Will Hutton and Andrew Adonis’s Saving Britain: How We Must Change To Prosper In Europe has bold ambitions, which, combined with its left-of-centre slant, distinguishes it from many in the burgeoning genre of books about Brexit. The book, published less than a year before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, argues that Brexit is part of a project to create “Thatcherism in one country”, that we can and should stop it – and make profound changes in Britain. The authors’ visions and reasoning might sometimes “persuade fatalistic Remainers, and those Leave voters growing more and more uneasy” - their stated aim - but ultimately their 200-odd page manifesto is let down by the limitations of liberalism.
Brexit as a hard-right agenda
Tracing the history of (mostly) right-wing Euroscepticism from the 1960s through Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech to today, Adonis and Hutton make a credible case for one of their central claims: that Brexit is a hard-right agenda aiming to complete the “Thatcherite revolution” in the UK. Thatcher’s opposition to the EU, they argue, came from Jacques Delors’ presidency of the European Commission in 1985, introducing new employment rights and a turn towards “social Europe”. From Thatcher right-wing Euroscepticism, intimately tied up with xenophobia, but motivated by escaping regulation to finish the Thatcherite project, spread across the Conservative party and beyond. Criticisms focussed initially on sovereignty and against “socialistic Europe” increasingly focussed on immigration, backed up by the right-wing media.
Why Brexit happened
Saving Britain argues that immigration and austerity were decisive in the leave vote.
The book characterises Brexit above all as a protest vote by those left behind and neglected. It is for this reason that the book aims to offer a “comprehensive response” to the issues, providing a vision of a better Britain, while arguing that the EU is necessary to bring this about. They identify and document serious social issues, a “broken social contract”. They primarily focus on regional inequality rather than class: the lack of public investment in many places; the huge disparities between regions in opportunities, quality of life; and widespread poverty exacerbated by austerity, but geographically uneven. Opposing laissez-faire capitalism and neoliberalism, they identify cultural roots as to why capitalism is, currently, particularly harmful. Cultural divides mean that much of the ruling class has not really interacted with the working class, and so feels no obligation towards the common good. This diagnosis shows the limitations of the book’s perspective, and of its lack of a class analysis. The ruling class exists and fundamentally improves their situation through exploiting the working class, by expropriating the products of our labour. If they better understand those they are exploiting, they might, at best, be a little less brutal. But as a class they will not voluntarily give up their position or their continual reaping of profit.
They document strong correlations between regions which were “left behind”, and leave votes. While the leave rhetoric did not focus directly on these factors, this huge inequality and sense of “anger and despair” was a central driver in the vote. This strengthened an already documented phenomena in referenda: “change” tends to win, as has been seen in 69% of 268 referendums since 1990.
Hutton and Adonis recognise that “a tradition of imperial swagger stalks our culture and popular imagination,” and that anti-immigrant rhetoric was central, as well as and as part of encouraged fears of having “lost control”. They document how anti-immigration politics has increased drastically in the last decade or so, in significant part due to UKIP and the right-wing media, and often lies. Such politics scapegoats immigrants for stagnation in living conditions actually caused by austerity and other domestic policies. They cite, too, evidence that when nationals recognise that immigrants are assimilating and “contributing”, they are much less concerned.
The rise in anti-immigrant politics, they rightly argue, is also due to other political currents accommodating to and failing to challenge such politics. They demonstrate that immigration became the key issue behind Brexit, and the link between anti-immigration politics and the rise of the far right. Many so-called “lexiteers” could learn from this.
The harms of Brexit, the necessity of the EU
“The first loss [of Brexit] is economic”, the book argues, evidencing the costs, the unavoidable net trade losses, and the loss of EU investment in less well off areas of the UK and other sections of the economy. It also documents the many ways Brexit will harm the NHS, research and science – partly through limitations to free movement. They comprehensively refute the idea that the EU is interfering excessively in any aspect of UK life, or that the UK is shackled by regulations. Much EU regulation, Saving Britain argues, focusses on working rights and environmental protections, and the EU has a better record on these than the UK. Furthermore, large trading blocks are necessary in a global economy to stand against a “race to the bottom” on these protections.
