Choler :  

                Notes on Brexit:  (a left-wing view)

The whole thing has become more like a war of religious cults than a discussion.

But you and I, dear reader, we’re not like that, are we? Let’s have a look at some actual evidence, the state of things:-

First there is Europe; a wonderfully colourful kaleidoscope of disparate cultures, infinitely fascinating to visit and learn from.

Superimposed on this is a political organisation known as the EU. Anyone who doesn’t clearly grasp the difference    -    the kind of people who sloppily talk about “leaving Europe”    -    will understand nothing at all about Brexit.

As a life-long moderate Leftist (and Corbyn supporter till the Blairites hamstrung him), some things puzzle me about EU policy. I’ve asked many people to account for them; nobody has. For example:

•    Privatisation:  a string of directives (mandatory) elaborate on the words “ALL member states MUST open up their public infrastructure to private competition” [my emphases]. You are required to privatise everything; in Britain this logically includes the NHS.

•    Union-bashing:  a string of court cases in the ECJ (including the Vaxholm, Viking, Ruffert and many other cases) have been mounted against unions in several countries. The judgement on the Vaxholm case included the chilling words “the right to strike is not absolute”; the union here was being penalised for its actions in a way not attempted in Britain since the famous Taff Vale Railway case of 1901 (which led directly to the formation of the Labour Party).

•    Austerity agendas have been (unnecessarily) forced on to several governments    -    notably Greece    -    regardless of the wishes (votes) of their populations. Wilhelm Schauble (German finance minister) has proposed having an unelected EU financial overseer with the power to over-ride the budgets of any democratically-elected government in the Union if they do not satisfy the Commission.

•    Large commercial interests have had the way smoothed for them in situations where they had no obvious relevance. Greece for instance, as part of a bailout deal, was forced to downgrade its definition of the “fresh” in fresh milk, so that multinationals could penetrate the Greek market, and to change its pharmacy rules similarly in favour of Big Pharma; it was also forced to sell off its most profitable ports and airports (actually bought by a private company which turned out to be backed by the German government). It is not obvious why a bank loan should depend on the definition of fresh milk.

All these things are supported by copious evidence and can be researched easily and quickly. Yet they have had no media scrutiny whatsoever.

Privatisation, union-bashing, austerity agendas, smoothing the way for large commercial interests; most people would regard these as the principal characteristics of Thatcherism. Current evidence suggests that the EU (I repeat: the political organisation, not the collection of countries) is deeply, fundamentally Thatcherite.

I have asked many Left-ish remainers how they justify supporting these policies. The answer is always a variant of “Oh, I’m sure it’s not like that really”, coupled with a blanket refusal to examine the evidence    -    which takes us back into religious cult territory.

The biggest single lie (by omission) of the entire referendum campaign was the failure to mention the privatisation agenda. Deployment of the slogan “A vote for the EU is a vote for NHS privatisation” would (I think) have ensured a result more like 95:5 rather than 52:48. With hindsight we can see that a number of otherwise incomprehensible, apparently unnecessary privatisations    -   railways, Royal Mail   -   were done solely to comply with EU ideology.

I can quite see why a convinced Thatcherite should support these things. But it seems to me that any remainer who imagines themselves in any way to have Left-wing sympathies MUST give a coherent account of why these policies are not what they appear to be: vicious NeoLiberalism.

It’s striking that almost everybody is on the wrong side. You’d expect Farage and the Tory free-marketeers to favour NeoLiberalism; you’d expect the Labour party to be fighting it tooth and nail, instead of wittering about how leaving will “erode worker protection” (try telling that to all those unions on the receiving end of the ECJ cases).

The biggest tragedy here is the way that the Left has allowed Brexit to be hijacked by the Right instead of leading the fight, as it should have been doing. I suppose this is to be expected when alleged Socialists can’t tell the difference between Internationalism and Globalisation (as if “worldwide labour solidarity” is somehow furthered by a massive exploitative capitalistic stranglehold wherein jobs can be rapidly shifted to countries that haven’t heard about money yet). There are almost always two versions, positive and negative, of any given phenomenon; confusing them is extremely dangerous.

