Brexit: A Prize in Reach for the Left

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  •  Monday, 17 July, 2017
     18:00 - 19:30

A talk by Richard Tuck, Frank G Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard Univesity

With a vote of thanks by: Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP

Richard Tuck spoke on the opportunity that Brexit currently offers the Left in Britain. Tuck has long believed that Brexit would benefit the British Left — both by killing the drive for Scottish independence, and by opening up a new space for radical left politics in Britain. Building on those prescient insights, Tuck now argues that we may already be seeing the first signs of the way in which Brexit has driven a dramatic revival of the Left, but that navigating the Brexit process requires the Left keeps its nerve and does not once again misunderstand the true character of the underlying political and constitutional issues. He explained the need for the Left to tread carefully in the aftermath of the recent General Election — and to avoid the temptation of undermining the May government by joining with those in the Conservative Party who want a soft Brexit.

Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has been since 1995.  Prior to that he had been a University Lecturer in History at Cambridge since 1973 and a Fellow of Jesus College since 1970; he is still an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College.  He is the author of many articles and books on political thought and its history, including Natural Rights Theories (Cambridge University Press 1979), Hobbes  (Oxford University Press 1989), Philosophy and Government 1572-1651 (Cambridge University Press 1993), The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford University Press 1999),  Free Riding (Harvard University Press 2008) and The Sleeping Sovereign (Cambridge University Press 2016).  He has also produced editions of Hobbes’s  Leviathan  (Cambridge University Press 1991), Hobbes’s The Citizen (with Michael Silverthorne) (Cambridge University Press 1998) and Hugo Grotius’s The Rights of War and Peace (Liberty Fund, Indianopolis 2005).  He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

One of my favourite political quotations is the observation by Lord Melbourne on the failure of the Catholic Emancipation Act to improve the conditions of Irish Catholics: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”  Well, the damned fools scored an even greater triumph with the Brexit vote.  I count myself among them, not in the sense that I predicted the result – like most people in a profession, I assumed that my colleagues (in this case the empiricist political scientists – the wise men of our time) knew what they were doing – but in the sense that I could see the appeal of Brexit to a much greater part of the electorate than seemed to many people to be the case before the referendum.  In an article published in the American journal Dissent in May last year, and in some follow-up pieces, I argued that the left wing of British politics would benefit significantly from Brexit – actually, though I did not say this then, even more than the right would do.  This was for two reasons.

The first was what you might call purely tactical, the issue of Scottish independence.  The Labour Party has virtually never won a general election purely on English votes; England is and almost always has been a fundamentally Tory country.  So the prospect of a left wing party reestablishing itself in England depends on a continuation of the Union, and, I argued, it was the EU which had undermined the British Union by offering the Scots a largely costless path to independence: almost everything which the Act of Union guaranteed to Scotland as an economy integrated with England was equally guaranteed to it by the European Union (the exception might be an integrated currency, but as we saw in the Scottish referendum that is a debatable issue).  The SNP realised this in the mid-1980s, and its dramatic change of policy on the Common Market (to which before then it had been deeply hostile) was the prelude to its electoral success. But Scottish independence was only costless in this fashion if both countries remained in the EU: even if an independent Scotland could remain in the EU after England had left, something the SNP leaders often fantasise about, the costs of disunion for the Scots would escalate dramatically, both economically and psychically.  So Brexit, I claimed, was likely to stall the movement towards independence in Scotland.

The second reason that I thought Brexit would help the Left was more fundamental.  It was that the essential character of the EU, as Wolfgang Streeck has powerfully argued, is hostile to traditional socialism of the mid-twentieth-century variety.  (It is, incidentally, testimony to the remarkably impoverished nature of the British debate on the EU that it has failed to generate any analysis of comparable seriousness and sophistication to that found on the Continent, particularly – I would say – in the writings of Streeck, Habermas and Varoufakis, except perhaps in the work of Chris Bickerton at Cambridge).  If Britain left the EU, I argued, the space available to Left Wing policies would suddenly expand, and all sorts of possibilities, including such things as thorough-going nationalisation or differential regional taxes, would be on the table again.  I will return to this issue in much more detail presently.

