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Forget Leave Vs. Remain. That's a Distraction. The Issue is the Elites Vs. Everyone Else.

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 25, 2019 |

By Petr Knava | Politics | September 25, 2019 |


Britain, 2019: As the deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union jogs towards the present with nihilistic alacrity, an unelected, hyper-privileged, racist, far-right-courting Prime Minister is ruled by the country’s highest court to have acted unlawfully in his suspension of Parliament. In the midst of his historic run of defeats in Parliament, a scandal in which he allegedly funneled hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money to a friend, and a general slipping of the mask of confidence and competence he had carefully applied over decades, Boris Johnson seems determined to deliver a hard right-wing Brexit in order to appease the neoliberal ideologues who fund his party—all notion of democratic conventions and basic decency be dammed.

As the country accelerates towards a historic and seismic political shift, one half of its populace screams at the other while the other bellows back, their passions stoked and exacerbated not just by the Prime Minister and his party but by the mainstream media too.

‘Damn Leavers! Ruining the country!’

‘Fu**ing Remainers! Ruining the country!’

The trouble is that that historic and seismic political shift I’m talking about is not Brexit. That, and all the arguments that are associated with it, has become a smokescreen. A rhetorical ruse designed to divert attention away from something far more important: That in the midst of all the chaos, there is genuine hope for real change for the first time in decades. The portrait of Britain developed over the last few generations is that of a country riven by nearly half a century of ever more fanatical neoliberal economics and a cross-party political consensus that has worshipped at the altar of finance and ‘the markets’ while allowing the vast majority of the population to suffer the vagaries of a stripped to the bones social safety net, an exploitative job market characterised by zero hours contracts, and punitive welfare policies designed to punish and humiliate those most in need.

This is what the Tories want the public to forget. In the wake of a Labour conference in which Jeremy Corbyn and his team used the annual Labour party conference to announce the most radical suite of progressive policies in living memory, which could well propel them to power, that is what the Tories need the people to forget. Much like swathes of the mainstream media keep harping on about ‘Boomers Vs. Millennials’ in order to distract from the real issue at hand, so too do the Tories and their complicit partners in the media desperately need the public to focus on a cheap, divisive narrative so as not to pay attention to the real issue: It’s not about Leave versus Remain. It’s the elites versus everyone else.

The founder of the progressive think tank The Institute for Public Policy Research, Tom Kibasi, wrote a piece in The Guardian on Monday that addresses this very topic. In the piece Kibasi writes:

With an imminent general election, both the main political parties are riven by rows over Brexit and how tough a line to take. Yet the lesson of the last election in 2017 was that the public gets to choose which issues really matter, not the politicians - and politicians forget at their peril that elections are about issues that are as broad as life itself. And this forthcoming vote could well be much more consequential than the last one: not just wider than Brexit, but bigger than it too.

Brexit itself is merely the prism through which a much larger contest has been refracted. Over the past few years, the Brexit debate has shifted away from the question of whether the UK would secure a “good deal” or a “bad deal” from the European Union - as if we were haggling over the price of a secondhand car - towards a more isolationist impulse. Now the Brexiters argue we should walk away with a “clean break”.

The truth is that Brexit was never a unilateralist project but an Atlanticist one. For the Brexiters now in the cabinet, the project was never about splendid isolation but rather diverging from the European social and economic model, and embracing the American way of life. That means a sink-or-swim society, with much lower levels of social protection. Its moral principles are spartan: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That is the key point. The procedural mess that is Brexit has swallowed up the entirety of the nation’s discourse and focus. For the loudest members of both camps, Leaving or Remaining is all that matters. Yet this kind of framing is a dangerous flattening of the narrative. To use Brexit as the only lens through which to view the country’s future is to misrepresent political reality. Your actual position on the European Union is largely immaterial. The discussion at hand here is not whether it is a bastion of socially and economically progressive values or whether it remains the racist instrument of big capital and free markets that it was founded as. My own view clearly comes through in my phrasing, but it is irrelevant too. The point is that Brexit is a tool. The Tories wish to wield it as a hammer with which to smash the remains of the welfare state and to push the nation even further in the direction of, as Tom Kibasi puts it, a dog-eat-dog American capitalist model. The few worker-friendly laws that the EU imposes on Britain and the country’s extant EU-facing trading priorities help impede that Tory vision from becoming a reality.

Brexit has also become a proxy issue, a floating signifier through which other political tendencies are expressed, most commonly and frighteningly by the far-right, but also by a sliver of the capitalist elite. The extremist thugs you see patrolling the streets and harassing journalists have been utilising the Leave vote as a means of pushing a violent and racist ethnonationalist agenda, and they must be called out for the fascist chancers they are. On the other side there are figures in big business who are very much in favour of the free trade agreements and capital-friendly policies of the EU who have weaponised the Remain voice to champion the world they would like to see. Neither ulterior motive brigade represent their respective Brexit vote blocs. 17 million people voted to leave the European Union, and they did so for a variety of reasons. Some, yes, due to immigration and xenophobia; many others out of a desperate need for any alternative to an economic system that had left them abandoned and destitute for decades. On the other side, 16 million people voted to remain in the European Union, and they did so too for a diverse variety of reasons.

