There are crucial and urgent lessons for progressives and the left to learn from the Brexit vote and the political future of Britain depends on how quickly and thoroughly they are absorbed, argue OLIVIER TONNEAU & STEVE SWEENEY
JUDGING by the BBC coverage and by my Facebook wall, Brexit is triggered a wave of anxiety: Britain has become a fascist country, what is happening to the world?
I don’t know how much can be said while distress is so acute, but I will try to provide grounds for mitigating this feeling.
We’ve all seen the infamous Ukip “Breaking Point” poster; we’ve read the front pages of tabloids warning against “invaders”; the Leave campaign has sank so disgustingly low that it is hard to resist the conclusion that if such a campaign could win, then Britain must be rotten to the core.
Indeed, in the last weeks of campaigning, the arguments of the Remain camp focused largely on one point: don’t associate yourselves with such despicable individuals as Nigel Farage. Now we feel shocked that so many did not seem to mind the association.
Yet does the way in which campaigns were run really tell us what motivated people’s votes?
How do we know that Ukip posters moulded, or even reflected, the motivations of the electorate?
Can the Leave vote really be conflated with a Ukip vote? Remember, in 2010, Ukip won under four million votes, not 17 million.
Did 13 million people turn towards Ukip in less than a year? I don’t think so.
This is the same British public of which 70 per cent said that the government should do more to help those fleeing war and persecution, over 80 per cent of which would welcome refugees into their country, city, street or home and the same public which donated masses of aid to the Convoy for Calais.
What went on in the heads of these people? That is what must be understood.
Yet we can only endeavour to do so if we step out of the frame that the Remain camp has imposed on the campaign. It convinced itself that the referendum was between humanists and fascists.
Hence the temptation to curse at the stupidity of the mob and give ourselves a tearful hug before the world comes to an end.
This temptation must be resisted. People have voted Brexit to put the brakes on what they perceive as a violent disruption of their lives.
They may have made the wrong diagnosis. True, the Tories were not coerced by the EU in implementing their policies, yet the only way to argue convincingly for Remain was to correct the diagnosis without denying the symptom. Drowning their voices by singing Imagine very loud with our hands on our ears is pointless.
In order to hear their voices, we must begin by dismantling many false alternatives. Take the thorniest subject of all: immigration.
Pro or contra immigration? For the Remain camp, that seemed to be the question. I am not even sure what it means. I consider that moving freely across frontiers is a fundamental human right.
But when whole countries — Poland, Portugal, Greece, Spain — are haemorrhaging millions of their youth, I do not perceive this as an exercise of this right but as forced migration under economic pressure.
And I do not defend the right of capital to push workers about as it sees fit. It may surprise you but highly educated Poles and Spaniards are not grateful to be serving coffee at Costa, although of course they’d rather this than be unemployed at home.
The arrival of these millions in Britain has, it is clear, been traumatic to the resident population in some areas.
Does it mean that they are anti-immigration? Again, what does that even mean?
We know that they are anti-falling wages and anti-rising housing prices. Whether the fall of wages and the rise of housing prices have anything to do with immigration is academic.
When people see that migrants are becoming more numerous and they individually are owning less, the correlation is too strong not to be treated as causation.
That is something that all leftists should accept as a given in any strategic thinking.
The real question must therefore be: how do we organise for the arrival of large numbers of people in a way that is acceptable to those already there?
And the answer can only be: by securing the rights of the latter — primarily, the rights to employment under fair wages and affordable homes.
Legislating on these rights would, of course, have been equally beneficial to immigrants.
The left did pledge to fight for decent wages and housing prices. Yet it failed to acknowledge the fact that the EU is not an ally in this fight but an opponent — which could be taken on from inside or outside, but which had to be taken on somehow.
This attitude did not shore up faith in Europe, but undermine faith in the left.
Now what? So the European dream has fallen through the window, let us wake up and wonder what really has been lost. The answer from the perspective of the humanist values upheld by the Remain camp is: very little.
Had Britain remained in Europe, it would have been on the terms negotiated by David Cameron, hardly hospitable to immigrants or workers.
That the EU was ready to grant these terms rather than see Brexit occur reminds us that it has long ceased to be — if indeed it ever was — a protector of humanist beliefs.
The EU is about free trade and has proved ready to sacrifice each and every one of its supposed values to protect this.
How different will Britain outside the EU be from Britain inside the EU? My answer is: not very.