So I reasoned; but I did not expect that I would see these effects so quickly! I think the presumption that Brexit would now take place played a major part in the recent general election. In Scotland it must surely have helped to turn the tide against the SNP, making a significant number of people recoil from the idea of a Scotland detached from England under the new circumstances.  This is, incidentally, entirely compatible with the way Scots voted in the Brexit referendum – there was every reason for Scots who sympathised with independence to vote Remain in a UK wide poll, but that is very different from voting for an independent Scotland to stay in the EU separately from England, though the SNP leadership, naturally enough, have conflated the two things.   And in England, Jeremy Corbyn felt able to put forward a manifesto which not only endorsed leaving the EU (more clearly than some people are now claiming, since it promised an end to the free movement of labour, something incompatible with the Single Market, and the creation of new trade agreements with the rest of the world, which is incompatible with the Customs Union), but also included policies which would have seemed main-stream for the Labour Party during the thirty years after the War, the trentes glorieuses as Thomas Piketty has labelled those three decades in post-war history, but which would at the very least be hard to implement within the EU as currently configured.  And it was these policies, or at least the attitude which underpinned them, which – it is generally agreed – produced a new kind of enthusiasm for the Labour Party.

A corollary of this was the complete implosion of UKIP.  In the months after the US election last November I often found myself arguing against people in America who thought that Trump and Brexit were the same phenomenon.  On my view, Brexit was in fact an innoculation against Trump and the politics of the radical right.  Leaving the EU would not only kill Scottish independence, it would also the kill the  kind of right-wing politics in England which UKIP represented, since it was largely driven by a sense of powerlessness.  The feeling – and it need be no more than that – that the political process could after all be responsive to what people wanted even on fundamental matters would immediately remove the emotional force from the radical right’s message, and that too duly seems to have happened.  Compare UKIP’s performance in the election with Trump’s, or with Marine Le Pen’s, or the radical right’s performance in almost any Western country today.  As in the 1930s, Britain may have dodged the bullet of a kind of fascism, and largely because its political structures once again permit rather than constrain radical politics.  This is a lesson which needs to be learned more widely: the more one attempts to use constitutional or cultural power (these being largely the same thing) to suppress dangerous and distasteful political movements, the stronger they grow, for the members of the movements now possess a justifiable case against their rulers.

Related to this is what I think is a widespread misunderstanding about the role immigration from the EU played.  The general right of EU citizens to come to Britain is a very clear example of powerlessness on the part of the British authorities.  There are many other examples, as we shall see, which to a liberal on immigration like myself are more important, but it is perhaps the most visible and concrete case, and we have carefully and responsibly to distinguish between a general hostility to immigrants and the desire to have an immigration policy.  It is, I believe, quite strictly parallel to the hostility to illegal immigration in the US; it is (at least to my mind) anxiety about its illegality, and the fact that certain kinds of liberals do not seem to care about this, which angers many people, since it too is an example of the ordinary political processes ceasing to have any effect.  I do not see in the US any desire for example to repeal the 1965 Immigration Act, which removed racial quotas from the US immigration system, which one might expect if there was a revival there of pre-1965 racism in immigration; and one should not forget that the same voters who voted for Trump in many cases four years earlier had voted for a black President.  In this respect I think that both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, who want a generous immigration policy after Brexit, may have a better instinct about British public opinion than the people who simply accuse the British voters of racism – though one can see why that accusation is a very useful one to make for opponents of Leave.

However, the weeks after the general election have seen signs of a retreat from the clarity offered by the Brexit vote.  Remainers, particularly of a familiar world-weary sort, say that this is because the clarity was an illusion, and the full implications of Brexit are only now dawning; but to think this is essentially to make the same mistake which British politicians, and to some degree the whole of British society, have always made about the character of the EU.  It is to confuse what one might call policy with constitutional principle.  The vote in the referendum was a vote on a constitutional issue, and questions of policy have now to be decided within this new framework – though the framework allows a very wide range of options.  Indeed, the striking and unusual fact about the vote is that it was a vote to put in place a less restrictive constitutional framework than has been the case since 1973.

The British have always shied away from considerations of constitutional structures, apart from a familiar type of crank with over-detailed schemes for electoral reform etc; but the EU has to be thought about in these terms.  To adapt Trotsky’s thought on the dialectic, you may not be interested in constitutions, but constitutions are interested in you.  This is something which it is easier for Britons to see if they think about the USA.  They are used to understanding American politics against the background of the Constitution, partly because Americans famously keep emphasising that themselves, with oaths of loyalty to the Constitution and so on, and they are familiar with the idea that a critical issue in a Presidential election is the ability to determine political outcomes for a generation via the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court.  But close to seven hundred years of a very different kind of political system (I say seven hundred years, since the essential principles of Parliamentary legislation and taxation were largely the creation of Edward III in order to fight the Hundred Years’ War with public support) have left the British with very different instincts about their own politics.