The “straitjacket” of the global market pushes countries towards a neoliberal hell of subservience to “the needs of the world’s multinationals and capital markets.” To stand against this and exercise democracy, a big economic unit is needed. For the authors “The EU is the modern solution to reconciling democracy, sovereignty and prosperity.” They document how the EU has stood up to excesses of international capital on certain issues, also arguing that it, unlike the UK, has the muscle to stand against global trade wars. Outside the EU trade negotiations will demands that Britain surrender regulations – on safety, health and quality – for further access to other countries’ markets, likely unequally with the more economically powerful China or USA. Even surrendering these regulations the UK would still lose significant trade in and through the EU.
One of the many alternative narratives the authors give in their exaltation of the EU is to the infamous accusation that the EU is responsible for UK’s bananas being restricted to their current shape. Their contention is that pressure to introduce regulation to grade bananas based on curvature comes from industry and international trading bodies, and has been widely accepted. While the EU implemented this regulation, outside the EU Britain would have come under the same pressure – and presumably without the EU’s muscle British people would find it even more difficult to get hold of straight or extra-curvy bananas. Crucially, the authors also assert that Labour’s 2017 manifesto could be fully implemented under existing EU regulations, contrary to popular myths. Furthermore, to change Britain and challenge neoliberalism, the EU is “indispensable”.
The authors are correct to recognise that to stand up even just to the excesses of international capital requires internationalist responses, organising collectively across large economic areas such as Europe. However, their lack of a class perspective contributes to an uncritical and one-sided evaluation of the EU. The EU is to be thanked for all its good regulatory protections, while the bad regulations (or, implicitly, lack thereof) are to be blamed on international capitalism. They pay lip service to recognising the imperfections of the EU, without discussing what these issues are, or how to change them. The EU’s history and composition – as with the modern UK parliament – show its fundamental character to be that of a bourgeois institution. Both institutions sometimes act in the long term interests of capital even against its short term interests, and sometimes restrain excesses of capital, especially when under pressure. Fundamentally though, they serve the interests of European (or British) capital, and are limited in their democracy to that end.
We should not be simplistic anti-capitalists who oppose all institutions or policies of bourgeois nature. The NHS after all is and always has been a compromise with capital, and public healthcare can support capital’s longer term interests through helping workers be healthier and live longer. The EU’s institutions are and must be treated as a terrain of class struggle: putting pressure to introduce or strengthen regulation which strengthens social, workplace and environmental protections, and fighting harmful regulation, rulings or policies. We must recognise that greater international economic integration, even of a bourgeois nature, is broadly progressive and puts our class in a better position for an international fight back. We must aim to democratise and reform the EU institutions beyond recognition, where necessarily confronting or replacing them. All such serious critical perspectives are absent from Saving Britain.
Recognising the authoritarian and nationalist “counter-revolution” against European liberalism, with the rise of populist right-wing leaders and movements across Europe, Adonis and Hutton respond in part with a liberal flavoured pan-European nationalism. Seeming to conflate these concerns with fears of Putin (and Trump, and Xi), a powerful EU is needed to “aggressively uphold” liberal democratic values, as a bulwark against enemies outside and within: because NATO is not sufficient. The EU’s value here seems to be broadly as an imperial block standing up for European values. For them, their project is part of the “bigger, nobler cause of representing European civilisation and values.”
They are of course right that we must aggressively defend of the advantages of liberal democracy, and fight the rise in right-wing populism. But we cannot see this as a cultural struggle and rely – uncritically – on bourgeois institutions; this struggle must be for and by our class, on an international scale. Part of doing so is stopping Brexit, but stopping it for the right reasons. Brexit is a manifestation of and intimately tied up with anti-immigrant and nationalist politics, attitudes which are central to most far-right populists. The UK leaving the EU, or worse still the EU disintegrating, will materially strengthen borders and national divisions, giving further fuel to the poisonous politics we much fight.
