Debating the Brexit

Around the world socialists are digesting the outcome of the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union. British socialists, and their international co-thinkers, were divided on the referendum question both between and within their organisations. The debate continues here. Martin replies to Tom Bramble’s analysis in Red Flag.

Tom Bramble’s analysis of the British referendum result is wide of the mark. Tom sees a working-class, anti-austerity vote that has struck a blow against capitalism, although he concedes that “many Leave voters were motivated at least in part by opposition to immigration.”

Marxists must face realty. The referendum was the demand of the anti-immigration party UKIP. It was conceded by the Conservative Party leadership before the 2015 general election as a bid to stem the defection of anti-immigrant votes to UKIP.

In England and Wales the majority swallowed the nationalism of UKIP and the official leave campaign headed up by Tory right-wingers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. In Scotland and Northern Ireland there were different dynamics with the progressive forces winning a majority for Remain.

Tom states that Remain was backed by “the entire financial and political establishment”. Not true; the Conservative Party, the party of the establishment, was split, as it always has been over Europe. The anti-EU right within the party were stronger than ever. The majority of big business, but by no means all, was pro-EU, and medium and small firms much less so. British capitalism has never been solidly with the EU and that has been reflected in its semi-detached status outside the Euro area.

Tom says the vast majority of establishment opinion makers in the world of business and politics have declared the result a complete disaster. Fact: the British daily press was evenly divided. The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express were for Brexit. The Guardian, Financial Times, Times and Daily Mirror were for the EU.

Tom sees a class division in London, emphasising a pro-Remain vote in prosperous areas and pro-Leave in poor areas. Fact: London voted overwhelmingly for Remain with affluent Tory areas on the suburban fringes voting Brexit. Only one Labour-voting borough broke this pattern.

Major working-class cities had Remain majorities, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Cardiff and Bristol. But I do not intend to be one-sided as Tom is. In other major cities, such as Birmingham and Sheffield, the majority was for Leave. I share Tom’s analysis that many working-class people in de-industrialised areas voted Leave; but unfortunately they were voting against immigration, continuing the trend that we saw in the 2015 general election when UKIP soared to 12.6% of the vote.

Tom says that strong votes for Leave in multi-cultural Newham and Leicester challenged the idea of the Leave vote being racist. He forgot to say that the majorities in those two places were for Remain. It was the Remain vote, not Leave, which reflected anti-racism. The idea that masses of workers voted Leave out of an understanding of the neoliberal nature of the EU is fantasy. It is important to remember that Britain’s relationship to the EU has been at the opposite end of the spectrum to Greece’s. Britain forged ahead of the EU in implementing neo-liberalism. The EU is seen as comparatively progressive and liberal, instituting regulations bitterly opposed by free-market Thatcherites. Left-leaning people, Labour and Green supporters, have illusions in the EU that are based on historical experience.

The cities where there is greater unity across workers of different cultural backgrounds and young people were for Remain. Rural areas, older people, and embittered workers in areas where class unity is less succumbed to the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner nationalist arguments. The centre of gravity of the Leave vote was the despairing petit-bourgeoisie, rightwing Toryism’s and UKIP’s mass base, which on this occasion has pulled many workers away from their class identity.

I agree with Tom that behind the anti-immigrant sentiment lies anger at the established order. The question is: did the masses gravitate to the radical left or radical right? The immediate effect of the referendum result has been to strengthen the hand of the hard right against the working class.

The pro-Leave far left in Britain committed a blunder. The essence of their mistake was to not weigh up the relationship of class forces in all its concreteness and complexity. The lessons drawn by Trotsky on another referendum – 1931 in Germany – are instructive. This referendum was aimed at the Prussian regional government headed by Braun of the Social Democrats, which was the crutch of the unstable Federal government headed by Brüning of the right-wing Catholic Centre Party. The German Communist Party (KPD) joined in with this initiative of the Nazis and German National Party (Hugenberg) and dubbed it the ‘Red Referendum’. On this specific question of the referendum Trotsky was for defending Braun/Brüning against Hitler/Hugenberg. Trotsky argued that had the referendum served as springboard for the working class to take power, the united front with the fascists would not signify as the fascists would be crushed. The relationship of forces, however, was in favour of the extreme right, even though the KPD had won 4.5 million votes in 1930. Trotsky accused the KPD and Comintern of adventurism. The fascist/KPD referendum bid failed to get a majority to depose Braun/Brüning, and therefore the KPD’s tactics were not put to the test of success.

Trotsky wrote that had the KPD leadership assessed their forces they would have had to come to this conclusion:

“in spite of the monstrous crisis of the capitalist system and considerable growth of communism in the past period, the party is still too weak to seek to force the revolutionary solution. On the contrary, it is the fascists who strive towards this aim. As the bourgeois parties are ready to assist them in this, the Social Democracy included. For they all fear the Communists more than they do the fascists. With the aid of the Prussian plebiscite, the National Socialists want to provoke the collapse of the extremely unstable state balance, so as to force the vacillating strata of the bourgeoisie to support them in the cause of a bloody judgment over the workers. For us to assist the fascists would be the greatest stupidity. This why we are against the fascist plebiscite.”

The similarity between the two referendums is clear. The German case differs only by the much greater severity of the crisis and degree of political polarisation. The British far-left of the Lexit campaign cannot be accused of adventurism with its small forces and tiny impact. What is required there first and foremost is honest accounting in order to avoid disorientation. Correct policies are vital if the British revolutionary left is to advance. The British Left have lost a battle, but not the war. All is to play for in the stormy period ahead.