Why are people who voted against Brexit in 2016 still so angry? “The murder of the the Remainer MP Jo Cox during the campaign by a British nationalist terrorist…concerned Farage so little that he said in his victory speech that the vote had been won ‘without a single bullet being fired’. Then there were the lies: “precision-targeted into British voters through a £2.7 million deal with Facebook, immediately dividing the electorate in two groups: one that was being lied to and one that wasn’t, and didn’t know the other was.”
Some of these lies have been debunked, such as Brexit saving the UK £350 million a week. The figure not only ignores the rebate Thatcher negotiated decades ago, but also the money Britain already gets back. Subsidies to our farmers make up the biggest chunk - £61 million a week. Perhaps that sum should be redirected into the NHS?
A second myth is the destructive effect the EU has had on Britain’s fishing industry. The sharpest fall in the number of full-time fishermen in England after World War Two was between 1948 and 1960 when numbers in the industry halved - long before we joined the EU. It’s equally a mistake to think that keeping foreign boats out of UK waters will guarantee a strong local fishing industry, if that industry over-fishes its own waters. The experience of Canada confirms this - it imposed its own exclusive fishing zone in 1976, then over-fished to the point of virtual extinction: 45,000 jobs in Newfoundland were lost almost overnight.
A third myth is that EU rules mean that large landowners, including the Crown, get undeserved subsidies. In 2015, the EU allowed member states to reduce payments to the biggest farms and shift money towards rural development. Several European governments did this and so did the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish regions. “In England, the government did nothing. The queen’s huge farming dole stayed.”
We should also question the framing of the debate, which is often posed in terms of ordinary Leave voters against a corrupt Remainer elite. But what about the arrogant Leave elite now running the country that is hell-bent on crashing out of the EU without a deal? And what about ordinary Remain voters, who “though typically younger and better educated, feel as powerless, angry and betrayed as their counterparts on the other side”? For some, the “better educated” rankles: it allows them to frame the debate as ‘intellectuals sneering at workers’ - ignoring of course that some of the most deprived parts of Scotland voted Remain, possibly because of the influence of a nationalism that is a lot less toxic than that peddled by Farage and co.
Still, understanding the Leave vote here has been easy, compared to elsewhere. “How to explain Poland’s swing against the European Union? How to explain the election of the Catholic fundamentalist, authoritarian, populist, Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party to rule a booming country that has benefited from more than 130 billion euros in EU investment…whose citizens have take advantage of EU freedom of movement to travel, work and study across the continent in their millions?”
Meek is brilliant at focusing on a particular case to tell a bigger story. In 2007, 500 workers at Cadbury’s Somerdale chocolate factory lost their jobs when the company decided to move the entire plant to Poland where the workers could do the work for one fifth of the money. “On the day the announcement was made, the Cadbury bosses locked the workers out and posted private security guards at the site.”
This was as much a story about the decline of paternalistic capitalism - the factory used to have its own doctor, dentist, chiropodist and tennis courts - as the levelling aspects of globalisation. It’s also about greed: the Chief Executive walked away with £40 million.
Meek follows the story to Poland, finding that the EU had itself facilitated the transfer of the factory through major financial inducements. Belatedly, in 2014, it banned this practice. Yet many Poles were unhappy - and Eurosceptic. Polish economic development is widely seen as neo-colonial, with the workforce a mere source of cheap labour. Moving plants to eastern Europe is not just cheaper - unions and social security are weaker so workers are more open to exploitation. For the precarious jobs that stay in Britain, a similar process is underway.
Poland’s ruling party is anti-gay, anti-immigrant and anti-woman. But it also restored the old retirement age and increased child benefits and the minimum wage, initiatives characterised as reckless handouts by the liberal Civic Platform opposition. With democratic socialist parties in existential crisis across much of Europe, these binary choices are often the only alternatives. They also frame a highly polarised debate about the EU - Remain versus Leave. Is a third way possible?
In Britain at least, it should be. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party stands neither for a passive acceptance of the destructive forces of global capital - we’ll leave that to the Lib Dems - nor for a little England opting out. As socialists and internationalists, we want to set out not only our vision for Britain, but also of what Europe can become. The left in the German SPD and many other crisis-ridden democratic socialist parties are hoping that the surge of enthusiasm for Corbyn’s ideas here, evidenced by the trebling of Labour’s membership since 2015, might help their struggles to advance a socialist agenda in Europe. Should we duck that fight?
On the contrary - we should be ambitious. A radical reform agenda would start by setting out an alternative European model - a social Europe that overhauls the existing institutions of the EU, gives real power to the EU Parliament, and focuses on safeguarding the principles of the welfare state, socially useful and environmentally responsible employment and humanitarian priorities in foreign policy.
Sceptics may argue the EU is irreformable, but serious reform has rarely been tried. A real plan to ‘take back control’ would start here. But it would also mean making more use of the powers the UK does have and won’t use - and that means decentralising the state, devolving powers, including finance-raising measures, to the regions of England. Starting from a vision of what we really want to achieve might help us break out of the Brexit impasse.