top of page

A Damascene Conversion: The British Left and The European Union

By Patrick O'Donoghue

In the Janus-faced domain of politics, jaw-dropping metamorphoses and chameleon-like shifts of ideological colour are familiar to us all. Much too often, the scathing sentiments of Groucho Marx spring to mind as we become more and more inured to the near-daily pivoting and tergiversation of the political classes, with his classic gag - “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them….well, I have others” - continuing to hold increasing relevance. No more so is this made glaringly obvious than in the case of the British Left’s peculiar evolution from a staunchly Eurosceptic force to a now almost universally pro-EU coalition. Of course, there still exists a spectrum, including everyone from zealot to cautious reformer, but in broad terms the British Left has ended up in the perverse position of being chief apologist for an undemocratic, Capitalist club and playground for international financiers. Unable to stick up for the doctrines of free-market economics enshrined in the founding documents and treaties of the European Union, the British Left instead opts to cling to the wafer-thin narratives pedalled by the supranational trading bloc of peace, security and humanitarianism - full in the knowledge of the EU’s concrete proposals for an EU army (see PESCO) and their shameful treatment of refugees as a result of the “Fortress Europe” policy, which has led to rescue missions being discontinued and a grubby deal with Turkey being struck to stem the flow of migrants from the Middle-East.

Contrast this “progressive” attitude with the campaign fronted by the British Left in opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s (I repeat: Maragaret Thatcher’s) desire to build on the work of former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath and secure the British people’s approval of European Communities Membership in the 1975 national referendum. Consider the figures who lined up on the other side of Thatcher’s fence in that referendum campaign - Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner, Barbara Castle, Peter Shore, and, wait for it….yes, you guessed it, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell both voted “No” in the 1975 referendum as well. All of these titanic figures of the British Left foresaw what has now come to pass: the disappearance of core industries that could no longer compete with European rivals, the outsourcing of contracts for the provision of services to foreign companies, privatisation (though, it has to be said, this is, and has been, implemented with alacrity at a national level by Tory and Labour governments alike), and the gradual handing over of the levers of democratic accountability to unelected institutions.

For one of the very first times, the British Left has found itself on the wrong side of history, and it has nothing to blame but itself.

The question is: what has changed in the intervening years in the political landscape that has resulted in the British Left defending a set of institutions that crippled Greece, foisted austerity upon Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, and supercharged neoliberalism? Why has the Left strayed so far from its original conviction that the European Union, and the constraints of its rulebooks, could only ever be a hindrance to the advance of Socialism, not a helping hand? Have they completely forgotten about the tirelessly eurocritical politician and socialist Tony Benn’s Five Essential Questions of Democracy? If so, then it is worth restating them. He famously asserted that the litmus test of any organisation purporting to be of a democratic nature should involve these five fundamental questions:

1. “What power have you got?”

2. “Where did you get it from?”

3. “In whose interests do you use it?”

4. “To whom are you accountable?”

5. “How do we get rid of you?”

In respect of each of these incisive questions, Benn found the executive bodies of the EU failed to bear any serious scrutiny, and that merely posing these questions would leave those in positions of power within them truly exposed - at least in the mind of anybody claiming to have democratic or Socialist credentials.

Of course, decades of free trade between Britain and other European Union member states has meant the fate of workers has become fatally entangled with the oscillations of macro-economic trends within the trading bloc as a whole, making it far trickier for the Left now than in 1975 to simply wish to cut and run. But, isn’t this just giving in to the inevitability of globalisation and a surrender to plans for a neoliberal paradise being stretched out across a whole continent? A courageous British Left would see the long-term prize and through state intervention (currently forbidden in any substantial sense within the EU) protect the workers who will suffer in the short-term upon leaving. Besides, it isn’t as if life can be made meaningfully better for British workers while they remain locked up within the laissez-faire straitjacket of EU treaties anyway. Here are just a handful of policies that could be pursued by a left-wing British government if it were free from the machinery of the EU, some of which make up the crux of Jeremy Corbyn’s own Labour party manifesto from the previous general election:

1. Renationalisation: The Labour party has committed to nationalising public utilities such as water, electricity, and major transport companies. But, under Article 86 of the Lisbon Treaty, it is stated that any revenue-producing monopoly must be subject to the rules of competition. This alone should be enough to prove to the British Left that EU membership and taking utilities back into public hands are at best in conflict, and at worst mutually exclusive.

2. State-aid: Many on the Left in the UK have lamented the inertia of the Tory government when presented with the decline of major industrial firms. Jeremy Corbyn would undoubtedly feel moved to intervene and save such firms if in government. However, under Article 87 of the very same treaty, no public funds may be afforded to such firms lest they “distort the market”. Yet more reason to unshackle the British economy from the callousness of EU policy-making.

3. Borrowing to Invest: The EU has even gone so far as to attempt to outlaw the moderate policies of Keynesianism, let alone radical leftist economics. Although the UK did not sign up to the European Fiscal Compact of 2012 which mandates member states to run balanced-budgets, and to keep budget deficits below a threshold of 0.5%; does any leftist with serious ambitions of socialist governance really believe a programme for massive investment in the UK economy would not face opposition from the EU as it is currently constituted? Even if not, why would any right-minded leftist want to stay part of an organisation that holds the rest of its member states in such a restrictive vice-like grip. Whatever happened to solidarity and internationalism? “Nobody wins unless everybody wins”, as Bruce Springsteen once said, right?

The British Left has ended up in the perverse position of being chief apologist for an undemocratic, Capitalist club and playground for international financiers.

At bottom, The British Left, in its handling of this issue, has abdicated its number one duty to oppose Capitalist projects wherever they may be - at home and abroad. The lack of gusto and vigour with which Jeremy Corbyn argued for remaining in the EU in 2016 is no coincidence, given his lifetime of opposition to its actions. The discomfort written on every line of Jeremy Corbyn’s face each time he utters any excuses on behalf of the EU only captures in microcosm the contorted state the entire British Left finds itself in on this most pressing of subjects. And what has the consequence of this retreat been? The Right, led in parallel lines by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, has taken up the cause and stepped in to fill the vacuum. More damningly still, as this daylight political pickpocketing occurred, the British Left have begun to haemorrhage the support of disenfranchised working-class voters, who have watched with horror as their supposed champions have turned on their heels on the question of EU membership. These working-class voters are now flocking to their own worst enemies in the form of the Brexit Party and the Conservatives. But, worst of all, for one of the very first times, the British Left has found itself on the wrong side of history, and it has nothing to blame but itself.


Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.

Photo Credit: DonkeyHotey [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]


bottom of page