The Right-Wing Roots of Britain’s EU Referendum

UKIP leader Nigel Farage argues for Brexit in the European Parliament, February 24 (European Parliament / Flickr)

British referendums are strange, hybrid beasts. “We the people” are not formally sovereign. At least in theory, the votes of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects provide a second opinion, not a final decision, for the real source of ultimate legal authority: Parliament and the Queen. Referendums are not, by and large, demanded by the governed; they are offered at choice moments by elites, mostly to settle constitutional issues that scramble the usual categories of parliamentary politics. Last time we voted on Europe, in 1975, it was the Labour Party that was split; now it is the Tories. It’s reasonable to believe that the Conservative promise of a referendum on EU membership played a part in the party’s victory in the general election in 2015, stemming defections to their right-wing rivals, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), in crucial marginal seats. But this does not establish the fact of broad demand for a plebiscite on one thing over another, like competitive petitioning for U.S. ballot initiatives or Swiss Volksabstimmungen does. It’s naive to think that appeals to the people—especially those conducted within the parameters of British politics—are automatically empowering. They are simulacrums of democracy, often calibrated to partisan ends. We always have to ask who decides what we vote on, when, and why.

It is the right wing of the Conservative party, the anti-immigrant UKIP, and the Murdoch press that have made membership of the EU the question of the day. It is they who forced David Cameron to concede a referendum in 2013, and they who now seek a vote to leave on June 23. Cameron has allowed this referendum to be held at a moment when Europe’s intersecting economic, humanitarian, and political crises render it almost comical in its insularity. During the annus horribilis of 2015, while our neighbors were occupied elsewhere with Greek debt and refugee deaths, the Prime Minister was touring the Continent pushing a “renegotiation” agenda—focused on imaginary business “red tape” and mythical benefit-scrounging Bulgarians—designed to smooth his path to a “remain” vote.

Cameron’s lazy isolationism might be unattractive when viewed from Berlin or Lesbos, but it is illustrative of the relatively peripheral role played by Europe in British politics. Outside of the eurozone and the Schengen area of passport-free movement, the British are insulated from the worst of Europe’s current troubles. All this meant that the UK left was initially ambivalent about the prospect of voting on membership at all. The dizzying assault on the public realm by the current government is entirely domestic in its origin: no Brussels diktat has forced the further degradation of local government, schools, universities, trade unions, the NHS, or the BBC. Given that talk about the vote distracts from more pressing issues—where opposition movements can hope to make some progress—it’s hard to see the very occurrence of the referendum as anything other than a setback. Europe is simply not the priority. Yet here we find ourselves, lining up with David Cameron, George Osborne, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Wolfgang Schaüble.

At the institutional level, the left consensus in favor of a “Remain” vote is overwhelming. The Labour, Green, Scottish National, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Sinn Féin and Left Unity parties, the lion’s share of the trade union movement, and a significant number of NGOs are campaigning to remain. This broad front conceals all manner of variety; the overriding imperative is to resist the demands of the other side. The individuals and organizations running the various “Leave” campaigns—a loose alliance of neo-imperialists, crazed free-marketeers, and unashamed racists—have shifted from the margins to the center of British politics over the past ten years. The hard core is still provided by Thatcherite diehards: Euroskeptic Tories who rose to prominence, either as journalists or parliamentarians, via the early-1990s battles over the Maastricht Treaty. These are nearly exclusively older, white men of a certain cast of mind: cerebral yet stupid, devoid of any discernible political talents, they are driven by a stubborn series of post-imperial delusions regarding Britain’s potential as a “globally trading nation.” Their strategy for national renewal either denies the UK’s sluggish productivity growth, chronic business investment, and catastrophic balance of payments, or blames all three on worker, consumer, or environmental protections enshrined in EU law. Freed from the shackles of Brussels, Britain’s conversion into a fully-fledged tax haven and special export zone will guarantee a return to Victorian glories (accompanied, no doubt, by an invigorating blast of Victorian squalor).

If this was all the Leave campaign had to offer, they would not be in with a fighting chance. But like the GOP or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, the Leave campaigns (there are three, at the time of writing) have stumbled on a powerful synthesis of hard-right economics with anti-immigration sentiment. Here they are on firmer ground. “Europe” has never featured high on lists of voters’ priorities, but immigration certainly does, and the fundamental principle of European freedom of movement has come to be associated with higher levels of migration from the post–2004 accession countries. Resentment of Polish and Romanian workers can be explained as the product of policy failures, media hysteria, and outright xenophobia, as well as the marginalization of migrant voices in political debate. Anxiety about migration can also be traced to uncertainties about place, employment, and community in the post-crisis economy. These anxieties seem particularly intense along the eastern coast of England, where UKIP enjoy significant support. Islamic terrorism and the refugee crisis add another dimension; the two are conflated and exploited by the more unscrupulous Leavers. You don’t want all that Euro-Islamic chaos over here, the Euroskeptics tell us. “Vote Leave—Take Control.”

