Thursday, 24 March 2016

Brexit and The Break-up of Britain

One important aspect of the EU Referendum, for British workers, is what effect a vote to leave would have for their unity not just with workers across Europe, but also within the existing British state. One threat to that unity, posed by the potential for a Scottish breakaway was avoided in the Scottish Referendum, but a vote to leave the EU, would re-open that danger. But, it would also open similar dangers in relation to Wales and Northern Ireland. In fact, the dangers in relation to Northern Ireland for the working-class are severe.

At the time of the Scottish Referendum, in a discussion elsewhere, I pondered the question of whether there were any conditions under which Marxists might advocate a separate Scotland. I suggested that one possible situation might be if Britain were to leave the EU, but Scotland, as part of gaining independence, were to remain within the EU. The Marxist argument against separation, particularly the separation of small states is that it divides the working-class, as a global class, by establishing artificial borders between them. More than one hundred years ago, Lenin argued that it was only possible to support the creation of new bourgeois states in the most extreme cases, for that very reason.

“The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination. As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.” 

On balance, I concluded that, given that Britain is already a unified state, whereas the EU is only a proto-state, a state that not only is not unitary, but is not even a federation, then Scottish workers should vote to remain in the former, even if the latter was itself to leave the EU. If the EU were to become a federal, or unitary state, then that situation would change. However, we have to deal with the situation as it exists now, and not how it might exist at some point in the future. That argument applies equally to Wales.

The situation in Northern Ireland is different. The potential there is not just for Northern Ireland to remain a part of a unified British state, outside the EU, or else to be a part of an EU proto state, but is also to be part of a unitary Irish State, within the EU. That question is complicated further by the possibility of incorporating the Northern Ireland statelet within the Irish State on the basis of a federal system, to provide guarantees to minorities within specific areas.

In terms, of dealing with the existing situation, Marxists might argue against Scottish or Welsh separation from a unified British State, and yet it is clear that, if Britain, as a whole, were to vote to leave the EU, that might well be at odds with the wishes of the people of Scotland. A decision to leave will almost certainly provoke demands for a new Scottish independence referendum. Whilst Marxists would still argue for Scotland to remain within the UK, if Scotland were to vote to leave, then Marxists would uphold their right to self-determination. In the less likely event that Wales were to vote to leave the UK, the same principle would apply. Under those conditions a vote to leave the EU, would undoubtedly lead, at the very least, to a constitutional crisis, within the UK, and potentially to the break-up of Britain itself.

On the other hand, what the current situation does highlight, and open the potential for addressing, is the issue of the status of the Isle of Man, Channel Islands and so on, which, on the one hand, benefit from protection by the British State, and yet act both as tax havens for the rich, as well as operating as self-governing dominions. The current discussions should open the potential for a wider discussion in relation to the completion of the British bourgeois revolution, in these respects, and in relation to the remnants of feudalism represented by the Monarchy, House of Lords and so on. 

The question, in relation to Northern Ireland, is more severe in its consequences for the working-class. For a long period, from the end of the 1960's, until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the conflict in Northern Ireland wrought terrible damage, not just as a result of violence on the people of Northern Ireland and Britain, but also by creating deep divisions within the working-class. It divided workers in Northern Ireland along sectarian lines, and divided workers in Northern Ireland from those in the rest of Britain, as a result of hostility created by acts of terrorism on the mainland, undertaken by Republicans, much as is happening now in relation to acts of terrorism by jihadists. Just as today, it facilitated the actions of the British state in limiting basic bourgeois freedoms, and restricting civil liberties. In fact, the jihadists are rank amateurs and incompetents, in comparison to the success of the Republicans, during that period, and any return of such conditions would almost certainly result in a much harsher restriction of those rights.

A main consideration in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, and reaching a settlement, was the fact of the expansion of the EU, as a broader transnational proto-state, in which the concerns of minorities could be subsumed. That was further facilitated by the economic benefits that began to flow from the EU, across the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, especially as the Irish economy grew rapidly as part of the development of the EU. Within the context of the EU, the existing borders became almost irrelevant, as the experience of Sinn Fein demonstrates. It stands candidates in elections in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, it has MP's elected to Westminster and Dublin, as well as to the European Parliament.  There is no reason that the working-class in Britain and Ireland could not be fused together more closely in a similar way, by the operation of a single Labour Party, trades unions and co-operatives across those borders.. 

A decision of Britain to leave the EU would be likely to undermine the basis of the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict, not only because some of the treaties and agreements that have been reached are based upon the membership of both the UK and Ireland of the EU. The concern of the Brexiteers with immigration is an obvious example of the way such divisions would open up. With Ireland in the EU, and Schengen, EU migrants seeking entry to Britain, could simply move to Ireland, and then cross into the UK through Northern Ireland. Very soon it would become necessary to establish border controls between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. That would be just symbolic of all of the other restrictions that would go up between the two parts of Ireland.

The rational solution for such a situation would be the incorporation of Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic, but the Protestant majority in the North would continue to oppose such a solution. The hope of the catholic minority, in the North, that the issue of the border would slowly dissolve, within the context of wider EU membership, would be dashed, once more reigniting divisions between the two communities, especially as the catholic minority no longer saw protection for their interests from EU institutions, and instead saw themselves, once more, confronted by a nationalist, conservative British state, historically tied to the protestant majority. It is likely, under such conditions, that the current arrangements would collapse quickly, that communal divisions would open up, once more, and that the men of violence would again dominate the politics of the region, with its consequent effects on the politics of the UK and Ireland.

Over the last few years, there has been growing centrifugal tendencies within Europe. A major cause of those tendencies has been the conservative responses to the financial crisis of 2008, which sought to protect the owners of fictitious capital at the expense of real capital, via the imposition of measures of austerity which depressed economic activity and capital formation, along with measures of monetary stimulus which inflated fictitious asset prices, and sucked potential money-capital out of general circulation, once again depressing capital formation, and economic activity. 

Those policies led workers, across Europe, to look for simple solutions to the problems those policies imposed upon them. As in the past, it facilitated the work of populist demagogues to offer up easy solutions by scapegoating one group or another, and suggesting that if only control rested more locally all problems could be resolved. But, in fact, the opposite was the case. The problems did not result from control being exercised by “others”, but from the very policies of austerity that were being employed by conservative politicians everywhere. 

Only to the extent that those policies impacted more severely on particular countries, such as Greece, was it true, because it was those conservative politicians that had current control over EU policy making. But, the reality was that Greece would have to have imposed even greater austerity, and would have seen an even greater diminution of the living standards of its people outside the EU. The solution to those problems is not greater division and separation, but quite the opposite, it is greater unity and integration, within a larger, unified EU state that is capable of adopting the kind of measures of fiscal stimulus that are required to promote economic growth and capital formation. Rather than further fragmentation and division, what workers across Europe actually need, at the moment is a United States of Europe, as the basis framework within which the European working-class can struggle for a workers' Europe, and ultimately a Socialist United States of Europe.

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