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Keir Starmer: an ungrateful beneficiary of Brexit Labour has reaped the benefits of leaving

(David Levenson/Getty Images)


June 3, 2024   6 mins

A few months before the 2016 referendum, I published an article called “The Left Case for Brexit”. In it, I put forward reasons for thinking that the Labour Party might be the principal beneficiary if Britain disentangled itself from the EU, and that the Party’s official position on the issue was foolishly short-sighted. It was already abundantly clear that most of the old Social Democratic parties of Europe were in deep trouble, and the intervening eight years have simply confirmed this. It was also clear that parties of the radical Right were most likely to benefit from socialism’s decay, and we have duly witnessed their steady rise in France, Italy, Sweden and even Germany.

The most perceptive commentators on this phenomenon, such as Wolfgang Streeck, understood that this Continent-wide failure of the Left was in large part the consequence of the straitjacket in which European politics operated — a straitjacket created above all by the economic policies built into the constitutional structures of the EU which made, for example, renationalisation of utilities, state aid to politically important industries and predictable levels of immigration virtually impossible to implement. Socialist politicians had everywhere been reduced to claiming merely that they would be more efficient managers of late-capitalist economies than their competitors, and in the process had become indistinguishable from the various rival politicians on the centre-right.

This was pretty thin gruel to offer their electorates, particularly as the global financial crisis of 2007-8, the European bond crisis of 2008-9, and the thousands of immigrants dying each year in the Mediterranean all conveyed an urgent sense that something way beyond managerialism was required. In these circumstances, the voters’ rejection of the old Left parties came as no surprise, and there was no reason in 2016 to think that, if Britain stayed in the EU, the Labour Party would miraculously avoid the fate of its continental counterparts. As Captain Shotover says in Shaw’s Heartbreak House when the bombs of a European War begin to fall: “Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favour of England because you were born in it?”

This was the general reason to think that departure from the EU might at least give the Left a chance to recover its old position in British politics, if it were bold enough. But there was another more parochial reason, to do with the relationship between Scotland and England.

In the past, when there was a close election (as in 1964 and February and October 1974), a Labour government at Westminster could have a minority of English seats but secure a majority through its reliable base in Scotland. But for the past decade or so, since the rise of the SNP, Labour has effectively had a permanent reduction of 40 seats in its representation at Westminster, compared with previous elections; if, for instance, it had secured as many seats in Scotland in 2017 as it had as recently as 2010, it could have been within striking distance of forming a government.

But what has seldom been appreciated is that the rise of the SNP was intimately bound up with Britain’s membership of the EU: as soon as the SNP dropped its old hostility to the European Union in the mid-Eighties and adopted the stance of “independence within Europe”, it began the climb to its dominance of Scottish politics. The logic behind this was perfectly clear: independence for Scotland if both England and Scotland remained in the EU was virtually costless, since almost everything guaranteed by the Act of Union — above all an integrated economy for the two nations with no trade barriers — would also be guaranteed by the EU treaties. The only stumbling block might have been the currency, but that was unlikely to dissuade Scots at some point from voting for independence, knowing that much of their old life would continue unchanged.

This could not be the case if England were outside the EU and Scotland in it: for the first time for centuries (and arguably for ever), there would be a hard border between the two countries, with immense disruption to every aspect of their lives, and almost everyone who has seriously considered this possibility has recoiled from it. In my 2016 article, I argued that because of this, if Britain left the EU, the cause of independence for Scotland would be dealt a potentially fatal blow, and the Labour Party could begin to rebuild its Scottish base. The fact that the Scots voted (albeit narrowly) to stay in the EU is widely misunderstood. The question put to them was whether the UK should leave the EU, and anyone who wanted a costless independence for Scotland would naturally vote No. But that is a very different question from” Should Scotland stay in the EU if England leaves? The SNP for obvious reasons has misrepresented the result, constantly describing it as a vote by Scotland to stay in the EU — but in fact it was nothing of the kind.

