Editorial from Solidarity 456
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott declared last month: "I will argue for the right of the electorate to vote on any deal that is finally agreed" (on Brexit). On 2 December, Jeremy Corbyn added: "We’ve not made any decision on a second referendum". An opinion poll on 1 December showed that a 68%-19% majority of Labour voters want a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Tories produce. A 50%-34% majority of the whole electorate also wants a referendum before a deal can go ahead.
As we go to press on 5 December, we cannot tell whether the Tories can bodge together something in time for the meeting of the European Council (chiefs of EU governments) on 14-15 December. They need near-enough agreement on the Brexit "divorce bill", the rights of EU citizens in Britain post-Brexit, and the border within Ireland, to unlock substantive talks on a British-EU trade deal and a transition period. A few things are clear, though.
Even the majority of pro-Brexit leaders implicitly concede that Brexit will not be the easy and joyful process they predicted. Moving far from their 2016 promise of £350 million a week for the NHS from Brexit savings, the Tory Brexiters are going along with May's promise to pay around £50 billion on the "divorce bill" and chancellor Philip Hammond's plan to set aside further billions for contingency planning for the costs of new customs controls after Brexit. Official bodies like the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England predict economic trouble from Brexit, and the Tories scarcely attempt to deny it.
Big business responded to the Brexit vote by regarding it as a problem to work around, and has focused on lobbying the Tories to soften Brexit. They are dissatisfied. Big business journals like the Financial Times and the Economist express contempt and disdain for the Tory leaders, even while they prefer the Tories as a lesser evil than what seems to them the disaster of a left-wing Labour government. The Economist of 2 December, for example, said: "However bad a politician Theresa May seems to be, the reality is worse. She is devoid of intellectual hinterland... A woman of ordinary opinions and ordinary abilities, if that".
Exit polls in the June 2016 referendum showed that most Brexit voters never expected economic gain from Brexit. Their Brexit vote was a gesture, a statement for nationalist or anti-immigrant "values", rather than an economic calculation.
Thus polls show only a small shift, as yet, on the substantive for-or-against-Brexit issue. But even that small shift is enough to change the balance. Amidst all this, Labour is still mumbling and evading issues. But there is increasing anti-Brexit pressure from below on the Labour leadership. Labour should come out clearly for freedom of movement, for a federal united Europe of democracy and social levelling-up, against re-erected border controls in Ireland - against Brexit!
Brexit, Ireland, the Border, and “alignment”
Tory prime minister Theresa May wanted to promise that Northern Ireland would remain in "regulatory alignment" with the EU in order to unlock the start of substantive talks on a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and the EU, and a transition period.
On Monday 4 December, May had to withdraw her promise because of protests from the Democratic Unionist Party, on which her government relies for votes. "Regulatory alignment" to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the 26 counties free of checks and border posts, said the DUP, implied border controls between Northern Ireland and Britain post-Brexit. The DUP's objection is not just diehard old-fashioned Unionism, or Protestant sectarianism. People make millions of journeys across the Irish Sea each year, and businesses in Northern Ireland make £14 billion in sales to Britain each year, four times their £3.6 billion sales to the Republic of Ireland.
There have been checks on people moving between Northern Ireland and Britain - between 1939 and 1952, and again after the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 - but never trade barriers. Trade barriers between anywhere in Ireland and Britain have never been high except during the "Economic War" of 1933-38, and have scarcely existed since 1965.
The Tories face a conundrum. They have to promise something like "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the EU, because the EU will support Ireland in its objections to a "hard border" within Ireland, and so will the majority in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland overall voted 56% for Remain, and by larger majorities in border areas, up to 78% in Foyle (round Derry). "Regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the 26 Counties implies either that the whole of Britain is also "aligned" with the EU - in other words, that it is in the EU's Customs Union, which the Tories reject - or that there are disalignments, and thus border controls, between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Whether the Tories can come up with a fudge which will do for now - which will promise to make Northern Ireland closely enough "aligned" with the 26 Counties and the EU, and also sufficiently well "aligned" with Britain, and yet allow for Britain to "disalign" from the EU - we cannot know. All the benign hopes of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 rested on an unquestioned assumption that Britain and the 26 Counties would remain linked in an ever-more-integrated EU. The larger frame of European integration would allow ancient conflicts to be superseded. Over the last twenty years that benign scenario has made little headway against the institutionalised sectarianism built into the GFA.
There are still over a hundred "peace walls" separating communities in Northern Ireland, though a few have been taken down in recent years. Disruption caused by Brexit threatens to derail even the most tentative progress.
Brexit is not a done deal
"I’m just the guy who wrote the treaty telling you what the treaty means", declared former British Euro-diplomat John Kerr on 10 November.
"The Brexiters create the impression that because of the way article 50 is written... a letter [sent] on 29 March 2017 [means] we must leave automatically on 29 March 2019 at the latest. That is not true, we can change our minds if we want to, and if we did, we know that our partners would actually be very pleased indeed".
Kerr's comment usefully exposes the bluster and undemocratic high-handedness of the Tory government's insistence that Brexit is now a done deal, and even that a vote in Parliament on an exit deal can only be between that deal and a crash exit-without-a-deal. He also made an important point about democracy. "One should bear in mind that it is always possible at a later stage to decide that we want to do something different".
The main job for the left is to construct and nurture a left-wing, democratic, social-levelling-up, open-borders cross-European alternative. And along the way to insist that democracy means the option to stop Brexit.