British immigrants voted against South Africa becoming a republic in an all-white referendum in October 1960. In Natal – where the anti-republican campaign was especially jolly – a 76 percent majority raised the possibility of secession. But the settlers swiftly opted for a pact with Afrikaner nationalism – ‘the lesser evil’ – rather then include the natives in their plan. Some 60 years on Britons, beleaguered on their own island by European migrants, get a chance to respond more intelligently.
Neither race nor a South African passport prevent me from voting in the referendum on June 23 to decide whether Britain should leave the European Union. But reports that the UK is gripped by ‘referendum fever’ require context. This opportunity to stuff a ballot box is a concession made to wavering Tory supporters in order to win last year’s general election. Now in a remarkable display of spin the government is desperately trying to avert an exit vote.
As the environmentalist Lesley Docksey notes:
There’s so much hyperbole, propaganda, false ‘facts’ snatched out of the air and screaming insults being reported in the British media, and all to do with Conservative Party Ministers and MPs splitting in two between In and Out, and tearing each other apart over Europe, that no one really notices that: The Labour Party is In for Britain. The Green Party is Greener In. The Liberal Democrats say Help keep Britain in Europe – donate today! All the above statements come from the home pages of the websites of the three most obvious opposition parties in England, and all of which are running their own campaigns rather than team up with the government’s Remain campaign, known as Stronger In. One hardly needs to ask about Scotland. The Scots, dominated by the Scottish National Party, are overwhelmingly in favour of staying within the EU, and have said more than once that if England votes for Brexit, Scotland will become independent of the UK in a very short time. The Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru Party wants to stay in and reform the EU from the inside. In Northern Ireland, the Irish republican Sinn Fein Party is following Scotland’s position: they back Remain and if Britain votes for Brexit, they will actively campaign for reunification with Eire. The Ulster Unionists support the Remain side. The Social Democrat Labour Party is backing Remain.
In short the ‘political elite’ is almost entirely for remaining a part of the EU. That includes the ‘left’ which more circumspectly uses the doctrine of the ‘lesser evil’ to justify its support. Neil Davidson provides a cogent analysis of the argument. For the radical left it is essentially negative.
This perspective begins from the correct observation that the main drive for withdrawal from the EU has historically come from the hard right. It recognises that the United Kingdom Independence Party popularised this position by focusing on the question of national sovereignty in general, specifically by highlighting the inability of the UK to control its borders in the face of supposedly unlimited migration either from within or–in the case of refugees–via the EU. The success of UKIP in turn emboldened the Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party: the referendum is therefore only happening in response to pressure from these forces and the campaign for exit is being conducted according to their racist agenda. If there is a majority vote to leave, the argument goes, it will immediately mean that non-UK citizens and their families from the EU who currently have right of residence here face the danger of expulsion or, at the very least, will face a much more precarious situation. In this context, voting to remain, while not necessarily leading to any positive result, would at least avoid a negative one: it is the “lesser evil”.
The liberal and centre left present more positively.
In their vision, the EU is a fundamentally benign institution (“although of course it is not perfect”) which has helped prevent war in Western Europe since 1945, established rights for workers and citizens, and regulated the impact of businesses on health and the environment. Associated with these claims is a notion of “Europe”, usually presented in a cloud of vaguely uplifting waffle, as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, transcending what is invariably described as “narrow” nationalism and acting as a barrier to US interests, which are presumed to be different. In this perspective, the EU today may have been temporarily taken over by neoliberals, but it can be reformed until it becomes a body capable of responding to demands for social justice.
For Davidson the response of the left, either way, is entirely reactive and deeply pessimistic, reflective of a fatalism stemming from years of defeat. It does not confront the EU’s lack of democracy, structural inequalities and proxy imperialism. Instead of making a stand at home the left resorts to “invoking imaginary battalions of workers organised at a European level”.
The ‘native question’ – in this case a vicious class war, camouflaged as austerity and waged by government on behalf of a transnational elite – is simply ignored, rendered invisible like the non-Europeans of Natal. Here’s Thomas Fazi.
The decision to slash social provisions to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society (such as disabled people); to cut funding for libraries, healthcare, education and environmental protection, while allowing massive corporations to get away with paying little or no taxes; to part-privatise the NHS, etc. – these were all taken by the British government in full autonomy, and any claims to the contrary are simply untrue. On the issues that matter the most to most people – work, housing, healthcare, etc. – Britain, as a powerful, currency-issuing economy, is as ‘sovereign’ as a country can be. In this sense, the referendum appears like little more than a massive smokescreen to temporarily divert the people’s grievances away from the real culprits – the ones sitting in Downing Street and Westminster.
But the elephant on the island has been sighted and reported to the Guardian by Mick Cash, General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and other concerned citizens.
The EU is irreversibly committed to privatisation, welfare cuts, low wages and the erosion of trade union rights. This is why the dominant forces of British capitalism and the majority of the political elite are in favour of staying in the EU. The EU is irrevocably committed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and other new trade deals, which represent the greatest transfer of power to capital that we have seen in a generation. Claims that the free movement of labour within the EU is a barrier to xenophobia are false. But without labour rights and an alternative to austerity, migrants will be prey to hostile xenophobic forces with or without the Schengen agreement. And, even more seriously, “Fortress Europe” ensures that those outside the EU cartel of nations are subject to vicious discrimination if they are lucky, and drowning in the Mediterranean if they are not. We stand for a positive vision of a future Europe based on democracy, social justice and ecological sustainability, not the profit-making interests of a tiny elite. For these reasons we are committed to pressing for a vote to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum on UK membership.
Such a vote Fazi believes will help break the spell of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative) exposing the theoretically flawed assumption that nation-states are unable to autonomously pursue progressive, redistributive policies because they have been rendered powerless by globalisation, financialisation and the markets The idea that change depends on an impossible international alignment of progressive governments/movements is nothing more than the opium of the left – doled out by celebrities like Yanis Varoufakis. Moreover membership of the EU provides the British government with a convenient scapegoat for its failures.
With the EU out of the way, British politicians would have no such excuse anymore (though, of course, they would still be free to blame ‘the markets’ or ‘globalisation’). More importantly, though, the realisation that Britain has not sunk in the ocean or been crushed by ‘the pressures of globalisation’ as a result of Brexit might, one would hope, embolden Labour and UK progressive movements in general to dream much bigger than they have done in recent decades – and to realise that they don’t need to wait for the rest of the world to overturn austerity to do so themselves. They can do it on their own, on their own terms, simply by reclaiming the state back from the forces of capital that have hijacked it – inside or outside of the EU.
For this to happen the sway of a reactionary collective of Labour MPs – intent on purging the party of its socialist-leaning leader, Jeremy Corbyn – must be broken.They are part of the neoliberal ‘Westminster consensus’ that has shamelessly attempted to scare, badger, blackmail, hector, mislead and bewilder the electorate into voting to remain in the EU.
But this poisonous campaign – like the plot to depose Corbyn – may yet prove counterproductive. There are growing signs that people browbeaten into confusion may vote to leave on the basis of an argument which at least appears self-evident; a visibly swelling East European horde.
The left should make every effort to ensure such an outcome. It would break the neoliberal stranglehold on the Labour Party and parliament – and expose the hypocrisy that quarantines migration from austerity. In the general election Britons were asked to decide which of the two major parties should inflict austerity upon them. This time – even if inadvertently – they have been given a chance to strike back, to put their government on a leash and make it accountable.
For the natives of Natal – still under the cosh of Britain’s ‘national interest’ – this would be welcome relief.