• The Left Case for Brexit

    An uncommitted reader of the British press would rapidly conclude that, on the issue of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, there is an easily-drawn dividing line. Those who favour withdrawal are on the right in political terms; those who would retain membership are on the left.

    Readers of the centre-left or liberal press would go further; coverage of the issue would suggest that the supporters of Brexit are not only right-wing, but ignorant, prejudiced, xenophobic, or just plain deranged. The possibility that there is a perfectly rational and moderate case for reconsidering our future in Europe, a case that is not only consistent with a left-of-centre stance but actually required by it, is overlooked. The debate is all the poorer for it.

    My own involvement with this issue goes back a long way. As a new recruit to the Foreign Office in 1964, I worked on Common Market issues and later, from our Brussels embassy, I helped to organise the Wilson-Brown tour of Common Market capitals as part of a further attempt to have the Gaullist veto on our membership lifted.

    By the time I returned to the UK in 1968, I was clear that the issue was not whether we should or could be part of Europe, since no one could doubt that we were historically, geographically, culturally, politically, and inevitably, an integral part of that entity, however defined. The question was not whether, but what kind of Europe?

    I came to the realisation that what we were offered was not “Europe” but a Franco-German deal guaranteeing free trade in manufactures to the Germans in return for subsidised agriculture to suit the French.

    Joining “Europe” in 1972 represented for Britain a restriction of our trading opportunities and an abandonment of a rational and long-established trading pattern. It meant, through the Common Agricultural Policy, to whose costs Britain was and remains a major contributor, a substantial increase in food prices and therefore in domestic costs, making British manufactured goods more expensive. It also meant an end to preferential markets beyond Europe, and opened us up instead to direct competition from more efficient manufacturing rivals in a single European marketplace.

    But have we not derived great advantage from our trade with the EU? Well, hardly. Let us put to one side the very large annual contribution we pay to the EU (a continuing burden, as it happens, on our balance of payments). We have now run a trade deficit every year since 1982, which was just as the full impact of EU membership took effect – not just a coincidence, since the greater part of that deficit is with the other members of the EU, and much of it arises in the trade in manufactured goods.

    The result is that our manufacturing sector has shrivelled away, and our net investment in new manufacturing capacity is virtually nil. We are of course solemnly warned that our EU partners will refuse to trade with us if we insist on a different and better Europe; but are they really going to turn their backs on a one-sided trade relationship that has been so much to their advantage?

    The weakness of the case for continuing membership of the current arrangement is shown by the fact that it is almost always articulated in terms of rival pessimisms; we are constantly told that the burdens of membership are outweighed by the risks of being left out in the cold.

    But we should take courage from the lessons of experience. Similar arguments led us to join the European Monetary System, which proved disastrous, and were then repeated in respect of the euro. Most people in Britain will offer daily thanks that we had the courage to reject those arguments and to stay out of the euro, and there is no reason to suppose that they have any greater weight in the current debate. Our trading partners in Europe need us at least as much as we are said to need them, as post-Brexit negotiations would surely demonstrate.

    In any case, a decision in favour of Brexit would not mean, as is so often alleged, turning our backs on Europe. It would signal instead the opening of a new agenda, aimed at developing a better and more constructive Europe, and one with a greater chance of success.

    A new Europe would not operate, as it has done since its inception, as a manifestation of free-market capitalism, serving the interests of big business rather than those of ordinary people. It would not impose a policy of austerity in thrall to neo-classical economic doctrine. It would not run a hugely diverse economy in terms of a monetary policy that suits Germany but no one else. It would not impose a political structure decided by a small elite, but would allow the pace of cooperation and eventually integration to be decided by the people of Europe as they and we became more comfortable with the concept of a European identity.

    If we have the courage, we could, in other words, not only benefit ourselves but help the development of a Europe that truly does serve the people of Europe. That is surely a project to attract even the most enlightened of bien pensants.