It is against this background that we should think about the recent calamities of the SNP. An air of corruption now hangs about it, as it did for many years over the Labour Party in the west of Scotland. But if its leaders still displayed some sense of genuine confidence in the party’s aims, it is probable that the corruption would be forgiven. Rather, the SNP’s real problem is that it is impossible for its leaders to sound convincing, in the face of the enormous challenges that Brexit has posed to their movement. All they can produce are empty platitudes and a refusal to face the obvious facts, and voters can hear the desperation in their voices. It is revealing that John Swinney scrapped the post of “minister for independence” immediately after he became leader of the Party.

I argued in 2016 that in both these respects — the general sense of new possibilities, and the collapse of Scottish nationalism — the Labour Party should be the principal beneficiary. The advantage to it of the changing situation in Scotland was obvious, but the freedom properly to differentiate itself from the tired managerialism of the Conservatives was also important.

Hints of this were already to be found in its surprising success in the 2017 election, when the party was led by someone who was not at all managerial, and when it had not as yet clearly repudiated the result of the referendum. But the signs were always there. The central paradox of EU membership all along was that it buttressed the economic policies which most Conservative politicians favoured — this, after all, was why membership was originally forced through by a Conservative government against the wishes of most of the Labour opposition. As a result, when Brexit was finally delivered, the members of the Conservative government were at a loss as to what to with it, since fundamentally they had been comfortable with many of the EU’s economic policies. They looked rudderless because they were rudderless. As in the case of Scotland, the electorate did not need a conscious analysis of the situation: they simply needed to recognise the symptoms of a political party which no longer had a clear agenda, and which had consequently descended into pointless internal faction fighting.

“The central paradox of EU membership all along was that it buttressed the economic policies which most Conservative politicians favoured.”

The Labour Party has duly reaped the benefits. It has risen very quickly from the catastrophe of 2019 — caused above all by what had become its open rejection of Brexit — to a position where it may well hold an absolute majority after the next election, bucking the trend of all other European Social Democratic parties. And it has been able to do so largely because of Brexit.

It is tempting for its leaders to think that it is the party’s official hostility to Brexit which has led to this, but 2019 illustrated that its hostility was a liability; rather, it is the structural changes that have resulted from Brexit, and not Labour’s opposition to it, which have helped it. The worry for sympathisers with Labour, however, is that the party hierarchy has failed to learn this lesson. The timorousness with which Starmer is approaching the current election suggests very strongly that he wants to return Britain to its economic and social identity prior to June 2016; not necessarily in the EU, but so closely aligned with it that Scotland can dream of independence again, and there will be no break with managerial politics.

Seen in this light, Starmer looks as if he is going to be an ungrateful beneficiary of the Brexit which he struggled so hard to subvert, and which he (probably) intends if Prime Minister effectively to reverse. His ingratitude, however, is not merely morally objectionable: it is also unwise. Suppose that in a few years Britain is once again within the EU, to all intents and purposes — say in a relationship similar to Norway’s. What will stop a resurgent Scottish nationalism, once again wielding the slogan “Independence in Europe”? And what will stop a resurgent radical Right, embittered by the return to managerialism?

By bringing Britain closer to the EU, Starmer would ultimately return the Labour Party to the dismal condition it was in before Brexit. At the moment, it looks as if in Britain — uniquely in Europe — a historic party of the Left is in pole position, and there is no effective standard-bearer for the radical Right. But the uniqueness of the British situation is a product of Brexit, and anything that undermines Brexit will sooner or later undermine Labour too.


Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government Theory at Harvard University. His works include Natural Rights Theories (1979), Hobbes (1989), and Philosophy and Government, 1572-1651 (1993). His most recent book is Active and Passive Citizens: A Defense of Majoritarian Democracy (2024).


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John Murray
John Murray
1 month ago

Conventionally, I’ve read plenty of takes that Brexit was very bad for the Union, but the article makes an interesting case that Brexit may have actually saved it. Really thought-provoking read.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

I agree; far too thought-provoking for any of our senior political talking heads to take on board.