So deeply imbued have we been with the idea that Parliament, and therefore general elections, can in principle change any features of our common life, that the argument about the EU has almost entirely been an argument about what kind of policies we want to pursue at the moment.  The most striking feature of the referendum debate itself was that it was to a great extent conducted as if it was a normal British general election, in which matters of policy were to be decided for the next five years or so.  The argument about levels of immigration which came to dominate the debate, at least in some quarters, exemplified this: it was largely concerned with the desirability or otherwise of specific numbers or types of immigrant, as if what was at stake was the British government’s immigration policy over the next few years.  I was even told explicitly by a number of anti-Brexit friends that what mattered was preventing a Tory victory in the referendum, and that the issues in debate could be sorted out later.  This approach was reassuring, in a way, since it showed that at an instinctive level the British still thought of politics as something which was open to change at the ballot box; but in this particular setting the old instincts proved to be an impediment to clear thinking about the issues.

For some years before the referendum I had been trying to get clear in my own mind how to theorise the US constitution, and I came to think that Britain’s relationship with the EU made sense, rather surprisingly, in the same terms.  I tried to explain the approach in lectures delivered at Cambridge in 2012, which subsequently appeared as my The Sleeping Sovereign in 2016; I didn’t discuss the EU directly in the lectures, but it was already at the back of my mind, and my Dissent piece drew on the thoughts I had had four years earlier.  Briefly, what I argued was that we should take seriously the distinction which some major seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political theorists drew between sovereignty and government.  For hundreds of years it had been assumed that democracy of the ancient kind was impossible in a modern state, since the population could not meet to deliberate in a nation the size of France or England.  All that might be possible was a system of representation (hailed as the great modern- i.e. medieval – invention by eighteenth-century historians), but that was not democracy in the ancient or the natural sense of the term, in which the people legislate: Aristotle, for example, had described election as an aristocratic principle, since it picked out a limited set of legislators.

What eighteenth-century theorists realised, above all Rousseau, but many of the American founders as well, was that popular legislation on fundamental matters was not impeded by the size or character of a modern state.  Government, to use their term, had to be conducted by small groups or even a single person, able to deliberate and devote all their time to the issues; but sovereignty could be expressed in the occasional creation or amendment of fundamental laws which would form a constitution.  The referendum naturally followed as a means of occasional popular legislation on constitutional matters, the very first in the world being in Massachusetts in 1778 when the new constitution of the independent state was put to the vote of all the citizens.  Other American states followed suit, and even the Federal Constitution, though not put to a referendum, was designed to be ratified in a series of popular assemblies. Revolutionary France then embarked on the most extensive experiment with constitutional referendums, and though they fell into abeyance after the Revolution, interest in constitutional referendums revived in the late nineteenth century and again after the Second World War, until they are the norm in almost all European countries and in all but one of the states of the USA.

Once the distinction between acts of sovereignty and acts of government was in place  it would be possible to assign the role of constitutional legislator to non-democratic institutions as well – indeed, the two earliest theorists of the distinction, Hobbes and Bodin, assigned it to monarchs; but the distinction was always more relevant to democracy than to any other system of fundamental legislation, for the obvious reason that a monarch or an aristocratic board was not impeded in exercising acts of government as well as acts of sovereignty, and both Bodin and Hobbes seem, surprisingly, to have understood this.

Britain historically had kept out of this story, retaining its medieval representative institution and treating what elsewhere would be constitutional laws, passed in a special way, as merely ordinary statutes.  (Incidentally, it is often said that Britain has an unwritten constitution and the US a written one.  This is not really true: there are many constitutional conventions in the US, as there would have to be, and there are written laws which are patently constitutional in the UK, such as the Act of Settlement, the Act of Union, and the Accession to the European Communities Act.  The difference is not whether the rules are written or unwritten, but who does the writing, and whether they a different and more democratic body than the one which writes the ordinary legislation of the country).  But accession to the EU changed this.

The right way to theorise the EU, I argue, is as in effect a coordinated set of constitutional structures for each of the member countries.  The EU is not a “superstate”, nor can it easily become one, juridically: it has always been clearly stated by the highest legal authorities in each country that at least at the moment the countries are sovereign entities, able in the last resort to decide their own futures.  This is not empty rhetoric since, among other things, it is the justification for the continued representation of each EU country separately at the UN, something they are extremely unlikely ever to renounce.  For this reason much of the use of the term “sovereignty” in the referendum debate was indeed as unhelpful as its critics complained.  Moreover, the fact that the EU is not a state is the source of many of the problems it itself faces, as well as the problems conventional states face dealing with it; the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean are testimony to the dangers of its current anomalous character and the fact that it is stuck in a half-way house, neither able to be a state with its own borders nor an alliance of states which control their own.  It is also why negotiating with it is not like negotiating with a normal state, but more in some ways (though one should not push this analogy too far) like negotiating with a Supreme Court – the picture Varoufakis paints in his gripping memoirs of his dealings with the EU institutions illustrates their strange character and the mistake we make if we treat it like either a unitary state or an ordinary international grouping .

