I found the arguments for a ‘Lexit’ (an internationalist Left Exit, as opposed to a nationalist Brexit) pretty compelling, but I never believed that a vote to leave the EU in June’s referendum was remotely likely. When, with a week to go, a shock seemed on the cards, I wasn’t at all surprised to see the entire establishment unite and bring out the big guns. The leaders of all the main political parties, together with the banks, the City, the CBI and even the TUC tried to scare everyone witless with a nightmare vision of what a Leave vote would mean worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Throughout the campaign George Osborne and the IMF had been quick to warn of ‘financial instability’ forcing up interest rates and mortgage repayments, jeopardising pensions and leading to job losses. But much of this was seen as transparent scaremongering.
Psephologists usually suggest that the ‘don’t knows’ in referendum polls overwhelmingly stick to the devil they do know. But such was popular anger with the political establishment this time that the lurid scare stories weren’t believed. The establishment was simply stunned.
Meanwhile, the doomsters of the liberal left had been predicting that Brexit would unleash a hurricane of reaction and prejudice, fuelled by anti-immigrant prejudice and a determination to ‘control our borders’ – as though Britain would take the lead from Donald Trump and build a giant wall around itself. ‘Project Fear’ had laid this on thick, in a desperate attempt to increase turnout among younger metropolitan voters. The trade union bureaucracy was also suggesting that leaving the EU would see a bonfire of workers’ rights, and the Greens an end to commitments on climate change. Why on earth had we voted to risk that?
That was all based on the misconception that the Eurosceptics would be unassailable in their grip on power in the wake of a Leave vote. But it soon transpired that in many ways the UK’s forces of reaction had been left in a weak and divided position.
The credibility of David Cameron was in tatters. The PM who steered through attacks on the working class perhaps even greater than those under Thatcher had been brought to his knees. Large sections of capital were furious at a Tory party that had failed to preserve the stability of the financial and political system. The new Tory leader, Boris Johnson, faced a party still at war with itself, with a slim parliamentary majority rendering it vulnerable to attack from even small groups of embittered pro-European backbenchers. As governance became impossible, a general election looked on the cards, the Fixed Term Parliament Act notwithstanding.
At the same time, right-wing opponents of Jeremy Corbyn inside the Labour party blamed his relative lack of enthusiasm for the EU for a failure to mobilise Labour voters for the Remain side. Yet this was widely interpreted as another instance of the parliamentary party getting wrapped up in its own preoccupations and missing the mood of the wider membership, for whom EU membership hardly compared in importance with the fight against austerity. With the Tories at each other’s throats, ordinary members and supporters were in no mood to forgive right-wing MPs for destabilising the Labour party rather than uniting to throw the Tories out of office. An unsuccessful challenge to Corbyn ensured that he would continue to lead the party into a general election.
The political turmoil triggered by Britain’s vote to leave resonated across other European countries. The EU was again exposed as lacking any popular democratic legitimacy while it continued to beaver away trying to hand massive power to global corporations with new trade deals, and to impose further austerity. The British vote boosted those movements across Europe calling for TTIP to be scrapped and calling into question the legitimacy of those undertaking the negotiations.
The referendum also triggered a renewed crisis of legitimacy at the heart of the British state, since Scotland faced the possibility of withdrawal from the EU despite a majority of Scottish voters rejecting this at the ballot box. This was of sufficient constitutional significance to re-open the question of national self-determination and again threaten the continued viability of the British polity. Yet with oil prices having slumped, the economic prospects of an independent capitalist Scotland did not look so attractive, and retaining EU membership was a less than inspiring rallying call. The SNP began to find itself more vulnerable to those making a socialist case for independence linked to class solidarity with anti‑austerity movements elsewhere in Europe.
With the political class in chaos, the reactionary Brexit supporters faced the immediate mobilisation of mass opposition to racism and xenophobia, including the defence of migrant rights, which was part and parcel of a wider struggle to defend the rights of all workers. Instead of the bureaucratic inertia encouraged by reliance on protections being delivered from above, the labour movement was forced into embracing a more militant approach to force the hand of government.
The impact of the vote on people’s daily lives was far less catastrophic than had been predicted. Though there was a fall in the FTSE 100 on confirmation that Britain had voted to leave the UK, there was no financial apocalypse. The idea that the UK would lose access to European markets overnight had always been utter nonsense – any such action would be damaging to the interests of the other member states themselves. The markets quickly began to stabilise as this became clear.
In fact, it soon transpired that it didn’t even necessarily follow that the referendum result would culminate in such a Brexit. In order to hold their increasingly shaky project together, and at the behest of British business interests eager to restore ‘stability’, some EU insiders were not willing to accept the verdict of the British people as binding, and instead planned to offer alternative terms for continued membership to be presented in a second referendum. They thought we should be offered a second chance to get the ‘right’ answer, as in Ireland over the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Those calling for reform of the EU at least had some leverage, despite the obvious vested interests that continued to resist these proposals.
In the end, the impact of a vote to leave looked very little like nightmarish vision conjured up by the mainstream parties, the mass media and parts of the left. Instead it had begun to unleash a dynamic that would see a future radical left government in Britain avoid the fate the EU inflicted on Syriza in Greece. We began to ensure that no longer could unaccountable European institutions treat the democratic will of the people with contempt, and impose what is in the interests of finance capital. By denying these bodies any claim to democratic legitimacy, we did not find ourselves living in a nightmare. We had started to awaken from one.
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