No future for isolated Britain

Photo: Kill Pop (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

John Palmer asks what now for the pro-EU internationalist left after the Brexit disaster

There has never been just one permanently defined debate about the European Union or Britain’s place in it. Fifty years ago, the first referendum about UK membership of the EU pitted a ‘centrist’ alliance of mainstream Tories, Labour and Liberals against an eclectic alliance of marginal far-right racists (pro-Enoch Powell Tories and the League of Empire Loyalists!).

The Labour Party was divided. Significant opposition to the EU came from a strange alliance of supporters of the former right-wing Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. He had railed against EU entry as involving “the loss of a thousand years of British history”. Many on the Communist Party-influenced left took a similarly national-road-to-socialism approach. The small internationalist pro-EU left was limited to some New Left ‘post-Trotskyists’ and Maoists.

Half a century later, the second EU referendum debate was dominated by the extreme right populist/nationalist UKIP and their allies who now actually control the Tory party. They campaigned about the ‘existential survival threat’ which closer EU integration would pose to ‘British’ (read ‘English’) national identity and ‘Britain’s historical world role’ (read ‘imperial role nostalgia’).

Similar hard-right populist currents have manifested themselves in other European countries – but nowhere have they colonised a major mainstream right of centre party as successfully as in the case of the Tory party. The political mutations of the anti-EU populist right elsewhere (think Hungary and Serbia, but also France and Italy) have produced a bizarre new generation of electorally significant pro-Putin Russia, hard-right racist parties unseen since before World War Two.

Any assessment of ‘what now?’ for those on the left who believe Brexit must eventually be reversed must begin with some facts. Brexit is already proving to be an economic disaster. The impact of stagnant economic growth, declining investment rates and reduced trade with our EU neighbours was obvious even before the full effects of Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine could be measured.

The latest evidence (from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Resolution Foundation, the EU, and even the Treasury’s own statistics, among others) points to a general slowdown across Europe since the Covid epidemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But it shows the slide to simultaneous inflation/recession and the decline of investment and productivity to be faster and likely longer lasting in the UK than in the EU.

The decline in trade between the UK and EU is accelerating. Meanwhile, the gross underinvestment in British infrastructure is showing up in terms of chaos at Dover and other Channel ports. To make matters worse, the haughty UK walkout from the EU common scientific research programme and the EU Erasmus programme (to facilitate students to study in other European countries) is leading to a flight of excellent science research expertise to the continent.

Something else – even more fundamental – also seems to have been set in train since Brexit. The already not very United Kingdom is showing widening fissures and could be heading to disintegration. Perhaps the clearest case is Ireland, where there is a growing consensus, north and south, that the reunification of the island will slowly but surely become a reality.

Ironically, Brexit has led, actually, to some very good economic news in Northern Ireland, which has for decades been the poorest and most economically disadvantaged region of the UK. The north of Ireland is now booming, with a growth rate of 9% a year (the fastest in the UK) and rapidly rising foreign trade and investment. Unlike the rest of the UK, NI uniquely shares Ireland’s full participation rights in the EU Single Market and Customs Union, which were secured as part of the Belfast peace agreement.

Johnson-style Tory jingoism has long been hyper-toxic in Scotland. London may drag its feet on agreeing a new independence referendum, but increasingly it seems only a matter of time. The Scottish Government has made it clear that after independence, Scotland will rejoin the EU as a full member. That will pose a major challenge for the existing English/Scottish trade border, which will add to the pressures of the rump UK rejoining the Single Market and Customs Union, if not the EU itself.

There is no immediate prospect of Welsh independence. But the ‘semi-independent’ Welsh Labour government in Cardiff– and its Plaid Cymru ally – make no secret of their wish for Wales to rejoin the Single Market. Welsh and other north-western sea ports are suffering badly from the diversion of EU export trade from NI through the Republic to the rest of the EU.

Cardiff is also determined to secure radical change in Wales’s own subordinate devolved governance status within the UK. There is much talk of a campaign for a possible future ‘federal’ style union of Wales with England, which would transfer much more power to the Senedd in Cardiff.

Meanwhile, pressure is also growing within England for an equally far-reaching devolution of government from London. Remarkably little attention has been paid to the demands of the Labour mayors of Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and other big northern cities for sweeping constitutional change – including the abolition of the House of Lords and its replacement with elected regional members of an English senate, and a PR-based electoral system.

Given the speed and radical nature of these developments, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, remains seemingly silent and politically immobile. Having dumped his original enthusiasm for EU membership – along with his support for Corbynite economic and social change – he now seems to have little of interest to suggest just about anything. Having bought in to the Peter Mandelson doctrine of ‘back to Blair’, Starmer’s response on the EU is now a pathetic mantra “Make Brexit Work” – whatever that means.

The current mass strikes and the undeniable anger of people facing a tidal wave of impoverishment from the energy crisis triggered by the Ukraine war suggest that simply ‘not being the Tories’ will not be enough for Labour to win the next general election. Any credible Labour response to the threat of another right-wing neo-Johnsonite government demands an urgent and radical change of direction.

This must include a commitment over time to reverse Brexit. An isolated and fragmenting Britain cannot begin to prosper without being part of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. This should be a step towards fully rejoining the EU. The illusion that an isolated UK can somehow regain global power status is already a joke in poor taste among international diplomats. This is nowhere more so than in Moscow, Beijing and Washington as they prepare for the likely election of another Trump (or Trumpite) president shortly.

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