US left weighs in to support the British far right’s project of a No Deal Brexit. Cui Bono?

In a world of stupid, Alex Gourevitch’s Jacobin article encouraging the UK to leave the European Union without a deal deserves an answer because it is rife with stupid.

I write this as a lifelong critic of the EU who has reported the Greek, Spanish and Irish crises first hand. I am in the midst of trying to hold the line inside the Labour Party against a bunch of Cold War-era right wingers doing exactly what Gourevitch wants.

For the sake of time, the critique is in the form of quotes and annotations. Gourevitch in italics, my comments in Roman.

It is fair to say that the one thing we have learned over the past two years is that we need more democracy, not less.

Yes, but the UK is a parliamentary democracy, established as such in two bourgeois revolutions and through decades of suffrage agitation. The entire British radical tradition is focused on empowering parliament over the executive. Read on…

In the United States, the Left can only dream of eliminating the Senate or the Supreme Court; even getting rid of the Electoral College looks improbable in any foreseeable future. But the sudden casting off of an equally undemocratic institutional regime is on the agenda elsewhere.

The parallel would be for a state to secede from the Union. See where this is going?

On the one hand, the UK electorate’s vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union was a significant blow to the most undemocratic aspects of capitalist government in Europe.

The Brexit vote was the result of a right wing project of xenophobia and economic nationalism financed by the same set of businesses that backed Trump and using the same kind of social media manipulation.

On the other, the ongoing machinations inside and outside the UK parliament to frustrate Brexit call into question the health of democratic government in one of the world’s major capitalist states.

These “machinations inside parliament” are otherwise known as votes. That’s what has been happening. Votes that broke up the party affiliations because both parties are divided along globalist versus nationalist lines.

The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics, and therefore the mass of people, in the world today.

This is just plain wrong. You can say the EU is undemocratic, but an “enemy of democratic politics”? All the EU’s 27 states are parliamentary democracies with the rule of law, and the ones where the rule of law is being flouted are right now subject to sanctions by the Parliament. And then there’s the non-sequitur: “and therefore the mass of people in the world”. There is, unfortunately for those of us who are its critics, mass support for the EU among entirely democratic, centrist and progressive masses in Europe.

[The EU’s]central purpose is to constrain popular sovereignty through an executive-heavy, often-secretive complex of organizations. It has no fewer than five presidents; makes key decisions behind closed doors, with no recorded minutes; has a parliament that is its weakest branch; and renders amending its basic constitutional features nearly impossible.

That’s a distortion of the EU’s constitution. The problem with the EU is, yes, that it creates a space between national sovereignty and supra-national sovereignty in which corporations, oligarchs etc operate. There is no effective parliamentary supervision of the EU-wide executive, but this is left to national governments to do by qualified majority voting. The Lisbon Treaty does, indeed, constrain the ability of national governments to take leftwing policies, but this is because all the sovereign states of the EU signed up to it. The executive makes decisions behind closed doors in the same way that the White House or State Department does (maybe Gourevitch is thinking of the Eurozone finance ministers meeting, but that’s the Eurozone, not the EU). Parliament is its weakest branch for sure, but the national parliaments are strong, and the problem is mass popular support for centrist politics, and the decision to pool sovereignty into the EU. As US readers will know, “amending the constitution” is also quite difficult in the USA.

These [EU] member-states retain the worst, coercive elements of statehood while reducing the influence of the democratic element, allowing elected officials to avoid accountability by retreating into supranational and intergovernmental institutions.

This is correct. The problem for the left is what to do about it given that the EU is also a “regulatory superpower” which can dictate market regulations even to states that are not members.

The vote in favor of leaving the EU is therefore a product of longstanding popular frustration at the sense that politics is out of the electorate’s control and that elites have little to offer but ruses to avoid being held to account.

This is correct, but it misses out what the pro-Leave electorate wanted control over: immigration. They wanted to shut the door to refugees and to end the right of three million EU citizens working in the UK to do so. The abstract issue of sovereignty was, during the Brexit referendum, almost always expressed through the concrete desire to “shut the door” to economic migrants and refugees: worth a mention in a left-wing magazine?

As the date that Britain is scheduled to leave the EU approaches (March 29, 2019), the prospect of exiting has thrown the UK’s political class into an almighty panic.

