Go to Westminster on any given day and you will come across one of the UK’s most interesting, odd and patriotic sects - the committed Stop Brexiteer and EU flag waver. These inversions of the well-to-do, Union Jack swathed gammonite, are just as tied to a national dogma as their political cousins.
There Eurocentric view of cosmopolitanism, a union of predominantly affluent, white European states says a lot about what is wrong with liberalism. That liberals would die on a hill for the European Union speaks volumes. Especially when many have been either silent or passive in the face of our draconian welfare system, Britain’s virtual epidemic of poverty and the appalling treatment of refugees by this government. Many of these people will rightly stand in solidarity with European migrants, yet will be nowhere to be seen when it comes to refugees being paid £1 per hour within our own borders.
After being denied a democratic say over European Union membership for four decades, a myriad of forces including economic elites, liberals, progressives, socialists and Tories are seeking to overturn the referendum result. In some cases they are defending vital principles such as the security of European migrants in the UK. In other cases they are genuinely convinced that life outside the European Union will be an austere, irreversible nightmare, where working class communities face the brunt of the blow.
There is an irony to this given that the EU arguably played a role in accelerating the collapse of unionised industries a generation ago, whilst the single market was Thatcher’s creation and reflects her fervour for deregulation and privatisation. While many mainstream economists are moving swiftly away from the view that trade liberalisation is a primarily win-win approach, Stop Brexiteers seem to have doubled down on this set of economically right-wing suppositions.
It’s also worth emphasising that the data underpinning predictions of Brexit catastrophe is itself deeply suspect. The Tory government’s economic modelling appears to include utterly laughable assumptions - such as the idea that markets are self-regulating and deliver optimal outcomes. While there hasn’t been a semblance of competence in the government’s handling of Brexit, there is little substance to the idea that we inextricably need the single market or a close imitation of it. Though a harsh or no-deal Brexit would very likely present a threat to the economy, and have serious fall out, we shouldn’t assume EU membership is fundamental to a working economy.
This comes from unfounded assumptions about the merits of recent globalisation and the rationality of contemporary capitalism. These assumptions are alien to the left’s values, so why should we be drawn into their conclusions? The fact this Conservative government has overseen the slowest economic recovery since before the Industrial Revolution should be more of a concern.
It is not just that some of the risks of leaving have been over-aped. The ‘People’s Vote’ campaign has concerning implications for UK democracy and a distinct lack of awareness about the EU’s politics. Free movement of capital is fundamental to its single market, awarding finance the kind of rights you’d expect to be reserved for people. And it has been noted many times that the EU does place restrictions on both common ownership of industries, because it’s not conducive to competition or free movement of capital, and on trade union activities - because some union activity isn’t seen to be compatible to deregulated labour markets.
Membership of the union has historically served as a barrier to implementing even a relatively radical programme. For the most part the activists fighting for a ‘People’s Vote’ know this and don’t care. They can live with the status quo - so long as it doesn’t get too much worse. In many cases these are people who’d be ambivalent - or outright opposed - to the fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth desired by the left. There are notable exceptions, typically people involved in the ‘Another Europe’ campaign, but they clearly form a minority faction within a wider People’s Vote movement.
Though sections of the left can justifiably be accused of exaggerating the extent to which the EU would serve as a bulwark against left-wing reforms, the fact remains that the European Union’s consensus for decades has been pro-elite, maldistributive and hardly on the side of working people.
The EU has historically been unwavering in its attempts to try and thwart referendums which fail to produce the desired result, as radical democrats, the left should be opposing this and fighting against the attempted suppression of Eurosceptic views. Nonetheless this can never mean compromising with xeno-nationalist politics on immigration or flirting with isolationism, but opposing the politics of reaction shouldn’t be an excuse for apologism or for suppressing the result of a major public vote.
One lesson of the clash between Brussel’s technocratic, economic liberalism and the right’s brand of Euroscepticism is that the left needs to develop a new option, neither for a broken model of globalisation or the various options spelled out by hard-Brexiteers. A ‘People’s Vote’ is straightforwardly not this option. Immersing ourselves in a doomed campaign to rescue Brussels patriotism and defend our regional champion of globalisation, is hardly a serious call to action for the left.