Sections of the English Left have voted for Brexit in protest against the Tory government’s policy of austerity and the support provided by the neoliberal elite of the EU. While I have some sympathy for their position, they have done so with little thought for the long-term plans for Northern Ireland and Scotland and they have no real plan, except ironically, to bemoan the triumph of racism and anti-immigration sentiment in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The left-wing fight against neoliberal globalisation fits uncomfortably into the strategy of right-wing movements in the Euro-Atlantic and makes the left allies of Farage, Johnson, Le Pen, and Trump. In fact, Slavoj Zizek has recently stated that Donald Trump adopts positions that are to the left of Hilary Clinton and that Trump is “a pretty ordinary, centrist politician” (Guardian 28 April 2016).
The exit from the European Union is not in the interests of the British working class. First of all, as John Springford et al have pointed out (Financial Times 24 June 2016) this leaves the “strongest in regions most dependent on EU”. The working class will also have to face the radical equivalent of Workchoices that the European Union was partially responsible for preventing some attacks on workplace agreements since the days of the Thatcher government. The NHS, used cynically by the Leave vote in the campaign, is now at the mercy of a Tory government and it now has the excuse of an economic crisis. Politically, the possible departure of Scotland, the left in the European Union, and turmoil within the British Labour Party leaves the left with few allies – they certainly cannot govern alone in any British institution, bar local government.
Those born in Northern Ireland, like myself, can follow the advice of Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley Jr. (!) and take out Irish citizenship. In this way, Ireland will be united if only on an individual basis. More seriously, the peace process relied a great deal on the European Union. The EU flooded Northern Ireland institutions and industry with cash in exchange for cooperation between contending sectarian interests; it helped establish the Agreement of 1998, which was by no means perfect but nonetheless helped stop sectarian fighting. Class politics was beginning to overtake sectarian politics with the election of two left-wing politicians to the Northern Ireland Assembly. All of these advances were made partly on the basis that the border between the North and the South of Ireland no longer was important. Now, it has been revived with all the consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, that will follow. Sinn Fein unlike the Scottish National Party cannot hope to win a border referendum. According to Sinn Fein strategy, it was on a slow path to unity through Brussels and now it is stuck with London. This will open further to “spoilers” from right-wing Republicans. As a whole, Northern Ireland existed perfectly well in the EU, now it is restricted to that old problem of surviving within the UK.
While this is certainly a revolt of the English working class against austerity and inequality, it is also a revolt by English working class Tories, and some Labour, who are opposed to immigration. If we look at statistics on British Social Attitudes (2014), we find a good, if crude, predictor of who would vote for Leave. Take the issue of racism as an example. Those who admitted to having racist feelings were poorly educated, Tory, and older. In terms of geographical spread racial prejudice was found to be at its lowest in London and Scotland. To deny this factor of working class racism is sticking one’s head in the sand. Marx and Engels noted that racism against the Irish divided the English working class and Lenin discussed the effects of imperialism on class unity. The left has to take seriously the question of immigration and its effects on class politics.
In addition, some argue that this was a wonderful experience in direct democracy, what John Pilger called (counterpunch, 24 June) “raw democracy” and called on all true socialists should rejoice in it. Need I point out other experiences in direct democracy that have not so done so well? There is the danger of fetishizing this form of democracy. Being asked to tick Yes or No to a particular question was hardly in the minds of the founders of socialism. Practically speaking, it is not in the left’s interests at a time to promote the referendum when it is weak and the populist right is strong. In short, direct democracy is a weapon not a principle.
There is a distinct whiff of the the hyper-nationalism of the 1920s, although it would be an exaggeration to say that is being repeated.
However, Brexit has opened up a carnival of reaction that will sweep across Europe and America. Yes, it was already there, but this has already given tremendous encouragement to the extreme right. Nigel Farage was ready to admit defeat when the polls closed, mainly because he saw the Remain turnout in London. Trump moved to Scotland the next day and comically joined in the celebrations. I never thought I would say this, but there are leaders worse than Thatcher and Reagan. These two were vehicles for global neoliberalism in two countries that now has produced populist neofascism almost everywhere. This will need to be fought against in all countries, even if it means Americans not following Zizek’s advice, holding their noses, and voting for neoliberal Clinton.