The Brexit fallout has had caused as much rancour on the left as it has on the right. John Webber offers an analysis of Labour and the SNP's current positions, the limitations of both and why he thinks left wing forces need to unite to fight back against capitalists who have hijacked the issue...
The unfolding Brexit saga serves to illustrate how our two main social democratic opposition parties, the SNP and Labour, often find themselves at loggerheads over things they broadly agree on. Specifically, the parties have been in sharp disagreement over Scotland and Britain's future relationship with the EU after Brexit, with Holyrood coming into conflict with Westminster over the devolution of repatriated powers and Corbyn declaring his support for remaining in a customs union with the EU.
The SNP have made their position clear: they want to stay in the Single Market, ensuring a “soft” Brexit rather than a “hard” one, believing the latter spells disaster. This position was solidified by the leaks from the Tory Government’s impact assessment, which showed that all possible permutations of Brexit – hard or soft – would drive the economy into recession.
This leak came in the wake of the Scottish Government’s own report, which Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Tories derided as “scaremongering”. Tory hypocrisy exposed, the SNP were emboldened to lead the parliamentary attempts to keep the UK in the Single Market and Customs Union. Their “summit” for pro-Single Market MPs was widely reported, particularly due to the fact Jeremy Corbyn refused to attend or endorse this approach outright.
Corbyn has since outlined that Labour wishes to remain in the Customs Union, which would allow free-flowing trade between member nations without companies needing to pay tariffs at the border without going as far as to integrate their economies within the Single Market. This was welcomed by the CBI (Confederation for British Industry), reflecting pressure on Labour from the anti-Brexit wing of the capitalist class. However, Corbyn’s position still leaves many unanswered questions.
Polls show Labour supporters are still confused about the party’s position on Brexit, with almost half claiming they want Labour to strongly back remaining in the Single Market. Scottish Labour have been left unable to respond directly to SNP attacks or give a more detailed position, with their Brexit spokesperson Neil Findlay defending Corbyn’s non-committal attitude as a “negotiating tactic”.
It's worthy of note that the SNP’s own Europhilia has not been entirely consistent. In the wake of the EU referendum, the SNP were adamantly against Brexit. They have since gone from demanding Scotland stay within the EU to a slightly more watered-down position of “soft Brexit” for Scotland. Now, Nicola Sturgeon even considers the idea that an independent Scotland may not fully re-join the EU, though it's still SNP policy.
But the Scottish nationalist approach has been opportunistic, with many choosing to attack Corbyn at every opportunity. The National newspaper is at this point openly hostile to Corbyn, effectively colluding with the right-wing Blairites who are trying to oust him and publicly undermine the Labour party. Some writers even joined the call for Corbyn to resign during the “Chicken Coup”.
They turned their fire on Corbyn over Single Market membership, accusing him of being a liar when he argued that remaining seemed impossible. After speaking at the Scottish Labour conference about immigration, he was even compared to UKIP’s Nigel Farage due to some of his rhetoric about unscrupulous employers. It should go without saying that parroting such exaggerations and criticisms, which ironically stem from the right, do little to help Corbyn’s shortcomings.
The SNP are consistent in demanding a different deal for Scotland from the rest of the UK. Their confidence in this position was immeasurably boosted by the European Commission's announcement that its Brexit deal draft will include keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union, partly due to the lack of any other solution to the Irish border problem. Moreover, the “power grab” of post-Brexit repatriated powers threatens the balance of the current devolution settlement, solidifying the SNP’s argument that leaving the EU with the rest of the UK is only going to be bad for Scotland.
Both the SNP and Labour say they want to protect jobs, living standards, workers’ rights etc. from a “Tory Brexit”. It's constantly worth reminding ourselves as socialists that we must be sharp and unified if such messaging is to resonate. Currently, the two parties spend as much time attacking each other as they do the real enemy of the working class: the capitalist class and the Conservatives, the party that represents it. In truth, they should reflect on the shortcomings of their own positions rather than sewing further confusion.
The EU showed its true colours when it tacitly approved of the Spanish state’s repression in Catalonia last year. Developments over recent weeks and months demonstrate that it continues to lend credibility to an increasingly authoritarian Spain. The SNP leaders have criticised this, but they ignore the brutal austerity measures imposed by the EU the continent over the past decade. The SNP membership are no fools – they have followed these events – and many will soon draw conclusions about what class’ interests the EU really represents.
Labour's position here is incoherent, too. Whilst Corbyn and the Labour left rightly criticise the EU’s restrictions on nationalisation and state aid, their opposition all too often bends to arguments rooted in British chauvinism and naivete. Regardless of how Corbyn's rhetoric has been interpreted, by supporting immigration controls the party is fuelling resentment between British-born workers and migrant workers. Why does Labour struggle to convince sceptics that a Labour-led Brexit would be different to a Tory Brexit? Because without breaking with capitalism, it for the most part wouldn't be.
All reports and forecasts of the impact of Brexit say it will be an economic and social disaster. Marxists warned this would be the inevitable result of leaving the EU on a capitalist basis. The answer is not to necessarily remain within the EU – workers have nothing to gain but more austerity and attacks on workers’ rights. In the long term, the status quo will fundamentally remain the same.
Brexit is a given, and it's worth noting that Labour and the SNP are in agreement that repatriated powers should be devolved and that no hard border should be imposed in Ireland. These are democratic demands that we should support. But these two issues represent something further: insoluble contradictions being unleashed by the British ruling class; contradictions laid in the foundations of British and European capitalism.
That's why it's key that the left within the SNP and Labour should seek to unite on this issue and go further to expose the bankruptcy of capitalism. Taking a serious lead alongside trade union leaders and armed with a socialist programme, they can offer a real alternative to the reactionary illusions in liberalism, protectionism and chauvinism that have dominated the EU/Brexit debate. If workers are to be emancipated across the continent, leftist forces in Britain need to ignite the spark.
This has been adapted from a piece running in the upcoming REVOLUTION journal, issue 21.