Sunday, 29 January 2017

Brexit and the Great British Break-up

We have a process involving a movement of opposites. The EU began as six countries that has grown to twenty-eight, and is set to expand further, even if Britain leaves. It is gradually, if painfully, becoming more integrated, as it heads in the direction of becoming a federal state. As this process of integration continues, and with already the world's largest market and economy, it looks set to raise the living standards of all its people, and to play an increasingly important role on the world stage.

By contrast, Britain, whose role on the world stage has been declining for over a century, looks set to accelerate that process, as it cuts itself off from the EU. For the same reason, its economy is likely to weaken, and living standards of its people, at least relatively, to decline. That is all the more likely as Theresa May's government proposes dealing with the isolation by turning Britain into a version of Batista's Cuba.

Whilst the EU is strengthening and integrating, Britain is weakening and disintegrating. The years of Tory neglect and decay, caused by their policies of austerity, and concentration on the interests of the money-lending capitalists, in London, (a policy inherited by Blair and Brown) fuelled short-sighted demands for those problems to be dealt with by separation, leading to the rise of the SNP. Instead of dealing with that reactionary nationalism, Labour pandered to it, by introducing devolution, which was no solution to the decay and austerity, simply fuelling the demands for independence even more.

The Scots were told that, to stay in Europe, they had to vote to stay in the UK. As they now rightly protest, they are being taken out of the EU, because they voted to stay in the UK. In fact, 62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU compared to only 55% who voted to stay in the UK.

As Theresa May is refusing to even make any concessions to the Scots, reflecting the overwhelming vote to stay in the EU, it is then not surprising that the prospect of Scotland leaving Britain is on the agenda once more. But, Scotland is not the only part of Britain to have heavily voted to stay in the EU. Northern Ireland, for fairly obvious reasons, also voted heavily to stay in the EU. Whilst not part of Britain, Gibraltar, again for obvious reasons, voted by over 90% to stay in the EU.

As the EU is expanding and integrating, Britain is breaking up.

At the time of the Scottish referendum, I argued that socialists should defend the right of the Scots to leave, but we should argue against them deciding to do so. I still hold that position. Labour and the entire British working-class should resist Brexit, because it is reactionary and threatens the interests of workers. Scottish workers should stand alongside English, Welsh and Irish workers, having a shared and equal common interest.

But, if that struggle fails, and Brexit happens, what then? I have previously argued, after the Scottish referendum, that because Britain is a single state, whereas the EU is only a proto-state, the argument stands that socialists should argue for Scotland to stay in the UK, as part of a single, unified working class. However, Marxists have to view the world dynamically, to understand things not statically, and in isolation, but as a process. Its necessary to consider the direction of travel. In that context, the dynamic of a growing, integrating EU, as opposed to a declining, fragmenting Britain has to be taken into consideration. Moreover, its necessary to consider, within this process, what the relation of the EU will be to a hostile British power, sitting off its border.  (And May's threats, and cosying up to Trump shows it will be, and will be viewed as, hostile.)

In this latter context, its quite easy to see why, and how, the EU could act to hasten the process of British disintegration whilst integrating an independent Scotland, Ireland and Gibraltar. Let's consider these separately and collectively, starting with Scotland.

The obstacle to the EU encouraging or facilitating an independent Scotland joining has always been considered to be Spain. Spain is worried that recognising an independent Scotland would encourage the separatist movements in Spain, for example, in Catalunya. Another problem for Scotland is the question of finance. That is exacerbated by the fall in the oil price, which slashes Scotland's North Sea oil revenues.

Considering the issue of finance first, although the oil price is way below its peak of $147 a barrel, it is also now well above its recent low price of $25, and global prices are likely to now stabilise between $60-$80, at which price North Sea Oil is profitable.

But, with England and Wales out of the EU, and Scotland in the EU, it would have other significant economic advantages. For example, the long Scottish coastline would give it, and the EU, a lion's share of British territorial waters, for fishing etc. The extent of English and Welsh territorial waters would be restricted due to the proximity to other countries, on the European mainland, and to Ireland.

In addition to fishing, the EU could provide Scotland with development grants to develop large-scale, off and on-shore wind farms, as well as tidal power generation, as a replacement for oil revenues.