Repurposing British capitalism
Arguing that the problems in Britain are home grown, Saving Britain makes the case for “repurpos[ing] our capitalism,” moving towards a vision of “stakeholder capitalism” which they sketch. Critical of neo-liberalism, they pose a “new Keynesian” alternative, with public investment and regulation to limit the most short-sighted and destructive tendencies of capitalism, instead “managing” markets in the interest of the UK. They make a persuasive case for public services and innovation from the public sector, funded by higher taxation, and against unfettered markets. They assume, but never attempt to justify, that markets in themselves and when managed are good, and so advocate an “entrepreneurial state” to help markets flourish. Seeking to restore “public trust in business ethics” they envision what they see as a nice capitalism, with many companies becoming, or becoming superseded by, mutuals, co-operatives and other “enterprises overtly committed to delivering public benefit.” If companies were a bit more transparent, and promised in their constitutions to be good, the problems would dissipate. This would facilitate both “holding together stakeholders” - i.e. helping bosses and workers get along – and “the human spirit [trying] to do the best for their society”, as can be seen in examples of good capitalism such as Unilver.
Rather than renationalisation, the authors advocate the state becoming a shareholder in many companies, transforming them into “Public Benefit Companies”. This model resembles a rebranded form of PFIs, albeit slightly more regulated and accountable. Indeed, they claim that in 1994 Blair – later a proponent of PFIs – seemed to endorse Hutton’s vision of “stakeholder capitalism”, but criticise Blair for failing to stand up to corporations and the media enough to carry it through, instead leaving neoliberalism intact. They fail to diagnose why he didn’t stand up to this. Adonis prides himself as being the chief architect of academies, when Minister for Schools, giving us a flavour of what “stakeholder capitalism” would have in store for us.
Saving Britain recognises the weakness of the trade union movement, its shacking with anti-union legislation, and the low trade union density in the private sector. Yet again, the book advocates class collaboration as the solution. Unions should be “social partners and co-creators of stakeholder capitalism”, pushing for small changes but also providing apprenticeships: not being enemies of employers but instead legitimising and encouraging trust in them. They do not explain how this would improve the situation, but perhaps they are imagining that the ruling class mistreats and exploits the working class because the working class have hurt the ruling class’s feelings, and we must simply be nicer to them. Indeed, they think that mandatory national service, with the military playing a major role, will build solidarity and a unified nation. If the ruling class only interacted more with those they exploit, they could relate to us better, would recognise their duties, and would treat us better.
Another key plank in the authors’ blueprint for a (new) “new deal” is decentralisation within the UK, empowering local authorities and introducing “mayors all around”. Central too is a “Great Charter of Modern Britain”, including a “British Statute of Rights and Responsibilities”. They are weirdly specific about not only the exact wording of this charter, but on what day and location it should be announced. Such precision presumably seeks to give an impression of a meticulously worked out plan to “save” Britain, but their plan is not only not attractive but radically incomplete. While sketching a blueprint of their questionable utopia, the authors give not a single hint of how we could substantially move towards it. After the final chapter, they have a single page entitled “where next”, which points us towards the only concrete thing that they advocate readers do: campaign to stop Brexit. They listing many campaigns aiming to do just this, all of them centrist and notably omitting the left-wing Another Europe Is Possible.
While arguing that opposing Brexit must be supported by a commitment to change Britain, the book falls short of making a serious commitment to actually bring about the latter change.
Liberal flavoured British nationalism
As might be guessed from the title, Saving Britain is often nationalist in style and perspective. Adonis writes that “England… when not engaged in imperial atrocities [is] an inspiration.” Churchill was a through and through conservative who strongly opposed women’s equality, presided over the devastating and avoidable 1943 Bengali famine which killed up to four million people, justified this famine and other atrocities with outright racism, and stood first and foremost for British imperialism. But for the authors Churchill is “[t]he greatest Briton”, to whom they dedicate almost half a chapter. First celebrating him uncritically, they then mobilise his legacy as pro-European. He celebrated that England could call on Europe, the empire, and the English speaking world to support them. His pro-European perspective was one of maximising British influence, which makes Europe, they claim, especially important since the loss of the British empire. Responding to brexiteers who aspire to “empire 2.0”, the authors point out that it is not possible, not mentioning that a return to the atrocities of the empire should never be advocated even if it were possible.