The key feature of the EU is that the sovereign authority in each state has enacted a certain rather curious kind of constitutional order for each of them, in which a set of principles and institutions are entrenched in a position beyond the reach of conventional, “governmental”, legislation.  These principles and institutions are supranational in character, of course, and that is why the states took this course of action, but seem from within each state the supranational character is not, in a way, the key feature: the key feature is rather that they are entrenched within the legal system of each country (this is what makes them different from the other supranational arrangements with which they are often compared, such as NATO or – even – the UN, at least in great part).  The curious feature of these constitutional orders, however, is that they cannot be amended by the same process by which they were imposed: an Act of the UK Parliament by itself straightforwardly entrenched the EU institutions in UK law, but no Act of the UK Parliament by itself can amend them.  Only a process of intergovernmental negotiation, issuing in changes which no one country can impose upon itself, can alter the essential character of the EU’s constitutional structure.  The only thing an individual state can do is repudiate the whole structure – as we are finding out.

Most states on the Continent already had constitutional structures of some sort before the EU was formed, and their politicians were used to operating inside them, just as American politicians are.  But the idea that a constitution could not be amended was new to them also – though, and this may be significant, not to German politicians.  The German constitution is a legal oddity: the West German constitution, the Grundgesetz, was technically authorised by three of the four powers in the Allied military government, and included the provision that in the event of reunification a new constitution would have to be ratified by the German people.  After the dissolution of the military government in 1991 the provinces of East Germany simply acceded to the Western state and its Grundgesetz, so the German constitution has never actually been ratified properly; moreover, a tradition has developed within German constitutional jurisprudence of supposing that certain fundamental moral principles are enshrined in constitutional law without the need for positive enactment.  It is easy to see how a domestic structure of this kind renders the structures of the EU far less problematic for Germany than they are for the UK, or indeed for France, with its long history of popular constitutional legislation.

Britain, by virtue of its desire to join what was then the Common Market, thus found itself forced unwittingly into the default shape of a modern state, with a constitution which lay beyond the power of the government to change.  And as an almost instinctive recognition of this, the Wilson administration as we all know decided to use for the first time the default institution of constitutional legislation in a modern state, the referendum, in order to legitimate it.  Though constitutional referendums had occasionally been proposed in the UK, notably to deal with Irish – and indeed Scottish – home rule, this was the first time that such a thing had seemed clearly necessary in Britain – about two hundred years after it seemed equally clearly necessary to the English settlers in Massachusetts.  Since that time, as we also all know, the constitutional referendum has become a familiar feature of British political life.  Characteristically this has happened without a formal or legal acknowledgment of their fundamental role, and technically they are merely consultative; but the idea that they could be disregarded seems to most people about as fanciful as the idea that the Queen could actually use the power, still technically in her hands, to veto a Parliamentary statute.  Even in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, few people have advocated simply ignoring the result; the popular anti-Brexit response has been instead to call for a second vote, and that seems to me to be testimony to the obviousness of the change that has come over British politics.  The EU and the referendum as an institution in the UK are wrapped in one another’s arms.

I might add at this point that the dangers and disadvantages of these kinds of structures tend to be far less obvious to people who are politically engaged or have some kind of public role.  I mix in America with people who are regularly dealing with the Supreme Court, are leading figures in the political parties, or are writing for the press and trying to influence the political agenda.  For them, it is easier to think that they will have some effect on politics through these processes than through the old-fashioned process of elections, and it is natural for them to think that their personal experience is something like an objective fact.  One of the critical comments on my Brexit piece concluded with something like “perhaps we have had too much democracy”; it struck me reading it that “we” would not have to worry about less democracy if “we” were people like you and me, but for most people the vote is the one way they possess of altering their political circumstances.  As a result, I think the general population has always been able to think more clearly about the EU than the political elites, since they have much more to lose.

To repeat: you may not be interested in constitutions, but constitutions are interested in you.  They are not neutral, benign forces, however much the lawyers charged with maintaining them pretend that this is so; again, you only have to think about the history of American constitutional jurisprudence (much more familiar to us than Continental constitutional jurisprudence, for obvious reasons) to see this.  Think about the way the Commerce Clause has been used to extend federal power; think about the Dred Scott judgement and its endorsement of slavery; think about the Korematsu case on the internment of Japanese Americans; think about Citizens’ United.  Put against them, of course, Brown vs the Board of Education or Roe vs Wade; but we will be choosing according to our political preferences.  Certain kinds of political programmes are simply impossible in certain kinds of constitutional orders.