    Bryan Gould

    17 March 2016






  1. Patrick Holt says: March 23, 2016 at 12:59 amReply

    I’m still trying to make up my mind, having been an impulsive Europhile on internationalist grounds all my life. I need to see what our Spanish and Greek comrades have to say on the subject. Varoufakis is briefing against Brexit, but I haven’t read what he has to say yet. I might be persuaded to vote to stay if Syriza and Podemos are convinced it is essential for them, but not otherwise.

    • Max says: April 5, 2016 at 5:48 pmReply

      Varoufakis is briefing against Brexit for personal reasons relating to the state of Greece. This is a decision for the British and should be about what’s best for our country.

    • Phil says: April 6, 2016 at 6:31 amReply

      Very interesting article. thanks.
      Hi Patrick just a few thoughts….Unfortunately, the EU is not an internationalist body. It is subverting the very idea of cooperation and replacing it with integration based on a predetermined political agenda. It is an adolescent supranational state too far developed to change course lightly and the corporatism pillar it was built on runs too deep for the EU to ever risk uprooting it; unless the whole project is at risk.

      I read what Varoufakis had to say in the Guardian yesterday and was baffled because he seems to be abandoning reason when he says that Greece and the UK would never join the EU today but then goes on to say we must stay in to change it. However, it is clear that voting to stay in will only reinforce the direction; only a huge shock to the system might force change. National politicians change too regularly and are subverting too easily by the power the EU gives them (as unaccountable legislators for 500m) to ever create the momentum that is needed for change.

      That is why voting Leave is the only logical choice. If it helps fundamentally change the EU then great. If it doesn’t then the UK will be on the path to providing an alternative. However, we have to be honest here… that alternative will not always be ‘left’ but equally it will not always be ‘right’ and it certainly won’t be corporatist, as the EU is (and that is an evil that unites many across the spectrum). In any case the electorate will be able to change this direction much more easily and force REAL changes at each election should it so wish too.

      It will also bring back the idea of international cooperation because for too long states have hidden behind the idea of a European response as an excuse to do nothing. Being responsible will make us take responsibility. Building consensus among nations is far more powerful than integrated European responses because willing partners act quickly and create a snowball. Whereas for the EU to have the power to act quickly on behalf of such a diverse continent it would have to have been granted such power that the disconnect between governed and government would be extreme.

      Of course there are many reasons for voting Leave, but I am struggling to find any reasons for voting to remain especially given that the kind of reform that is needed is viewed by the institution itself not reform but as destruction. Therefore it will be bitterly resisted with the growing tools at its disposal.

      History is littered with wasted peaceful opportunities to stop the development unpalatable regimes; the problem being is it not always obvious where things are going when these peaceful opportunities are still available. I hope this referendum will not end up another of these and that is why I view the real risk as voting remain.

  2. phil craig says: April 1, 2016 at 11:01 amReply

    Bryan, if you have a copy of our old c4 documentary about this, you should upload it to youtube !

    • Bryan Gould says: April 1, 2016 at 10:46 pmReply

      Thanks Phil – I will! Best wishes, Bryan

  3. Charles Daly says: April 5, 2016 at 5:15 pmReply

    The EU energy directives have turned large swathes of good agricultural land into fuel manufacture (biodiesel). Which results in food being burned by Diesel engines to pollute the atmosphere even more than petrol.
    The directive also created an unatural auto market for diesel engines that emit more soot (PMO) than petrol engines laying waste our oil refineries. So much for clear thinking. Please get me out of this mad hatter’s tea party.

  4. Finbar Smith says: April 8, 2016 at 4:09 pmReply

    I agree, staying in the EU is tantamount to basically choosing bureaucracy over democracy. It’s like a vote to NOT be able to vote.

    And why do you suppose their would be any disposition toward this in the British public? Because democracy is messy, both in principle and reality whereas bureaucracy is in intention and theory at least glamorous. Like any form of totalitarianism, even if it’s softcore.

  5. Doug Nicholls says: May 24, 2016 at 8:25 amReply

    Well done Bryan.
    Have a look at our site Trade Unionists Against the EU.
    All the best.
    Doug Nicholls.