I may be a Brexit Bolshevik, but I’m no Lexiter

‘Lexit’ is being heard more frequently in British politics at the moment, often as a term of abuse. ‘Lexit’ is now usually invoked by liberals or leftists, often without specifying any Lexiter in particular, to sneer at the delusion that leaving the European Union (EU) could ever possibly help to improve life in Britain. The fact that the term has been recently revived in public discourse probably reflects the fact that some of the left is reconsidering its position on the EU, while another wing is seeking to suppress political alternatives on its left flank in advance of a likely second referendum on membership of the EU.

When I saw the label ‘Brexit Bolshevik’ invoked by John Harris among others I was happy to appropriate it as a label that effectively captured my sentiments on Brexit. Yet despite being avowedly ‘bolshie’ about Brexit, I have never seen the idea of ‘Lexit’ as adequate to capture my views on the matter, nor what is at stake for the left with respect to Brexit either. Months away from the formal date of withdrawal from the EU in March 2019, clarifying the differences between Brexit and the chimerical ‘Lexit’ is crucial for anyone trying to think through the implications of Brexit for British politics.

The Three Johns Pub: Bolshie London

As far as I am aware, ‘Lexit’ was first staked out as a public position by Owen Jones, and later further defined by Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani. The term was chosen to mean a ‘Left Exit from the EU’ — hence ‘Lexit.’ The usual left complaints about the EU were ritually invoked by Jones, Mason and others — its treatment of Greece, its treatment of refugees, the fact that it is a capitalist club, the demise of the Social Chapter, the power of corporate lobbyists in Brussels, and so on. The closer we got to the referendum however, all three of them rapidly retreated from this position and advocated a vote for Remain. While Bastani, to his credit, has conceded that this was an error, both Jones and Mason have strongly disparaged Brexit ever since the referendum. For Jones, Brexit is a deeply regretted outcome that has only served to strengthen the far right. Mason has confessed his hatred of Brexit, and has even pivoted to calling for a second referendum as Brexit is now a ‘failed project’ — a sure case of a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

In retrospect, it is clear that these Lexit views were merely sops to Labour voters, attempts to exorcise lingering guilt over Greece among the cosmopolitan middle classes, while making a cursory nod to Eurosceptic, working class Labour voters in northern cities. Jones and Mason’s ruminations on Lexit were supposed to signal that there had been some internal deliberation on the matter of Brexit within the left, the better to instil confidence in the Labour Party’s inevitable embrace of the EU: “It’s OK, we’ve thought about it, vote Remain.” Lexit was never intended as a serious option or campaigning slogan. The depth of Jones’ and Mason’s attachment to the EU is visible in every mournful, bitter, depressive tweet and article that they have written about Brexit since 2016.

Lexit, once indulged, is now increasingly disparaged as fantasy. Laurie Macfarlane of Open Democracy sees Lexit as exemplifying the ‘impossibility’ trilemma articulated by economist Dani Rodrik, that only two out of the three of democracy, sovereignty and economic growth can be enjoyed. Although Macfarlane misconceives the character of the trilemma, he nonetheless treats the Lexit position seriously, breaking it down and arguing that it fails to meet even two of the three in the trilemma. Macfarlane is the exception however. Usually ‘Lexit’ is seen as nostalgia for Keynesian demand management, for red-brick, smoke-stack, cloth-cap industrial policy and decrepit nationalised public infrastructure. It is sneered at, as a fantasy of Third World-style import substitutionism, a mulish attachment to autarky in a world of globalised, just-in-time cross border supply chains.

Beyond the specific details of policy, what is most striking about the general disparagement of Lexit is the profound attachment to the status quo that it reveals. Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked that Tony Blair was her greatest legacy. Yet given how many self-professed Marxists, critical, post-structural and decolonial academics, social democrats, left liberals, Corbynistas and other assorted leftists (not to mention Blairites) have come out in favour of the European Union, Thatcher might as well have said that the Single Market was her greatest legacy. The lesson of Brexit is that Thatcher’s children are to be found not on the right but on the left. The European Union is cosmopolitan Thatcherism writ large, so it is no surprise that it is those on the left that are most ardently committed to the notion that There Is No Alternative.

