As a febrile media pump out more trite 'context' - 'control of migrants', the 'drain' on welfare benefits, and faux questions about 'sovereignty' - many left-minded people seem deeply conflicted about where to stand: stay with the 'safety' of nominally-won EU social rights and legal protections, or abandon a rapaciously neoliberal institution; remain and embrace a new leftist Euro movement politics, or leave and show that radical progress is better realised through more devolved forms of action.
The dilemma seems even more acute as leftists on both sides glance queasily at who they'll be seen 'standing alongside': Cameron, Osborne, May, Blair and most big City corporations; or Johnson, Farage, Gove, Duncan Smith, the bulk of small Toryism and the Henry Jackson Society.
Of course, valid leftist positions can be taken without adopting any such forces or individuals. They should rest on their own merits. George Galloway choosing to share a Grassroots Out platform with Nigel Farage doesn't endear him to UKIP. Yet, if Galloway is really concerned with promoting a genuine left for leaving argument, why engage such Tory/UKIP-based campaigns at all? (As Yes leftists will recall, Galloway also co-platformed Blairite and Iraq war-supporting Brian Wilson during his 'Just Say Naw' to Scottish independence tour.)
Galloway may have had due reason to berate the BBC's Jo Coburn for hijacking him on such associations, rather than dealing with the EU issue. But courting Farage and his GO friends with Churchillian language - "left-right, left-right, forward march to victory" - only obfuscates the real issues of power and identity in this already loaded 'debate'.
In arguing that it's all about 'pitching together' for direct democracy, and not ceding to Brussels, Galloway can, of course, cite Tony Benn's 1975 case for leaving Europe. And, yes, Benn's case for ditching the old Common Market was honourably made back in the day, just as if he were here now making the same case for exiting.
Yet, what kind of real 'sovereignty' do either of these rigged institutions offer? Benn was correct in rejecting the EU and its unelected Commissioners. But, in seeking to 'reclaim parliamentary sovereignty', he also spent a political lifetime challenging an undemocratic Westminster system. Recall, too, that despite being on the 'same side' as Enoch Powell in 1975, Benn refused to share a platform with him.
Benn's son has no comparable standing in such matters. Apparently, Hilary Benn won't share a platform with Cameron on the EU issue. Yet he had no moral objection to collaborating with him when it came to bombing Syria. Here we see the real hypocrisy of platform politics.
Brooding Brexiters and the elite crisis
Platform trumpeting of 'national identity' is allowing the big stage players to call the EU tune. We hear a loud, simplified sound on how 'lost identity' is synonymous with 'lost sovereignty', all orchestrated, as standard, by the Daily Mail chorus.
More studious observers like John Harris are keen to understand, rather than dismiss, the brooding discontent of Brexiters in locales like Peterborough and Great Yarmouth, where resentment festers over immigrant workers. Harris sees the EU issue mainly as:
an English political event: an attempt to resolve English tensions within an essentially English party, which will see the leave side speaking to a group of people who increasingly self-identify as English, and who feel that an antipathy to authority is now part of their national identity.
At its heart, it's an elite identity issue, indeed, identity crisis, as the main establishment forces fight-off a kind of internal class insurgency.
The elite pro-EU cabal is all-too familiar, the same essential line up that undertook the emergency halting of Scottish independence: Cameron and his circle, big capital and the main City players, supported by the agencies of continuity - the civil service, the monarchy, the military, and, beyond its standard claims of 'neutrality', the higher echelons of the BBC. As with the Scottish indyref, the modus operandi is Project Fear.
Against this, the Brexit insurgents, standing, basically, for the same free market things, but driven by a more doctrinaire libertarianism, smaller business sector grievances, and the base prejudices of shire-minded Toryism. The ideological engine of the Brexit network comprises groups such as The Freedom Association, backer of Better Off Out, providing platforms for right-wing business figures and academics such as Tim Congdon, Ruth Lea, Ian Milne, and Patrick Minford, alongside more zealot neo-cons like Douglas Murray. All broadly argue that the 'EU’s regulatory burden' is placing UK business at a severe disadvantage.
