The Left Case for Brexit

Is Yanis Varoufakis's faith in the EU misplaced? (Marc Lozano / Flickr)

On the question of whether Britain should leave the European Union, the British left has been nearly uniform in supporting “Remain.” This option seems especially attractive since those advocating “Leave” on the right range from open racists concerned with the recent growth of immigration to romantic global free marketeers. For entirely understandable cultural and political reasons, the left has not wished to be associated with that crowd. But in supporting “Remain,” the left is making a profound mistake, one capable of destroying its future, whether Britain is in or out of the EU.

There are several flaws in the case made by left advocates of Remain: here I want to consider three in particular. First is the idea, fostered especially by the dynamic Greek former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, that left politics today can only be advanced by concerted action within the EU. As I will argue, that is a fantasy, and by adhering to it the British left is likely to undermine itself seriously—as the Greek left may already be doing.

Next is the claim that Brexit would hasten the breakup of the United Kingdom, and consequently (for long-standing reasons of electoral demography) spell doom for Labour as a party of government. I argue that the opposite is the case: Brexit may well be the only thing that could hold the UK together and offer Labour the opportunity to rebuild on a national basis.

Last is the assumption, which seems to underlie much pro-Remain thinking on the left, that the EU is fundamentally different from the multinational trade agreements—most recently the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—that are reshaping the global economic order. While many leftists have clear and well-thought-out arguments against such trade “partnerships,” they give their unconsidered support to the EU, though it suffers from all the same failings and more.

As a consequence of these mistakes, the British left risks throwing away the one institution which it has, historically, been able to use effectively—the democratic state—in favor of a constitutional order tailor-made for the interests of global capitalism and managerial politics. As the jurisprudence of the EU has developed, it has consistently undermined standard left policies such as state aid to industries and nationalization. Constitutional structures that are largely outside the reach of citizens have, in the modern world, tended almost invariably to block the kind of radical policies that the left has traditionally believed in. The central fact about the EU, which the British governing class has never really got its head around, is that it creates a written constitution and ancillary juridical structures that are extremely hard to alter. Neither British politicians nor the British electorate are used to this, since Britain has never had such a thing, and they are treating the referendum as if it were a general election campaign, with short-term victories that could be reversed in a few years, rather than something with the long-term implications of the votes in 1788 on the American constitution.


I

Yanis Varoufakis is one of the most significant left-wing politicians in Europe. As someone who witnessed one of its major crises from within, he speaks with authority about the character of the EU project. His accounts of the discussions in the councils of Europe about the euro crisis, featuring ignorant and preening finance ministers bent almost exclusively on the exercise of power, are a graphic illustration of what actually happens within the EU.

Varoufakis is also important because despite his firsthand experience of the limits of the EU, he believes it can be reformed. More than that, he hopes that a pan-European left will be revived through the institutions of the EU, and that hope is repeatedly echoed by pro-EU figures within the British Labour Party. But it would be a profound mistake for the British left to follow Varoufakis’s loyalty to the European project. To see why, we should go back to the theorist with whom Varoufakis himself continues to identify: the founding father of the European left, Karl Marx.

One of Marx’s most striking insights was the observation that the various constitutions of the French republics, and their imitations in other continental states, were deliberately designed to obstruct progress towards genuine democracy. Though the French Revolution had introduced universal suffrage, its significance was immediately undermined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and by constitutional structures that precluded the kind of social transformation that the Revolution’s radicals wanted. Marx emphasized this repeatedly in his writings of the 1840s, and the failure of the revolutions of 1848 and the restoration of the constitutional orders in Europe only confirmed his judgment. Accordingly, Marx felt, only a total revolution would be able to overturn the “bourgeois” liberal economic and political constitutions that stood in the way of substantive social change.

But Marx, and still more Engels, thought England was different. The House of Commons was unconstrained by the kind of constitutional apparatus seen on the continent, since Parliament was (famously) “omnicompetent” and the Lords and the monarchy were largely irrelevant. Marx and Engels concluded that once the English working class got the vote, it would be able to use the House of Commons to achieve its political and economic goals peacefully. The accidents of history that had delivered this exceptional institution meant that revolution ought not to be necessary for the kind of social transformation Marx and Engels had in mind.

