Jeremy Corbyn has declined an invitation from the SNP to opposition leaders to join a summit to fight hard Brexit. I discuss the background and implications of Corbyn’s stance.
‘Take back control’, as a political slogan, may not compete with ‘I have a dream’, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ or ‘Let my people go!’, but it delivered a result. While everyone can have a dream, share in liberty, equality and fraternity, or join an exodus, not everyone can have control. Control implies control over other people.
Within the EU control is highly distributed. National governments and parliaments, the European Commission, European Council, the ECJ and EU treaties introduce many checks and balances that entrenches past liberal democratic decisions and makes driving though change difficult. If ‘take back control’ means anything, it must mean removing these checks and concentrating power in the hands of the British Prime Minister – but to what end?
The Leave campaign is a coalition of three distinct groups, who have little in common apart from a desire to change for the status quo. The three groups are, ideologically, the nationalist group, the neoliberal group and the socialism-in-one-country group, and this corresponds closely to UKIP, the Conservative brexiteers and the Labour brexiteers.
Coalitions are usually difficult to form, and a coalition between ideologically opposed groups involves a considerable amount of compromise and horse-trading. This did not occur in the Leave team. They united against a common enemy, one that was that was unwilling or unable to exploit the inherent contradictions in the Leave side, without defining a common position. The Leave win allowed the dominant faction in the Leave coalition to claim a mandate for the type of post-Brexit Britain they preferred without the inconvenience of having to consult their coalition partners. While May, Davis and Johnson have allowed UKIP supporters some symbolic victories – blue passports are a UKIP policy – they have offered little to their left-wing Leave allies. In particular, the Leave pledge to fund the NHS shows no sign of being honoured. Gisela Stuart stood proudly in front of a bus that proclaimed ‘Let’s fund the NHS’ with the promised Brexit bonanza. Despite this, Labour are not howling about their Brexit allies reneging on the commitment, nor admitting that the Brexit bonanza was a fabrication. This is a case of the dog that did not bark.
In response to criticism Labour brexiteers have argued that they are playing a long game. Whether they are playing, or being played, is an open question.
Gove, Johnson and other neoliberal brexiteers have made a clear case for their vision of a post-Brexit Britain. While their speeches and articles have added a palatable coating, Prof Mitford’s description in 2012 outlined the unvarnished version:
“It is perfectly true that if you remove protection of the sort that has been given particularly to the car industry and other manufacturing industries inside the protective wall [of the EU] , you will have a change in the situation facing that industry, and you are going to have to run it down. It will be in your interests to do it, just as in the same way we ran down the coal and steel industries. These things happen as evolution takes place in your economy….Over time, if we left the EU, it seems likely that we would mostly eliminate manufacturing, leaving mainly industries such as design, marketing and hi-tech. But this shouldn’t scare us.” (1)
Boris Johnson echoed a similar sentiment in his 2017 “vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit.” Johnson notes:
“There are in fact four zones of the world where big tech investments are made: Boston, Silicon Valley, Shanghai and the triangle formed by London, Oxford and Cambridge“
His vision is of a country geared towards the knowledge-based economy, and antagonistic to calls to protect agriculture or manufacturing from the gales of global competition. This view considers the elimination of ‘protected’ economic activity as desirable. While it is difficult to measure how much of the UK economy falls into this category, it would certainly include a non-negligible amount of the UK’s agricultural and manufacturing capacity. Inflicting this kind of pain on the economy is something that a government can only do mid-term, so if it is to occur it will happen not long after leaving the EU in April 2019, and would be enabled and accelerated by the UK unilaterally removing as many tariff and non-tariff barriers as it can.
By the time of the next election in 2022 most of the damage will have been done. What is less certain is whether the predicted green shoots of design, marketing and hi-tech would be sufficiently vigorous to offset the pain felt by the unemployed workers from the now run-down economic sectors. If this has not occurred another Conservative victory is unlikely.
From the point of view of neoliberal ideology, however, whether Labour does or does not form the government in 2022 is irrelevant. If Labour fails to win, the Conservative neoliberals could congratulate themselves on successfully steering the economy though the economic rapids and emerging as a knowledge-based economy unencumbered by the weight of manufacturing or agriculture. Food and manufactured goods will be imported at less than the cost of UK production. Farmland will be given over to recreational forests, holiday villages and grouse shooting. The economy would be even more skewed towards the London, Oxford and Cambridge triangle, but this is the price of success.
If the Conservatives lose, a Corbyn victory will be pyrrhic. The old industries would have been eliminated, and while the new knowledge-based industries such as design, marketing or hi-tech can be nurtured, they cannot be taxed against their will. A £100bn pharmaceutical product may be researched and designed in a lab in Oxford, or a £2bn computer game written in Shoreditch, but the licence fees generated by these products may never reach the UK. Corbyn may win some victories, such as nationalising the railways and utilities, but will not be able to introduce a more socialist society because the taxes necessary cannot be raised from a knowledge economy. As a result the dire economic conditions inherited in 2022 will persist for most people, and disillusionment will be rapid.
The irony is that the Labour left castigated Clegg for being a minority partner in the coalition government. While Clegg may have been outmanoeuvred he did extract important concessions while in government. A Brexit in 2011 may have been catastrophic for the European project. Labour Leave asked for nothing from their neoliberal coalition partners and received less.
By allowing a hard Brexit, Labour gives the neoliberal brexiteers an opportunity to eliminate huge tracts of manufacturing and agriculture. These industries will not return. The UK will have no choice but to develop a knowledge-based economy, and the fruits of that economy will be easily controlled by the few. This does not sound like playing a long game. It sounds like being useful pawns.
#ToriesforCorbyn boasted that the £3 cost of joining Labour to vote for Corbyn was the best £3 they ever spent. This may be an understatement. It may represent the best political investment of all time.