What is the left wing case for Brexit? The same as everyone else’s case: democracy and self-determination
In this response to a student’s question at the Oxford Union, the late Tony Benn makes a calm but passionate argument for Brexit which anybody of any political leaning should be able to embrace:
When I saw how the European Union was developing, it was very obvious that what they had in mind was not democratic. I mean, in Britain you vote for the government and therefore the government has to listen to you, and if you don’t like it you can change it. But in Europe all the key positions are appointed, not elected – the Commission, for example. All appointed, not one of them elected.
[..] And my view about the European Union has always been not that I am hostile to foreigners, but that I am in favour of democracy. And I think out of this story we have to find an answer, because I certainly don’t want to live in hostility to the European Union but I think they are building an empire there and they want us to be a part of that empire, and I don’t want that.
Typically, the left-wing argument against the EU and for Brexit consists of lamentations that EU rules prevent the government from renationalising industries, erecting protectionist barriers to trade and entry, or otherwise meddling in the free market. Jeremy Corbyn would be busy making such arguments right now, were it not for his colossal failure of political courage in rolling over to the demands of the die-hard pro-Europeans the moment he became Labour Leader.
Such arguments are all well and good, if you are one of the small minority of the population for whom the British government’s current inability to renationalise the energy sector keeps you awake at night in a cold fury. But such people are few and far between.
When asked his own thoughts about the European Union, Tony Benn did not do what most contemporary Labour Party personalities do, and talk about the virtues of undemocratically imposing more stringent social and employment laws on Britain (an irritatingly less social-democratic country than our continental friends). Because Tony Benn understood that the left-wing case against the European Union was about democracy, democracy and more democracy.
Tony Benn understood that some things are more important than whether Britain might happen to move in a slightly more left or right wing direction as a short and medium term consequence of Brexit. He understood that self-determination and democracy – particularly the ability for the citizenry to remove people from office – is the first and most important consideration in determining the democratic health of a country.
And Benn understood that living in a democracy where his own side would sometimes win and sometimes lose was far preferable to living in a dictatorship where his own preferred policies were implemented through coercion with no public redress.
Jeremy Corbyn also seemed to understand these things, until he most unexpectedly ascended to the leadership of the Labour Party, which loves the European Union with a blinkered fierceness with which there can be no reasoning.
Indeed, there are now so few high profile left-wing eurosceptics that the bulk of the heavy lifting in this EU referendum will inevitably be done by those on the centre-right. Their challenge – our challenge – will be to make a positive case for Brexit as a desirable thing in and of itself, and not as part of a partisan political agenda.
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