Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

About The Toxic Brexit Debate

This party has said little on the subject of the divisive Brexit campaign. Yet, now, almost a year after the UK government formally commenced its negotiations with the EU, it is still unclear just what sort of a deal the government is trying to achieve. True, May and her colleagues did quickly declare they wanted out of the customs union, the single market and a host of other EU collaborative organisations and agreements. But since then the signals coming out of the government have been varied and confusing. If anything, the fog has got thicker as time passed.

In the referendum campaign in 2016, the electorate was exposed to racist and xenophobic rhetoric by UKIP and other Brexiteers, along with incredible statistics and fairy tales about the brave new world we could look forward to, once free of the ‘shackles’ of the EU. Their opponents painted an opposite picture – of a nightmare of businesses collapsing, of bankers and City institutions moving from London to the pleasures of Paris and other continental centres, huge dislocation of trade, queues of lorries and cars at Dover.

Discussions of the subject have become so embittered and nasty that the elite are pointedly advised by their posh paper, the TATLER, in its ‘guide to dinner parties’: “Do not try to direct the conversation, except to avoid one topic – Brexit” (THE WEEK, 24 February 2018). Tory and Labour MPs struggle to find any agreement within their ranks: many would prefer the whole thing to just go away, yet cannot say this as they fear the wrath of their voters. The cry goes up that Brexit (on any terms) is “the will of the people”, even though the referendum result was about 50-50, with nearly a third of the electorate not voting.

None of this should be of interest to Socialists, except for the nasty racist and xenophobic rhetoric which became so outspoken during and after that referendum campaign. The extremist fringes felt legitimated, and more frequent racist and neo-Nazi attacks on Muslims and others, including the murder of a woman MP, have followed that referendum.

It is hardly surprising that the British government is running into so many difficulties in trying to implement the “will of the people”. British businesses have been operating within the EU – and previously the EEC or the Common Market – for some 40 years. A number of EU institutions and agreements are involved, covering many aspects of life. There are the EU standards for consumer goods and foodstuffs. There is Euratom – an agency which ensures nuclear materials and devices used in the NHS are up to scratch. There are EU space and robotics programmes. Young people can have the advantages of foreign travel and study under the Erasmus programme. There are EU rules banning the use of GM foods and certain US agrochemicals. There are extended supply chains for industry, criss-crossing Europe and the Channel. And so on and on. Plus there is the sheer impossibility of trying to square the circle in Ireland: how to get out of the EU customs union and single market without having a tariff border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – without border controls, smuggling would make a mockery of the whole deal, but with a ‘hard border’ there would be a risk of a return to terrorism.

It is worth stepping back a bit to consider why the EU single market and customs union idea came about, apart from the obvious idea that common trade would serve to unify and pacify the deeply divided continent, after the second disastrous world war. In hopes of trying to ensure peace in the future, it started off as an Iron and Steel collaboration. Since then it has developed to cover issues like a free press, free elections, and other features of ‘civilised’ modern governance.

But its post-war origins lay in the need for a mass market, to compete against the US with its advanced large-scale mass production flooding the world’s markets. In the SPGB’s pamphlet, THE SOCIALIST PARTY AND WAR (1950), this point was argued clearly.

In order to make the profits which are the purpose for which industry is carried on under Capitalism the products have to be marketed in competition with the products of rivals. The key to profitable marketing is cheapness, and cheapness is sought, among other ways, by constantly trying to extract more work from the workers, by obtaining raw materials from the cheapest sources of supply, and by obtaining all the advantages of mass production. In many fields of production, the economies of mass production can only be achieved where there is a big home market available, which gives an initial advantage to such a country as the United States. ... Mass production industries ... develop productive capacity far beyond the needs of the home market and more and more depend for continuous sales on the ability to hold foreign markets as well. This leads to encroachments on the home markets of foreign rivals, which causes the governments of the countries concerned to retaliate with tariffs, quotas, subsidies and other methods of excluding foreign goods. It is in recognition of the need for larger markets to sustain mass production industries that efforts have been made since the second world war to integrate Western Europe, with or without Britain and the British Commonwealth, so that the single European and Colonial market shall be able to stand up to the competition of the USA on the one side and the developing industrial and trading power of Russia and her satellites.

In the last resort the capitalist trade struggle leads to wars, the object of which is to acquire or defend markets and territories rich in mineral and other resources and in exploitable populations.


Now, well over half a century later, with Russia’s ‘satellites’ in Eastern Europe now mostly members of the EU, and with the growth of international trade from China with its much cheaper army of wage-slaves, the emphasis now would be on the competition from Asia’s mass-production industries (Russian exports are mostly oil and gas). Otherwise the point stands.

The EU has exploited its external tariffs so as to access cheap raw materials, fish and foodstuffs from Africa, and the continued poverty of these ‘Third World’ former colonies has helped enrich European manufacturers. In this respect the EU does not stand for ‘free trade’ – its policies are protectionist.

Whilst we appreciate the EU’s internationalism and the ‘freedom of movement’ the EU enables, we also note that for the EU the ‘freedom of movement of labour’ is a principle to guarantee the availability of a supply of cheap labour – something much appreciated by UK farmers especially, with their need for cheap migrant labour to help out in harvest times, often working for wages well below the official minimum wage. As a result, many trade unionists have experienced the damaging effects of this dilution of the labour force, and many voted for Brexit as a result.

Socialists do not support either side of this phony battle. Neither side is arguing its case in terms of the class interests of workers. We argue that workers’ class interests are focussed on ending the capitalist ‘production for profit’ system. So whether Britain stays in the EU or leaves it, unless we get rid of the whole wages system, workers will remain exploited, regardless of the outcome of these complex negotiations.

The Brexit issue, in short, is simply a diversion, irrelevant to the interests of the working class. Let the elite at their posh dinner-parties or the racist thugs or the internationalists and pacifists get all seamed up about it – Socialists urge workers not to waste their time on such a divisive issue but to focus on working to end all class exploitation.

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