But while the view from inside the City is not entirely Euro-friendly, actual support for remaining with the EU is remarkably solid. Why? Basically, because the City and its political protectorate see the present framework as largely doing what's required of it: maintaining a business regime conducive to capital movement and corporate freedom within and beyond the EU bloc. Crucially, it also values the restraining role of the Euro financial elite and European Central Bank in keeping 'radical-minded' states in check. Greece is the obvious example. But, as we witnessed over the 'threat' of Scottish independence, big capital generally disfavours any kind of break with political unions long-moulded to serve its interests.
Lloyds of London's chief risk officer actually rejects the claim that Brexit would create a "regulatory nirvana" for the City, echoing the view of many other big finance houses. He might well say that, of course - whether in or out, the parasitic benefits enjoyed by this elite are well assured. But such comments confirm that the City is already thriving as a pampered enclave, dutifully protected both by the UK and EU. Why would that City elite be remotely willing to jeopardise such coveted freedoms and privileges?
This was the much less-highlighted part of Cameron's excursion to Brussels: to reaffirm City sovereignty. Almost nothing of this central issue is being amplified by the media. Instead, we're assailed by the 'migrant crisis', in truth a humanitarian calamity for refugees in hellish places like the 'Jungle'. Of course, no such dark labelling is ever applied to the wild jungle of City capitalism.
Similar fascination prevails over the Bullingdon boys' face-off. Despite showing no prior desire for Brexit, Johnson, or 'Boris' to his swooning media flock, has made the base calculation that since grassroots Toryism appears to be overwhelmingly in favour of leaving, his main chance of succeeding Cameron, whatever the outcome, is best-served by placating that mood constituency. Craven opportunism, in short. That much is obvious, even to most media scribes. Yet, the Johnson-Cameron show is somehow assumed as a defining 'choice' in the EU debate, one almost as narrow and unquestioned as that between Trump's giant con and Clinton's crazed warmongering. Such is the way in which the parameters of political debate and 'credible options' are routinely presented.
In the same sense, much liberal positioning on the EU has been conditioned by a narrowly-defined 'borders-identity-rights' context, rather than radical evaluation of how that establishment narrative is being foisted upon us. For almost the entire centre-left, the question of whether to stay or go is predicated on securing some 'good as it gets' rights and dispensations, rather than a will to resist the EU's dominant neoliberal character.
Most trade unions have adopted this cautious line in defence of EU working directives. But just how secure and EU-based are such rights? Remember that John Major secured an opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Agreement, Blair set aside the 48 hour week directive, and what's often hailed as 'EU protection' is really little more than rights already established or sporadically applied.
Jeremy Corbyn, by inclination, is not ideologically disposed to the EU, but has come to a similar default, rather than conviction, position. This sits uncomfortably with many Corbyn supporters. Labour In claims to be championing a 'social Europe' very distinct from the Cameron/Farage mindset. But, led by centre-right Alan Johnson, Labour's stay campaign offers no serious agenda for challenging EU neoliberal orthodoxy. Predictably, the Guardian is urging-on Johnson and his 'leadership', while uttering vacuities like "making best use of Europe’s collective strength in the world."
Contrary to the Guardian view, the one ironic consolation for Labour is that Corbyn's muted case for remaining is likely to damage him and his party much less than the coming train wreck for Cameron and the Tories.
Left calculations in Scotland
The in or out question has a crucially additional dimension in Scotland, given the still live issue of independence. Yet, while many will correctly approach it in such tactical terms, it's not completely clear to some around the Yes movement that the EU referendum can, or should, be viewed solely through the prism of a potential second independence referendum.
A popular call for indyref2 will likely come in the event of a split vote between Scotland and rUK. And it would be most welcome. It may well even be enough to re-tilt the 55-45 indyref vote. But for much of the Yes left, the EU stands as a political question in its own right. It's also, for those same Yes proponents, central to the kind of progressive state they want an independent Scotland to be: not one still directed by an EU banking class, tempered by nominal social rights, but one in which they are able, this time around, to assert real choices on currency and macro-economic policy.
Now, it's true that, being outside the Eurozone, the UK's and Scotland's place in Europe makes it a much less troubling concern than that faced by Greece, Spain and other Troika-punished states. And this may be sufficient assurance for some leftists pondering a stay vote.
