘1956’ moment eventually arrives and the lies of omission or outright fabrication are exposed. There’s, however, one respect in which the current situation is different from the 1930s.
I wrote above that the pro-USSR left divided into three distinct groups, whose arguments nevertheless overlapped in a convergence of naivety and dishonesty. The editors of the avant-garde Marxist journal Salvage have argued the pro-EU left has only two wings: “Two main arguments appear to have emerged on the left in favour of remaining, which can broadly be referred to as ‘the EU as Lesser Evil’ and the ‘Ideal(ised) EU’”. These correspond respectively to my third and second groups, but there is also another group, corresponding to my first, which the editors fail to recognise, and it’s in respect of this group that the biggest differences from the 1930s are discernible.
Those who admired Stalin’s Russia for what it actually was tended to be excluded from political power in their own countries (the Webbs were an exception), although they may have enjoyed fame and prestige for other reasons, and they had no locus in the USSR itself, except as external propagandists). But the modern day equivalents of the Webbs are legion, not just in British politics but at the European level and many, like the Fabian duo, are nominally on the ‘left’, or at any rate members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party. They are not prospective members of a new ruling class, but current members of the existing one who benefit from the existence of the EU. The main point of similarity with their ancestors is that, as with those admirers of the USSR, they admire the EU for what it actually is, the main supra-state institution for maintaining the neoliberal order in the era of post-crisis austerity.
Here, for example, is leading German Sociologist Ulrich Beck on what he values about the EU in his introduction to German Europe: “Many of its achievements are so much taken for granted that they would probably only be noticed if they were to disappear. Just imagine what it would be like if passport controls were to be introduced at frontiers and airports, if food standards ceased to be reliable, if there were no freedoms of speech and the press (freedoms that are being flouted in Hungary, as a result of which the country is now attracting critical attention). Or consider how it would be if students no longer find jobs in Avignon or Barcelona without surmounting complicated bureaucratic barriers and if people could no longer travel between Paris, Madrid and Rome without having to change money and pay attention to exchange rates.”
In fact, Edward Thompson identified the middle class obsession with a certain idea of Europe as early as the 1975 UK referendum on continued membership of the then EEC: “The Eurostomach is the logical extension of the existing eating-out habits of Oxford and North London. Particular arrangements convenient to Western European capitalism blur into a haze of remembered vacations, beaches, bougainvillaea, business jaunts and fine wines.” And as Thompson notes, far from helping the working-class movement, “Luigi and Kurt and George and Gaston, with their secretaries, their linguistic skills, their massed telephones, their expense-account weekends, their interlocking euro-directorships, the manipulation of the rules…will always be smiling at the table, with the agenda cooked, the day before the workers get there.”
More recently, John Pilger has rightly described “the most effective propagandists of the “European Ideal” as being ‘”an insufferably patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom”. He continues: “Its leading members see themselves as liberal, enlightened, cultivated tribunes of the 21st century zeitgeist, even ‘cool’. What they are is a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority.” This type of ‘internationalism’ is well described by Craig Calhoun as ‘the cosmopolitanism of frequent flyers’.
The remaining two groups much more closely resemble the original fellow-travellers and, like them, have a much wider influence, since their motives are obviously less self-serving. On the one hand, are the ‘idealists’, or in some cases outright fantasists who think the EU exists to prevent war in Europe, bestow rights to workers, implement environmental protections and ensure that travellers are not inconvenienced by border controls: yes, I am referring, among others, to Alyn Smith MEP. Their claims are about as convincing as the notion that the British Raj existed to provide the Indian sub-continent with a railway network.
On the other are the ‘lesser-evil’ group, which vary enormously in their attitude to the EU, ranging from those who overlap with the idealists to those who are very well aware of what the EU is and what it does. Some figures from this camp have put the case for Remain in its strongest form, in that it does not depend on fellow-travelling at all; indeed, it takes seriously the word ‘evil’ in the ‘lesser evil’, arguing it’s only because the alternative is inconceivably worse, and no other reason, that we should have cast our votes for it. Ed Rooksby, for example, writes of the Another Europe is Possible project, that it ‘tends to downplay the EU’s close ties to national and trans-national capitalist accumulation imperatives’: “Among other things, the EU is where these imperatives are transformed into coherent strategies to organise and embed the hegemony of dominant sections of European capital. This is why it has become one of the main vectors for the imposition of neoliberal and austerity measures across the continent.”
It’s also the case with members of this current that, unlike the uncritical EU enthusiasts, they’re capable of changing their minds in the face of events. As it stands, however, there are two major problems with their argument. The first is that it ignores the symbiotic relationship between social neo-liberalism and the new hard right, in particular the way in which the former recreates and recreates the conditions for the latter to emerge.
The point has been made with exemplary clarity by Nancy Fraser: “Although [neoliberalism and reactionary populism] are by no means normatively equivalent, both are products of unrestrained capitalism, which everywhere destabilizes lifeworlds and habitats, bringing in its wake both individual liberation and untold suffering. Liberalism expresses the first, liberatory side of this process, while glossing over the rage and pain associated with the second. Left to fester in the absence of an alternative, those sentiments fuel authoritarianisms of every sort… Thus, far from being the antidote to fascism, (neo)liberalism is its partner in crime.” Her conclusion is that “the left should refuse the choice between progressive neo-liberalism and reactionary populism”.
So important is this point that I will take the extraordinary step of reinforcing it by actually agreeing with philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who writes of the way in which “the threat of a new fascism embodied in anti-immigrant Rightist populism” is “perceived as the principal enemy against which we should all unite, from (whatever remains of) the radical left to mainstream liberal democrats (including EU administrators…)”. Against this, he writes that we need to “persist in the basic Marxist insight”: this “fascism” is strictly a secondary phenomenon engendered by its apparent opposite, the “open” liberal-democratic universe, so the only way to truly defeat it is to overcome the imminent limitations of the latter”.
If the left avoids the task of opposing both, on the grounds that on this occasion, the latter is really so much worse that we have no alternative, the evasion will never stop, because reactionary populism is not going to vanish: there will always be a Trump or a Le Pen, or a Farage whose defeat requires us to support a Clinton, Macron or Juncker. Yanis Varoufakis has made this quite explicit: “The imperative to oppose racism trumps opposition to neoliberal policies.” Got that? Our duty is to support the dominant faction of the capitalist ruling class. And once the support has been delivered, the neoliberal saviours will continue with the very policies which produced the racism in the first place.
The second problem flows from the first. Having argued that a majority vote for Leave would have catastrophic consequence, in the aftermath of that vote left Remainers were logically compelled to demonstrate how we were now living through precisely such catastrophe. Here, the guiding intelligence is less Nancy Fraser and more Private Frazer from Dad’s Army –‘We’re doomed, doomed!’ An extreme example, but one which draws out the logic of more restrained contributions, was given by Faulkner, who argues we’re in the antechamber to fascism – and here we can see a genuine convergence with the moral blackmail of the 1930s: “…Comparison with Weimar Germany is not misplaced. The example is more extreme, but that enables us to see underlying tendencies more clearly. The German Communists welcomed the terminal crisis of Weimar Germany in 1932 with the notion ‘after Hitler, our turn’. They failed to identify the main threat and the urgent need for a defensive battle by a united working class. The crisis is not yet of this kind, but the mistake of dogmatic Lexiteers is identical: an inability to understand that the rise of the far right across Europe is a clear and present danger, and that Brexit Britain is a project driven by the right, not the left.”
To say that there cannot be a Left Exit is to announce we’re defeated in advance of the battle, which in my experience is never a winning formula for involving people in political activity. I oppose this kind of fatalism, not because I believe socialists need to maintain ‘optimism of the will’ regardless of the actual circumstances, but because, as I have already suggested, it massively misjudges the actual strength of the right, which is misleading in two ways. On the one hand, it exaggerates the current dangers of the far-right compared with those of the relatively recent past. Anyone who was politically active in the late 1970s or early 1980s will remember from those years genuine no-go areas controlled by fascists in Birmingham and London, regular assaults on people of Asian and Afro-Caribbean heritage which often led to fatalities, repressive and openly racist policing, and anti-fascist meetings or concerts which were liable to be attacked by squads of Nazis.
