by John Barry
As the Brexit deadline nears with no deal in sight, we bring you this reflective piece from Professor John Barry. A self-professed Remainer, he gives a thoughtful appraisal of the arguments for Lexit and the slogan of ‘taking back control’, concluding that the upheaval of Brexit opened up important strategic questions for the left.
I write as someone who voted and campaigned for Remain the 2016 Referendum. At the Belfast launch of the Remain campaign where I spoke on behalf of the Green Party I said:
“However, we are not uncritical in our support of the European Union, we do not advocate staying in an unreformed EU. And the TTIP of the iceberg of what needs reform and transformation here is the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership between the USA and EU – that would in our view be a social, economic and environmental disaster … we in the Green Party support staying within the EU, but only as part of a wider and longer struggle to transform it to realise its potentials. The real debate is not over whether we stay in or out of the European Union, but what sort of Europe we want.”
I respect those who advocated Lexit but what can be lost in all the rancour and noise around Brexit, not least amongst the left, is that the differences were in part around Brexit/Lexit as a strategy for the achievement of similar if not the same goals – an end to austerity, a restoration of the welfare state, the disciplining and reining in of finance capital, the provision of decent jobs and housing for citizens, and the de-commodification of food, energy, transport, education and health.
Brexit (like Trump and other manifestations of right-wing national populism) is a symptom rather than a cause, the final release of underlying and deep structural economic and cultural tensions that had been building up for decades. But more than that, Brexit it is also an accelerator and exacerbator of those underlying tensions, contradictions and systemic political economic failings.
And while I cannot decide if Brexit is regressive or opens up progressive opportunities (and at this point I see more dangers than potentials, but there are potentials of course), we need to distinguish the debate and social forces released by the 2016 referendum and Brexit itself. One can disagree with Brexit as a strategy and direction of travel (as I do), yet welcome the politically destabilising impact it has had on a sclerotic political system and politics (even on the left). It has forced some hard issues onto the table (here Brexit acts an accelerator, fast-forwarding political debate and forcing issues onto the agenda despite many of us being unprepared to think about or thought their implications). As Marx wisely noted in a statement especially apposite to our current troubled and turbulent times: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Or, as the wise Irish peasant says when asked directions: ‘Well… I would not start from here…’. Yet here we are.
The debate around Brexit does however have a number of (largely) positive features:
Re-politicisation – Brexit has re-engaged people in politics, with the success of the Leave campaign arguably demonstrating that political ideas and aspirations can trump economic ones. As such the ‘disruption’ caused by Brexit has in effect enabled the transmission of an initial political shock to wider, societal and cultural spheres.
Change – The success of Brexit is evidence of the possibility of large-scale social, political and economic change: the future is not the same as today, but with better apps or a low carbon form of capitalism.
Polarisation – It is a mistake to think polarisation and the expression of differences and disagreements is to be avoided in favour of consensus or a clinging to the status quo for fear of upsetting the apple cart. In these turbulent times we need more than ever to courageously defend the idea of democracy as non-violent disagreement and see that solutions and new ways of thinking and being can arise from such exchanges.
Radicalisation – Related to polarisation is how one answer to right-wing populism might be left-wing populism as opposed to a return to the status quo ante i.e. centrist liberal democracy. Would Corbyn in the UK (or Mélenchon in France, Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez in the USA) have emerged and be possible or credible in absence of Brexit?
Another positive is how in UK some Greens have interpreted Brexit as an opportunity to present their long-standing critique of corporate globalisation and put forward relocalisation of the economy as the only way Brexit can be a success, thus presenting their ideas to a new audience in a new context. As a report commissioned by the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato put it:
“An alternative option is for the UK to make a radical shift in economic policy and become more self-sufficient. This report suggests that reducing dependence on international trade and deliberately boosting the resilience of local, regional and national economies is the only way to make an economic success of Brexit. Shift taxes, subsidies, and public expenditure on infrastructure, away from unfairly favouring large and global companies, and redirect them to help build up local economies.”
‘Taking back control’
The shock of Brexit has not only sent shockwaves through the political system, the normal expectations and operation of representative liberal democracy, but has resulted in the fracturing of the status quo – what once was viewed as solid and fundamental is now fluid. Much as the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has been transformed from ‘strong and stable’ to ‘weak and wobbly’ under the pressures released by Brexit, so the once unthinkable has become at least publicly sayable if not, as yet, politically feasible. But then we have a wise saying in Ireland, ‘Bionn gach tosaigh lag’, meaning ‘every beginning is weak’. Just because something seems improbable now does mean it must always remain so.