The early members of the Labour Party in England (who were more Marxist than their successors cared to admit) understood this, and believed that a properly organized working class, using representation in the House of Commons as its vehicle, could institute radical economic and social change. And compared with the life of the working class in the nineteenth century, working-class life after the growth of Labour vindicated their confidence. Indeed, the greatest achievement of the Labour Party, the creation of the National Health Service, would have been impossible in a country with strong constitutional constraints on the legislature, since it required the large-scale expropriation of private property in the shape of the old endowed hospitals. That is a major reason why so few countries have adopted the NHS model: in most of them it would have been illegal, just as similar proposals would be illegal in the EU today.

In the 1980s, however, demoralized Labour politicians began to seek the shelter of continental-style constitutional structures. The most important of these was the EU, which functions as a set of constraints on the internal politics of its member states exactly as did the bourgeois constitutions of the mid-nineteenth century.

There are many reasons why the left began to lose faith in a system that did not have constitutional constraints. Partly, it was distressed by Thatcher’s electoral success—though in fact the Labour Party split (largely over Europe) in the immediate aftermath of her first electoral victory, before the scale of the transformation she would usher in was clear. Indeed, the split in the Labour Party itself facilitated that transformation. The general turn to a discourse of human rights (recently traced by Samuel Moyn) also served to weaken the intellectual case for an omnicompetent democratic legislature, despite the fact that in Britain that legislature had largely coexisted with a remarkably tolerant and liberal social order. No matter the cause, however, the main outcome was that British politics became, for the first time, constrained by EU commitments.

The left—and all of Great Britain—has suffered as a result. The same structures that the eighth president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, promised to use in the interests of the working class turned out by the time of the 2007–08 financial crash to have been used instead to push through a variety of neoliberal economic and social policies that have only damaged the European working class.

This, of course, would not have surprised Marx. As he understood, the point of constitutional structures such as the EU is almost always to enshrine and make permanent the political and social assumptions of their moment of creation. As a Marxist, and given his own bruising encounters with EU institutions, Varoufakis should perhaps see this better than anyone. But despite fiercely criticizing the way the EU handled the Greek crisis, Varoufakis has remained loyal to the idea that left-wing politics can be pushed through using EU institutions, if only the parties of the left across Europe can properly coordinate their activities.

History would suggest that this is a vain hope. Even if Europe’s left parties do succeed in forging a common program, the EU is not the kind of political entity whose approach to the world can be altered by popular politics. Popular politics is precisely what the EU was designed to obstruct. Like independent central banks and constitutional courts, its institutions are essentially technocratic. Technocracy is not (as some like to pretend) a neutral or rational system of government. Instead, it confers immense power on culturally select bodies whose prejudices will be those of the class their members are drawn from.

Varoufakis believes that the EU may change, and many in the British Labour Party agree. But the kind of shift in European politics that Varoufakis and others want to see is simply not possible within the present structures of the EU: it would require sweeping institutional change of a kind nowhere on the agenda. Without that, like the Labour Party in Britain, the left in Europe is reliant purely on an article of faith—a conviction that the left must prevail, even in the face of all the constraints imposed on popular sovereignty by the EU.

The British governing class in the late twentieth century threw away the most valuable institution it had inherited, an institution whose preservation was the most obvious imperative for their predecessors: a House of Commons that was not constrained by a constitution. A vote to stay within the EU will render their casual trashing of it irrevocable, and end any hope of genuinely left politics in the UK.


II

If these fundamental considerations were not enough to persuade the left to vote to leave the EU, pragmatic politics should do so. The Labour Party since Blair has made a fundamental misjudgment about how to gain power, a misjudgment intimately related to its stance on the EU: this is its misunderstanding of Scottish politics.

It is now clear that the Labour Party, as it has existed for more than a century, is dead, and its death has been caused by its dramatic decline in Scotland. Since England has always been a fundamentally Tory country, and shows no sign of becoming less so, it is hard to see anything like the old Labour Party taking power through English votes alone. With the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which in Scotland went from winning less than half as many votes as Labour in the 2010 general election to winning more than twice as many in 2015—in part by attracting roughly one-fifth of Labour voters—it also seems highly unlikely that the Labour Party will win back Scotland.