One writer who lived through the period writes that “racism was woven into the fabric of British society in a way unimaginable now.” He continues: “Racism in the 1970s was woven into the fabric of British society in a way unimaginable now. “Paki bashing” was a national sport. Stabbings were common, firebombings of Asian houses almost weekly events, murders not uncommon. … From union leaders conspiring with management to keep out black and Asian workers to immigration officers conducting “virginity tests” on Asian women, racism was open, vicious and raw.”
None of this is true today, at least on anything like the same scale. On the other hand, it minimises the continuing levels of racism and xenophobia that do exist. At one point in his book, Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey recalls the dawn of 23 June 2016: “The morning of Brexit, multiple crises were announced simultaneously by middle class liberals, progressives and radicals, who were suddenly confronted with the vulgar and divided country the rest of us had been living in for decades”.
His point was that the Brexit result – or more importantly the Leave campaign – did not cause an upsurge in racism and xenophobia, but rather exposed the extent to which they already existed: “In the week following Brexit, I was operating in several communities across the city [i.e. Glasgow], all with high migrant populations. However, contrary to the pronouncements of many people on social media, who took the liberty of announcing Armageddon on everybody’s behalf, immigrants and the poor were very calm. Life continued as normal. Local people organised cultural diversity events in solidarity with migrants and refugees. Gazebos were erected in parks to distribute micro-grants to local groups. Young people attended music lessons in youth clubs held in churches –not a journalist in site. In these communities, it was just another week. Here, violence is present every day – it doesn’t ‘spike’. Here, racism is a horrible fact of life – it isn’t ‘unleashed’. […] Much of the outrage that was lying around had nothing to do with what immigrants actually thought or felt; it was about people using those issues to conceal their own naked classism (p148).”
Is the accusation of ‘classism’ too harsh? The Scottish actor Alan Cummings responded to an interview question about Brexit by saying: “I was appalled when I heard the result. And I have three words to sum it up. Stupid. English. People.” Presumably this means that the 38% percent of people north of the Border who voted and opted for Brexit are Stupid. Scottish. People. And we obviously know what kind of people they are, right?
The three attitudes towards the EU discussed here are of course present in attenuated form in Scotland, given the 68% vote to Remain. The SNP, where all are well-represented, initially based the entire case for IndyRef2 on an independent Scotland re-joining the EU, although it has since emphasised remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union, at least as a launching-pad for re-admission. This is unsurprising given that party is perhaps the main remaining exponent of social neoliberalism in the British party system other than the Liberal Democrats.
It was of course perfectly legitimate for the party to respond to the outcome of the EU referendum by demanding another independence vote. The SNP manifesto for the May 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections stated that it would regard a “significant and material change” in circumstances since the 2014 independence referendum sufficient to trigger a second vote, and specifically identified the then-imminent referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union as an example of how such a change might occur. If there was a Scottish majority for Remain and an English majority for Leave, then the latter vote would determine the UK result and the democratically expressed wishes of the Scottish electorate would be denied.
No one could reasonably argue the SNP didn’t clearly signal what the consequences would be of such a vote, or claim the SNP and the Scottish Greens don’t have a majority in the Scottish Parliament for calling a second independence referendum (although several Unionist commentators have quite unreasonably done both). The parties committed to staying in the EU as a matter of principle are perfectly entitled to argue the reason for holding IndyRef2 is to achieve this goal. The question is whether the rest of the independence movement should follow them in linking the two issues. For it’s simply opportunistic to seize on the question of the EU just because it supposedly makes IndyRef2 more likely, without considering the baleful nature that institution.