The EU: Cosmopolitan Thatcherism

I have never described myself as a Lexiter and have always argued that it is wrong for the left to argue from this position. To be sure, I am not convinced by some typically ‘Lexit’ policies. For example, I am cool or indifferent to re-nationalising broad swathes of the economy. While I am largely in favour of reviving both state aid and industrial policy, neither are first on my list of economic priorities. However I am also broadly supportive of free trade, and value our capacity to make trade deals independently of the EU. On the other hand, I would also go further than some Lexiters and probably many Brexiters, as I see one of the great prizes for ‘taking back control’ being the abolition of central bank independence, perhaps the most formidable citadel among the ramparts of modern technocracy. I am also a firm believer in open borders, not to facilitate the free flow of labour as a factor of production, as per the EU rulebook, but because I believe freedom of movement is a fundament of political liberty.

These are not the reasons for my scepticism towards Lexit however. My scepticism towards a ‘Lexit’ position is simply this: Brexit is not about securing particular concrete policy outcomes. It is about renewing popular sovereignty — that is, renewing the process by which we secure specific outcomes by democratic means. In other words, what matters to me more than any of these specific policies is that we have the space and capacity publicly to contest and deliberate upon these policies, as well as the democratic right, political will and institutional infrastructure to enact them. For example, for open borders, I see Brexit as an opportunity to go with the grain of current public opinion and make the democratic case for a liberal migration policy, rather than accept a hierarchically-layered, pro-European border policy as an imposed fait accompli, and then disingenuously blame it on Brussels bureaucrats.

In other words, the stakes of Brexit are first and foremost about the process by which we articulate political choices and reach our collective decisions at the national level — in a word, democracy. Contra Macfarlane, the sovereignty that is eroded by the EU is not so much external sovereignty such as restrictions pertaining to trade, but internal sovereignty — the removal of swathes of decision-making from the public domain, insulating policy from public pressure and political contestation, while also having the convenient scapegoat in the form of EU regulations and Brussels bureaucrats. Leave voters intuited this, as polling suggested, with sovereignty being a premier issue for both Labour and Tory Leavers. It is the Remainer Theresa May, who built her career as an anti-immigrant securocrat at the Home Office, who as prime minister, has sought to limit Brexit and sovereignty purely to the external question of immigration.

The EU is designed to curb and limit state intervention in the economy, and doubtless there are many on the left who support Brexit in the hope that after we leave the EU, new state policies could be implemented that could reduce inequality and regional disparity within the UK. The main point however is that these policies need to be secured through building mass support and democratic consent, and it is this that the EU disables through its technocratic infrastructure of transnational regulation. For the likes of Jones and Mason, consumed as both of them are by the dread of mass politics, Lexit was little more than a cynical and opportunistic ploy to rally the faithful to the EU.

Owen Jones: fascists, fascists everywhere …

As the pressure for a second referendum builds, it is vital that left-wing Brexiters do not fall into the trap set for them by Jones and Mason. By focusing on questions of economic restructuring, Lexit was, and is, hostage to the promise that we can secure left-wing policies and outcomes without the popular sovereignty and democratic renewal that is needed to make them meaningful. This indeed, is the line that leftist proponents of the second referendum are now taking: that we should Remain in the EU in order to transform the country. Here perhaps is the purest expression of conservatism: massive, overblown promises of change — nothing less than pan-European renewal according to Yanis Varoufakis — as long as everything remains essentially the same, i.e., we remain in the EU. In this proposition there is quite literally nothing left but the simple, unadulterated horror of political disruption — really, the horror that decision-making may be restored to mass democratic politics, and removed from the hands of the technocrats and intelligentsia.

Still hoping for European reform

If left-wing Brexiters are unable to face down Project Fear 2.0 at this point, they will inevitably crumple in the face of the Project Fear 3.0 that will be furiously mobilised to decry even the most modest proposals of a future Corbyn government. The premise of Jones’ Lexit is that workers and the poor only care about economic benefits, and care nothing for democratic rights and the ability to shape their own social environment. In reality, any leftwing programme that is not rooted in mass political support will fail. The exaggerated promises of continental renewal — on condition that we Remain — which will be offered by the left in any second referendum will be in inverse proportion to how meaningful they will be for working class voters at the national level. The demand for Brexit is a demand for democratic accountability and popular sovereignty, and it is non-conditional — it cannot be collapsed into economic outcomes or state policy. Brexit must be made the start of a much wider process of social and political renewal.