Searching for blue sky

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Amidst the storm is it possible to discern how Britain’s (probable) exit from the EU might actually present new opportunities for the left?

For now, it’s hard to see beyond the black clouds that have gathered over the last week.

Britain is beset by multiple crises, all of them severe: chronic market turmoil; the likelihood of Scotland’s secession; the spectre of renewed unrest in Northern Ireland; the implosion of both the Conservative and Labour parties; resurgent xenophobia; and intensification of existing faultlines between young and old, metropolitan liberals and social conservatives, the cities and the provinces.

The flames engulfing Britain have spread to the continent, the prospect of Brexit encouraging regressive forces in France, Hungary, Austria, Holland and beyond.

Much of the British left is in a state of shock and despair, finding distraction in minute examination of whatever legal basis there might be for reversing the result, or losing itself in the intrigues of the Labour leadership coup.

The hard truth is that the Leave campaign won on a clear question of whether Britain should stay or remain, and it is likely that a new Tory government, with a mandate to implement Article 50, will do so under a new leader. It is indeed probable that Britain will leave the EU, as the nation has requested, and that the decision will not be reversible for the foreseeable future.

It is vital, then, that the Left faces up to the task of thinking through the progressive political and economic possibilities Brexit might offer. If it can only interpret the prospect of a post-EU Britian in apocalyptic terms the way is clear for the Right to dominate for many years to come.

The case for ‘Lexit’

The process might start with a careful examination of the case made during the referendum for ‘Lexit’. Though working in the dark shadow cast by the wider Leave campaign, a broad coalition of Labour leavers, trade unions, filmmakers, commentators and academics set out a robust case for a radical post-EU Britain rooted in a long tradition of left euroscepticism that has evolved since the EU’s earliest incarnations in the 1950s.

The logic of the argument then, as now, is that British membership of supranational European institutions imposes unacceptable constitutional constraints on the capacity of a reforming goverment to harness the power of the nation state for social democratic ends.

Pragmatic benefits

The case has pragmatic and philosophical elements. During the referendum Lexit campaigners emphasised the former: the particular, concrete opportunities that Brexit might make possible.

One would be a greater freedom to intervene as necessary to develop and support British industry. If, for example, Britain were no longer subject to EU procurement law there would greater scope to support the British steel industry by requiring that major infrastructure projects such as HS2 should only use UK steel. And the lifting of EU restrictions on the provision of public services would clear the way for the renationalisation of the rail industry and other sectors.

There would be new possibilities for recalibrating Britain’s trading relationships to suit the particular strengths of British producers. The UK’s entrance to the Common Market exposed British manufacturing to the full force of European rivals with which it could not ultimately compete: today Britain runs a trade deficit of approaching £100bn a year (based on Q1 figures) with the EU. Post-Brexit trading patterns would afford greater access to international markets where UK producers might be better able to thrive.

Lexit advocates reject the mainstream argument that Britain depends upon the EU for employee protection, noting that several rights commonly attributed to EU law, such as paternity and maternity leave, equal pay and agency worker protection, actually originated in domestic legislation, and that Brexit would open the way for a Labour government to augment existing protections. They also argue that in practice the EU prioritises employers rights, citing, for example, European Court of Justice rulings in the Viking and Laval cases that have imposed restrictions on trade union action in the name of free movement of services.

Other post-Brexit opportunities would include new freedoms to regain control of the UK’s fishing waters and rebuild fish stocks, to redesign agricultural subsidies in accordance with British rather than continental priorities, and to tailor migration policy in alignment with the particular requirements of the British economy and the capacities of the UK’s welfare services.

Parliamentary sovereignty and democratic legitimacy

These and other pragmatic possibilities constitute the ‘headline’ case for Lexit, but the left-wing case for British secession from the EU ultimately rests on a principle of political philosophy: that the sovereign parliament of the nation state – not law imposed by supranational institutions – is both the most effective and most legitimate platform for political and economic reform.

Harvard political theorist and prominent Brexit advocate Richard Tusk argues that, historically, the democratic nation state has been a much more effective platform for the Left than international frameworks such as the EU:

Constitutional structures that are largely outside the reach of citizens have, in the modern world, tended almost invariably to block the kind of radical policies that the left has traditionally believed in. The central fact about the EU, which the British governing class has never really got its head around, is that it creates a written constitution and ancillary juridical structures that are extremely hard to alter.

Tusk notes that the Left has wrestled with the tension inherent in the division of power between sovereign parliaments and formal constitutions since the first half of the 19th century. As early as the 1840s Marx observed that the constitutions of the post-revolutionary French republics, and the continental models of government they inspired, were designed to constrain the options available to radical governments. The purpose of the ‘liberal’ economic and political constitutions designed by the ‘bourgeois’ was ‘to enshrine and make permanent the political and social assumptions of their moment of creation.’

Ironically, Marx and Engels thought the ancient English Parliament, its quasi-feudalist flummery notwithstanding, actually offered a more effective channel for substantive reform than its avant-garde continental counterparts. The House of Commons, unconstrained by the checks of a written constitution, had, with the extension of the franchise, emerged as a supple instrument for the pursuit of the labour movement’s political and economic goals. For Tusk, the open-ended legislative capacity of the Commons has offered the British Labour Party greater scope for radical reform than has been possible under continental systems:

Indeed, the greatest achievement of the Labour Party, the creation of the National Health Service, would have been impossible in a country with strong constitutional constraints on the legislature, since it required the large-scale expropriation of private property in the shape of the old endowed hospitals. That is a major reason why so few countries have adopted the NHS model: in most of them it would have been illegal, just as similar proposals would be illegal in the EU today.

