Gerard Delanty writes: Brexit is a radical right-wing political project. It cannot take a left-wing form as it is not compatible with any kind of progressive politics. The Corbyn-led Labour left are deluded to believe that they can deliver a “Lexit”, that is a left Brexit. The notion speaks of a mindset that has not moved beyond an anachronistic 1970s model of socialism that is fundamentally unable to address the challenges of the present. A left-wing progressive Brexit is not possible, for the following six reasons.
First, Brexit is a project of the radical right of the Conservative Party. It has two faces: one is a radical neoliberal aspiration to break the UK free of the regulatory framework of the EU. The other derives from imperialist nostalgia for a time when the UK was a global power. The Brexit idea is a product of English nationalism and does not reflect the multinational community of the UK. It is difficult to see how it could be brought in a different direction when its cultural orientations are so obviously rooted in a narrow English nationalism that sees the political community as either the victim or the vanquisher, a phenomenon nicely dissected by Fintan O’Toole in Heroic Failure. The notion that a progressive left-wing politics is possible with Brexit shares with the Tory right the Schmittean theory that radical politics needs to identify a source of othernesss – something from outside the political community, whether it is neoliberalism or Eurofederalism – which that community needs to overcome. This source does not need to be real in anything other than a linguistic sense. Thus Corbyn claims he can deliver, without specifying how, a different Brexit and free the UK from the tyranny of a supposedly neoliberal EU in much the same way that the Brexiters claim they can rescue the UK from a federalist EU. Lexit is ultimately a case of everyone having their own Brexit.
Second, while the champions of a left-wing Brexit clearly do not share the goals and values of the Tory right, they share the means: namely to break the UK free of the EU. This is a problem, because politics can be as much about the means as about the ends (FA Hayek in The Road to Serfdom agreed with many of the goals of socialism but not with the means employed to realise them). Radically different positions can share goals without sharing means. European integration is largely about sharing the means and less about the ends. While there are normative goals which may to varying degrees be shared, the EU ultimately rests on its pragmatic ability to deliver a wide range of practical outcomes for the functioning of its member states. That said, it is clear that Corbyn has absolutely no idea how to achieve his version of Brexit, which requires a deal with the EU. He naively believes he can negotiate a better deal than May can.
Third, the notion of a left-wing Brexit fails to understand that more than four decades of economic, cultural and societal integration cannot be unwound by Acts of Parliament. The notion of an “exit” or a “clean break” is based on the illusion that a country can be independent of transnational ties. Even if the Lexit goal is not to turn the UK into a neoliberal, Singaporean version of Englands’s sixteenth century buccaneering state, Lexit is still based on the goal of separation and recovery. Corbyn may not share the imperial nostalgia but his thinking belongs to an age when the white male industrial working class was the basis of progressive politics. That age has passed and the history that made it possible has also gone. The British economy is no longer based on coal and steel. Jobs are delivered by a more globally connected economy. There is also the incredibly slow realisation on both the left and right that Brexit is not compatible with other progressive achievements that have changed the political landscape, for instance the Good Friday Agreement. The clock cannot be so easily turned back after such a long period of accelerated Europeanisation.
Four, Lexit fails to see that progressive left-wing goals are compatible with membership of the EU. In fact the UK is in a strong position is this regard in that it is not affected by what is arguably the greatest problem of the EU, namely the single currency (see Claus Offe’s book, Europe Entrapped). I have not heard a single argument demonstrating how membership of the EU is incompatible with the pursuit of progressive left-wing politics. Here the left buys the nonsense arguments of Brexiters. Inequality in Britain today is not due to membership of the EU or the single market.
Five, the intellectual basis of Lexit is the presupposition that the EU is neoliberal and that to free us of neoliberalism we need to leave the EU. This is an argument that is frequently stated but never defended. Left-wing critics such as Wolfgang Streeck, for example, make such claims but offers no detailed examples or analysis. In what sense is the EU neoliberal? Without going into the debate about what neoliberalism is and what it is not, the following can be said: (i) Neoliberalism can take many shapes and shades. There can be no doubt that it has been present in European policy-making since the Lisbon Treaty, but it is nonsensical to claim that it is the fundamental rationale of European integration, which is not based on one single current but on many. It was states, for example the UK with Thatcher, that spear-headed neoliberalism, not the EU, which derived from the postwar era of “big government” and was always a project based on central planning – the opposite of neoliberalism (the CAP and the euro are just two examples). (ii) The EU is a regulatory order, while also being a pro-market one. It is difficult to see how European integration can be related to the political project of neoliberalism. Indeed, this is why Brexiters dislike it. Clearly Lexiters see the opposite. They can’t both be right. We may disagree with the Brexiters’ opposition to regulation, but we can agree that the EU is a regulatory order of governance that sets limits to what markets can do. Now while this does not make it an inherent good, it certainly means it is not neoliberal in the sense of being subservient to the rule of the market. The EU since the beginning was all about market regulation and not its free reign. (iii) Austerity policies – leaving aside the issue of bailouts and Greek debt ‑ are national ones and implemented by national governments. (iv) The problem of the democratic deficit and the structure of EU governance is not an example of neoliberalism and thus irrelevant to the Lexit case. (v) Major structural disparities within Europe (the predominance of Germany) are not primarily due to the EU but to the development of capitalism and will exist whether the EU exists or not.
Six, for all its many faults – the greatest, as Greece has discovered, being the monumental disaster of the single currency – the EU has been one of the success stories of the post-1945 period. Lexit arguments fail to see that Brexit involves the rejection of considerable social and political progress in the sphere of the rights of the person. There can be no doubt that economic forces have been predominant, but, as argued in the foregoing, this has not been incompatible with other developments. For the UK to break at a time of political turbulence everywhere ‑ and above all at a time when progressive politics is in crisis ‑ will weaken not strengthen the left. If the UK rejects Brexit, it may open up a window of opportunity to reform the EU and to resist the global spread of the right. The reversal of Brexit is probably the single strongest act of resistance to the global radical right, which will be the main beneficiary of a weaker EU. It is what Trump and Putin want. The success of left-wing progressive politics cannot be achieved in one country in isolation from other countries. As Timothy Snyder has argued in The Road to Unfreedom, Putin cannot make Russia stronger but he can weaken his enemies. Lexit plays into this new sinister global politics.
According to all available polls, Brexit is contrary to the wishes of majority of Labour Party members, Labour Party voters and Labour MPs. The majority of labour voters voted Remain. Lexit betrays the authoritarianism of a tradition of socialism that is not in tune with the times. Corbyn’s support for the Tory project of Brexit in all but technocratic details and issues of procedure is a symptom of the decline of the left, an example of what Enzo Traverso has called “left-wing melancholia”. Lexit is based on an illusion that cannot be realised, supported by muddled academic arguments about neoliberalism. The Brexit project must be stopped, not pursued by other means.
Gerard Delanty is professor of sociology and social & political thought at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Among his recent books are Formations of European Modernity: A Historical and Political Sociology of Europe, 2nd edition (Palgrave 2018) and The European Heritage: a Critical Re-interpretation (Routledge 2018). Email: [email protected]