My favourite example of this, and something of great relevance to the general theme of this lecture, is the creation of the National Health Service in Britain.  It required a very unusual constitutional order, since its most distinctive feature, and the thing which still sharply differentiates it from the single payer systems found in most developed countries (and even, in many respects, in the USA), was the fact that it involved a mass expropriation of private property, in the form of the so-called “voluntary” hospitals, some of which like Barts had been independent institutions for over eight hundred years.  This was the issue which was most fiercely debated within the Attlee cabinet, and the result of Nye Bevan’s victory there was one of the most far-reaching examples of nationalisation from those years, and the only one which has survived more or less intact.  It is often asked by opponents of the NHS, “if it’s so good, why don’t other countries copy it?”  But in this respect it would be extremely difficult for other countries to copy it, since in most modern states expropriation of private property without compensation would be legally impossible without a far-reaching constitutional amendment which might be very hard to pass.  In Britain in 1946, all that was needed was a single sentence in an Act of Parliament: “there shall, on the appointed day, be transferred to and vest in the Minister by virtue of this Act all interests in or attaching to premises forming part of a voluntary hospital or used for the purposes of a voluntary hospital…” (para. 6.1).  What this illustrates is that the achievements of the Attlee government, still the touchstone for left-wing measures in this country, required the kind of ancient omnicompetence which Parliament still possessed in the 1940s.

The fact that every schoolchild is taught (or are they still?), that the British labour movement was intensely Parliamentary and non-revolutionary, was not the consequence of some magic trait of the British which enabled them to avoid the turmoils of the revolutionary years on the Continent, and indeed in America (for what else was the Civil War but a vast revolutionary moment?).  Marx and Engels observed from their vantage point in Victorian England that the bourgeoisie had taken different routes in France and England to hamper the industrial working-class from gaining power.  In France they had conceded universal male suffrage, first in 1792 and again and permanently in 1848, but they had bound the legislature with a constitution which secured things such as private property (broadly defined) against legislative encroachment.  In England, there were no such constraints on the legislature, and therefore the proletariat had to be denied the vote – which in this country, we should remember, was finally extended to the entire adult male population only in 1918, the same year that the first women received it (or rather recovered it – women lost the vote in 1832).  So Marx and Engels concluded that the only thing necessary to bring about socialism in England was the extension of the Parliamentary franchise, whereas in France it required revolutionary and extra-constitutional action.  Exactly the same logic activated the early leaders of the Labour Party in Britain: they had every confidence that the Parliamentary route to power was the right one, since they would then have available to them any measures to promote socialism which they thought fit, and which they could persuade a simple majority of their country (by definition, largely the working class) to support.

In the case of the EU, the overall character of the constitutional order pushes consistently in what we might call a neo-liberal direction.  This is the point which Wolfgang Streeck has repeatedly insisted on, and has documented in convincing detail; he thinks that it is largely because of the influence on the institutions of German capital, and that is clearly true to an extent, but I would also argue that the institutions to some degree have a life of their own.  Put in place a constitutional order which specifies certain economic freedoms – for the EU, the now notorious four freedoms, the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, to which we should also add the lesser-known but very important freedom of establishment; let a group of modern jurists loose on them; and the result will almost inevitably be a series of rules which are tilted towards the market.  Constitutional orders are a combination of rules and the people interpreting them (as Hobbes in particular understood very well), and the people inevitably develop a certain kind of internal culture which is usually proudly immune to outside political pressures.  The American founders realised this, and were very interested in ways in which the judicial process could be made responsive to the citizens, including in some states the election of judges, and the elaborate process of nomination and confirmation for federal judges.  The worst of all worlds is to have a strong constitutional order and an independent judiciary – something I sometimes fear Britain is drifting towards even outside the EU.  But that would be material for another day.

A simple way of seeing how this works is a comparison between Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.    As many people have observed, the parallels between them are very close, in terms of their age, their lack of conventional politicians’ gloss, their roles as insurgents within an established centre-left party, and the enthusiastic support they receive from young voters.  The three proposals which Sanders put at the heart of his movement were: pull out of or radically modify NAFTA and do not enter the TPP; greatly increase the tax on the big Wall Street banks; and introduce free state college and university tuition paid for largely by the Wall Street tax.  The British version of these proposals obvious resonate with Labour’s newly energised electorate, but – and I want to stress this – none of them would have been feasible for a British government within the EU.

