Tony Benn And The Left Wing Case For Brexit

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.


Jeremy Corbyn - European Union - EU Referendum - Capitulation

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24 thoughts on “Tony Benn And The Left Wing Case For Brexit

  1. tiddk August 23, 2018 / 12:31 PM

    People here are talking about the “EU” as if it was a deterministic government. It isn’t. The laws which it passes are less LAWS than regulations. I.e. determining common (and safe) standards for food, medicines, cleanliness of beaches, etc.

    If the EU was really the government that the Brexiteers claim that it is, we would not have the (now) biannual budget in Parliament, where the British Chancellor decides on matters affecting education, welfare, transport, defence, health and the NHS, taxes, business, and much else. WE determine all these fundamental affairs that affect our daily lives, not the EU.

    And please remember : even within the umbrella of the EU, the French are still the French, the Germans are still the Germans, the Italians are still the Italians, etc. National identity and self-determination does not disappear with membership of the EU.

    What the EU is most concerned with is not the creation of an empire, but with the upholding of Single – formerly Common – Market. The free movement of goods, services, money, and people, has been there from the start, long before Britain ever joined. And that, seen as a capitalist enterprise, is what the left objects to. Nothing to do with democracy.

    A footnote : Britain had all the benefits of membership of the EU without being full members; we are outside the Eurozone, outside Shengen, and get a substantial rebate making our contribution to the EU the lowest percentage of GDP than any other member, despite being one of the biggest economies. We also failed to apply the restrictions affecting immigration that the EU permits, simply because strong elements of our economy depends on those who come here.


  2. David Cheeseman May 31, 2018 / 3:47 AM

    All members of the Labour Party should remember that the Party was formed to bring democracy to the masses, and this it did. The EU is transferring democratic control from the UK to the EU. Remainers in the EU continue.project fear with ever more absurd arguments to remain. Some Remainers continue to use the claim of £350 million which we now pay to the EU coming back to the EU which can benefit services in this country, by arguing that it hasn’t happened. Of course it’s not happened yet because we are still in the EU. It can only happen after we’ve left the EU. And whilst we are members of the EU we will continue to meet our financial obligations laid down in current EU budgets, and in addition we will contribute to EU expenditure for ongoing commitments the EU will have for pensions etc, after we have left the EU. Some Remainers argue that they voted to stay in the EU because they are internationalists. But what about the rest of the world and the 193 countries it totals. The 28 countries in the EU are just 14% of the nations in the world. A spokesman for one of the poorest countries in the world said that the EU has ‘turned its back on the world’. It would be useful if Remainers would describe the sort of EU they want us to be in. Clearly Mr Junker wants to increase the number of countries in membership of the EU, and go for ever close Union at maximum speed. And in ten years time who will be the leaders in Germany, France, Italy, Poland etc, who will be running the EU. The future of the EU is full of uncertainties, and as we’ve seen with Greece and more recently Italy individual countries will be sacrificed if necessary for the rest of the EU to survive and progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ian December 6, 2017 / 3:57 PM

    Tony Benn shaped his thoughts long ago in an age of two party politics and a different alignment of the world. Now such political grouping with power flip flopping between one or the other is neither democratic nor does it meet current needs and divergent concerns of the population chained to it. The Tories do not represent the views and wishes of middle England any more, Labour is at odds with and has lost its constituency, thanks mainly to the Tories spending the last 30 years hollowing it out. None of this has much to do with Brussels, voting in Referendum merely showed that the people had been given a vehicle to express their exasperation with failures or the successes of democratic Britain as they experienced it or were schooled to have perceive it.

    Read flexit ages ago and a wishy washy croc of wishful thinking it appears to be, in the hard light of negotiating with a stronger opponent with whom you are now connected by all manner of umbilicals, and which, in the simplistic world of the 1970’s, Tony Benn never conceived he would have to take into account.


  4. Susan McEntee March 2, 2017 / 11:33 PM

    Tony Benn was a hero yesterday (bless him), as is Frank Field today.
    I voted NOT to join the common market when I was 18…because it was designed by people who despised democracy


    • Brian Dick November 23, 2017 / 7:27 PM

      Yes, Tony Benn was admirable, but isn’t the EU Commission its (elected) parliament’s civil service and aren’t civil servants appointed, not elected anyway? Self determination? Shouldn’t we then give Wessex back to its people?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Samuel Hooper November 23, 2017 / 7:30 PM

        The commission is better seen as the executive than the civil service (it would be a pitifully small civil service otherwise!). The parliament, as I’m sure you know, is good for little more than bestowing rubber stamps. And as for self-determination, government should sit at the level where people feel they are part of the same demos – which pretty much translates to the nation state at present. The EU is an attempt to forge a government without a coherent demos – besides starry eyed euro-federalists, not enough of us feel sufficiently “European” to warrant the powers now accrued by Brussels – exactly as Benn feared and warned.