Thanks to the Transatlantic Free Trade Area, the EU will continue its organised destruction of social rights. And just as it was willing to grant Cameron all its wishes to crack down on immigrants’ rights in particular, it will take an increasingly tough stance on immigration to appease the countries whose exit it will now try to prevent. Had Remain won by 51 per cent the exact same thing would have happened.
The hidden paradox of this campaign is that Tory Remain and Tory Leave are based on the same principles and would not have had widely different consequences.
Of course, there will be unpleasant side effects. I am well-placed to know this since, as a French citizen, I might have lost the possibility of retiring in my home country because an existing agreement over pension schemes between France and Britain will most likely be suspended.
Many among us in the middle class had more to lose from leaving than remaining, and had I been entitled to vote, I would have selfishly voted Remain.
But a broad, convincing argument for Remain had to be made on different grounds.
Because there is no fundamental difference between a neoliberal EU and a neoliberal Britain, arguments could as easily be made, from the left, for Remain as for Leave.
There was a case for Lexit: leave the EU and take on the Tories on the national scale. By campaigning for Remain, parts of the left undermined their capacity to take the Tories on.
Campaigning for Remain could have been the right choice — but only with the right strategy. The case for a left Remain was made by DiEM25: we’ll stay in the EU only to take the fight to neoliberals internally. After all, if Cameron could drive a hard bargain, why couldn’t we?
But the details of the battle plan, and the expected benefits, needed to be laid out clearly.
And what had to be made clear is that transforming the EU could only have happened by means of an institutional crisis of some magnitude.
It was not enough to begin every speech with the reluctant recognition that, yes, some things are not working in the EU.
The left needed, at least, to acknowledge and echo anger so as to rechannel it.
Instead, it sunk into angelic discourses about peace and love and attempted to reframe the debate as “join the party of love against the party of fascists.”
Now, in a paradoxical twist, many members of the party of love seem to be despairing of democracy itself: if the mob is so stupid, then why not an enlightened dictator?
Words to that tune keep on popping up on my Facebook wall, and they are worrying.
Some are already wondering whether the outcome of the referendum can be overturned in Parliament.
Do they only realise the disastrous effect that would have on those who voted Leave?
France has never been the same since its own No vote was ignored in 2005.
The hatred of the people for the ruling class has reached extreme heights which paved the way for the National Front. To overturn the referendum’s outcome would pave the way to an even worse incarnation of Ukip.
What is done is done. It is pointless to rail against “the mob.” Rather, it is time for us to accept that the disjunction between the European dream and the current condition of European people has reached unmanageable points.
As we wake up from our dream, we should not foolishly lament Europe’s disappearance.
Europe, a geographical entity, will of course survive the shattering of the EU, and we must plan for it.
The difference between a dream and a plan is that for the latter, there is a strategy.
It is this strategy that we now need to design. Our only hope that such plan is conceivable and implementable is that the 13 million people who voted Leave but had not voted Ukip in 2015 have not all of a sudden become bigoted fascists.
The first step is to understand who they are, what they want, and what Europe means to them.
Perhaps we will be able to do this now that the totem we knelt before lies in rubble at our feet.
The debate over Europe has served to blur the true dividing line, which remains that between right and left.
Now we have no other choice but to look for the opportunities created by Brexit. The Tories are in disarray. Cameron has had a series of defeats inflicted on him this year and he is being made a fall guy to try to save the Tories from a general election and potential defeat.
Whoever replaces him will be presiding over a weak and divided government with a slim majority.
Now is not the time for progressives and the left to be divided. We need to be united now more than ever, and begin with a number of things.
- The People’s Assembly national demonstration on October 2 at Tory Party Conference has a new significance and we need to build this to be the biggest mass demonstration this country has ever seen.
- The unions and progressives should unite around Jeremy Corbyn and protect him from the right wing of the PLP which is using this as an opportunity to try and oust him. We should be clear that this will meet with resistance across the movement.
- We need to build and strengten the forces that will fight against racism, fascism and Ukip. One that will fight for our NHS, fight for public services, the renationalisation of the railways, for better terms and conditions, for the nationalisation of the steel industry that we were told was not possible under EU legislation, against TTIP. A movement that stands for hope.
- We should build a movement that forces the final defeat for the Tories and that starts by calling for a general election now.
Whichever side of the EU referendum debate you were on, we need to fight together. Unity is strength, united we stand.