The debate raging between the two sides, especially online, has become a toxic and polarising conflagration that has pitted those 16 million against those 17 million, with both camps ascribing a litany of reprehensible beliefs to the other, despite the fact that the vast majority of them have far, far more in common with each other than they do with the political elites playing games with their allegiances and with their futures. It is not helpful nor at all accurate for Remainers to brand all Leavers as uneducated and racist, nor is it helpful or accurate for Leavers to characterise all Remainers as privileged metropolitan elites. There are extremists in both camps—some obviously more dangerous than others—yet ultimately that kind of divisive rhetoric which makes them the symbolic figureheads of their respective movements only ends up serving the ruling class, who have their own agenda—which only benefits them. The Tories’ official position is one of Leave, at all costs, in order to fulfil their goal of delivering more neoliberal reforms, and their campaign is geared towards hoovering up extremist Leave voters in order to facilitate this. The Lib Dems meanwhile play childish political games by vowing to revoke article 50 and to unilaterally decide to stay in the EU. They have no hope of forming a government so their position is simply empty sloganeering to hoover up some ultra Remain votes.

Outside of this noxious partisan rhetoric sits the Labour Party. Derided by a mainstream press for being ‘indecisive’ and ‘sitting on the fence’, what Labour is actually attempting to do is navigate the trickiest and most volatile political landscape the county has seen in decades. In drafting its Brexit position—at its party conference, as decided democratically by its party members—it is aiming to do its best to heal the divisions that have dynamited the country, and to bring people together as best as it can. Labour’s policy is to offer the option of a public vote that decides between a credible and workable Leave deal—already endorsed by the EU—and the option to Remain. Even if you are a firm believer in remaining in the European Union and you have your (often very valid) issues with how the referendum campaign was run, you simply cannot ignore 17 million people and overturn their democratic vote by adopting a ‘Remain and damn the rest’ position.

The key issue remains the one that I mentioned above: Brexit is almost akin to a distraction. That will strike many people as a ludicrous thing to say. Yet it is not the country’s membership of this supranational trading bloc that ultimately determines its future. It’s who is in charge of the country. With a General Election looming—and not just any General Election, but the most dramatically paradigm-deciding election in generations—the choice couldn’t be starker. On one hand you have the hard right Tories, who wish to implement a bonfire of regulations and turn the country even more into a free market paradise in which people are expendable; and on the other hand you have a Corbyn-and-grassroots rejuvenated Labour Party. In contemplating the political moment Britain finds itself in and the differences between the two parties vying for power, Tom Kibasi puts it thus in his Guardian piece:

Is it possible to build a post-crash consensus in the 2020s that will carry us into the decades ahead? This could be the last general election of the neoliberal era. The alternative is that it perpetuates what Gramsci called the “interregnum” - the period when the old is dying but the new cannot be born.

Either corporate power and excess will be tamed - or inequality and injustice will deepen, with the spread of new technologies that increase the wealth and power of the new global elite. Either the finance sector will be pacified - or everyone else will live at the mercy of its investment and lending decisions, awaiting the next financial crisis. Either those with the broadest shoulders will contribute more for better public services, or those services will continue to be degraded, and public sector workers will see their living standards continue to fall.

We have real choices to make about the society in which we live. Not only whether it cares for the poor and vulnerable who have been mistreated by austerity, but whether we expand the bounds of what we do together and for one another. Will we end, mend or renew our social contract?

Indeed the moment and the choice is exactly that dramatic. In preparing for a General Election the Labour Party has spent the last few days of its party conference announcing the tentpoles of what will be its manifesto. What we have heard so far builds on the already radical vision delivered in the 2017 manifesto, and it expands the party’s mission with a suite of policies that promise to completely reshape the political landscape of the country to greatly benefit the vast majority of its population—whether they voted Leave or Remain. Thanks to Labour, in the next General Election Britain will have the chance to vote for the kind of political project that will not just radically transform the country, but that will send shock waves around the globe. To mention just a few policies, if elected, Labour would:

Commit to a Green Industrial Revolution.

Abolish private schools.

Create a nationalised pharmaceutical company that manufactures cheap generic drugs.

Abolish prescription charges and institute free personal care for those in need.

Bring an end to imperial wars of aggression.

Close Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre.

Commit to freedom of movement and migrant right.

Institute a four day week.

Do not let yourself get distracted by the shadow puppet theatre that is Leave versus Remain. Make no mistake, this is an earth-shaking redistribution of power that Labour is promising, and as the establishment panics and froths at the mouth and closes ranks in the face of a Labour Party determined to transform the country in order to serve its people, remember the real issue is—as it always has been—the elites versus everyone else.

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

Header Image Source: Getty Images