True, because it would collapse growth by 8%, sterling by 25% and hike most mortgage repayments to the point where mass defaults begin. And for the left, as is well understood, crashing out without a deal has always been the project of the pro-Trump ultranationalist xenophobes: it would allow the UK to begin talks with Trump over a free trade deal which would open the UK’s public health and private pharma sectors to US corporate piracy.

There is now a realistic possibility that parliament will fail to carry out the people’s will and decline to leave the EU. This would be an act of breath-taking contempt for democracy that would rival the acts of the right-wing populists who get most of the airtime these days.

Nope. In the British constitution, which was clearly outlined in a Supreme Court decision in 2017, only parliament can express the will of the people. That’s the nub of the argument. Remember, from 1642 onwards, the left republican radicals who fought for democracy fought for parliament to control the executive. There is no possibility under British constitutional law that parliament could “fail to carry out the will of the people”. Sovereignty, in Britain, resides in Parliament. I am labouring this point because it is the central misconception, but it’s being used in exactly the same way as the far right are using it, as they physically harass centrist and left MPs and jouralists opposed to Brexit.

Many members of parliament are trying to delay the Brexit date to give them time to organize a second referendum. That referendum would likely include a vote on whether to reverse the entire Brexit process and stay in the European Union — not only flouting the results of the first referendum, but thereby attacking British democracy itself.

A really inaccurate summary of what’s happening. Centrists of the right and left are trying to force a second referendum because, though it would be possible to defeat Brexit in parliament, morally you would still need a referendum to ratify either staying in Europe or a soft Brexit that dashes the hopes of the xenophobes for a clean break. The move to delay Brexit is not coming from the same camp: it’s coming from a much wider set of parliamentarians who fear the shock doctrine style catastrophe of No Deal on 29 March. And for the reasons outlined above, a second referendum would in no sense be an attack on British democracy. That’s why Corbyn’s Labour Party unanimously passed a resolution calling for it as a last resort, if parliamentary votes or a snap general election failed.

A basic feature of democratic politics is that the sovereign should control government.

In the British constitution parliament is sovereign and the queen is supposed to automatically approve every law it passes. This is the result of something called the Glorious Revolution of 1689, in which the monarch was replaced for refusing to do so.

When the people are sovereign, they determine the shape of their institutions and elect their governments.

Fine. But in Britain, thanks to our civil wars, revolutions and suffrage movements, the people are sovereign via parliament. Until we get a soviet of workers deputies, or a US-style separation of powers etc this is what we are making do with.

That was the core political point of the first referendum: the British people voted to withdraw from the constitutional constraints of the European Union. This principle was confirmed in the 2017 general election, when 85 percent of MPs were elected on manifestos promising to implement the referendum result.

Again, this is very wrong. There are many forms of Brexit on offer in which Britain does not “withdraw from the constitutional constraints of the EU”: for example Norway, which is a member of the Single Market but not the EU, has to follow all economic regulations and allow free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

Yes both main parties (85% of MPs) stood on a platform of implementing the result, but Labour specifically campaigned to stay within one constitutional constraint (customs union) to voluntarily accept another (the rules of the single market, plus all laws on labour standards, environment and consumer rights).

The central point for the Labour left is this: if the form of Brexit negotiated by the right damages working class living standards there is no obligation for our MPs to accept it.

They can go on voting for their own version, which they campaigned for, even if that means the government falls. A new government cannot be constrained by decisions of the old one. Nor can a new parliament be constrained by any referendum.

The political meaning of a second referendum, at least one that involved making Remain an option, would therefore be the opposite of the first. Having been given the task of exiting the EU, the British Parliament would be effectively saying it just wasn’t up to the task — that it was refusing to carry out the people’s wishes and, therefore, deciding to try to reverse that will itself. It would not be far from that old Brechtian line, “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”.

Nope. The exact opposite is happening. Labour is calling for an election in order to be able to take control of the Brexit process: to allow the people to dissolve the government because it is up shit creek.

And if we can’t find a form of Brexit that won’t damage workers rights and living standards, the option to Remain should be put back to the people.

At this point the one democratic act possible is to insist on exiting the EU, deal or no deal. To withdraw from these institutions is a necessary (though certainly insufficient) condition for revitalizing democratic politics. Reasserting popular sovereignty over governments is only possible by reclaiming that sovereignty from the EU — and sketching out a positive vision for a post-EU future.

