Referendums and Politics – Part II

May 5, 2019 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

R.G. Williams

I. Brexit and the Left

This short essay is a study of the role of Brexit in British Left politics. The British Left is faced with the difficulty of Brexit. For the British Left the response to Brexit offers both opportunity and disaster for the Left. This is because Brexit is the most serious social crisis and political crisis to have emerged in Britain since the 1970s and the 1980s. British society, today, is caught between the realities of Brexit and the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union. It is impossible to think about British politics, today, without some reference to Brexit and the problems of Brexit. As a result, much of the politics of the British Left today has to be focused around trying to find good politics over Brexit and the problem of Britain and Europe. Brexit is important. Brexit cannot be left in the hands of the Conservatives or UKIP. If Brexit simply becomes part of the politics of the Right, then Brexit will be a social disaster for British society. It will be a disaster for the working class in Britain. Brexit cannot be left in the hands of the Conservatives or in the hands of UKIP — as that would result in a Neo-Liberal Brexit, a Brexit which does nothing to solve the serious problems being faced by Britain today. Indeed, a Conservative Brexit is probably one of the greatest dangers surrounding Brexit itself — from the perspective of the British working class. Britain, and British society, is facing a serious crisis over Brexit. It is vital that the British Left, the Socialist Left, finds a better politics over Brexit and finds a way to solve the problems of Brexit. The Left needs to find its own politics over Brexit.

The British Left, especially the Socialist Left, is divided over Brexit. This is because the Left in general has always been divided over the issue of Europe, the EU, and the EEC, ever since the formation of Europe — from the 1950s up to the present day. Today the only politics which unites the British Left on Brexit is the desire that Brexit can, perhaps, be utilised for a social Brexit — a Brexit which creates a Socialist Britain. If Brexit occurs the British Left must adapt to it. If Brexit does not occur, then the British Left will still have to adapt to it. Brexit will change the British Left. This means that the British Left will need to find a way to unite itself, despite the problems and politics of Brexit. Brexit, itself, will not be part of British politics forever. The British Left cannot allow the problems of Brexit to split the British Left forever. The crisis of Brexit has created an opportunity for a new, and better, Left politics in Britain. It is time for the British Left to move beyond the limits of the politics of Brexit. The British Left, today, needs to change Britain itself.

II. Left Options

The British Left must find answers to Brexit in Britain. If the Left does not find answers and solutions, then it will be the Right which will fill the gap created by Brexit. Britain cannot afford another period where the pressing issues of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, are simply ignored. The Left needs to find a solution to Brexit which solves the national issues of Britain.

Brexit is just one major problem in British politics and British society today. There are many other problems in Britain today. The Scottish Referendum of 2014, the Scottish Referendum of 1997, the Welsh Referendum of 1997, the Northern Irish Referendum of 1998, the crisis of 2008, the crisis of Austerity, and countless other social movements and social struggles, show that the issues of Britain will not go away. Britain is a broken society — a society broken by austerity, poverty, destitution, unemployment, and privatisation. Even if Brexit is a success this reality of Britain as a broken society will continue to undermine Britain. Even with the social struggles of Britain today this fact about Britain ensures that it will remain part of British history and British politics. This is because the issue of Britain, as a society and as a social structure, is an issue of history and an issue of politics. Until they are solved, the issues of Britain, as a society and as a state, will continue to undermine British society and the British state. Britain needs a new politics. Britain needs Socialist politics.

III. Europe

For the European Union, Brexit is an interesting political development. Brexit has caused a crisis in Britain — but it has not really caused a crisis in Europe or a crisis in the European Union. Europe might be placed in difficulty by Brexit — but Brexit does not threaten the overall structure of the European Union. Europe, and the EU, is likely to endure — despite crises like Brexit. Brexit will not cause a long-term problem for the EU. Brexit will probably not affect the EU. The European Union might be shaken by Brexit, but the European Union will not collapse because of Brexit. The European Union will endure despite the crisis, just like the British state is likely to come out of Brexit, if battered and bruised. For the British Left and European Left, unity might prove better than Capitalist disunity over Europe — but only via a ‘Social Europe’, a Socialist Europe, and not via the present EU. Indeed, the struggle in Europe today is for a better Europe — a Socialist Europe.1

The EU has existed for a long period of time. Ever since the ECSC (1952), the Treaty of Rome (1957), the EEC (1958), the Treaty of Maastricht (1992), and the formation of the EU (1993), the EU has been a key part of Western Capitalism and of Capitalism in general. The EU is unlikely to collapse simply because of Brexit — it is simply too important to the nature of Capitalism since 1945 and since 1991 for it to be allowed to collapse. Europe will change — but it will not collapse over the current crisis in Britain.

