Saturday, 5 November 2016

Brexit Means …. What Exactly?

On Thursday, the High Court ruled that the government could not simply invoke Article 50 without parliamentary approval. The power of Ministers to take Britain into the EU had been granted by an Act of Parliament, and it likewise requires an Act of Parliament for ministers to begin the process of Britain leaving the EU. That should have been welcomed by the government, and by all of those who told us that they wanted to Leave the EU in order to restore the sovereignty of Parliament. Ian Dale, immediately after the ruling, said on Sky News, that the government should not appeal, and should just get on with organising a Parliamentary vote to invoke Article 50. Almost immediately, following that, the government announced that it was appealing the decision, and was seeking to shortcut the process, by going straight to the Supreme Court. In fact, its obvious why the government could not simply agree to the need for a parliamentary vote.

For the government to agree to an Act of Parliament as the constitutional basis for triggering Article 50, the government would have to be able to come to Parliament with a Bill that contained some substance. In other words, instead of May simply parroting the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, she would have to come to Parliament with a Bill that said, we intend to trigger Article 50, and thereby to begin negotiations on Britain's future relations with the EU. It would then have to set out whether they sought, in those negotiations, to remain in the single market, to remain within the customs union, and so on. If the Bill did not contain such detail, then the other parties would justifiably submit amendments to the Bill, and there could be many Tory MP's that would support amendments that opposed a so called “hard-Brexit”.

However, May cannot come forward with such a Bill, because the reality is that May has no idea what she means by Brexit, and were she to bring forward any proposals of what she actually might mean by it, it would immediately provoke a rebellion by half of her party. Any proposals to stay in the single market, or customs union, would provoke a rebellion from her Right, probably prompting a renewed leadership struggle. If she came forward with proposals to leave the single market and customs union, a substantial number of pro-EU Tory MP's would join with the opposition parties to vote that down, and to demand a soft-Brexit, or even Nexit (No Exit).

The argument has been quite rightly put, and the High Court decision supported it, that the close EU referendum vote narrowly supported Brexit, but it did not in any way determine any particular form of Brexit. On “The Daily Politics” on Friday, Ian Duncan Smith, objected to this argument saying that the issue of triggering Article 50, and the details of the actual Brexit are two different things. But, that is ridiculous. Let's think of two similar situations that demonstrate how ludicrous the Tories arguments are.

Firstly, take a trade union. Having come to the decision to demand a pay rise and better conditions, it has to decide the details of exactly how much of a rise, and what improvements in conditions it requires. Union members do not simply say to the union officers, go and get us a pay rise, and better conditions, but don't bother asking us first how much of a rise we want! In fact, if unions went into negotiations with employers without first seeking the support of their members for a package of demands as the basis of those negotiations, the Tories would be the first to be up in arms. Of course, union members recognise that in the process of negotiations the officers may not get everything they asked for, and they would then also demand the right to decide whether what was negotiated was acceptable or not.

Secondly, Duncan Smith, and other Tories have basically said, we want you to trust us, we will not tell you what we are going to try to negotiate, but after we have triggered Article 50, we will then give you the right to discuss the consequences of our actions! Just think what that actually means. Its like someone taking you blindfolded to the edge of a cliff. They say, we want you to trust us, and jump off this cliff. When you have jumped, you can take off the blind fold and discuss with us on the way down, whether it was a good idea. Having jumped, you will know whether you were right to trust us, and its only a few feet down into a bowl of cherries, or whether its actually 200 feet down, and you are headed for a grisly death on the rocks below!

Duncan Smith's argument makes no sense, because, if it was possible to have simply separated the triggering of Article 50 from the conditions under which it is triggered, and the basis of the future negotiations, then there is no reason that the government should not have triggered Article 50 on June 24th, immediately after the referendum result. That is why Jeremy Corbyn was absolutely correct to have demanded they did, and why those like Angela Eagle who criticised him were wrong. Had Labour demanded strongly that the government follow the logic of their position and trigger Article 50 back in June, it would have exposed the hypocrisy and barrenness of the Tory position. The fact, is that the Tories could not have triggered Article 50 back in June, and have postponed triggering it until March next year, because, whatever Duncan Smith says, he and the government do see that triggering it, and the terms under which the negotiations for leaving take place, are inseparable. The government has openly said that the reason for delaying has been for them to formulate their negotiating stance. In that case, that negotiating stance, should be discussed by and agreed by Parliament, just as union members would first discuss and vote on the basis of the demands they would send their officers to negotiate, or just as someone would demand to know what the consequences were going to be of jumping off a cliff edge.

Another Tory Brexiter, Dominic Raab, argued on Thursday that what the High Court decision meant was that it was not the House of Commons that would get to decide, but the unelected House of Lords. Duncan Smith made the same argument. So what, has Raab, Smith and the Tories only now just discovered that the House of Lords is an undemocratic, unelected assembly, that should have been swept away along with the Monarchy, 200 years ago, as part of the bourgeois democratic political revolution? If so, we look forward to them calling for the Lords, and Monarchy to be abolished! 

It is incredibly light-minded for any socialist to argue that we should just roll over and accept a narrow and in any case dubious referendum result, which will badly damage workers interests both in Britain and Europe for decades to come. In a post some time ago, I pointed out that there would probably be a majority in a referendum for bringing back the death penalty, and that we would not simply accept such a vote without trying to frustrate it, and overturn it. Now, UKIP leadership front runner, Paul Nuttall, has said that he would propose exactly such a referendum.

All of the attention from Labour politicians has been about retaining access to the single market, but the focus should be on defending workers rights and interest, both in Britain and across the EU. Staying in the single market may be in workers long term interests, because it encourages economic activity and capital accumulation, which creates better conditions for workers. But, its immediate purpose is to benefit capital. Rather than a focus on measures that benefit capital, and only thereby secondarily benefit workers, we should propose measures that immediately defend and extend workers rights and interests.

So, we should support a continuation of free movement of labour, so that workers have the same rights as capital to seek out the best conditions; we should support demands that give all workers across Europe, inside the EU or outside it, the same minimum rates of pay and conditions adjusted for the cost of living in each country, and immediately based upon the best conditions; we should demand that all workers across Europe receive the same level of welfare benefits and pension rights. I would prefer that all such social insurance and provision were undertaken by the workers themselves, organised into Europe wide co-operatives, but we have to start from where we are, with the existing welfare states, and measures of national insurance.

Labour is being very lax at the moment, with most of the activity being focussed in parliament. With more than half a million members, with 16 million people, having voted to Remain in the EU, and with the vast majority of younger people in support of remaining in the EU, Labour should be loudly proclaiming the need to fight for these basic workers rights, and be mobilising large demonstrations and activities every weekend, and in every town, city and workplace to win support for the idea of a new type of Europe, a social Europe, as the basis for moving forward to a Workers Europe.

No comments: