I know a number of friends on the left – usually the far left – who favour the UK leaving the European Union. Leigh Philips, EU affairs journalist and science writer, offers two scenarios of the left-wing dialogue regarding the referendum. The first is a reasoned, erudite, and polite discussion between fellow comrades ultimately agreeing to disagree while resolving to continue the fight for European democracy, fists pumped and throats warbling French anthems of international solidarity. The second has a reasoned, erudite, and polite Leaver being bombarded with non-sequiturs and personal attacks.
As is typical for the left, I have disagreements with the post, though I do think it’s a very important one on balance. Yes, I do wish the debate between Remainers and Leavers on the left could be more courteous and measured – but I would also appreciate it if they were grounded in reality. Throughout the left’s history it has been plagued with accusations of being out of touch with the common man they claim to champion, and treating the debate as if it was an intellectual-philosophical exercise rather than a vote which will actively affect the lives of millions can come across as deeply insulting to those who bear the brunt of those decisions. As the old saying goes, “deeds, not words.”
On the other hand, logical fallacies and personal attacks do nobody any good, and each argument must be based on an assumption of good faith.
So, allow me to present my version of how I think the debate could’ve/should’ve gone, and how the debate seems to me as a Remainer.
SCENE I. The main room of a local community hall, packed with the undecided public.
Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have been campaigning throughout the community for their respective sides. Both are well-known and respected volunteers at various charitable organisations and good causes. LEAVER speaks first in the debate.
Leaver: Comrade, it’s a simple question of democracy. The EU does not meet democratic norms, and we should reject it just as we reject monarchy, the House of Lords and TTIP.
Remainer: Comrade, I’ve looked into the EU’s structures and I must agree, there is indeed a substantial democratic deficit. But we must stay in to reform the EU.
Leaver: But how, comrade? What would be the mechanism by which it could be democratically reformed? In the UK, if we do not like the government, we elect a new one. We cannot do that in Europe.
Remainer: But the EU is not a government, comrade. It is a supranational union akin to the United Nations: it cannot be directly compared. And indeed, in the UK, we cannot presently get rid of the House of Lords, many of whom are former MPs whom the people explicitly rejected at the ballot box, or the monarchy. We have been fighting for democratic reform within the United Kingdom for decades: why, then, should we leave the EU, yet remain in the UK? Still, you raise a good point, comrade: more democracy is always worthwhile. At the same time, there has at least been some democratic advance over the years. The Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament, the only elected EU institution, a lot more power.
Leaver: True, comrade, but unlike any other democratic parliament, it still has no right of legislative initiative. That means it can’t make laws; it can only amend them. The unelected commission is the source of all legislative proposals. And the galloping expansion of structures of extra-democratic decision-making by bureaucrats and judges since the Eurozone crisis more than outweighs any democratic gains in the Lisbon Treaty anyway.
Remainer: As I said, the EU is not unlike any other democratic parliament because it is not a national government. Yet the unelected commission, as you call it, are appointed by the 28 national governments of the EU, who are directly elected by the people. While the commission may be the source of legislative proposals, no law can be passed without the approval of parliament. It also is not correct that the parliament has no right of legislative initiative: though they may not be as successful as private member’s bills, they are a foundation which can be built upon. Don’t get me wrong, comrade; I have issues with the democratic issues that remain in the EU, and what has been imposed on Greece is unforgivable. But we both want to see progressive change: higher wages, stronger social protections, union rights, and an end to privatisation.We have seen that regional governments in the EU, such as in Scotland, prove that social democracy is possible within the EU. Even so, one has to consider if international markets will be any more respectful than the EU? Internationalism isn’t some added extra; it’s one of the only weapons we have left.