A clear recognition of the importance of parliamentary sovereignty as a condition for progressive reform informed the euroscepticism that held sway in the Labour Party until the late 1980s, when, chastened by successive landslide election defeats, the leadership and the unions started to come round to the view that the employee protections afforded by the EU Social Chapter offered workers some shelter from aggressive Tory reforms.

But for Labour’s remaining eurosceptics such dependency on international law represented a betrayal of the democratic ideal of parliamentary sovereignty. The pro-Brexit barrister Jon Holbrook, for example, argues that the mainstream Labour defence of the EU on the grounds of workers rights represents a loss of nerve, a celebration ‘of the fact that an undemocratic institution forces democratic governments to pass laws.’ For Holbrook ‘democracy requires an unmediated relationship between the people and its lawmakers. In a democracy, there can be no required laws and no laws that are beyond reform or repeal – the people must be sovereign.’

That implies, of course, that Parliament can be used for regressive as well as progressive purposes: a right-wing government with no obligations to Brussels might well repeal worker protections. But in a democracy that is a matter for the people to decide through the election of their representatives, not unelected institutions.

The prospects for EU reform

This loss of confidence in the effectiveness of the nation state is further demonstrated by widespread progressive support for groups such as DiEM2025 (Democracy in Europe) led by prominent left-wing intellectuals including ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and championed by prominent UK commentators such as Owen Jones.

DiEM2025 was formed in the wake of the destruction of Varoufakis’s Syriza government by the combined forces of the EU Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF – the notorious ‘Troika’ – which is attaining mythic status as the paradigmatic example of the inability of the lonely nation state to make its own way in the world. According to Varoufakis’s influential analysis, there is no escape, no ‘Lexit’: thoroughgoing EU political and economic reform is a precondition for national aspirations towards social democracy.

DiEM2025 argues for an assembly of European progressives to work out a strategy for democratising the EU by 2025 through ‘a significantly empowered European Parliament, which should be the sole initiator of European legislation’, alongside ‘a completely reformed executive branch, including a directly elected European president.’ It’s an ambitious project, that Varoufakis himself has described as ‘utopian‘.

One powerful deconstruction of the DiEM2025 agenda by Heiner Flassbeck argues that it gets things the wrong way round: any democratisation of the EU only stands a chance if a critical mass of left-wing leaders are elected by their respective national parliaments:

Why concentrate upon the European Parliament to begin with? Such a change can only come about when the power relations within the Commission and the two Councils change. Indeed, what is needed is a near complete overhaul of the European political institutions in globo. And this can only happen as a result of changes at the national level.

And even if reform were pushed through, it does not follow that the EU’s newly democratic institutions would be used for social democratic purposes: just like nation states they would be open to the right as well as the left. Thomas Fazi raises the further issue of oligarchic capture, citing research showing that the democratic distortions created by powerful lobbying groups are exacerbated at the supranational level.

No to TTIP, but yes to the EU?

Several Lexit commentators, including Tusk and Flassbeck, suggest that the left’s tolerance of the EU’s democratic deficits sits oddly with the much greater hostility it reserves for other supranational frameworks such as the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

There is a clear recognition amongst progressives that these projects go well beyond old-style trade agreements concerned only with tariff reform, but intrude on matters that should be the preserve of national governments, including provisions that seek to regulate employee rights, to interfere with industrial policy, to dictate the scope of public services, and to compromise environmental regulations. The notorious proposals to create mechanisms for Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) amount to the creation of international courts shut off from democratic scrutiny. And yet many on the Left alert to the danger these transnational agreements present to national sovereignty are curiously reticent about drawing parallels with EU institutions.

New perspectives

As I acknowledged at the start of this article, the turmoil generated by last week’s vote should give even the most fervent Lexit advocate pause for thought. Anticipating the current unrest, left-wing eurosceptics such as Paul Mason and Ed Rooksby wrote powerful pieces on the eve of the vote urging that on balance – on this occasion – Britain should stay in.

Whatever the abstract merits of the progressive case for leaving the EU, the outcome is being experienced as a clear victory for the hard Right. Britain’s economy is being trashed. The Union is breaking apart at a time of profound national crisis. There are legitimate concerns that Brexit threatens Britain’s hard-won identity as a tolerant, liberal, cosmopolitan nation.

And yet. During the referendum campaign a coherent case was made for an enlightened post-EU Britain, a case rooted in the simple principle that the sovereign nation state remains the most effective and legitimate mechanism for reform available to any left-wing government with the nerve to use it. If, as much of the mainstream left insists, the possibility of European social democracy depends on democratic reform of the EU we may be waiting for a very long time.

Perhaps the left should recalibrate its vision of what a progressive Europe might look like: not so much a vast international institution, more a flexible community of nation states working together as necessary to address common challenges through flexible intergovernmental arrangements.

A somewhat old-fashioned notion, maybe, but perhaps a progressive one. Whatever: if, as is likely, Britain does indeed leave the EU, it’s a perspective the Left better get used to, and soon.

Image: Detail from ‘Calais Pier’ by JMW Turner.