The EU was itself Britain’s NAFTA or TPP, and it also decided all questions of trade for Britain with the rest of the world, so there would be no question of a British Bernie within the EU even thinking of such a thing.  A British government could theoretically change the tax regime on the City, but the free movement of labour and capital within the EU would permit the banks simply to transfer operation to a friendlier tax regime elsewhere in the Union without anything of the trauma which would afflict Wall Street banks if they fled the US to avoid a Bernie tax. And even something (one would have thought) as parochial as free college tuition would not have been entered into lightly by a Britain within the EU.  The EU enforces the principle that no distinction can be made between home and EU students when it comes to college fees, so free tuition funded by British taxes for British students (assuming that the banks could be made to stand still long enough to be taxed) would mean free tuition for students from across the EU funded by the British.  Scotland has managed this on a small scale, though with the significant anomaly that it can charge fees to English students but not to other EU ones, but it is inconceivable that a scheme of this kind could be put in place for the whole of Britain without enormous public protest.  I should say that I am amazed that the tabloids didn’t leap long ago on to the fact that British taxpayers already subsidise EU students in English universities, far more in practice than other EU taxpayers subsidise British students at Continental universities.  Strikingly, the EU enforces a rule which even in the integrated economy of the US would be unacceptable, since it is taken for granted there that in-state students pay lower fees at state universities than out-of-state students.

If what I have been saying so far is right, the worst mistake which the Left in Britrain could make would be to once again put itself under these kinds of constraint.  Paradoxically, the constraints do not affect the Right anything like as much; indeed, I would say that the underlying verities of the EU are currently just the same as they were in the 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher wore her famous Common Market dress, and a wide swathe of Labour politicians, from Michael Foot through Tony Benn (who in those days was not thought to be exceptionally left-wing) to Peter Shore, who was generally on the right of the party, all saw the risks to traditional Labour politics which European union posed.  This is why Corbyn, a relic (like myself) from the 1970s, could see this more clearly than other contemporary politicians.  This particular penny is beginning to drop on the Right – I was very struck by a recent piece in the Telegraph by Charles Moore raising the question of whether it might be best to stay within the institutions of the EU in order to block Corbyn’s policies.  To his credit, he answered his question decisively in the negative, but his article reminds us about the odd history of European union, and how its critical aspect has always been the role of union in removing possibilities from domestic politics, though this has seldom been possible for the political parties to admit, even to themselves.  The Tories were enthusiastic about it as a means of permanently blocking the reappearance of socialism, but turned against it when it looked under Delors as if it would instead entrench left-wing policies; Labour became interested in it at that point, but began to turn against it recently when it turned out that the actual decisions of the European institutions by and large go against the interests of European workers.  It should also be said that there has always been a significant section of the Labour party which viewed membership as a kind of self-denying ordinance, preventing the party from veering back to the Left and therefore (they thought) endangering its electoral prospects – this is, I think, the honourable (though I would say misguided) source of the strange fascination it has held for some important figures in the party.  But the key point about this history is that it is precisely the capacity of European union to take serious political issues off the domestic agenda that has been the fundamental reason both for supporting it and for opposing it.

So what should the Left now do?  There has been a remarkable outburst in the press and at Westminster of people trying to engineer a “soft” Brexit.  Astonishingly, the idea seems to have gained ground in some quarters that the Labour vote was a vote against Brexit; this is an idea that could only occur to people in the Left establishment who believe that in reality most Labour Party voters must be just like them, and for some reason were merely pretending to be in favour of Brexit last year.  This is testimony to the extraordinary power of the conviction among most politically active people that to be on the Left simply entails support for the EU, and that sooner or later everyone will realise this; it is also testimony to the social gulf between the Left establishment and its traditional electorate.

In particular, something like membership of the EEA is creeping back onto the agenda.  At the beginning of the referendum campaign, like many Brexiteers at that time, I was mildly in favour of the EEA option, but I have come to realise its dangers.  First, from the point of view of keeping Scotland in the Union it is not really an improvement on the EU.  Scotland would still not need the United Kingdom to have a United Economy with England, and the logic of that position would sooner or later work itself out; Norway after all manages to have an integrated economy with the rest of Scandinavia without being under Danish rule.  This is presumably why Nicola Sturgeon seems reasonably happy with a soft Brexit.  Ruth Davidson is also supposedly pushing for it; this could simply be a piece of local political tactics, but she might mean it, and if so she may not so easily be able to see off the next push for independence.  Indeed, she might easily find herself in a few years time Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, and who knows whether this has occurred to her or not?

