At the end of June US secretary of state John Kerry said, with a bluntness unusual in a professional diplomat, that David Cameron “has no idea how he would do it [negotiate British exit from the EU]. And by the way nor do most of the people who voted to do it”.
The leaders of the Leave campaign surely have no idea. They sold the electorate a vague grab-bag of promises, most of them never expecting to have to deliver, and many (it seems) not even wanting to. So now the meaning of the Leave vote is being decided via confused and murky battle between candidates for the Tory leadership, all of them markedly on the right wing of the Tories.
Andrea Leadsom is suddenly one of the front-runners, potentially popular with Tory Party members. She is a social conservative as well as a free-marketeer. She seems to stand for the quickest, most thorough, most reckless break with the EU. She says she will activate Article 50, the formal two-year countdown to exit, immediately if she becomes Tory leader. She has indicated that she will start blocking free entry of EU workers even before negotiations. Yet she is now supported by Boris Johnson.
Johnson said after the referendum result that he wanted “no haste” about Article 50, and a deal which would conserve British citizens’ freedom to work or study or retire in Europe and British access to the European single market: things impossible to negotiate without also conserving free entry to Britain of EU workers.
Theresa May says she will not activate Article 50 before 2017, and will sketch the outlines of a deal before that. Former Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg has made the straightforward democratic demand that the government must set out its negotiating stand clearly and submit to a parliamentary vote before it activates Article 50 on the package. An opinion poll has found that 48% of voters agree there should be a general election before Britain begins Brexit negotiations.
Dominic Cummings, organiser of the Vote Leave campaign, and a former adviser to Gove, suggested before 23 June a second referendum on the actual terms of exit. “It is perfectly possible that leadership candidates to replace David Cameron will [want] a new government team to offer the public a voice on what the deal looks like. And... I think there’s a strong democratic case for it”. Even more head-spinningly, Cummings told a parliamentary committee, back in April: “In fact, there might be no need to trigger article 50 at all, because an alternative withdrawal process might be possible”. He told the Economist magazine in January: “There is a widespread assumption that we have to use the Article 50 process, and that has a lot of risks. That is not true. We do not have to use the Article 50 process”.
The Tories have two dilemmas. They know that a majority for an actual proposal to leave will be ten times harder to get than a majority for the vague idea that there must be some way of leaving which keeps most of the advantages of EU links. And that once Article 50 is activated, they have just two years to negotiate a deal or see a “sudden-death” exit without trade agreements, without negotiated terms for British citizens living in the EU, without agreements for British-based banks to do business in the EU.
The two years can be extended, but any single EU government could block that extension. Towards the end of the two years, the pressure on the British government to accept whatever the EU offers will become immense. They may find that they just can’t get a deal.
EU leaders are now worried that the Canada-EU trade deal may never get ratified, because there are strong demands to submit it to every parliament in the EU, and just a vote against the deal by, say, the parliament of the Walloon region in Belgium will be enough to scupper it. And that is a deal in preparation since 2008, negotiated with few conflicts or tensions, far less fraught than a Brexit deal.
The meaning of the Leave vote is being defined in the Tory leadership contest; but we will not know what it means even after that contest is decided. The actual definite result of the Leave vote, as Peter Catterall of Westminster University has put it, is that “we will get a change of government in the autumn to something people didn’t vote for... we’re going to get a more hardline Tory government, and if that had been on the ballot paper it probably wouldn’t have succeeded.” Or as Margaret Thatcher’s former Chancellor Nigel Lawson has said: “The vote to leave the EU is a ‘historic opportunity’ to finish the job Margaret Thatcher started”.
The chief conclusion for the labour movement is to reject all arguments that the referendum result puts a democratic obligation on Labour to give up on freedom of movement in Europe, to abandon migrant workers’ rights, and or to accept the definition of “Leave” given by whatever Tory faction comes out on top. If we organise and keep up the pressure, there should be and will be a range of openings to limit the breaking of links to a minimum — perhaps to the “Norway option”, EEA membership, essentially three-quarters EU membership with freedom of movement — or even to win a new and better democratic mandate to stop EU exit altogether.
The final twist to this story is: where do the pro-Leave left, the SP and SWP, stand now? They will surely oppose the different Tory Brexit options, all manifestly right-wing, if only because of their “principle” that you always vote for what puts the messiest spanner in the works. So they’re telling people: “We are for Leave, but against every halfway possible way to Leave; we’re for Leave, but we’ll obstruct every proposal to make it happen”. And they want to be reckoned as honest socialists, not opportunist demagogues?
Fight anti-migrant racism
A shocking spike in hate crimes across Britain has been recorded up to and since the vote to leave the European Union. People from quite diverse nationalities and backgrounds, including Eastern and Western Europeans, Muslims and North Americans, have reported acts of intimidation and harassment to the police and the media.
The Huffington Post and the Post-Ref-Racism initiative on Facebook have documented the abuse. A lot of the abuse has been racist and xenophobic comments on Twitter and other social media. Much of it has been verbal and physical aggression on the streets and graffiti. Some broadcast journalists have experienced racism and spoken of it on TV.
BBC reporter Sima Kotecha returned home to Basingstoke and was abused with a racial slur she said hadn’t heard “since the 80s”. BBC journalist Trish Adudu in Coventry was set upon and called the n-word. It seems the vote has emboldened people who already held anti-migrant, racist and xenophobic views. From the nature of the attacks (on people of Asian and African and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds) some people believe, or want to believe, that the vote was against all migrants, not just EU migrants. Who is the typical perpetrator?
Not just ground-down, angry older individuals who have held onto racist views that were once commonplace. There are, unfortuntately, newer forms of anti-migrant sentiments, attitudes which are spreading to broader layers of people, including young people. For example, one of the reported incidents was the grafitti “go back to Romania” in some school toilets. There is also an immediate material threat to EU migrants. Europeans working in the hospitality sector are vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. In Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire anti-migrant cards were posted through the doors of Polish people.
The labour movement has a a particular responsibility to defend EU migrants and all BAME people from these attacks. Part of that fight means redoubling our efforts to fight “austerity”, and developing stronger links with workers in Europe.