But, Scotland also has far more immediate economic potential. It has always been an important centre for the UK finance industry, particularly in Edinburgh. Already, large banks and finance houses are looking to leave London ahead of Brexit. There would be huge advantages for them to simply move or expand their existing UK operations within an independent Scotland, inside the EU. The same could be said for Scotland's long history of educational excellence through its Universities etc., and the potential to concentrate EU co-operation on that, and scientific development, in Scotland, encouraging the development of a high value added, high wage Scottish economy, in contrast to the bargain basement economy that the Tories envisage for England and Wales.

In encouraging such a break-up of Britain, the EU would not only enhance its own internal unity, but it would seriously weaken an independent England, as an economic, political and military competitor.

That, however, leaves the question of Spain's concerns. But, Spain has other concerns, namely its long held claim to Gibraltar. A quid pro quo could be arranged, with Spain supporting an independent Scotland, inside the EU, in return for the EU supporting Spain for a deal over Gibraltar.

More than 90% of Gibraltarians voted to remain in the EU, and its economy is closely tied to that of Spain, without which it would be strangled. However, Gibraltar is not going to concede to becoming part of Spain any time soon. There is, however, no reason why Gibraltar should not occupy a position as an independent territory, within the EU, similar to say Andorra. That would mean that a large part of Spain's objection, that Gibraltar acts as a British enclave in Spanish territory, could be dealt with.

A similar solution could be offered by the EU to Northern Ireland, which also voted heavily to stay in the EU. Because the EU economy is nearly ten times the size of the economy of England and Wales, it will have the economic and political firepower to be able to offer such generous deals to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Gibraltar, in a way that England and Wales could never afford.

In the 1980's, I supported the idea of a federal Ireland, as a means of protecting the minority rights of both catholic and protestant workers, in the two parts of Ireland. But, today, and one reason the Good Friday Agreement could hold, the underlying conditions that required that have largely been removed, as a result of EU membership. Indeed, that's one reason Brexit is so dangerous for Northern Ireland.

In the 1980's, still, Protestants had built-in privileges over Catholics, in the North. Some of the worst discrimination, in terms of voting rights had gone, but discrimination in housing, jobs etc. continued. The historical connection of the Protestant establishment, in Northern Ireland, with sections of the British state, and Tory Party underpinned that discrimination and superiority of the protestant community.

But, since then, the power of the British state, and establishment is countered by the role of the EU proto-state, which has no such historical linkages. The rights of both Protestants and Catholics are underpinned by EU law, by European human rights provisions, and by the ECJ.

In the South, in the 1980's, the Catholic Church and establishment still held considerable sway, and for similar reasons that influence has been weakened. Particularly in the South, but flowing over naturally into the North, along with a large-scale free movement of people on a daily basis (as with Gibraltar and Spain) across the border, there has been a significant investment of foreign capital, particularly from Asia and the US, and specifically into high-value, high tech industries, encouraged by EU membership, and access to the world's largest market and economy.

These foreign multinationals have no historical linkages to the old regimes and the discrimination that flowed from them. Indeed, as discussed recently, these large multinational capitals are antipathetic to those old, inherited bigotries that act as limitations on its ability exploit labour freely.

With a large proportion of Northern Ireland, including Protestants (despite the policy of the DUP) voting to stay in the EU, the rational solution is to create a united Ireland., thereby also formalising the unity of the Irish working-class and labour movement, North and South of the border. It is perhaps unlikely that a majority of Protestants would currently vote to join a united Ireland, so as to stay in the EU, but the EU could provide considerable inducements for them to do so, within the context of a transitional arrangement.

Northern Ireland could first occupy a position similar to Andorra, or that suggested in relation to Gibraltar, with the North becoming part of a United Ireland, with London continuing to have some role, alongside Dublin, reversing the current situation.

Whatever arrangements actually develop, even with Britain outside the EU, the task of socialists will remain to forge the widest and deepest unity possible, of workers across Europe. Our task will be to work with our European comrades to harmonise rights and conditions, to fight for the interests of workers, including the right of free movement, and for the construction of a Workers Europe.

Given that direction of travel, it may well be that socialists could support a break-up of a Britain headed in the direction of reaction, in order to salvage those parts of the British working-class headed in the direction of progress and unity with their EU brothers and sisters.

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