This short essay is a study of Brexit and the Left. Brexit is the major political crisis in Britain today. Brexit is dividing the British Left. The British Left has been divided on the question of Brexit since the Referendum of June 2016 — and long before the Referendum of June 2016. This divide in the British Left, over Brexit, is an expression of the divide in British society and British politics. Brexit is dividing the British Left because British society is itself divided over Brexit — and especially over the nature of Brexit. Britain has always been divided over Europe and over the European Union – from the time when Britain joined the EEC in 1973 to the June Referendum of 2016. The June 2016 Referendum, rather than clarifying British politics, has simply left all the groups of British politics in chaos and disorder over Brexit and the meaning of Brexit. The fact that the British Left has always been divided over Europe and the EU has also meant that Brexit was always going to divide the British Left — simply as an expression of British politics and the politics of the British Left. The greatest expression of this divide in the British Left is within the Labour Party itself — with both remain and leave being sizeable factions within the Labour Party. There is also a sizeable push from Labour and the labour movement, today, for a second vote on Britain’s relationship with the EU and Britain’s relationship with Europe — a people’s vote on the final deal with Europe and a people’s vote on Britain staying in the EU or leaving the EU. This situation, however, cannot continue. The British Left, if it is to unite and gain the support of the British people, British politics, and British society, needs to come to a common programme and a common politics over Brexit. The British Left needs to be united in its vision over the future of Britain.1
The relationship between Brexit and the British Left is a tense relationship. Indeed, Brexit is causing the biggest split in the British Left in recent British politics. This split is because large sections of the British Left, with valid reasons on both sides, are stuck between a remain position and a leave position. This split is weakening the ability of the British Left to present a united front on the issue of Brexit and the issue of Europe.
The Left is currently re-emerging in Britain, from the dire years of the 1980s and 1990s, but its political strength has been constantly undermined since 2016 due to the split over Brexit and the split over Europe. This split is undermining the current struggle by the Left in Britain. The split of the Labour Party — between remain, leave, and the issue of a people’s vote over the issue of Brexit — is dividing the Left.
The crisis of Brexit exists as a historical crisis. Indeed, the crisis of Brexit exists because of the crisis of Britain over Europe. Britain has always been divided over Europe — ever since the 1950s. Even when Britain entered the EEC in 1973 the issue of Europe only deepened and has never really been resolved. Every British government, since 1973, has failed in its policy over Europe. Ever since then Britain has always failed to be consistent about what its policy was about Europe and the EU. Subsequent Labour governments and Conservative governments have always failed on the issue of Britain and Europe — especially the governments of Thatcher and the governments of Blair. The current split of the British Left, over Brexit, and the split in the British Right, has both political origins and historical origins — specifically in the failure of British politics and British policy over Europe since 1973. The current fallout of Britain’s leaving of Europe is the political result of decades of splits and decades of failures.
A great irony about Brexit and the British Left is that Brexit has caused a split in the Left in the first place. In the past, especially in the 1950s and 1970s, the British Left tended to oppose Britain being part of the EU, the EEC, or the integration of Europe. This changed in the 1990s, under the Blair Labour government, but the British Left has usually opposed the EU — because of the reality of the EU as a Capitalist project and as a Capitalist organisation.2
Brexit is dividing the British Left — when at any other time Brexit should have united the British Left. The split over Brexit in the British Left is understandable — given the uncertainties of Brexit itself and the fact that Brexit became a key part of the politics of the British Right. Today, however, the British Left needs to be united in the type of politics it presents over Brexit and over Britain in the EU.
Brexit is dividing British society — into remainers and leavers. This divide is the reality of the crisis of British society today. Yet this crisis is not the only crisis in Britain today. The crisis of Capitalism, the crisis of Austerity, the crisis of the national question of Britain, the crisis of society, the crisis of politics, the crisis of economics — all of these crises in Britain are still unfolding in Britain.
