It is encouraging that Sean Leahy has taken up the challenge of defending the Socialist Workers Party’s line on Brexit after my essay in this journal.1 It means we are now openly debating the defining issue of our age. Sound extreme? Well, research from Britain’s top psephologist Professor John Curtice found that 44 percent now have a very strong Brexit identity (either Leave or Remain) while only nine percent have a similar commitment to a political party.2
Unfortunately, there are serious deficiencies with Leahy’s riposte. For example, he quotes the findings of the Ashcroft referendum poll saying that “Asher makes great play of Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll”. So I did—but does Leahy actually dispute them?3 Let us remind ourselves about some of those findings:
● Two thirds of Labour voters voted Remain.
● So did a majority of those actually in work.
● Some 49 percent of Leave voters gave “sovereignty” as a motivation—another 33 percent nailed it more honestly—immigration.
● The Leave vote was heavily based on the retired, who turn out more than the young.
● Voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the green movement and liberalism as forces for ill voted decisively to leave, sometimes by 70 percent majorities. Remain voters generally saw these as good things.4
If Leahy does dispute Ashcroft, conflicting evidence would be welcome. If he doesn’t, then the analysis of the Leave demographic must surely mean it is game over for the suggestion that there was anything progressive about Brexit.
Leahy also claims that the SWP “never argued that the referendum result represented a ‘popular uprising against austerity’. Far from it”.5 Unfortunately this is not true. Space only permits a single refutation. Here is an SWP national leaflet after the referendum: “The outcome of the referendum represents a revolt by millions of working class people against years of austerity and economic decline”.6 Much more exists in this vein. The left in general has consistently asserted that the vote was a rebellion against austerity; asserted it but left off where the argument and the evidence should have begun.
Returning to Leahy again, we are told that: “Asher argues that the Leave campaign was led by Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Arron Banks, presumably to prove Brexit was a right-wing project”.7 Well, was it or wasn’t it? What does Leahy think? Or, more rigorously put, what does the evidence suggest? In fact, a moment’s reflection will show that the left—in all shades of red—has never obsessed about the EU in the way that the Tory right has. Agreed, there was a left-wing euro-scepticism, but full-on Brexit is a Tory issue just as hanging and flogging are.8
Leahy says that: “The referendum became a Hobson’s choice (from our point of view) between a centrist Remain campaign that only offered more of the same and a populist right Leave campaign that offered change (albeit fraudulently)”.9
This is a crucial issue—just what do revolutionaries do in a downturn when none of the concrete choices are appealing? The key word is concrete—change is neutral; it can be for the better or the worse. We have to ask whether the change offered by the Leave campaign was progressive or reactionary? In the interests of workers or not? It doesn’t matter how it appeared in Mansfield and Nuneaton by the way, revolutionaries have to tell the truth to the workers. And a central truth is that the enemy is at home—Britain’s evils are entirely the fault of UK governments—not of the EU.
The left should have campaigned for Remain, not because the EU was good but because the alternative for workers—concretely—was worse. Since we support the interests of the working class in the here and now, within capitalism, we are sometimes forced to choose bad over worse, while all the time pointing the way forward to transform today’s bad into tomorrow’s good, to use defensive struggles eventually to move onto the offensive.
A thought experiment can be made here. Suppose Remain had won. Yes, we would still be living under capitalism. But the extreme right would not be as arrogant and confident. Austerity (not Brexit) would have been the major political issue. Four million EU citizens would not be losing their rights or even having their lives destroyed. Would the workers be worse off? Or better off?
Leahy is correct of course when he says “to defeat the populist and racist right we must offer a left-wing alternative to the status quo”. But what does that mean in concrete terms?
Surely we start from the premise that politics is now being refracted through Brexit. We may not like it but it is a fact. To defend the NHS you have to stop Brexit because it is Brexit which is causing the nursing shortages in hospitals. Bluntly put, skilled EU workers have choices, and other countries now seem more attractive than Brexit Britain.10 If you worry about the environment and climate change then, too, you have to fight Brexit because right-wing Tories see it as a way of scrapping EU environmental protections. Some of these, such as the 1976 Bathing Water Directive, which forced a clean-up of Britain’s filthy beaches, have been of real benefit to workers.
Outraged by the Windrush scandal? Then you have to fight to stop Brexit. A much larger repetition is heading right at you if you don’t as millions of EU citizens are left in a residence limbo.
It’s the same at work—you have to fight Brexit, because the hard Brexiteers want to use it to dismantle employment protection. Don’t believe me; here is Liam Fox:
To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden. It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees. It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable while output and employment are clearly cyclical.11
Participating in the Remain movement—not, as Leahy suggests, dissolving ourselves into it, which I never once proposed—allows socialists to join up all these dots. It opens up the potential of building a generalised offensive against the Tories. Consider the potential of workplace Remain groups which could invite speakers from Extinction Rebellion for example.
Finally, a word on Greece. My original essay did not address Greece for a specific reason—the Greek horror stemmed not from being in the EU as such but from being a highly indebted country in a currency union with policy set centrally and outside democratic control. Britain (like Denmark or Sweden) is outside the euro, so the issue is irrelevant to a discussion about the UK and Brexit. Britain responded to the 2008 crisis with large devaluations as well as austerity; 15 percent against the euro and 24 percent against the US dollar, in a (vain) attempt to restore competitivity. These were options not available to Greece.
Wayne Asher is a former member of the International Socialists.
1 Leahy, 2019, responding to Asher, 2019. Thanks to Ann Rogers, formerly the SWP West London organiser, for her comments on this note.
2 Curtice, 2019.
3 The Ashcroft findings are essential source material for all Brexit commentary—Ashcroft, 2016.
4 Ashcroft, 2016.
5 Leahy, 2019, p173.
7 Leahy, 2019, p173.
9 Leahy, 2019, p175.
10 Figures from the RCN show that since the referendum, EU accessions to the nursing register have collapsed by 91 percent and 7,000 EU nurses have left the register—RCN, 2018.
11 Fox, 2012.