In Britain itself, only the far right and the pro-Trump conservatives take this line: that no deal is better than continued renegotiation. Why? because from the get-go, the far right always wanted a clean break, a catastrophe, a political shock followed by a bonfire of regulations. There is not a single force on the British left — including the Stalinist Morning Star, which takes a line similar to Jill Stein’s Green Party — which actively wants a no-deal Brexit.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Theresa May’s plan, which only just barely separates the UK from the European Union, no positive vision for a post-EU future is on offer.

What’s wrong with Theresa May’s plan is not its “bare separation” from the EU. It is that it cedes some sovereignty unilaterally to Europe and gives no guarantees for workers rights, environmental rights etc.

The positive vision is the one Corbyn offers: stay in the customs union, voluntarily align with the Single Market, stay in all the institutions like the Erasmus student scheme, the atomic energy regulator, etc etc and sign a legally binding deal to avoid a race to the bottom on workers rights, environmental rights and consumer rights.

Oh, and guarantee the rights of three million EU migrants who would, under the No Deal favoured by Gourevitch, be in danger of losing their jobs, healthcare and ultimately residency. While we are on this subject, for any member of the left to write an article about Brexit that fails to mention the central issue, anti-migrant xenophobia, is just, well, unfortunate.

For Corbyn to support Brexit with any enthusiasm would alienate his political base in the party membership, but to oppose Brexit or support a second referendum risks massive electoral losses in the North of England. Faced with this dilemma, the Labour leadership has not chosen to embrace the opportunity for democratic renewal offered by Brexit, but instead gone for short-term opportunism, calling for a general election that is unlikely to come about and hoping the Tories will continue to flounder.

Labour is fighting for an election because it wants to stop austerity, racism and warmongering by forming the first anti-neoliberal government in a major country. With the government on the rocks, its central project in turmoil, that’s what socialists do!

Labour does not risk “massive electoral losses” in Leave voting areas. No polling evidence supports that at all. The main risk is failing to gain the 60+ extra seats in these areas we need to take power. But the author is right on one thing: if Corbyn were to support Brexit enthusiastically, Labour would lose votes to the Libdems, Greens and Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, losing probably 14 seats in the big cities. And it would lose probably 100k of its most progressive and internationalist members overnight.

That, in addition to not wanting to support the program of the right, is why Labour’s fallback plan is: vote down May’s deal, force an election, or force a second referendum.

The majority of British representatives don’t really want to leave, or at least engage in the hard act of coming up with a plan for post-Brexit UK. But they know it’s difficult to baldly go against the will of the people. Hence the lure of the second referendum. They are hoping to be let off the hook by engaging in what has practically become a Brechtian tradition of EU politics.

Actually the second referendum does not have enough support in parliament for it to happen under controlled conditions. It will only happen if Theresa May fears an election, and the arrival of the first non-neoliberal government in a major country.

If democratic institutions, procedures, and parties are not there to allow the people to create and control governments, but are instead to be used to manage the people, then why participate at all? If there is a majority decision — in fact, repeated majority decisions — that one can expect will be reversed anytime representatives find them too difficult or unpopular, why have those institutions?

I repeat. Parliamentary democracy allows “the people” to take decisions and then reverse them. There is no “repeated majority decision” in favour of Brexit. There is a crisis in parliament because there is a class struggle in parliament led by the left.

The reason the British workers movement is so wedded to parliamentary democracy, and not to plebisicites and referendums, is that they saw in the 1930s European dictators and autocrats use these methods to get exactly what Brexit is designed to deliver: chaos, from which the strong autocrat rides in to save us.

In addition, the Labour strategy that Alex Gourevitch attacks was actually voted on by thousands of delegates from a party of 500,000 active members. It was a compromise achieved in a seven hour meeting of 300 delegates, mainly trade union activists, Occupy veterans, people from social movements etc.

We did this because we recognise that, in a parliamentary democracy, we need to hold our representatives to account.

Right now we are mobilising to deselect seven rightwing Labour MPs whose votes on 29 January technically enabled the No Deal Brexit that Alex Gourevitch is calling for.

We are doing this because we realise that behind the rhetoric of “popular sovereignty” lies the Trump project, pure and simple. It’s strange to read a rationale for it in a leftwing magazine.



Journalist, writer and film-maker. Author of How To Stop Fascism.

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Paul Mason

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Author of How To Stop Fascism.