Brexit And Its Discontents – OpEd
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Of the many people down the years who’ve delightedly come across this well-known aphorism by the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, the vast majority have surely read it as affirmation for activism in progressive causes. As a good example, the UK this year is celebrating the centenary of some women getting the vote, for the first time – thanks to the efforts of just such a group, the suffragists and suffragettes.
But Mead’s observation can equally apply to conservative causes. One of those who today inherit the suffragette’s mantle as women MPs, the Conservative, Anna Soubry, has been complaining in media interviews that Britain’s exit from the European Union is being driven by as few as three dozen right-wing ideologues among her own parliamentary colleagues. It is their influence that supposedly lies behind the recent announcement by Downing Street that continued membership of the EU Customs Union is “ruled out”.
This carries potentially grave consequences, not least for peace on the island of Ireland, where the border of Northern Ireland will therefore become the border of the EU itself. Customs checks will have to be re-introduced, lest exporters seize on the opportunity to bring, say, dumped Chinese steel, or genetically modified American meat products, through Northern Ireland, into the Republic, then to any of the 27 remaining member states – thus invalidating the entire trade policy of the Union. However, any so-called “hard border” would risk reactivating the old syndrome of smuggling, intimidation, military deployment and paramilitary activity, which up to now has been thought consigned to history.
The Brexitollahs of the Tory back bench are few in number, but supported by powerful interests, notably dominant voices in the rightwing press, the Sun and Daily Mail. These hate-sheets never hesitate to take up the cry of autocracies through the ages – “enemies of the people” – to smear anyone who, like Soubry, points out that the infamous in/out referendum of 2016 gave no mandate for the manner of Britain’s exit. The 52% of Britons who voted Leave would dwindle dramatically in number if confronted with the actual consequences of a so-called “hard Brexit” – queues of lorries on motorways leading to British ports; factories having to junk Europe-wide ‘just-in-time’ supply lines, along with thousands of jobs – and so on.
How, then, does Britain come to be teetering on the brink of such a disaster – and how can it be prevented? Exhaustive media coverage has highlighted the grievances of left-behind working class communities where the Leave campaign prospered. Towns and cities such as Hull, Sunderland and Stoke-on-Trent have endured the ills of neo-liberal government policies, applied by both parties of government, for decades. Among these policies, the so-called “flexible labour market” has brought record numbers of Britons into employment, but created an epidemic of wages that undershoot the cost of living.
A telling documentary broadcast last year on Channel Four television, and titled ‘British Workers Wanted’, followed staff at an employment agency in Leave-voting Bognor Regis, a seaside town on the south coast of England, as they drew deeply on the supply of labour from the so-called “accession countries” – former Eastern bloc states that joined the EU in its wave of expansion through the 1990s – in the absence of locally raised people who were both willing and able to work. Under EU freedom of movement rules, these incomers could travel to the UK to seek employment – but of course just as easily travel back, as many were now starting to do. All the jobs the agency was being asked to advertise, by local employers in such industries as catering and landscaping, seemed to pay the same rate: £7.50 per hour, the national minimum wage for workers over 25 years old. As vacancies proved difficult to fill, there was no mention of any possibility that workers could take action to raise these rates.
The neo-liberal assault on Britain’s social democracy of the postwar years began with the anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. Indeed, the ‘conversion’ of British Labour to the pro-European cause featured, as a significant turning point, the so-called ‘Frere Jacques’ speech, to the Trade Union Congress in 1985, by then EU Commission President Jacques Delors. He told delegates that European law could restore to British workers the rights that Tory governments were busy trying to take away.
So it proved, as the New Labour government of Tony Blair signed up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, on taking office in 1997. And when it came to the in/out referendum, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn emphasised protection for workers’ rights as a benefit of continued EU membership. Why is it not seen as a problem in Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, say, to have wages undercut by cheap labour from the accession states? Not because of anything done by the EU, but because jobs in those countries are supported by interlocking policies to support investment in skills, and a proper place for trade unions in collective bargaining. To the extent that grievances over inequalities in Britain drove the Leave vote, therefore, they were shooting at the wrong target. The UK cost of living crisis is due not to ‘Brussels’ but the actions of governments the British have elected to power in Westminster.
The long-cherished vision of the Brexitollahs is for power to tilt still further in favour of employers and the wealthy. The government spokesperson wheeled out for media interviews in the wake of the Downing Street announcement on the Customs Union was none other than Kwesi Kwarteng MP, a junior minister at the Treasury. Years earlier, Kwarteng had edited and co-authored a volume, Britannia Unchained, in which a group of up-and-coming Conservatives elected to the House of Commons in the 2010 election argued that Britain was being held back by lazy workers, who enjoyed too much job security. The answer lay in an ever more intense application of the neo-liberal mantra of deregulation, liberalisation and privatisation.
The British do not share this vision. For the purposes of the EU referendum, some of them were gulled into going along with it on a host of false premises and promises. And still today, ministers talk reassuringly of what have become known as “Unicorn solutions”. The vaunted “frictionless trade” with the EU is not compatible with leaving the Customs Union. Neither is the present “soft Irish border”. The so-called “transition period”, to be agreed with EU negotiators by March, will not allow the UK to discriminate between those who arrived before and after the cutoff date of March 2019. At some point, fantasy will meet reality, and the political fallout will be ugly.
Looking further ahead, it is clear that the UK polity is likely to remain deeply divided. There are large numbers of communities that have stayed solid, in the face of attacks by governments and propaganda barrages summoning up race hate and xenophobia, as the Leave campaign did in 2016 and as Tory electioneering has done since time immemorial. The present Prime Minister, Theresa May, has often been presented as a voice of reason, but her record as Home Secretary saw divisions fomented and exploited just as viciously as under any predecessor. Absurdly, international students were classed as “immigrants” and targeted in an attempt to reduce numbers. Advertising vans with intimidating messages targeting asylum seekers were driven round neighbourhoods where the racist vote was seen as up for grabs. No tactic is too low, it seems, to get people to the polling booths in a state of fear and greed.
To stand fast in the face of such provocations should be seen as a positive, and a rock on which to build. If the UK as a nation state, through its Westminster governments, is incapable of representing the progressive opinions of large numbers of its citizens – either to the EU or in social or industrial relations – then the solid communities will have to take matters into their own hands. Instead, the unit of analysis could be council wards – typically with populations of a few thousand each – where both Tory candidates, and Brexit, have consistently been rejected at the ballot box. A network of such wards could grow into an organising structure for Progressive Britain.
Such a network could offer tangible benefits to members – bulk purchasing of services, from electricity to childcare, for example – as well as a source of solidarity, opportunities and information. The existing and well distributed “town twinning” arrangements, organised by local authorities, could be expanded to permit Progressive Britain to maintain maximum contacts and cooperation with EU countries and peoples after the self-harm of Brexit. If the destructive few are to be exposed, isolated and outflanked, it is going to take the progressive many to find and create new ways of working together, beginning by raising, in their communities and to the world at large, the importance of salvaging at least some of the upside of EU membership, before it all goes down in flames.
(Author Jake Lynch is a former BBC newsreader, political correspondent for Sky News and Sydney correspondent for the Independent. He is Associate Professor of Peace Journalism and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, and winner of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service-TMS. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TUP – TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick ‘Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism,’ which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese.)