The EU is relevant here because modern Scottish nationalism is essentially the working-out within Britain of the logic of the EU. Scotland joined the Union in 1707 to enjoy an economic union with a large market and a global trading power. But with the advent of the EU, which guarantees Scotland virtually the same freedoms of trade and movement as the 1707 Union did, Scotland no longer needs to be united with England. Once the Common Market began to take its current shape, the power of European integration to advance its cause began to dawn on the SNP, and as soon as it switched from an extremely hostile to an enthusiastically pro-European position in the 1980s its electoral fortunes began to improve. The leaders of the SNP make no pretense about the critical importance of the EU for their project.

If the UK leaves the EU, however, the situation immediately changes. There is the pessimistic view that faced with a UK outside the EU, the SNP would still reasonably press for independence and with it EU membership for Scotland. It could do so knowing that it is extremely unlikely that the ties between England and Scotland would deteriorate. The precedent would be Ireland, which has in effect had a passport union and an integrated labor market with the UK ever since independence, including during the roughly twenty years in which it maintained its own currency, before it joined the euro. A similar example is the Nordic Passport Union, which has guaranteed free movement of people and an integrated labor market among the Scandinavian countries since 1954.

But one can reasonably take a different view. Following a Brexit, the EU would effectively be equivalent to the eurozone and the Schengen area, and would simply proceed to a much higher level of integration. It is hard to see it taking any other route, unless (as some apocalyptic scenarios imagine) it fell apart completely. Would the SNP leaders want Scotland to be subsumed into a union of that kind? Their terror of endorsing Scottish membership of the euro in the referendum campaign suggests that they would be very unwilling to exchange membership of the United Kingdom for membership of the United States of Europe; their ideal is the continuation of the present relatively unintegrated European arrangements within which something like the current Scottish economy could persist independently of Westminster. Their current enthusiasm for Britain’s continued membership reveals their own political judgment about the significance of the EU for their cause. So if the UK leaves the EU, Scottish independence comes to look much less plausible, and a chance is offered to the Labour Party to rebuild in Scotland. It may not be much of a chance, certainly, but staying in the EU offers virtually no chance at all. Contrary to what almost all commentators have concluded, Brexit may be the only way in which the United Kingdom can be preserved. In turn, it is also the only way in which a British Labour Party can be rebuilt.


III

One of the odd things about British leftists’ support of the EU is that when they are invited to support a very similar institution with a different set of members, they resolutely refuse to do so. Many people on the left now oppose both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). They do so partly for economic reasons. But much of the opposition to these trade agreements is based on their political implications, and in particular the regulatory structures which they put in place and impose on individual states. As the Yale Law School professor David Grewal has emphasized, these treaties are not old-fashioned trade agreements to lower tariffs. Instead, the treaties attempt to construct coordinated regulatory structures in a wide variety of areas, ranging from workers’ rights to industrial policy and environmental regulations. Such provisions clearly intrude on areas of national life that in the past were presumed to be the preserve of national governments. Furthermore, the treaties create mechanisms for so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) which amount to the creation of supranational courts, ruling in accordance with loose principles and free from appellate scrutiny.

Liberal defenders of global capitalism led by President Obama like to stress the fact that the treaties enshrine workers’ rights and gender equality, and they imply that the other provisions are necessary to enforce these rights and to prevent states from restricting free trade through such means as the manipulation of labor laws and heath and safety regulations. But the fundamental fact is that supranational intervention on behalf of left-wing causes is bundled together with intervention on behalf of modern global capitalism, and it is not difficult to see which type of intervention will have—and is intended to have—the most lasting impact.

