For years I believed in it, and still do. I argued. I organised. I spoke at public meetings and rallies across the country. I gave media interviews. I debated opponents. Hell, I even lost my job because of it.
And as the clock strikes eleven this evening, the objective will have been realised. We will, after an almost four-year battle during which the massed ranks of the political establishment put up the fiercest resistance, finally be out of the European Union.
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So why won’t I be celebrating? Why will this evening pass by like most others in the Embery household?
It’s simple really. For all my satisfaction that we would have reasserted our national independence – a precious possession for which many have fought and died – and freed ourselves from the shackles of an anti-democratic, supranational technocracy, Brexit was, for me, never the end game. Instead, I have only ever viewed it as a necessary but insufficient step.
The question, therefore, is: what comes next? How do we construct the type of society that I, a socialist and trade unionist rooted in the labour movement, would like to see?
When we wake tomorrow, the same Tories who have imposed a decade of crippling austerity, slashed our public services and presided over crashing living standards will still be ruling Britain. Of itself, Brexit doesn’t change that. Milk and honey will not suddenly flow through our land the moment the grip of Brussels in severed.
There is to be no Left-wing exit from the EU. There was never going to be. That’s why I never once in four years described myself as a ‘Lexiteer’. But what Brexit does – and this is why the Left was wrong to set its face against it so determinedly – is to at least give us the freedom in future to govern ourselves in the manner we choose. The referendum provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do things in a radically different way should we, as a nation, ever so decide, and the minority of voices on the Left who argued that we should seize the moment were right to do so.
Secession from the EU means escape from an explicitly anti-socialist institution whose laws are inimical to many of the objectives of the Left. It gives liberty to a future Labour government (should we ever get one) to, for example, provide state aid to industry – especially our ailing manufacturing sector – without falling foul of EU competition law; to invest in our economy and people without breaching the terms of the wretched, austerity-inspired Stability and Growth Pact; to take some of our key utilities and industries — such as the railways — into full public ownership without transgressing EU rules on market liberalisation; to aid socialist planning and halt downward pressure on wages by ending free movement; to prioritise the interests of British firms and workers without contravening EU procurement laws, Crucially, it restores to us, the people, the right — fundamental to any democracy worthy of the name – to elect and remove those who make our laws.
Such an agenda would normally be standard fare for a movement of the Left. But the British Left’s 30-year infatuation with the EU, coupled with a crushing lack of confidence in its own ability to govern, mean that now, as we stand on the brink of true self-government for the first time in nearly half a century, it can only view such an opportunity with fear and trepidation.
The past four years have been a depressing demonstration in how the Left, and particularly the Labour party, has lost its way. From the moment the bulk of the Left planted itself unambiguously on the side of Remain and was seen to be lining up with the broad mass of the establishment – the Tory government, big business, the banking industry et al – it had set itself on a trajectory that had the potential to result in a major schism between itself and millions of working-class voters. Labour’s post-referendum vacillations on the question of whether the referendum result should be honoured, and its eventual support for a second vote, meant the rupture was guaranteed. It is a large part of why the party today stands eviscerated and pondering whether it will ever have the capacity or support to govern again.
That Labour and the wider Left sacrificed so much in support of a neoliberal institution whose core principles run counter to so much of what they have traditionally stood for beggars belief. Ultimately, what they failed to grasp is that what happened on 23 June 2016 represented a genuine democratic revolt. It was millions of mainly working-class voters (many tribally Labour), angry and resentful at having been treated with contempt for so long by a tin-eared establishment, taking their revenge. It was their way of sending a missile through the status quo and telling their leaders to start all over again. From that moment, the Left should have accepted the judgement of the people. That it didn’t explains why it is now an irrelevance across huge swathes of Britain.
But we are where we are, as the man said. Brexit is about to be ‘done’. For many who supported it, the battle is over. The bunting is out; the band is about to strike up; the booze ready to flow.
But I won’t be part of it. For me, it was always a long game. Socialism before Brexit was impossible; it had to be the other way round.
I can well imagine, were they to be alive to see the moment, what those past giants of the labour movement who believed passionately in the principle of national independence and fought against rule by unelected European technocrats – Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Barbara Castle, Bob Crow, to name a few – would be doing at eleven o’clock this evening. I doubt very much that any of them would be popping champagne corks or waving Union flags. More likely they would be telling us that this was no final victory, that Britain remained riven by inequality and injustice, and it would be no good defeating the enemy of workers in Brussels if we didn’t now take the fight to the Tories in Westminster.
They would be right. After a gruelling four-year campaign, it would be tempting to mark this evening in a spirit of jubilation and triumph. Not for me. The fight for a fairer, more equal society goes on. We mustn’t confuse the battle with the war.