Yet, the treatment of these states should be a stark warning to the kind of abusive relationship we're already party to. As Gerry Hassan asserts, while Scotland still sees itself as a European nation, "what the EU stands for is no longer an unproblematic good, with austerity, neo-liberalism, and a virtual European coup against Greece’s government; where does that place Scotland and what do we do about it?"
Nor do the SNP leadership simply regard Yes to EU as an opportunity for indyref2. At heart, they uphold the essence of Europe's 'liberal social market', while approving, more quietly, prevailing EU 'neoliberal realities', including some version of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
A predatory EU
Herein lies the kind of unresolved problem of left identity with an EU that, while granting token benefits, has become a predatory power. The EU is not just a supra-economic bloc entrenching neoliberal doctrine and corporate interests. It is also in voluntary arm-lock with militarist-extending Nato. Beyond the standard media cries of 'Putin the aggressor', consider how an expansionist EU acted in concert with the US and Nato in promoting a fascist coup in Ukraine, and raising the new cold war ante.
While the US rewards Israel with even greater aid for its deepening oppression of the Palestinians, a complicit EU has stood idly by, continuing special trade deals and maintaining military supplies, issuing lame pleas for 'peace talks' rather than giving serious political support to a brutalised people. For Omar Barghouti:
Seeing how swiftly the EU adopted sanctions against Russia for alleged violations of international law in Ukraine that pale in comparison to Israel’s crimes in its decades-old occupation of Palestinian territory, one cannot but accuse Europe of hypocrisy for failing to adopt the evidently more justified sanctions against Israel.
Lesser evil or radical break?
Many on the liberal left acknowledge the EU's democratic and social deficits, but see the 'greater good' of what it delivers. SNP MP Stewart Macdonald, for example, claims that, while imperfect, the EU has fostered a new 'free-movement-styled Euro identity', a kind of 'Easy Jet generation', which he closely identifies with. It's a lofty view couched in social democratic language about "opportunities for cooperation and mutual prosperity", alongside meaningful concern for refugees. But it flies all too safely above the real issues of neoliberal power and Western geopolitics.
Also lamenting the EU's stark democratic failures and neoliberal priorities, the Scottish Socialist Party's Colin Fox offers a more persuasive case for staying as an act of Euro class unity:
We weighed up both referendum options before concluding the choice was not for or against the anti-democratic bosses club in Brussels, but rather how best to advance the interests of working people across Europe.Fox argues for "the lesser of two evils", believing that:
‘abandonment’ would not improve the situation. A ‘leave vote’ would be a victory for UKIP and the Tory right not working people. It is they after all who have pressed for this referendum. The choice is not between a corporate EU and an anti-capitalist or progressive UK. It is between ‘EU PLC’ and ‘UK PLC’. And working people should have no faith in either of them. But a ‘Leave’ victory would unleash a ‘carnival of reaction’. It would be a victory for the bigots and isolationist ‘Little Englanders’.Fox insists that UKIP and the Tories would then tear up all EU legal, employment and equality rights. Brexit is also opposed by Sinn Fein as playing to the same rightist Tory agenda.
John Wight offers a similar leftist defence for staying, insisting that:
despite the attempt by a section of the left to assert that Brexit would make the prospect of implementing progressive and socialist ideas easier - specifically when it comes to taking key industries and services into public ownership - the reality is that the beneficiaries of Brexit would be the right and far right.And, he warns, "for anyone on the left to oppose Corbyn over the EU now is tantamount to sectarianism of the worst kind."
This is a regrettable claim. Valid as his argument is for staying, such language takes the same narrow 'socialist duty' line peddled by Wight and other left Unionists in 2014.
The 'radical' alternative to leaving has been more ambitiously advanced by Yanis Varoufakis in launching the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25):
The manifesto is a pledge for a new Europe. Not a European cartel of trade and banking, but a European union of people, united by the bold idea of true democracy as the foundation of prosperity. According to Varoufakis, the EU is coming apart at the seams. Rising unemployment, crippling austerity, far-right neofascist movements, and an unaccountable body of technocrats at the top, are all part of the same broken European machine. But rather than give in to a new wave of inward-looking nationalism, Europeans must come together and build a truly democratic movement.It's a view now adopted by Owen Jones, and loosely embraced in Scotland by much of Rise.