Second, the arguments about the restrictions on Left policies which the EU institutions represent apply just as much to the EEA or EFTA.  By now the laws in EEA and EFTA countries on such things as competition are thoroughly integrated into the EU legal framework, and are governed by ECJ judgements.  As long as this is so, the EEA and EFTA will have broadly the same economic character as the EU.  This has already been seen in Norway, where a collective agreement dating from the 1970s which granted the Norwegian dock labourers’ union the sole right to unload cargo was nullified by the Norwegian Supreme Court earlier this year on the grounds of its incompatibility with EU law by virtue of the freedom of establishment clause; this parallels a similar case within the EU, currently going through the courts in Spain.  Breaking the comparable arrangement with dock workers which the Labour government negotiated in 1947, we should remember, was one of Thatcher’s signal achievements.  And though some defenders of this “soft” Brexit talk about it as a temporary measure, if there is one safe generalisation in politics, it is that temporary arrangements usually become permanent.

If I am right in supposing that this new surge in left-wing politics is the result of Brexit, it would be suicidal to overturn it.  We can see the dangers of doing so very clearly in the case of the working-class UKIP voters, particularly in the North, who felt it was now safe to return to Labour; but it is also dangerous indirectly and in the long term for the newly-energised younger voters of the South.  They may to some degree support the EU, but their new energy is a product of Brexit, and not in the sense that it is merely a reaction to it.  Like everyone else, they have sensed the opening-up of possibilities long denied to them, and even if they want the EU they surely do not want the return to power of the kind of politician the EU necessarily breeds.  I suppose the closest analogue to the position we can reasonably ascribe to them is not Streeck’s but Varoufakis’s: a hope that somehow the EU can be seized by the forces of the Left, coming especially from Southern Europe.  As I said earlier, the views of both Streeck and Varoufakis are way beyond anything available in the British debate about Europe in their seriousness and sophistication, but the problem with Varoufakis’s position is that he has never given any good reasons for supposing his vision is attainable; the more sober view espoused by Streeck carries more conviction, and its lesson (as he has himself acknowledged) is that Brexit may be the best hope, not only for Britain but for the rest of Europe as a whole.  The great prize awaiting the Left in Britain, and it is now almost within reach, is genuine Brexit followed by a Labour government.  Then the Left can re-enact whatever it thinks is good in EU regulations about such things as the environment and working conditions, and whatever immigration policy it wishes, and at the same time free itself from the far-reaching restrictions which the EU imposes on traditional socialism.

But the Labour Party is faced with a tremendous temptation: undermine the May government by joining with those in the Conservative Party who want a soft Brexit, and profit from the Conservatives’ consequent dissolution.  But if the Labour Party chooses short-term success by re-entering (in some form) these structures, the logic of British politics over the last thirty years will simply repeat itself, and we will inevitably end up with permanent Tory rule in an England without Scotland, or some kind of Blairite regime, no doubt repackaged (barely) as “Macronist” – Macron being the perfect emblem of the conjunction of the EU and neo-liberal economic policies, and the consequent destruction of socialism.  Without Brexit the Labour Party will revert to its role of providing an alternative managerial class for late-stage capitalism, and the enthusiasm of its new-found supporters will wither away or find new and more troubling outlets.  This is exactly what the Tory Remainers would like to see happen, and the Labour leadership ought not to fall into their trap.  You will know better than I do whether this will happen, but the signs are not good, with Kier Starmer insisting that some deal must be struck with the EU and that a “hard” Brexit will necessarily be opposed in Parliament by the Labour Party.  Above all at the moment the Labour Party needs to keep its nerve: it is on the verge of its greatest prize in a couple of generations, with the possibility of genuinely transforming British politics, and it would be a tragedy if it allowed itself to throw this away.


by The Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP 17 July 2017

On behalf of all of us, Richard, thank you for a thoughtful and challenging speech.

In many ways your speech was full of optimism and possibility.

You quoted Lord Melbourne.

I offer Antonio Gramsci’s comment: “I am a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Gramsci wanted us to see the world as it is; but have the will to change it.

Richard your analysis challenges us… to see the world as you describe it.

I question the assertion that England is essentially a Tory country.  In 1997, Labour won 163 more MPs in England than the Tories. In 2001, 158 more MPs.  In 2005, 92 more MPs.

In 1997, 2001, and 2005, Labour would have won majorities without a single Labour MP in Scotland.

But that now seems a lifetime ago.

In respect of the EU Referendum, the establishment, the liberal elite were stunned by the result. And that elite is not just confined to politics.

I was one of those who saw this as a car crash waiting to happen.

For years, the elite ignored public disquiet over immigration. It was side-lined because of the net benefit to the economy  from EU immigration.

Well, the public told the elite where they could stick their “net benefit”.

And what was most clear in the referendum was that many Remain voters were not happy with the EU.

Four in ten wanted changes to free movement.  But on balance they preferred IN than OUT.