And one progressive response to Brexit, even from those of us who both campaigned for Remain and who are sceptical of the overall progressive impacts of it, is to reclaim and radicalise the dominant slogan and narrative of the Leave campaign, namely ‘take back control’. This slogan demonstrated the genius of the Leave campaign. Here, as an aside, the left and any left-wing populist response must learn from its enemies in terms of articulating and communicating its ideas and objectives. Vague and abstract talk about ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, never mind the other terms like ‘ideology’, ‘capital’, ‘political economy’ will not work to grab people’s attention. As a recovering politician myself (coupled with the handicap of being an academic), I know real politics (or at least political communication and engagement with our fellow citizens) is neither a seminar, nor an earnest ‘political discussion’ beloved of progressive parties and movements.
‘Take back control’ boiled down a complex issue to something that connected with the lived experience of many people who felt powerless, disrespected, lost and ‘left behind’ by globalisation, the normal operation of the political and economic system, Europeanisation etc., who felt insecure and for whom Remain arguments about the potential economic damage of Brexit meant nothing. If you already have little or nothing, what traction will arguments about damage to the City of London and finance capital have for you? And while this mainly while working-class vote was a key component of the success of the Brexit campaign, to reduce the referendum result to ‘a howl of pain at austerity’ (directed at the wrong target – Brussels as opposed to the London) ignores the reality that another major category of Leave voters was the xenophobic affluent, predominantly English, middle classes.
But there is progressive potential in reclaim and recasting this slogan. While it was mainly articulated in relation to state sovereignty – and the people as sovereign taking back control – and mobilised towards controlling immigration, ‘take back control’ can be extended in other directions. In our response to Brexit, can we look to ‘take back control’ of decision-making through greater citizen involvement in policy development? Let’s ‘take back control’ of governance by decentralising political power to local and city governments. Let’s ‘take back control’ of the economy by nationalising it, by decentralising and relocalising it, by internally democratising the sphere of production.
Immigration is another important, though uncomfortable issue for the left, that the Brexit debate has helped bring to the surface and forced us to address. I should here state that I do not for one moment think that everyone who voted Leave is a racist or xenophobe: there were a wide set of reasons why people and parties, organisations chose to Leave the EU, some honourable left-wing/Lexit positions. But while I do not think that all those who voted Leave are racists, I do firmly hold that most racists voted to Leave. And that is one of the many toxic aftershocks of the June 2016 vote. It has legitimised racist and anti-immigrant views, emboldened people to say in public what they once kept to themselves in private.
But having said all of that, I want to make the following point very clearly: it is not necessarily racist to have concerns about immigration. One of the main failures of the left has been to immediately dismiss those who raise immigration as a concern as racists and quasi-fascists. A brilliant illustration of this is the former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown who was recorded as dismissing a working-class woman and long-time Labour voter he had just canvassed as ‘bigoted’ for asking him questions about immigration. That voter went on to not only vote Leave but to join the hard-right UKIP. As James Wickham has recently noted:
“It is, however, clear that today those who call for ‘open borders’ – the unrestricted entry of unskilled workers into the EU – are facilitating a more polarised occupational structure, more low paid workers and greater social and economic inequality.”
The left needs to address this issue: the call of ‘refugees welcome’ is not the same as the ‘open borders’ enthusiastically supported by multinational corporations.
Seeking the truth
And so we see, even from the jumble of ideas above, how Brexit has fractured our already fluxed futures, has disturbed settled concepts, interests and ways of thinking. It has released demons, here I cannot help but recall the chilling words of the great Irish poet WB Yeats in his poem ‘The second coming’:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And this negative outcome of Brexit may still be the one historians of the future analyse. But, even the midst of the chaos, noise and debate that mostly produces more heat than light … there may be some light. After all, while we should scrutinise those who say they have definitively found the truth about Brexit – or anything else for that matter – we can at least trust and engage with those who are honestly seeking the truth (as opposed to the ‘post-truth’).
About the author:
John Barry is a Professor of Green Political Economy at Queen’s University Belfast and a long-standing member of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. He served as a local councillor for over six years before stepping down in 2018, but remains active in grassroots Green politics while pursuing his research on post-growth economics and the transition to a low carbon economy, among other things.