Their nationalist perspective is not confined to their analysis, extends to their vision. Hutton and Adonis advocate a “far stronger notion of citizenship, including a national identity card system”, national service, for British companies to have pride in their “roots”, and more. Their response to anti-European British nationalism is a pro-European British nationalism, a support for a “common identity” with “the Union Jack and the European flag [as] two symbols of the same identity and common citizenship, British and European.” To justify the and promote this identity, they take considerable space to demonstrate that Britain and the rest of Europe have historically been culturally, politically and intellectually deeply interconnected; that Britain is European.
Readers cannot easily tell whether their nationalism, and – at best – equivocation over imperialism come from deeply held beliefs, or are cynically evoked and manipulated to redirect nationalist sentiments and concerns about sovereignty. Either way, the result is to not confront but to welcome growing and poisonous politics which in the long run can only harm our class and support the populist right. They also accommodate reactionary perspectives on immigration, although more subtly.
Accommodation on immigration
Their pro-migrant arguments, like the rest of Saving Britain, come from largely liberal and nationalist perspectives. Pointing out that the housing crisis and other domestic issues are caused by domestic policy not immigration, they argue conversely that immigrants “contribute to the economy” and the NHS. Britain, they argue, has always accepted and assimilated immigrants, shaping migrants and shaping and integrating them, maintaining a sense of nationhood despite this immigration. Immigration is ok for these reasons.
They advocate some progressive policies in response: reinstating the Migrant Impact Fund, and levelling up the skills and opportunities for young people in Britain to combat fears about jobs.
However, Adonis and Hutton want to have their cake and eat it. One of their few criticisms of the EU is that they haven’t granted nations an “emergency brake” on immigration. Migrants travelling here in search of work should, they assert, be kicked out after 100 days if they haven’t got a job. They also desire a two-tier system for people who are here. Their advocacy of a “system of ID cards” is in large part for knowing who has a right to work or access services, as a system of control. Public institutions, in their vision of a better society, would give priority in employment to UK nationals. Immigrants who haven’t made at least 12 months of National Insurance contributions should, according to Saving Britain, be excluded from benefit entitlement.
The ID cards would reportedly not be bad for all migrants, as such a system they argue could have prevented the wrongful deportation of Windrush migrants, although at the expense of other migrants. By keeping tighter control on the number of migrants, they hope moreover to prevent exaggeration of immigration levels by the anti-immigrant right.
Fundamentally, they falsely and harmfully lay much of the blame for anti-immigrant politics on “unrestricted immigration”. They claim that “[i]t was black Commonwealth immigration that created Enoch Powell as a populist racist.” This is to overlook deliberate policies which had created large barriers to the integration of these migrants, as well as concerted campaigns of anti-migrant and racist propaganda for ulterior political motives. Giving ground on this issue harms immigrants and strengthens the populist right, as the authors themselves recognised earlier in the book.
A class-struggle anti-Brexit left is needed
Saving Britain resembles the result of an attempt to build a house using – mostly – decent bricks, but using lubricant instead of mortar, and without a plan. Some of the component parts – bits of history or statistics – have some value in themself, but they add up to something which doesn’t make sense from most angles, is incomplete, and is slimy and unpleasant. The mortar that they are lacking is any form of class analysis, any serious understanding of capitalism. They lack a plan because their blueprint, for all its bold left-of-centreness and its many flaws, does not come with any suggestions of how to bring it about. The lubricant, which makes the result worse than a dry-brick construction, is the ingrained nationalism and liberalism that penetrates the whole book. Its existence underscores the need for a strong, class-struggle orientated, genuinely internationalist, pro-migrant, and anti-Brexit left.