Everything I have just said is commonplace in discussions on the left across Europe. But many British leftists do not see that these points also apply to the European Union. The EU anticipated both this kind of bundling of left-wing with right-wing promises and the assumption that modern free trade requires a supranational structure with powers to intervene in the internal life of the member states. Because there are so many ways in which regulatory hurdles can be erected to restrict trade, it is argued, regulation has to be managed at a supranational level. And like the Partnerships, in practice the EU subordinates its concern with workers’ rights to its concern to maintain the freedom of companies to shop around within the EU for the weakest regimes of labor protection. To see that one need only look at European Court of Justice judgments concerning transnational labor disputes within the EU, which the European Trade Union Confederation has described as confirming “a hierarchy of norms . . . with market freedoms highest in the hierarchy, and collective bargaining and action in second place.”

It is the right that ought to applaud this kind of structure, and the left that ought to be hostile—this is the paradox at the heart of the current British argument about EU membership. Free trade is never the unalloyed good to everyone which is promised: everything depends on the political power of the various groups concerned, something the left has usually understood, and which the renascent U.S. left has rediscovered. Anxiety about the TTIP in Britain and the rest of Europe is well-judged; but there is no point in resisting the TTIP, or even employing European political institutions to prevent the EU signing up to it, if we remain within the EU. Everything that is objectionable to the left about these trade partnerships, with the single exception of the fact that the United States is involved, should be objectionable to the left when it comes to the EU. This was what the original opponents of the Common Market in the Labour Party understood in 1975, and time has merely proven them correct.


IV

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the left’s natural position should still be one of opposition to the EU. Why is this message proving so hard to get across? One reason is the fact that many centers of the left, such as universities, have done very well financially out of the EU. Overall, Britain contributes more to the EU budget than it receives back, but it has proven easier for many academic institutions to negotiate grants from the EU than from the UK government. But this is scarcely a good argument: first, those institutions should not be protected from democratic politics, particularly as far and away the bulk of their funding still comes from the UK taxpayer, and second, no one knows how negotiations would go in the absence of EU largesse. No government, aware that universities can at the moment get funding from the EU, will offer money of its own, but that does not mean it would not do so if that funding were withdrawn.

The most powerful reason, I think, is cultural and political hostility to the supporters of Brexit, and in particular to their stance on immigration, and a fear of what happens in general if they win. But this fear is self-reinforcing. The left is frightened because it has chosen to abandon the field to its enemies, rather than because of any necessary cleavage between left and right on the EU. One can put this point in a more vivid way by asking, Why is there no British Bernie Sanders? Sanders has shown that the alienated working-class vote can still be won by left-wing policies, particularly on global trade, and need not be abandoned to the radical right. But the British left cannot make that move, despite a degree of windy rhetoric. And the reason it cannot is that its power to propose genuinely left-wing policies has been severely circumscribed by the EU.

The way for the left to address the immigration debate is to understand that immigration is to many people only the most vivid and proximate sign of a more general loss of political power. Nothing will answer those people’s concerns unless they can be told that decisions about immigration policy are going to be in the hands of the British electorate, like all decisions of major importance. The debate can then begin over what kind of immigration policy the left should support, and whether (like the present system) it should in effect give priority to white Europeans over the older classes of immigrants in Britain, predominantly South Asian, who wish to unite families and move easily between Britain and South Asia. The left should also appreciate that the traditional heart of modern left-wing politics, a planned welfare state, is rendered virtually impossible if Britain stays in the EU, since no one will have any idea of the population numbers in the UK even in the near future. This is an illustration of the way the free movement of people, as well as of goods and capital, in the EU almost necessarily entrenches markets rather than collective planning.

Many of my English friends on the left reply to these arguments with despair: nothing can now be done to change the situation, the forces of globalization are too strong, the political culture of Britain is too conservative. Membership of the EU offers shelter, despite its patent lack of democracy and its basic sympathy with capitalism. But this is to rationalize defeat. There have been times in living memory when the left in Britain could assert itself successfully, but those were times when it understood the nature of Britain’s political structures and could use them. The lack of political possibilities perceived by so many people today is the result of quite specific decisions, above all to enter the EU, and I see no reason why reversing that decision would not open up real possibilities for the left in Britain again.


Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard, and the author of many books on political theory, most recently The Sleeping Sovereign (Cambridge University Press 2016).

Read James Stafford’s defense of “Remain.”



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