IV. Brexit and British History

The crisis of Brexit is not a product of just the result of 2016, but a result of the overall historical crisis of Britain’s relationship with both Europe and the European project since the end of the Second World War. British society has always been sceptical about Europe and the European Union. Indeed, the British Left, with its historic Euroscepticism, should have long ago noticed the reality of Britain’s split over Europe. That British politics has failed to have a consistent policy over Europe is one of the key reasons why the June 2016 Referendum result occurred and is one of the key reasons why Brexit is proving such a difficult period and such a difficult subject today. The failures of the past, over Britain and over Europe, are coming back to haunt British politics — and the politics of the British Left and British Right.

V. Political Results

Brexit has created a dire political situation in Great Britain — both for the Left and for the Right. We need to understand this political situation if we are ever to understand the crisis of Brexit. Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union in 2016, has created a major political crisis in British society and in British politics. Brexit has created a crisis — and it is reflective of the wider crisis of Britain. This crisis has also created a crisis in the British Left — a split between supporting Britain leaving the EU or supporting Britain staying in the EU. The close, but decisive, victory for Leave in the June Referendum, created a problem for the British Left in terms of dividing the British Left about the issue of the European Union and the place of Britain in Europe. This crisis has created a crisis in the major forces of the British Left — specifically in the Labour Party and the other groups of the British Left. This crisis within the British Left needs to be confronted and tackled — so that the British Left can unite on a common politics and a common programme about Brexit and Britain’s place in Europe. This issue, and this disunity, is likely to cause serious problems for the British Left — unless it can be solved. The British Left cannot afford to be divided over Brexit and over Europe. The Left needs a Brexit policy and a Brexit politics. The Left needs to come together on the politics of Brexit. The Left needs to present a united position on Brexit. The Left needs to have a better position on Brexit which will allow it to push for a better Britain today and for a better Britain in the future.

The political results of Brexit are still unclear. It is too early to tell, even years later, in terms of British history or World history, what will emerge from the Referendum and from Brexit. Britain might leave Europe, or it might not. What is certain is that the Referendum of 2016 has opened up serious gaps and serious problems in the state of both British Democracy and British Capitalism.2 We must think of Brexit as simply another phase in a much greater crisis.

Whether the result of the Brexit Referendum is carried out fully, or only in part, is largely politically irrelevant. It is irrelevant — even if Britain leaves Europe or whether some compromise is found over the ‘British question’ in Europe that allows Britain to stay in Europe. The result of Brexit is irrelevant given that the Capitalist nature of the United Kingdom will continue regardless of any solution. Both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ largely seem to indicate a continuing Capitalist Britain. The Left needs to develop its own politics over Brexit — a Social Brexit. This vision of a ‘Social Brexit’ needs to be developed by the Left. It is a vision of a better Britain outside of both EU visions and Tory visions. It is a vision of a Brexit which rejects both Capitalist Britain and Tory Britain. In such circumstances it is vital that the Left develop new ideas about Britain and its future — perhaps even a new vision of Socialism itself. Despite this need, today, the main political goal for the British Left needs to be to ensure that the Left develops quickly for this new stage of British politics and adapts to make the most of the new political reality. The British Left needs to ensure that the crisis of British politics is used to produce positive results for the working class of both Britain and Europe. In periods of crisis the Left cannot afford to be simplistic and divided — it must provide an alternative, a Left alternative. The Left needs to be united in Britain, and in Europe.

It is also too soon to see who will gain from Brexit in terms of British politics. Either the Left or the Right could gain from Brexit. Either the Left or the Right could lose from Brexit. The Socialist Left’s position is now stronger and better focused. The Left has the chance, now, to push for its own politics — a Socialist politics.

For the British Left the realities of recent developments in British politics, in recent times, represent both opportunities and dilemmas. They also represent new possibilities for the Left — as indicated by the Referendum, the current weakness of the Conservative government, the rise of the Left, the shift of Labour back to the Left, and the possible end of Blairism. Today it is possible for a New Left to emerge in Britain. In these circumstances the British Left can make further advances. Given the state of Britain today, after three or four decades of neo-liberal rule, the British Left must seek to make such advances. Britain needs change. Britain needs change beyond the limits of exiting the European Union. Britain needs to become a Socialist Britain. Europe itself needs to change too — beyond the limits of a Neo-Liberal Europe. Europe needs to become a Socialist Europe..


1. P. Anderson, The New Old World, (2009)
2. S. Watkins, Casting Off?, (2016)




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This post was written by R.G. Williams

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