Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Mirages are distractions from the real task

Last week, the Western Mail carried a story (to which I’ve been unable to find a link) which referenced the views of Professor Richard Tuck of Harvard University in the US on the question of Brexit and Corbyn.  I hope that I don’t over-paraphrase a complex argument if I say that, in essence, he argues that membership of the EU prevents a politician like Corbyn from implementing some of the things he supports, and that Brexit, followed by a Corbyn election victory, would set the UK free to pursue a much more socialist agenda.  It is, in a sense, the classic ‘left’ case against the EU, seeing the EU as institutionalising neo-liberal policies inimical to the interests of working people as understood by the classic British left.  It’s an attractive argument, and there is much about it which I naturally support.
However, as a counterpoint to that, there was an article in the Guardian last week by John Harris which suggested that underpinning the views of Brexiteers like Liam Fox is the belief that “Brussels is not the liberalising, pro-business force that reality suggests, but an eternal brake on enterprise and initiative that has to be comprehensively left behind”.  On this understanding of what the EU is about, Brexit followed by the election of a more right-wing Tory government is the outcome which they desire, since it would set the UK free of all the constraints on neo-liberalism which membership of the EU imposes.
It’s like two sides of the same coin, but can they both be right?  It is, of course, entirely possible that both are correct in their diagnoses, even if the proposed cures are very different.  The treaties and agreements built up under the EU over many years do indeed place constraints on the freedom of governments to give state aid to industries, and they do indeed place constraints on the ability of companies to exploit their employees.  Both sides concentrate their attention on those constraints that they don’t like.  We end up with an unholy alliance of people who are agreed that the constraints should be removed, but are hugely at odds about how the consequential ‘freedom’ should be used.  They can both be right about the existence of constraints, but they can’t both be right about what will follow their removal.  But there’s much more to this than simply deciding which of the two versions of an EU-constraint-free UK is the most (or least) attractive.
Four things in particular struck me about the arguments here.
The first is that, from both viewpoints, it’s not Brexit that makes the difference; it is the policies which the UK chooses to implement afterwards.  Freed from the admitted constraints, would the electorate choose a more state-directed future under Labour or a more laissez-faire future under the Tories?  Whilst the short term might well look to be Corbyn’s as things stand at present, the longer term electoral history of the UK – and more specifically England in this context – does not fill me with confidence.  Constraining the right looks the more attractive option, even if it also constrains the left.
The second is whether those constraints imposed by membership are the only thing preventing the implementation of socialist policies.  Personally, I think not; the world has become more intertwined - and global capital does not exercise its undoubted power solely through the institutions of the EU.  The history of “socialism in one country” is not a pretty one, and globalisation has made its achievement more, rather than less, challenging. 
The third is about confusion between institutions and policies.  For sure, policies can become embedded in the way institutions work, but it is never necessarily or irreversibly so.  And there are people with similar views in other EU member states.  So which offers the best hope for the future – seeking to change the UK, or seeking to change Europe?  While changing the EU’s underlying economic philosophy looks like a more complex and long-term task that I might wish, I tend to the view that it is ultimately going to be a better solution.  Issues such as climate change require collective action over a long period, and need an international perspective.
Fourthly, what about Wales?  The problem with the ‘left’ case against the EU is that it implicitly assumes the continuation of the UK, to provide a source of non-Tory MPs from outside England.  Not for nothing are people like Corbyn lukewarm at best about devolution, not to say hostile to independence; their vision for the UK depends on anti-Tory votes in Wales and Scotland.  At the same time as Labour’s position requires that continued union, Brexit also makes the alternative future – independence outside the EU – considerably less attractive and practical as an option, unless Brexit leads to the collapse of the EU, which would ‘normalise’ such a status.  That looks highly unlikely to me.
I know that there are many independentistas who sympathise with the views put forward by Professor Tuck, because they would want Wales to have the freedom of action he describes.  I suspect, though, that the ‘freedom’ is a mirage based on wishful thinking, and the better outcome for Wales is as a member of a multi-national and multi-lingual union of free nations.  Changing the nature of that union is the real task in hand – Brexit is an unwelcome diversion.

1 comment:

Harri said...

The left-wing case for Brexit seems to rely on a variant of the 'British exceptionalism' argument generally favoured by the right, i.e. a wildly optimistic belief in Britain's ability to 'go it alone'. The imperialist mindset on which this belief is grounded seems to span the political spectrum among unionist parties.