Then there is the matter of what the EU itself calls the “democratic deficit”; the fact that it is run on non- (or even anti-) democratic lines.

Consider:  the British parliament consists of two chambers, one elected and one selected. The elected house (the Commons) makes all the legislation, the selected house (the Lords) is there merely to scrutinise this legislation; the Lords are selected rather than elected in order to prevent them running on party political lines [of course no rational person would organise it like this if starting from scratch but, for no very obvious reason, it mostly seems to work]. In the EU system, these functions are exactly reversed. The elected chamber (the MEPs) merely has a scrutinising function and, having also no organised system of Opposition, has effectively no power; the actual legislation is done by the (selected) Commission and various decreasingly transparent and unaccountable bodies further up the scale, such as the Eurogroup (which makes the principal economic policy decisions and which, because it technically does not exist as part of the EU structure, keeps no minutes and is wholly unaccountable).

If it was suggested that the British parliamentary system should be reversed, with the Lords taking over the legislative work and the Commons reduced to mere scrutinising, most remainers would (rightly) scream the ceiling down. But apparently if it happens in Brussels, that’s fine.

I occasionally encounter a strange attitude that the leaders of the EU are all kindly, thoughtful, avuncular persons interested solely in doing good on behalf of us all, in contrast to every other politician who’s ever existed. Certainly, they’ve all been elected to something at some time. But they’re not elected now; their position is one where they have acquired immense power over not one but twenty seven countries   -   a grouping the size of a serious empire   -   without the bother of having to get themselves elected to anything at all. They can’t be removed by voters; the MEPs themselves can’t remove one dodgy Commissioner, they have only the possibility of removing the entire Commission en bloc, a mechanism clearly designed to ensure that it never happens (and it never has).

The basic attitude is essentially 1930s Technocracy:  that people should leave serious decision-making to benign experts (what could possibly go wrong?) Recall the then-president of the Commission disapproving of the UK 1975 referendum: “We can’t have this kind of thing decided by housewives. It should be settled by experts!”

It is entirely consistent with this that, with the exception of the UK 2016 referendum, nobody in Europe has been asked whether they actually want to live under this system. A few referenda were held over the proposed EU constitution, but were halted   -   or simply repeated until people gave the “right” answer   -   when it became clear that people were voting against it.

Democracy (“the worst possible way of doing things except for everything else that’s been tried”) depends on giving people the chance to vote for a range of possibilities. If the political classes reach a consensus (as has been the case here for a while), then democracy breaks down because people feel there is no-one to vote for. They will then (sooner or later) vote for anyone at all who offers them what they do want. This opens the door to extremist groups. There is now a sizeable far-right problem all across Europe, with the notable exception of the UK   -    the only country to have offered a choice (several far-right governments are now in or close to power, Le Pen is within reach of the French presidency. Here we only have Farage; and if you think he’s far-right, what will you do when you meet a real one? Faint? There are politicians across Europe who make Farage look like a moderate socialist). This extremely dangerous and nasty situation is entirely caused by the undemocratic nature of the EU.

The justification for all this is supposed to be a sort of vague, unexamined sub-Hippy “togetherness”, somehow symbolising “the oneness of humankind” or some such. The price of this pretty picture is: having one’s life run to a Thatcherite agenda by people in a foreign country whom one did not vote in and cannot vote out. It doesn’t seem a reasonable exchange.

Europe   -   as I said at the outset   -    is a wonderfully colourful collection of infinitely-fascinating cultures whose differences are both instructive and great fun (I’ve worked all over Europe all my life, I did postgrad study at Utrecht University, my partner is Norwegian). The EU by contrast is a grey political construct imposed on all those countries, dedicated explicitly to “ever closer unity”    -    the achievement of a monoculture   -    for which the principal rationale is commercial convenience. Traditionally, an empire was something that governed your country from another country without you having any say in how it was done (I rather thought we’d all learned the hard way that this was a Bad Thing. As are monocultures). It’s hard to see why the EU should not be described as an empire run by a self-selecting junta.