The answer to the split of Brexit on the British Left is to find a common policy on Brexit — and to stick to that policy. The British Left needs to choose between the two realities of remain and leave, and push for its own politics — for Left politics, for Socialist politics.
The answer to the split of Brexit in British society is to find a common policy on Brexit. The reality of the British Right, today, especially the Tory government, shows that only the British Left can lead the way forwards over Brexit — and for British society and British politics.
In Britain today, the major challenge is the challenge of coming up with a solution to Brexit. The side of British politics, Left or Right, which can come up with a solution to Brexit is the side which will win this challenge and possibly win British politics for the foreseeable future. This means that the British Left cannot simply ignore Brexit but must come up with its own challenge to Brexit and its own solution to Brexit. Leaving Brexit in the hands of the Right and the current government would be a disaster — both if a Tory Brexit is a success and if a Tory Brexit is a failure. If the Tories fail over Brexit, then British society and British workers will suffer as a result. If the Tories succeed in their vision of Brexit, then the likelihood is that they will both dominate British politics and drag Britain down further into the mud and failures of Neo-Liberalism and Austerity. In short, a Tory Brexit is a disaster regardless of whether it succeeds or not. The British Left must propose its own programme and its own politics for Brexit — and fight for that programme and those politics. The challenge of Brexit is a challenge that no one wanted — but it is here now. The Left must have its own solutions and its own vision if it is to overcome both the Right and the challenge of Brexit.
There are no easy answers over Brexit. Regardless of whether Britain remains in the EU or leaves the EU the likelihood is that Brexit and its fallout — either staying or leaving — will be difficult for Britain. The solutions to Brexit have to be democratic solutions. The fundamental fact about Brexit is that it needs to be democratic, and it needs to be based on a democratic vote. This vote was expressed, however flawed, by the Brexit vote of 2016. Today this democratic vote needs to be expressed in a people’s vote on the final nature of Brexit — both on the nature of Brexit and a possible vote to remain in the EU. Only this process can ensure that Brexit is truly the democratic wish of the British people.
Brexit has the potential to either break Britain or to make a new Britain. This stark choice is clear given the reality of Brexit and what it represents for both the politics and the history of Britain. British Capitalist society might survive Brexit — or it might come crashing down. British society needs to think about its future — a Capitalist future or a Socialist future.
Brexit might be a good idea. Brexit might be a terrible idea. Brexit might continue to divide the British Left. Brexit might even unite the British Left. Brexit, however, will certainly change both Britain and the British Left. This is a natural political dispute — and the merits and faults of Brexit need to be debated by the British Left. What needs to happen is that the British Left needs to come to a common position about Brexit and the future of Britain. The British Left needs to pick a side — remain or leave — and push for that side. The British Left needs to have consistent politics about Brexit. Remain or leave, both have strengths and weaknesses, but the British Left needs to pick either remain or leave.
While the British Left might be divided over Brexit, the British Right is falling apart over Brexit. This reality of the collapse of the British Right over Brexit is a promising sign that a resurgence of the Left is still possible in Britain — and a possible turn towards the Left. The Left might be disunited over Brexit — but the Right has completely collapsed over it. The current Tory government, under May, might not even survive with the current reality of Brexit and the current split of the Tory government over the nature of Brexit. In the end, Brexit might be dividing the Left, but it can never divide the Left as much as it is dividing the Right. The Left simply needs to find a common politics about Brexit — a politics which puts the interest of workers ahead of all other politics — and unite on this basis. The Right simply cannot do this. The Right are in chaos over Brexit — long may they be in chaos over Brexit. The old observation, in Chinese politics, about chaos and politics, is perhaps very apt in the current situation of British politics and British society — ‘there is chaos under heaven, the situation is perfect’. In the current chaos of Brexit, the situation is perfect for the Left. The situation is perfect for the Left to present a Socialist alternative in Britain and a Socialist politics in Britain.
- S. Watkins, Casting Off?, (2016)
- T. Nairn, The Left against Europe?, (1972)
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This post was written by R.G. Williams