This article by Dr Richard Barbrook first appeared on Huffington Post on February 25, 2016
On 5th June 1975, I cast my first ever vote in a referendum on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Common Market. Like David Cameron, Harold Wilson – the Labour prime minister of the time – had organised this ballot to manage his own party’s factional squabbles rather than to determine the future of the nation. Then as now, the British establishment warned the electorate of the dire political and economic consequences of quitting the European project. Even the American government made unsubtle hints encouraging a Yes vote in this referendum. More than anything else, the pro-European cause was helped by the ‚No‘ campaign’s bizarre alliance of those on the Right who mourned the loss of empire and those on the Left who wanted Britain to become Cuba with worse weather. Why risk this leap into the unknown when its leading proponents couldn’t agree on what would happen if they won the referendum? Not surprisingly, like 67 per cent of the British people, I decided for the better-safe-than-sorry option of ‚Yes‘.
Ever since the 1975 result was declared, the losing side has been arguing for another referendum that would deliver a different outcome. In Britain as in other member states, the mainstream parties‘ hypocritical tactic of publicly blaming the EU for unpopular policies which they tacitly supported has encouraged a growth in Euroscepticism over the past four decades. For some of the Left, Tony Benn’s warnings in 1975 about the European boss‘ club still seem prescient. The unaccountable EU technocracy is now imposing its austerity economics of welfare cuts, privatisation and financialisation on the whole continent. As the Greeks recently discovered, parliamentary democracy becomes meaningless when the most vital decisions are made in Brussels. Yet, apart from a dwindling band of Stalinists, the British Left’s rejection of the EU’s disastrous infatuation with neoliberalism hasn’t recruited many of its leaders and activists to the anti-European side this time around. Instead, the ‚No‘ campaign for the 2016 referendum is dominated by the isolationist Right. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s reign, Tory newspapers have regaled their readers with lurid tales of bureaucratic meddling and financial shenanigans by the EU institutions. As their readers‘ comments reveal, Europe has become the Right’s symbol of everything that is wrong with modern Britain: mass immigration, political correctness, gender bending and military weakness. The EU is the EUSSR – a demonic federal superstate crushing the national sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness of the English race. As Thatcher discovered, handbagging the Brussels bureaucracy is an excellent method of securing these patriotic voters for the Tories. But, as her successors have also understood, the party of big banks and big business can never deliver the ultimate goal of its Europhobic supporters: the secession of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The insiders know that EU-bashing is just fun-and-games which no one should take too seriously.
Unfortunately for the Tory grandees, the outsiders on the Right truly believe in the Eurosceptic message. While the demands for a new ballot on EU membership by backbench MPs, constituency activists and newspaper columnists can be safely ignored, UKIP candidates threaten to split the anti-Left vote in both local and national contests. During the run-up to the 2015 general election, David Cameron dealt with this competition from the isolationist Right by promising to hold a new referendum which he knew that his LibDem coalition partners would never allow to take place. But, when the Tories won their unexpected outright victory, this clever wheeze no longer seemed so clever. Having profited from Eurosceptic rhetoric for decades, the British establishment is now assailed by those who want to turn its words into deeds. Worryingly, with the Euro in crisis, the Schengen Agreement disintegrating and the EU’s borders overwhelmed by desperate refugees, selling the case against Brexit has become more difficult. However, the ‚Yes‘ campaign still remains the favourite. Imitating Harold Wilson’s successful strategy before the 1975 referendum, David Cameron is touring the continent’s capital cities to put together a package of minor concessions which will enable ambitious Tory MPs to swap their erstwhile Europhobia for newly found Europhilia. Battle-tested in Scotland in 2014, the great-and-good’s Project Fear will terrify the electorate with predictions of job losses, expensive mortgages and a falling pound if Britain leaves the EU. UKIP’s supporters will be warned that the UK couldn’t survive England voting ‚No‘ and Scotland voting ‚Yes‘. The US president, the NATO Secretary-General and the Queen will express their concerns that the status quo must prevail. In the unlikely event of a ‚No‘ victory, like when the Irish initially rejected the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and then were sent back to the polls in 2009 to correct their mistake, this political farce will be repeated until the British public sees sense and chooses ‚Yes‘. The Eurosceptics must learn that the Tory elite’s words should never be mistaken for deeds.
By holding the 2016 referendum as an exercise in party management, David Cameron hopes to restrict the debate over Britain’s relationship with Europe to the in-or-out question. What at all costs must be avoided is any serious discussion about how the EU could be made to work in the interests of all of its citizens. The official ‚Yes‘ campaign will concentrate on the negative consequences of British withdrawal because making the positive case would have to include proposals to tackle the serious failings of the European institutions, especially their scandalous lack of democratic accountability. Contrary to the Eurosceptic assertion, the EU is not a federal superstate, but instead is an inter-governmental treaty organisation. The Brussels bureaucracy takes its orders from the Council of Ministers rather than the European Parliament. Crucially, for the national leaders of the EU’s member states, neoliberal solutions have the inestimable advantage of advancing economic integration without requiring political unification. Behind closed doors, they can adopt policies which favour tax-dodging corporations and too-big-to-fail banks – and then impose them upon their own local electorates without consultation. But, following the 2008 financial collapse, this technocratic strategy has been undermining the European project. From the Euro crisis to the influx of refugees, national leaders have proved incapable of managing continental problems when neoliberal dogmas no longer work. Yet, the Brexit-style retreat behind state borders can only exacerbate dependence upon these failing market mechanisms. Instead, Yanis Varoufakis – the former Greek finance minister – argues that the citizens of Europe should now take their destiny into their own hands. In the DiEM25 manifesto, he advocates the rapid democratisation of the EU institutions. While David Cameron’s referendum only offers two versions of defunct neoliberalism, Yanis Varoufakis wants the British to participate in the election of a Constituent Assembly of the European peoples. Seeking to widen the debate beyond the Tories‘ facile in-or-out question, the new leadership of the Labour party has responded positively to this initiative. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell voted ‚No‘ in the 1975 referendum. In a strange twist of fate, these admirers of Tony Benn are now becoming the most plausible advocates of European federalism in Britain. From climate change to tax avoidance, there are national problems which can only be effectively dealt with at a continental level. By urging a ‚Yes‘ vote in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are championing democracy as the precondition of successful European governance. The bankers and technocrats had their chance and they’ve messed up big time. Now it is the turn of the citizens of Europe to have their voices heard in the corridors of power. The wisdom of the many must prevail over the folly of the few. I’ll vote ‚Yes‘ to that!
Dr Richard Barbrook is a Politics lecturer at the University of Westminster, trustee of Cybersalon and member of the Labour party.
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