Of course, the word “empire” is not used, any more than the word “privatisation”.

Did the media do its journalistic duty in carefully scrutinising all this? Shamefully, no. As I’ve said, the biggest single lie of the referendum campaign was the utter failure to mention the privatisation agenda. Instead, we had endless self-righteous fulminating about the “£350 million/week promised to the NHS on the side of a bus” (which was of course never a “promise”    -    the clue is in the lack of the word “promise”, something the people concerned couldn’t have given anyway as they weren’t a government    -    which it was never claimed was wholly for the NHS; but which (horrors!) turned out to be a gross figure    -    the net giveaway is actually only £275 million/week; so that’s all right, then). But hey, it all distracts attention from the important stuff.

The only mention of the privatisation agenda came as a question by Andrew Neill in a high-profile BBC1 interview with Hilary Benn, which went as follows:-   

Benn: “If elected, Labour would re-nationalise the railways.”       Neill: “You can’t. Directive 5xxx:  ‘All member states must open up their public infrastructure to private competition’.  You can’t do it.”         Benn  [looks puzzled for a moment, as if hearing something in the distance; then pulls himself together]:   “If elected, Labour would re-nationalise the railways.”   

This sort of instant un-happening of presented evidence is depressingly characteristic. But it’s what you expect from religious cults.

All this would appear to contain a lot of important material for discussion. Did the politicians do their duty? What have we had?

Well, we’ve had Sir Vince Cable (the man responsible for the unnecessary, purely ideological privatisation of Royal Mail, something not even Thatcher managed) telling us that leavers are all “nostalgic for empire” (this presumably includes the likes of Tony Benn, George Galloway and very likely Corbyn) and that they “would probably prefer to see fewer black faces around” (standard Goebbels technique: attach an un-evidenced bad smell to something and wait for folk to sniff it). Possibly someone should have a quiet word with him about the ethnic make-up of Europe. But still, it was clearly very brave of him to come down to my level with his intellectually exacting slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”   -    always refreshing to see serious problems considered seriously   -   and still braver of himself and his successor Jo Swinson to declare (in the best EU tradition) their complete contempt for democracy and the electorate. Few leaders with an MP group barely out of single figures would have had the honesty to tell more than half those who voted that their votes were worth nothing.

People have shown endless resourcefulness in inventing spurious reasons for Brexit and avoiding all the real issues. Kids outside parliament sport banners proclaiming “Brexit is racist!” (the multinationals must be laughing their socks off at having their PR done for them for free). Others include:

•   “People didn’t know what they were voting for”.    We did. We don’t wish to have our lives run to a Thatcherite agenda by people in a foreign country that we didn’t vote in and can’t vote out. Get over it.

•   “People were lied to”.    Ooh yes, we certainly were. Or did I miss the in-depth coverage of the privatisation and union-bashing agendas?

•  “We know so much more now”.    Really? Did I miss the in-depth coverage of etc etc? (see previous)

•   “We must stay in for the sake of our children’s futures”.    Because of the reckless ideological disaster of the Euro, many of the Mediterranean states are now locked into youth unemployment rates of 40-50%. What level of unemployment rate do you want for your children?

•  “The only reason for the referendum was to heal splits in the Tory party”.    It’s difficult to remain polite in front of drivel like this. I (along with a huge number of leave voters in traditional Labour heartlands) have never voted Tory in my life. Get out in the fresh air and have a look at the country you live in.

It seems somehow appropriate that remain-supporting figures (apart from large commercial interests, which were to be expected) include persons like the never-elected-to-anything Alistair Campbell (principal achievements: assisting Blair in pushing an illegal war and turning Labour into Tory-lite) and the likewise never-elected Lord Adonis; others include the war-criminal Blair himself and the notably successful John Major (of Black Whatever-day-it-was fame).

And Thatcherite shall call unto Thatcherite, NeoLiberal unto NeoLiberal...