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
1 month ago
Reply to  John Murray

Not sure about this myself. I think lots of people hugely over-estimate what Brexit was, is and will be. It’s really small beer when you think of the challenges the country faces in the oming years, ie level of govt debt, energy supplies and net zero etc.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago

Interesting essay. When Cameron offered a vote on Scottish independence he had to offer a vote on leaving the European Union also on a 50/50 basis. The Scottish Nationalists and Cameron overplayed their hand.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

“The logic behind this was perfectly clear: independence for Scotland if both England and Scotland remained in the EU was virtually costless, since almost everything guaranteed by the Act of Union — above all an integrated economy for the two nations with no trade barriers — would also be guaranteed by the EU treaties.”
I’m struggling with this “logic”, as the sentence implies the possibility that – in the event of Scottish independence while the UK was still a member of the EU – Scotland would stay within the EU. To my knowledge, the line from Brussels is that that is not possible. If a part of a country secedes from an existing member state, the seceding part will be a whole new country OUTSIDE of the EU which would have to reapply for membership.
[An interesting case here would be something akin to the splitting of Czechoslovakia. This was not a secession: the process birthed 2 entirely new countries which were successors to the old one. But this is just theoretical – all the splits that are even slightly foreseeable in the EU right now would be secessions, i.e. Catalonia]

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I guess there is an assumption that Scotland would quickly be accepted into the EU as a separate country.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I used to think that the reason the Irish Troubles ended wasn’t anything to do with the Good Friday Agreement, but with the realisation that laws came from Brussels not from London or Dublin so there was nothing worth fighting for.
The SNP may have thought on similar lines and were merely arguing for a rebranding exercise. Certainly, they never seemed prepared for the responsibilities of government—they didn’t consider a separate currency in the IndyRef, possibly because they thought someone else should handle the grown up stuff.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

That may or may not be true, but the point is how the SNP was able to present its case. After Brexit it cannot pretend that it can rejoin the EU without setting up a hard border.

DenialARiverIn Islington
DenialARiverIn Islington
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Hmmmm. I don’t think that there is any doubt at all that if the EU had been given the chance of punishing England for its temerity, it would have.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

Possibly. But tbh Scotland’s reentry into the EU has more or less fallen off the radar of what people are talking about. Until a decent economic case is presented for Scottish independence, the issue probably won’t be largely discussed. All attention is on the Ukraine (and, by dint of that, also Balkan countries like North Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina etc.)

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago

Oh, there’s plenty of doubt. When the Brexit referendum happened EU member states still had the power of veto (I can’t remember if that’s actually gone now, or if it’s still a proposal), and Spain wouldn’t accept Scottish independence because it would only encourage Catalonian separatists.

Iain Swan
Iain Swan
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

The embrace of the hyper capitalist EU by the Left and our disastrous emasculated Elite flattened by 25 years of Brussels top down diktat was the surest sign that we had entered a lalaland disconnected from political realites. Watching Starmer and deranged metros salute a free market designed by hardcore Thatcherites to smash working class national labour markets was both comic and deeply troubling. The New Elite became hardcore Remainiac only out of avarice and greed; to preserve their multi million pound tax free capital gains from the rigged property market. EU free movement = 4m demand; 10 houses to accomodate equals supply fix and Midas like unearned wealth. The EU was just a teddy bear grasped by Blair to fill the the ideological void of the end of socialism. It is beyond a joke that Starmer has still not woken up to its dysfunction and danger, nor the opportunities presented by Brexit.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
1 month ago

What we really need is a UK government prepared to do the hard work to grasp the benefits of Brexit for the UK.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

If only we knew what they were

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago

If only Corbyn ‘the man of unshakeable principle’ had stuck to his Bennite roots he could have offered voters a socialist Brexit, held the Red Wall and… been derailed by the covid emergency… heigh ho wind and rain.

David Hedley
David Hedley
1 month ago

The central paradox of EU membership all along was that it buttressed the economic policies which most Conservative politicians favoured — this, after all, was why membership was originally forced through by a Conservative government against the wishes of most of the Labour opposition. As a result, when Brexit was finally delivered, the members of the Conservative government were at a loss as to what to with it, since fundamentally they had been comfortable with many of the EU’s economic policies. They looked rudderless because they were rudderless.

