Owen Jones and Little Britain

Submitted by AWL on 28 July, 2015 - 5:37 Author: Dan Katz

Owen Jones writes in the Guardian that the left should declare itself Euro-sceptic (14 July).

Apparently a couple of other journalists (Suzanne Moore and Nick Cohen) and someone who writes a column in the Times agree with him. The list of “leftists” who support him, we are led to believe by Jones, is growing. Even assuming this small list of people who are not really on the left is much, much bigger, this isn’t a good way to start an argument.

Rather than assessing what’s right and wrong by getting the nod from “well known” and “important” people, the question to ask is: does it make sense, from a working-class and internationalist standpoint, for socialists to advocate EU withdrawal? The answer should be: of course not.

However Owen Jones thinks that a resurgence of “left” Euro-scepticism will signal a rebirth of left confidence. He seems to remember the UK referendum of 1975 on Europe, but omits to recall Tony Benn sharing a platform with Enoch Powell.

The left’s nationalist anti-Europe crusade in the 70s was a disgusting sight. It boosted the National Front and legitimised backwardness in sections of the working class. And a “left” that sides with UKIP and the Tory right in the coming EU referendum will disgrace itself again, and show that it has learnt nothing.

Owen Jones puts forward a single argument to vote against Europe: the EU “threaten[s] the ability of left-wing governments to implement policies.” No doubt it is true — and we have seen this clearly in Greece — that bourgeois European governments seek to impose unpleasant bourgeois solutions. In Greece’s case the capitalists trampled on Greek democracy and national rights as well as on jobs and healthcare. But the idea that this settles the question — in or out of the EU? — is ridiculous.

The answer to Jones’ problem — how can we implement reforms here, while being in the EU — is not complex. The idea that a left-wing government shouldn’t give in, buckle and collapse (like Syriza’s leadership did) is not very difficult to understand.

And isn’t this pretty much the same problem that also exists within the UK framework? If a left-wing government was elected to Westminster it would face anti-democratic opposition from the state — the top civil servants, judiciary, the army and police — and the capitalists. The answer is the same: a left-wing government shouldn’t give in at Westminster, either, but rally support and solidarity outside parliament by advocating and legislating for working-class interests and struggle. Leaving the EU doesn’t solve the problem of bourgeois states or capitalist bullying, because it doesn’t deal with capitalism itself.

So how would a left-wing British government renationalise the railways, Owen asks? It would pass the legislation, take ownership and control, and advocate other workers’ movements in Europe fight on their issues and rally in solidarity.

Would a left wing British government run up against capitalist hostility and EU legal barriers? Yes. But it should defy those barriers, if necessary! Leaving the EU wouldn’t stop the active hostility of the European capitalists and it would somewhat narrow the possibility of rallying working-class support across Europe (because the British left would be cut off from making the case through European institutions, and because the British left would have damaged its credibility by turning its back on European workers).

But Owen Jones also seems to vaguely understand the problem: these attacks are taking place everywhere! In or out of the Euro, in or out of the EU, capitalism still dominates. The idea that we can make (our British) lives better by quitting is a nationalist myth (and one the Greek people seem to understand very clearly — they don’t want to get out of either the Euro or EU).

Owen Jones says the EU is undemocratic. And certainly it is. But what’s the answer? Don’t leave, democratise the EU! What’s so difficult about that idea?

Again, a similar problem exists in the UK. What do we say to people who complain about lack of democracy and accountability here? Do we say abolish Westminster by breaking Britain up into fragments? Of course not. We say abolish the monarchy, annual parliaments, abolish the House of Lords, proportional representation. We say, take the existing framework, and improve it from the standpoint of the majority, of working-class people.

We’re in the business of taking what we can from what the capitalists have created, and using it for the benefit of the working class. That goes for Europe, too. The European capitalists have begun to bring down some barriers which separate the peoples of Europe, within the framework of the EU. That work is progressive, notwithstanding the fact it has been done by the capitalists in their own way and for their own reasons. It is not our job to reverse this work.

Socialists must not help UKIP persecute migrants and lock-down the UK. And that is what will happen if the No camp wins the referendum. Owen Jones will not implement a decision to get the UK out of Europe, the right of the Tory Party will. Cameron will go, but not to be replaced by Jones and full employment, but by a new Euro-sceptic leader of the Tory party and a raft of hateful anti-migrant legislation.

A socialist that helps the right and the far right in the UK to win a victory simply shows how disorientated they are.

Workers’ Liberty is in favour of a united, federal Europe. Is Owen Jones? That’s not clear. Maybe he has some fantasy in his head; smash up this European unity now, to build some socialist unity in the future.

But Jones’ underlying idea is for an isolated little Britain. Jones tells us that EU membership “forbid[s] the sort of industrial activism needed to protect domestic industries.” And a left anti-EU campaign would “focus on building a new Britain, one of workers’ rights, a genuine living wage, public ownership, industrial activism and tax justice.”

Whether Jones likes it or not his argument will be heard by British workers in this way: if you vote to get out of the EU you can get jobs and better pay; some migrants in the UK might suffer, but we’d be OK.

Owen Jones’ framework is nationalist and misunderstands socialism. Our role is to defend workers’ jobs in the UK and across Europe — and the world — by advocating the class struggle and solidarity across borders. Our job has never been to “protect domestic industries.”

We are fighting for a new Europe, a workers’ Europe.

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