Let’s take a hypothetical example. Imagine, for example, that a UK-wide referendum had been held on, say, banning the promotion of LGBT relationships in state schools, and that there was a majority for such a ban in Scotland. Would we be loudly declaiming that this outcome expressed the will of the people and that its desire to persecute LGTB citizens was a legitimate basis for demanding a second independence referendum? I hope and believe that we would not. At the very best we could argue that such an outcome demonstrated yet again how the wishes of a majority of Scots can be nullified by the decisions of English voters, and that this democratic deficit provides an example of why another independence referendum was necessary. But we would have to fight to reverse the ban itself, whether Scotland remained in the UK or not. Similarly, it’s perfectly possible to argue for Indyref2 on the general grounds of an ongoing democratic deficit – of which Brexit is merely the latest example – without necessarily opposing Brexit itself.
But surely, it will be argued, the 62% vote for Remain was decisive, regardless of what disconsolate Scottish Leavers might think about it? No. For one thing, we self-evidently don’t regard the outcome of referendums as inviolate: the Scottish People also ‘spoke’ in 2014 and they said they wanted to stay in the UK. That result has not stopped Yes campaigners attempting to change the minds of No voters, and the result of the EU referendum should not stop Leave campaigners attempting to change the minds of Remain voters. The trouble is that the independence movement contains both positions and cannot, without sacrificing all coherence, go into a new campaign simultaneously arguing that the EU is a bastion for defending social democratic values and an institution for imposing neoliberal austerity.
But if, as an alliance of members of different parties and none, all with different positions or emphases, the Radical Independence Campaign – let alone the broader Yes movement – can’t take a position on membership of EU, it can and should on the relationship of EU membership to IndyRef2. That position should be completely separate issues, determined by separate referendums. This isn’t only a matter of principle, but also one of avoiding defeat in IndyRef2, which would surely bury the question of Scottish independence for the foreseeable future.
For there is not a stable basis for a successful Yes vote based solely on continued or renewed EU membership, as is explained in the careful prose of Pollster John Curtice: “…The nationalist movement is divided over Europe. Not only did as many as one in three of those who would vote Yes to independence vote to leave the EU, but many of those supporters of independence who did vote to Remain are – much like those backers of the Union who voted to Remain – seemingly relatively unenthusiastic about being part of the EU. Even in its much strengthened state, the nationalist movement needs to gain new supporters if it is to win a second independence referendum, and running such a ballot on the premise that independence is the only way of keeping Scotland in the EU may not necessarily be the most effective way of changing the minds of many No voters. Meanwhile for some existing Yes supporters such a prospect would be regarded as a potential disadvantage, perhaps making them think twice about whether to vote for independence after all.”
The parties of the left aren’t constrained in the way that any revived Yes campaign would be in relation to the EU, and should in my view argue remaining outside it, without fear of being accused of ‘playing into the hands’ of Ruth Davidson’s Tories. Brexit is going to happen, in one form or another. Rather than waste time lamenting this, or even worse, trying to reverse it, the left needs to arrive at some common understanding about what needs to be done to turn it to our advantage.
The first objective – and on this presumably people on both sides of the debate can agree – is to defend the rights of present and future migrants to freely enter the UK – not on the basis of a neoliberal ‘freedom of labour’ on a par with that of capital, goods and services, but a more general ‘freedom of movement’. The second, as Liz Fekete has written, is “a practical defence of migrant rights, particularly in terms of employment” for those migrants who are in the UK: “But since an injustice against one is an injustice against all, this would need to be linked to a broader struggle against the neoliberal working conditions that destroy the life opportunities of all European workers, whether migrant or non-migrant.”
The EU will not help in this project, but the people of Europe can. As Gareth Dale and Nadine El-Enany write, invoking movements from the birth of the European Social Forum in the early 2000s through to the anti-austerity mobilizations of November 2012: “If solidarity is to arise in Europe…it will not emanate from an alleged European essence but will take the form of the allegiances and collective identities that are fashioned when individuals from disadvantaged groups act in unison, in recognition of common interests and aims.”
Tonight in Edinburgh, RISE Edinburgh host a public Brexit Red Lines debate. More information here.