Leaver: You raise a good point, comrade. I will have to think some more about that. But I also don’t think we should just call for Brexit and leave it there. Workers across Europe need to join together in a movement for European democracy. It will require international coordination, including open-ended cross-border strike action, like nothing we’ve seen before, more ambitious than the dozens of one-day strikes in Greece, Italy and Spain, which, as militant as they were, were not enough to make EU elites back down. I would be perfectly happy with a United States of Europe——but it has to come from the will of the people, from such a movement, not imposed from above.
Remainer: But, comrade, that’s what I think is necessary too! I simply believe that Brexit will make that international struggle more difficult to achieve under an emboldened establishment. And I think I have an answer to your question about how to reform the EU. It cannot be done from within as there is no mechanism for this at present, I agree. It has to be via pressure from the outside: a true European democracy movement, making European elites so frightened that they have no choice but to give us democracy. I believe the best way we can do this is to vote representatives of our way of thinking into the EU, bringing pressure from within AND without. I think we basically want the same thing.
Leaver: Yes. Nonetheless——and it’s not an easy choice, comrade——I’m still going to vote Leave.
Remainer: I too have struggled over this decision, comrade, but I’m still going to vote Remain.
Leaver & Remainer: But after the referendum, let’s both continue to work together to build that European democracy movement!
Our players then take questions from the public. The debate continues in a peaceful but spirited fashion. After a few hours, our players hug, raise their fists together in defiance, sing the Internationale, and exit (or remain) stage left.
SCENE II. A Facebook comment section
Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have just returned from a hard day’s outrage on the Twitters.
Leaver: Comrade, how can you possibly countenance voting for the anti-democratic, fascist, authoritarian EU?
Remainer: Comrade, I have issues with the EU too – I recognise that it is not likely to reflect the socialist paradise we strive for, so long as capitalism continues to be seen as the default. But you have to understand that this vote is not a thought problem: it has consequences far beyond our personal politics. We must be mindful of them if we are to have any hope of bringing true change to the world.
Leaver: Comrade, come on, I think we can have a sensible conversation here. We’ve been friends for years.
Remainer: I thought we were having a sensible conversation, comrade? You know as well as I do that one of the biggest reasons the left has had such a difficult time of it is because of our propensity for internecine squabbling among ourselves, which only serves the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
Leaver: All I’m hearing is “Boris! Nigel!” And your side is backed by Cameron, Osborne, the CBI, and the IMF, and funded by Lord Sainsbury, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Need I go on? The left should not just automatically take whatever position is opposite to our opponents, but rather formulate an independent position.
Remainer: But comrade, we are formulating an independent position – that of Chomsky, Varoufakis, Momentum, many socialist and social democratic parties of the UK, and other left-wing voices, not the neoliberal elites you cite. The difference is that of power and influence: the bulk of the Left in Britain recognises that the EU pales in comparison as a reactionary force compared to UKIP and the current UK government, and back Remain accordingly. A vote to Leave emboldens and empowers those forces, making the prospect of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister a real possibility.
Leaver: You’re not making any sense. That’s not a logical response to what I just said.
Remainer: It only isn’t logical if you’re discussing this debate in a vacuum, without consideration of what could easily happen after a Brexit. You’re insisting on dealing with pure ideas rather than consider the very real consequences of your actions. Boris Johnson being Prime Minister is something that affects the people of Britain to a far greater degree than what are, unfortunately, speculative ideas about what could happen in future. Meanwhile, others on the left are choosing to dirty their idealogical purity and working with the forces they oppose for the greater good, such as the environment.
Leaver: That also does not follow on from our discussion. But okay, I’ll take your bait: What is important is not whether the king is good or bad, but that he is a king. In any case, the EU’s flagship climate policy, the Emissions Trading Scheme, is a neoliberal boondoggle that has not resulted in carbon mitigation. Meanwhile the EU deregulates and privatises the very public energy companies we need to build out clean-energy infrastructure.
