Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The progressive Brexit debate: A comical tragedy

What the debate between progressives over Brexit could have been like:

SCENE I. The front room of The Picket and Placard, a cozy old pub

Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have been campaigning outside the local Tesco for their respective sides. REMAINER buys the first round.

Leaver: Comrade, it’s a simple question of democracy. The EU does not meet democratic norms, and we should reject it just as we reject monarchy, the House of Lords and TTIP.

Remainer: Comrade, I’ve looked into the EU’s structures and I must agree, there is indeed a substantial democratic deficit. But we must stay in to reform the EU.

Leaver: But how, comrade? What would be the mechanism by which it could be democratically reformed? In the UK, if we do not like the government, we elect a new one. We cannot do that in Europe.

Remainer: You raise a good point, comrade. I will have to think some more about that. At the same time, there has at least been some democratic advance over the years. The Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament, the only elected EU institution, a lot more power.

Leaver: True, comrade, but unlike any other democratic parliament, it still has no right of legislative initiative. That means it can’t make laws; it can only amend them. The unelected commission is the source of all legislative proposals. And the galloping expansion of structures of extra-democratic decision-making by bureaucrats and judges since the Eurozone crisis more than outweighs any democratic gains in the Lisbon Treaty anyway.

Remainer: Don’t get me wrong, comrade; I am appalled at the sharp erosion in democracy over the last few years both in the Eurozone and the wider EU. What has been imposed on Greece is unforgivable. But we both want to see progressive change: higher wages, stronger social protections, union rights, and an end to privatisation. Yet in a globalized economy, social democracy in one country just isn’t possible any more. Only much larger economies like the US and China seem to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of capital flight. The EU may not respect the democratic will of the people, but do you really think international markets will be any more respectful? Internationalism isn’t some added extra; it’s one of the only weapons we have left.

Leaver: You raise a good point, comrade. I will have to think some more about that. But I also don’t think we should just call for Brexit and leave it there. Workers across Europe need to join together in a movement for European democracy. It will require international coordination, including open-ended cross-border strike action, like nothing we’ve seen before, more ambitious than the dozens of one-day strikes in Greece, Italy and Spain, which, as militant as they were, were not enough to make EU elites back down. I would be perfectly happy with a United States of Europe——but it has to come from the will of the people, from such a movement, not imposed from above.

Remainer: But, comrade, that’s what I think is necessary too! And I think I have an answer to your question about how to reform the EU. It cannot be done from within as there is no mechanism for this, I agree. It has to be via pressure from the outside: a true European democracy movement, making European elites so frightened that they have no choice but to give us democracy. I think we basically want the same thing.

Leaver: Yes. Nonetheless——and it’s not an easy choice, comrade——I’m still going to vote Leave.

Remainer: I too have struggled over this decision, comrade, but I’m still going to vote Remain.

Leaver & Remainer: But after the referendum, let’s both continue to work together to build that European democracy movement!

Our players hug, raise their fists together in defiance, sing the Internationale, and exit (or remain) stage left.

What the debate between progressives over Brexit has actually been like:

SCENE I. A Facebook comment section

Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have just returned from a hard day’s outrage on the Twitters.

Leaver: Comrade, it’s a simple question of democracy. The EU does not meet democratic norms, and we should reject it just as we reject monarchy, the House of Lords and TTIP.

Remainer: Democracy schmemocracy, you racist shitlord!

Leaver: Comrade, come on, I think we can have a sensible conversation here. We’ve been friends for years.

Remainer: Boris! Nigel!

Leaver: And your side is backed by Cameron, Osborne, the CBI, and the IMF, and funded by Lord Sainsbury, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Need I go on? The left should not just automatically take whatever position is opposite to our opponents, but rather formulate an independent position.

Remainer: What, do you want Boris for prime minister?

Leaver: You’re not making any sense. That’s not a logical response to what I just said.

Remainer: The EU is an environmental wonderland, saving us from climate deniers.

Leaver: That also does not follow on from our discussion. But okay, I’ll take your bait: What is important is not whether the king is good or bad, but that he is a king. In any case, the EU’s flagship climate policy, the Emissions Trading Scheme, is a neoliberal boondoggle that has not resulted in carbon mitigation. Meanwhile the EU deregulates and privatises the very public energy companies we need to build out clean-energy infrastructure.

Remainer: Whatever. People are xenophobic idiots. If we leave the EU, this will give confidence to the far right and then two weeks later everyone will be a Nazi and all the immigrants will be gassed. Only the EU can liberate us from the mouth-breathing Sun readers.

Leaver: You really don’t like working people very much, do you? In any case, isn’t it the EU that is building Fortress Europe, letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean while bribing autocratic Turkey to keep them out?

Remainer: Brexiters are objectively siding with racism and xenophobia.

Leaver: Now you’re just blurting out slogans, not even debating any more.

Remainer: There’s no debating with racists and xenophobes. Their hate speech must be shut down.

Leaver: What?! This is crackers. You’ve known me for years. We’ve been on how many pro-immigration protests together? Was Tony Benn a racist and xenophobe?

Remainer: Bigot! Fascist! Boris! Nigel! Boris! BORIS! BORRRISSSSS!

REMAINER defriends LEAVER, later no-platforms them from speaking at a university public meeting, and then subsequently sends them to the countryside for re-education via a series of unlearning-racism sensitivity workshops.


  1. This was wonderful. Funny, accurate and a great piece of writing. I can honestly say that in the past few weeks I have played out both scenarios almost word for word. Well done!

  2. As ever there is much truth in humour.

    1. And this is the most effective way to tell truth, sometimes ...

  3. I believe humour has to be used at this time as emotions are high, particularly after the murder of a progressive British MP. This is an excellent piece of comedy. And already (not my view) it is going to seem a very brave act in producing a piece of writing like this. It is SO accurate. It portrays the zeitgeist of what is taking place NOW in conversations all over Britain. I saw myself and many (ex) friends throughout the years never mind throughout the last few weeks, days, hours, minutes. Of course this is PRECISELY the result the Ruling Class know they can foster and 'explode' in an already emotional and vulnerable populace living in recession after recession. It's so sad that, like the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, I have had to sever ties with friends and family who have become emotionally violent and threatening towards me. Thi is the experience of tens of thousands. Still, we must carry on with what is an ugly process.

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