Yet, there's been damning left criticism of Varoufakis and his Euro reform package:
Varoufakis’s talk of democracy will disgust millions of embittered workers in Greece and throughout Europe. Rarely was the working class betrayed so shamelessly by such an overblown political scoundrel. Varoufakis knows very well that the EU is an instrument through which the European and international financial aristocracy exercises its power and dictatorship. It can no more be democratized than the boards of Deutsche Bank or the European Central Bank. In Greece, the core of his policy was the subordination of the country to the EU, and it remains so today. His pretentious chatter about democracy and civil rights serves to cover up his defence of the EU and his hostility to the working class.If less toxic in tone, the Communist Party and Morning Star take much the same line. While the CP lamentably erred in opposing Scottish independence, they are on firmer ground here in denouncing the EU as a fundamentally neoliberal and distant institution. Still, why, we may ask, their refusal to countenance 'staying together in solidarity' this time around?
In a fine 7-point leftist riposte to the 'stay and fight' line, Chris Bambery also argues for an outright rejection of the EU:
The simple fact is that internal change is an impossibility within the EU. The task of creating genuine unity in Europe based on solidarity and respect is one which requires starting all over again. Britain and other member states quitting can help develop the debate about what sort of Europe we need, one which is democratic unlike the current EU where democracy is virtually absent.Bambery further emphasises the naivety of believing there can be any serious mass left party alignment across 28 EU nations.
Other voices around the Scottish left are rejecting both the 'lesser evil' or 'reform from within' lines. Most notably, Jim Sillars makes the case for a decisive break from the EU's economic stranglehold in pursuit of a serious left Scottish independence, reminding us that an establishment-complicit Commission showed no sympathy for an independent Scotland during the 2014 referendum.
Waverers should also take time to read an outstanding Leave analysis by Neil Davidson, spelling out the core issues for leftists.
Taking apart the 'lesser evil' and 'social Europe' arguments, Davidson details the stark absence of democracy at the apex of the EU, and sole powers of inter-state Commissioners. He charts the particular vindictiveness of the Commission and European Central Bank in its ruthless purging of Greece, and the rigid neoliberal convergence rules that apply to all EU members, serving to deter and lock-in 'deviant' states - including any proto-independent Scottish state applying, post-Brexit.
He further criticises the "EU’s embrace [of TTIP as] far more enthusiastic than Washington’s", the ways in which the EU is "designed to maintain the structure of existing inequalities between European nation-states", how it is set up to purge, rather than assist, refugees, how the EU is "structurally racist" in its exclusion of foreign others, and deeply bonded with Nato.
He also highlights the vital role of the Guardian commentariat, and "the fantasy of 'European values' beloved by the likes of Polly Toynbee, Will Hutton and Martin Kettle (whose support for the EU is matched only by their opposition to Scottish independence)" in making common cause with the main establishment forces. While the Brexit right need to be resisted, he argues, it's this set of Remain class forces that represent, by far, the greatest enemy of progressive change.
Davidson warns that, rather than accepting the EU's 'lesser evil', succumbing to blackmail for short term 'gain', and pretending that workers' unity and movement politics can only be forged within these constraining conditions, leftists will be better served in the long run carving out their own radical positions and internal struggles. Otherwise, the left will be seen by the very people it claims to serve as having "no positive position of its own or that its position is simply incoherent - as illustrated by the spectacle of usually credible left commentators like Owen Jones and George Monbiot explaining just how completely undemocratic and neoliberal the EU is…only to then call for a vote to Remain."
All of which information and argument may make it even harder for many on the principled left to come to a decision on how to vote. But, if this EU 'debate' is being led by establishment propaganda, serious left discussion, one hopes, is helping to generate more critical light on the real power relationships and class forces underlying it.
This referendum is not about citizen democracy, or reclaiming national identity. It's about the sovereignty of big capital and the contending interests of political elites. Neither Brussels or Westminster offer anything worth identifying with. Both serve the same basic agenda: the protection of corporate capitalism, and the projection of wider Western power. As an elite turf war rages, we're encouraged to see the whole set of arguments through narrow, media-framed identities and binary labels: Europhile or Europhobe, Eurosceptic or Euro-safe. It's a giant diversion from what's really being fought for: greater class power and deeper social control. However leftists decide to vote, whatever the outcome, all these forces and issues remain to be confronted.