Remainer: But as long as we do have a king, it absolutely does matter if he is good or bad! A good king is more likely to act in the common interests of the people, and makes the possibility of a future without kings much easier than a bad king. This is why it’s so dangerous to leave the EU in an environment where the people most well-positioned to gain are UKIP and the extreme right wings of the UK Government and Other Party. I also don’t know why you bring up the ETS’s failures as evidence the EU has failed on climate, when Greenhouse gases are at the lowest level ever recorded in Europe. If you’re going to attack individual policies, fine, but it is disingenuous to use one policy’s failures for an entire field. It’s no wonder working people are being driven more and more to the likes of UKIP and other xenophobic parties, not helped by Robert Murdoch’s media empire stirring up racial prejudices.
Leaver: You really don’t like working people very much, do you? In any case, isn’t it the EU that is building Fortress Europe, letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean while bribing autocratic Turkey to keep them out?
Remainer: It is because I care about the working people that I condemn their manipulation by tycoons and politicians, comrade. It’s a damn sight better than treating them like innocent children who need some big brave socialists to come along and save them from the big bad capitalists. Once again, you treat the EU as if it is a government: it is the individual nations of the EU which are building “Fortress Europe,” not the EU itself. How else can you explain some countries having far more refugees per citizen than others? Of course there are plenty of left-wing Eurosceptics, but the key difference is that it is the right-wing Eurosceptics who are in the ascendency – some of them are even in national governments, like politicians in Poland, the Netherlands, and the UK. This is reflected in that the major UK defeats in the European Parliament were rejections of authoritarian and right-wing agendas, like limiting immigration, voting rights, worker’s rights, and human rights. This is why so many people equate Brexit with racism and xenophobia.
Leaver: All I hear is “Brexiters are objectively siding with racism and xenophobia”? Now you’re just blurting out slogans, not even debating any more.
Remainer: Why are you presenting these strawmen? I might as well say “There’s no debating with racists and xenophobes. Their hate speech must be shut down.” Or are you going to twist that, too?
Leaver: What?! This is crackers. You’ve known me for years. We’ve been on how many pro-immigration protests together? Was Tony Benn a racist and xenophobe?
Remainer: Tony Benn may have been a radical leftist, but he was never Prime Minister, nor was he in any major government position after only a year as Secretary of State for Industry in the 1970s. For most of his parliamentary career he was either in opposition, or an outsider, who could not stop successive UK governments stripping away our civil liberties and engaging in illegal wars. But whatever, you’ll just characterise me as some internet troll spouting “Bigot! Fascist! Boris! Nigel! Boris! BORIS! BORRRISSSSS!”
LEAVER defriends REMAINER, later making jokes about him no-platforming them from speaking at a university public meeting, and then subsequently sends them to the countryside for re-education via a series of unlearning-racism sensitivity workshops. Meanwhile, people are starving, freezing and dying due to right-wing government policy as the armchair warriors of the internet try to one-up each other over how very left wing they are: others are actually campaigning to change that, working in their communities, helping the people.
Sure, it’s just swapping one strawman for another, but that’s the point – as long as the left is more occupied with attacking each other than our mutual foes, then our foes are the only ones who benefit. Similarly, arguing among ourselves as to how to achieve change is surely no substitute for enacting that change in our local communities, building the base from which wider change can grow. In the end, whatever the makeup of the argument, agreeing to disagree in favour of the greater goal is absolutely a goal I share.
Nonetheless, there’s no reason the debate must be so extreme on either side. The debate is what you make of it. I’ve had many excellent conversations about the EU with friends, on doorsteps in previous campaigns, and so forth. Just because I view the debate solely through the lens of Scottish independence doesn’t mean I dismiss other views, because other people simply do not use that lens. They may use the lens of socialism, of identity, of practicality, or of idealism. Just because the sort of socialist future Marx talked about seems far away doesn’t mean discussion and advocation of that future is futile – far from it, even if I think it should be tempered with acknowledgement of its distance.
We left shouldn’t tear ourselves apart over this, any more than the right should tear themselves apart. But we are, and they are. Whoever reconstitutes themselves first has the advantage in the aftermath of this referendum.