Given the cogency and insightfulness of this article, I’d be interested in the author’s views on what post-Brexit economic and trade policies would make sense for the UK.

Liam F
Liam F
1 month ago
Reply to  David Hedley

second that!

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Certainly something in this alternative view. Brexit being such a shambles bound to make some recognise succession never as easy as the promises.
The land border with Scotland clearly though less an issue in NI, and given the recent flight of some asylum seekers to NI one still suspects Brexit has increased the likelihood of eventual united Ireland.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

What is ‘radical’ about the ‘radical right’? Do they believe men dressed as women should be allowed access into female private spaces?

And what is ‘LW -social democratic’ about Labour? The fact that they want to ban everyone who disagrees with them?

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

Exactly! Everyone “knows” that the “far-right” say bad stuff, but no one ever quotes it or knows it. I’ve begun to use the phrase “far-left” in numerous places; and I am fully familiar with the radical stuff they say, some of which you named.

Bromley Man
Bromley Man
1 month ago

‘tired managerialism of the Conservatives’ – is that a euphemism?

0 0
0 0
1 month ago

Lots of fun but rather less sense. The eclipse of social democratic politics was brought about everywhere by a combination of interest rate policy and the pursuit of shareholder value. This was already clear in France, Britain and the US more than forty ago.

The initial policies of the EU were more focussed on widening markets to favour US style major players than catering to financial interests. The arrival of the Euro though revealed the ascent of the latter, sapping European dynamism as well as any popular benefits from growth. Britain, fortunately, escaped the Euro, otherwise New Labour’s investments and achievements would have been impossible. Achievements which remain more impressive than those in Europe, the US orJapan, only China can compare for increases in popular well being for that period.

While it’s important to acknowledge that popular discontent in Britain was increasingly directed against the EU after 2010, that’s a matter of political manipulation rather than substance. When Brexit came on the horizon, Lexiteers always had to contend with the the fact that leaving the EU didn’t deliver their desired Sovereignty due to the Washington consensus and the City of London. Labour has been able to recover its position because those realities sunk all Brexit belief even among those who tried to hitch right populism to hedge fund driven deregulation.

Starmer saw his way through these tbickets better than anyone and understands that Labour’s ability to win and govern depends on Brexit disenchantment rather than fanning its false hopes. The will for national rebuilding Starmer’s mobilised is only incidentally and indirectly associated with Brexit, not it’s unacknowledged inheritance.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

Scotland is yesterday’s country, a rootless land. They disdain their roots and they don’t know where they are going. They abort their little children and import foreign replacements to take their places. How strange this is!

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

Labour will gain in Scotland simply because the SNP and Labour electorates are interchangeable. The SNP moved steadily to the left when it realised the rusted-on Labour vote was there for the taking.
Labour can take it back because of disenchantment with the public SNP leadership.
Both parties are more about who gets to manage Scotland’s dependence on handouts rather than independence.

George Venning
George Venning
1 month ago

Britain is a country that claims to have a deep appreciation of irony.
If only we could figure out a way to monetise it, Brexit would indeed be a boost to the economy – for it may be the largest source of raw irony ore anywhere in the world.
To start off with, it was a project of the right – despite the fact that the EU’s entire purpose was to entrench a conservative free trade agenda across the whole of Europe and insulate it from democratic challenges.
Second, although the referendum result, shishkebabed Cameron, it ended up empowering his party – because his party (the party whose ostensible agenda the EU represented) was united behind Brexit, whilst Labour’s voters were almost evenly split.
Then there’s Corbyn, whose nuanced position as a Brexiter turned Remainer might have been a huge electoral advantage – representing as it did the narrowness of the result – being treated as a liability by both leave and Remain factions.
And so, the ultimate beneficiary (to date) is Starmer, whose insistence on a second referendum alienated so many voters in 2019 and who is almost uniquely unsuited to grasp whatever opportunities our current situation represents.