Leave voters had a stronger emotional reaction and more certainty.

Few were ready to be persuaded.

They lost faith in the elite – and many in politics as a whole.

Richard you are so right that the public wanted control.

But the emotional driver for control was almost totally immigration.

The result followed by Remain establishment figures saying “we respect the vote, but….”

The public can see through the but…

They think, “Here we go, they are looking for a way to wriggle out of the result.”

And they are right.

We heard this week, Tony Blair suggest if only we stayed in, we could reform free movement. Tony had the chance to do this, so did Gordon Brown.

And under Ed Miliband, when David Cameron was trying to get reform of free movement, Labour exploited and attacked his weakness and his failure.

There was no attempt to support, or bolster the UK’s position, prior to the referendum, when the opportunity presented itself.

The General Election

In relation to the general election, without doubt Brexit played a part in the general election, but perhaps not as you describe.

First, the collapse of UKIP was brought about by the Tories, not the left.

They out-manoeuvred UKIP in the 2015 general election; and then stole their clothes over Brexit.

Theresa May thought Brexit would work for her… and it could have

In the end, despite beating Labour 3:1 among Leave voters;

It was the Remain voters whose votes counted more.

Overwhelmingly they voted tactically to defeat the Tories and, mainly, Labour benefitted.

Commentators called it The Revenge of the Remainers, and that appears right.

But we should not forget that some of the hardest fought campaigns were Labour MPs facing an onslaught in Leave voting seats as UKIP vacated the stage and endorsed the Tories.

I was one of them.

We felt completely under siege.

Like the 300 Spartans at Thermopyle – except we lived to tell the tale.

These MPs faced a huge Tory spending campaign eating into their working class vote.

I survived.  But we lost Mansfield and Stoke South.

We held Ashfield by only 441 votes.

Bishop Auckland by 502.

The Tory vote in Rother Valley and Don Valley up by 9,000.

Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover seat up by 8,000.

We didn’t win back Copeland or Sherwood.

In the circumstances, it was amazing that more MPs in leave seats did not lose.

Which brings me briefly to Richard’s observations on Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto.

Again, Labour won more young and middle class votes.

But there was a huge swing to the Tories among working class voters.

Labour’s lead among C2, D, E voters was just 4%.

And the oldest voters, those old enough to vote in the golden decades after World war two, voted in greater numbers than ever for the Tories – a 36% lead among pensioners.

Labour has never polled so badly among older voters.

So, as Gramsci said – see the world as it is, not as you would want it to be.

But here is the optimism of the will:

Richard you are right – there is an opportunity.

I have argued Labour needs to move on.

Embrace Brexit and build policies that meet the challenge.

Why don’t we have the workforce we need?

Where is our training policy if fewer workers are to be imported?

I’ve argued for the UK to adopt a muscular economic nationalism.

Not always public ownership;

but where is the British interest reflected in our Government procurement?

The support for UK manufacturers?

And then there is the democratic gain.

Why not seize an agenda to empower out regions?

To give more say, more voice, more clout to our regions – and force them in turn to give more say and more voice to communities.

Brexit post-election holds dangers.

The Government’s current weakness offers Labour a path to influence or a temptation for destruction.

Which leads to my final point on our way forward.

We need to be straight with people on Brexit.

We know May called the election on the lie that the opposition parties would block Brexit.

Yet only 114 MPs had voted not to trigger Article 50.

And Jeremy said at the outset of the election, the issue of Britain leaving was settled.

Now May has lost a majority, we cannot change tack,

Or try to suggest that anything less than full membership of the single market and customs union is a hard Brexit.

Those who aim to keep us in the single market know full well that this is EU membership in all but name.

I promised: To work for the best deal for jobs in Doncaster.

To protect workers’ rights. To end free movement.

And no second referendum. That is Labour’s position too.

We cannot spend the next 18 months voting down every one of the Tories EU Bills. If we do so, we will look like liars.

That is not to say there should not be scrutiny of the Great Repeal Bill – or ‘Great Adoption Bill’ as it should be named.

Instead, we can either hope Britain fails… and keep predicting disaster (I never think that reads well on a leaflet). Or begin to build ideas that help Britain to succeed.

Labour has the opportunity to think outside of the box.

And we must work harder together to own the good ideas wherever we can.

We have to leave the trench warfare of the referendum behind and bring voters together, whether they voted Leave or Remain.

If we do so, Labour will be better placed to win again whenever the next election comes.

Richard, you challenge the prevailing common sense at every turn with passion and eloquence.

Some if it is uncomfortable for us, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Long may you continue to do so.

Would you please show your appreciation for our main speaker this evening Professor Richard Tuck.



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