It’s not just the Conservatives. Some on the communitarian “Old Right” of the Labour Party were quick to argue for Brexit. This group, undergoing something of a renaissance since the last election, is not to be confused with the centrist-liberal “Blairite” wing, who have consistently seen European integration as core to their project. While around 90 percent of Labour members support “Remain,” the Old Righters note, a third of Labour’s 2015 voters favor an exit vote. They argue that the party’s embrace of Europe has eroded support among white working-class voters who resent the impact of free movement. A counter-intuitive decision to support “Leave” would have wrong-footed the Tories, and renewed support for Labour from this disillusioned, traditional base. But this is a position with more than a whiff of charlatanism. Anti-immigrant sentiment in small-town England is complex, protean, and ambivalent. Political parties are capable of being rooted and relevant while retaining their principles. It’s disingenuous to insist on an either/or between ignoring immigration anxieties and opportunistically selling working-class Labour voters the lie that leaving Europe is in their interests.

More principled arguments from within Labour and across the broader left center on the neoliberal character of the bloc. The thrusting nationalization programs and industrial subsidies that defined the postwar golden age of British social democracy would be impossible under EU laws. Among trade unions, those representing transport workers are notable anti-EU campaigners; they point to the baneful influence of directives mandating competition in rail and other public utilities. Other trade-union critics highlight the dangerous implications of recent European Court of Justice decisions interpreting cross-border collective bargaining rights. At a more visceral level, left-wing Euroskeptics taunt “Remainers” for their implied endorsement of the Eurogroup’s brutal suppression of Greek democracy. Equally, the cold violence of fortress Europe, brought home by shameful refugee deportation deals with Turkey and Sudan, can hardly be tolerated by any self-respecting denizen of the left. The editors of an interesting new journal, Salvage, set up by former members of the Socialist Workers Party, concluded that “the EU’s ‘free movement’ is dependent on the violent exclusion of those outside.”

These more fundamental criticisms are more difficult to counter. But the question at stake in Britain’s referendum is not the bloc’s moral legitimacy. We are not being asked to give positive assent to decisions of the Eurogroup, and we have ample opportunity to attack our own government for their callous indifference to refugees. Indeed, by refusing to back early calls for a more generous and comprehensive system of resettlement for those arriving via the Balkans and Mediterranean routes, British disengagement from Europe has already done a great deal to worsen the situation. Given this reality, and the composition of the British “Leave” campaign, there is no prospect that an out vote would achieve anything other than further emboldening the anti-immigrant right across the continent.

Nor can a British exit be seen as striking a blow against Brussels neoliberalism—except insofar as it would reduce the Tories’ interest in backing up Schaüble. The terms of Britain’s EU membership include a permanent opt-out from the structures of the eurozone and the fiscal discipline of the Stability and Growth Pact. The onus is very much on proponents of exit to show how the strong probability of capital flight and recession would help to bring about a swifter end to austerity politics in Britain. In these conditions, the pressure from a victorious right to fast-track the abolition of EU employment rights and further cut state spending would be irresistible. The foibles and complexity of a vast multinational union provide countervailing forces that our own political system singularly lacks. In Europe, it seems increasingly likely that some combination of Austrian nationalists, French protectionists, and German Greens will manage to shield us from the depredations of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Outside the EU, Cameron’s likely successor, Boris Johnson, would negotiate fresh trade deals with the interests of monopoly capital in mind. The young, the poor, migrants, women, and ethnic minorities would once again pay the price. Recent history suggests the left is poorly placed to find opportunity in crisis.

The most compelling, and positive, reason to vote Remain is the need to take some responsibility for the future political direction of a continent that we cannot ultimately escape, even if we want to. As John McDonnell, Labour’s radical finance spokesman and a long-time critic of Europe’s neoliberal turn, noted in a powerful speech backing “Remain,” the European institutions still provide the capacity for small and medium-sized countries to act collectively on climate change, high pay, tax avoidance, and financial regulation. Unless and until European integration takes a form that outpaces Britain’s own willingness to abase itself before finance capital—an unlikely proposition—it would be foolish to ignore this potential.

Euroskeptics left and right who describe the EU as “irreformable” fall into the trap of seeing it as a homogenous, totalizing entity, possessed of a single will and an unchanging character. They overstate the size and significance of the unitary, technocratic Commission, neglecting the overriding power that exists via nation-state representation in the Council of Ministers. The Union remains an intergovernmental, not a supranational, organization, with its own complex and shifting internal balance of power. Indeed, it is this, as much as any purely functional relationship with the imperatives of capital, that determines its botched handling of recent crises. So the necessary demand to “democratize Europe!” recently offered by DiEM25, can only be part of the solution. In Britain, a left case for “Remain” that rests on the 1990s, Habermasian ideal of a European demos is unlikely to resonate even with most Labour members, let alone the broader public.

The left case for Europe, therefore, has to engage with the reality of the bloc’s multi-level structure, which operates through diffuse layers of delegation and diplomacy. Within this structure, the national politics of the larger states can still play a decisive and positive role, if domestic political movements are organizationally strong and aware of the considerable potential for collective action at the European level. An engaged and constructive UK, challenging neoliberal hegemony under a principled government of the left, might be a distant dream, but it is still a prize worth fighting for.


James Stafford is co-editor of Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy.

Read Richard Tuck’s left case for Brexit.



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