There is a notion doing the rounds that the nation-state as a concept has had its day; and there may well be something in this. The answer, however, is not simply a nation-state done on a larger scale   -    a continent-wide state or world-state. I suspect that there are limits to the possible functional size of a democracy, very likely corresponding roughly to the current size of a nation-state. Anything larger cannot work; the distance from centre to periphery, from government to provinces, is too great, and people cease to feel their government is working for them. This is clearly already happening in many existing states; the complaints that “the south-east doesn’t understand Yorkshire” (or wherever) are growing apace. In fact, across the planet there seems to be a huge increase in separatist movements, a drive to smaller units rather than the reverse (modern comms technology of course now makes the coherent co-ordination of such small groups feasible for the first time ever).

A small number of things (for instance: finance, copyright, the internet) can only be tackled at global scale. Everything else should be tackled at the smallest scale that can be managed. We’re in a position to work with multiple scales of governance simultaneously.

But no need to worry about any of this, you can just go on attributing the whole thing to racism if that’s where you prefer to hide. The principal remain propaganda technique has been what I highlighted at the start of this piece: to confuse Europe with the EU. It then follows that if you dislike the EU, you must dislike Europe; which means you must dislike “foreigners”; which means you must be racist. Neat.

As I write (October 2019), Chuka Umunna is describing Brexit as “one of the most right-wing nationalist political projects this country has seen”. The breathtaking unawareness shown in this should not blind us to its underlying self-serving dishonesty. That Mr Umunna considers his own opinions to be vastly more important than those of illiterate gammon like me who voted for Brexit, and has joined the NeoLib NonDems the better to ensure his Own Way gets precedence, seems to me far more arrogantly right-wing than the actions of ordinary people who simply don’t want their lives “run to a Thatcherite agenda by people in another country whom they didn’t vote in and can’t vote out”.

Unfortunately, Labour itself is still clogged with this kind of closet authoritarian demi-fascism. It will not win an election until it wakes up. I find it extremely sad that I cannot currentlysupport a party I’ve voted for all my life, which was founded by and on behalf of working people, and is now being transformed into a hobby-socialist feelgood club for comfortable middle-class Londoners.

So you, Mr or Ms Remainer:    Are you a Thatcherite? If not, what is your defence?


Some essential books:

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?”   [Varoufakis]    -   extensive (and chilling) history of the EU; I’d almost say that anyone who hasn’t read this isn’t entitled to have their opinion on Brexit taken seriously.

Adults in the Room”    [Varoufakis]    -    account of his dealings with the Eurogroup whilst Greek finance minister (again chilling, again obligatory).

The Euro (and its threat to the future of Europe)”    [Stiglitz]   -    includes a thorough and perceptive account of the Thatcherite/NeoLiberal agenda of the EU. Gives useful detail about eg the enforced Greek redefinition of “fresh” milk and their pharmacy regulations being changed in favour of Big Pharma.

The Great Deception”    [Booker and North].      I avoided this for a long time on the assumption it would be a rant (which I dislike even when they’re pointing in my preferred direction). It turned out to be a fully-sourced, exhaustive document-by-document and speech-by-speech history of the EU from the earliest beginnings (going back further than Varoufakis) up to the rejection of the proposed constitution in the early 2000s. The authors don’t need to spend much time in commenting; they (rightly) assume the facts speak for themselves.

Both Varoufakis and Stiglitz, after describing appalling horrors, come down (weirdly) in favour of a reluctant gritted-teeth Remain-and-Reform position; so they can be trusted not to be doing a mere demolition job. Both (especially Stiglitz) acknowledge that such reform is highly unlikely; it’s certainly difficult to see how such an ingrained ideology, forming the basis of the entire structure, could be subject to any meaningful reform, even if there was any sign of appetite for this (and there isn’t) from those currently in charge.

Booker and North are clearly and admittedly anti. This doesn’t matter; if the point is that someone said such-and-such in some document or speech, then the only criterion of concern is whether they did, and the author’s opinion doesn’t alter that.

 © David Humpage 2019