        • Brian Dick December 9, 2017 / 4:09 PM

          But still the EU parliament is composed of elected representatives and I can’t say I feel part of the Westminster demos. Maybe the Murdoch media have much to do with many people’s absence of a European identity. My father, born in 1910 was a self declared European.


  5. Kevin October 13, 2016 / 5:21 AM

    Somehow I think if the EU was really brutally oppressing your democracy, you wouldn’t have the right to vote to exit the EU.


    • Christine Read October 16, 2016 / 12:46 PM

      Kevin, so you might think.
      However, the inclusion of Article 50 was, as we all now know, an afterthought. It is transparently obvious that it was never intended to be used. It seems to have been included as a sop to democracy rather than a clear statement of democratic intent.
      Look at what has been happening over the last few weeks and consider the attitude of the EU hierarchy, towards the UK vote to leave. It has become very aggressive and confrontational. Not what you might be entitled to expect of a benign and democratic institution.
      Tony Benn has been proven right, over and over again, yet still there are those who refuse to see the truth in his words.
      As an ex-teacher, I know how much the EU invested in educational propaganda. Pupils and students were required to be taught about all the positive aspects but teachers were discouraged from questioning or exploring the many negatives.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Samuel Hooper October 17, 2016 / 11:32 PM

        That’s fascinating Christine – many thanks for sharing your perspective. I’m curious to know more about the kind of pro-EU hagiography and propaganda which teachers were encouraged or forced to teach. Can you recall any particularly noteworthy examples?


        • marc October 23, 2017 / 4:48 AM

          Looks like that’s a no…


          • Mr B J Mann February 17, 2018 / 1:07 PM

            Looks like you’re not a parent, at least not one who takes an interest in their kids schoolwork!


  6. Sam June 25, 2016 / 4:27 AM

    I wholeheartedly agree – the ‘left’ need to wake up and push to make sure that the laws of this post brexit country are fair and protect workers, human rights, etc We need to survive the pressure and punishment from the EU we are very likely to come under for leavingand. The disillusioned poor who voted for the right thing, but for the wrong frankly racist reasons, need an alternative to BNP/ ukip etc but they are no longer being heard by labour it seems

    Liked by 1 person

  7. June 6, 2016 / 12:45 PM

    I think I’m in agreement with those above and those of Tony Benn. But as a Labour left-winger I have the same concerns about being seen on the same side as UKIP. I don’t like the general view of lots of Brits that immigrants are a problem. As an internationalist, I love the positive effects that immigration has had on the UK, whilst recognising that towns like Boston in Lincs. do feel over-whelmed by the number of East Europeans. I’m much more concerned about towns like Bradford, Burnley, Derby, etc where large numbers of people are not only different culturally but different religiously. Where Muslim men regard western women as “meat” and their own women as 2nd class citizens. And that the grooming of vulnerable young women/girls in Rotherham and Derby are not seen as a threat. What if France, Germany, who have similar problems, follow our lead and decide to leave the EU. I would hate to see the break-up of Europe but would be glad to see the overthrow of the undemocratic European Union – just like Tony Benn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Andy Pickering June 7, 2016 / 11:33 PM

      Heather..please stick with your heartfelt conviction on the issue , whichever way that is..not the people sharing the stage in the campaign . In 1975 I voted to stay in…mainly because it took a leap of faith I didn’t possess at that time to trust Tony Benn ..a man I greatly admired , I was left cold by thinking my vote would be in the same box as a racist National Front thug….or an Ian Paisley or Enoch Powell supporter.
      I feel time has proved Tony was absolutely right all along…listen to or read his addresses from the time..they are as fresh and relevant today as they were then.
      I voted with the mainstream centre and have realised the deception campaign then is the same as it is now.
      Leave campaigners are today , as then , a mixed bag of the good the bad and the ugly…Remain however are less mixed…can you really trust the architects of austerity Cameron and Osborne ?…the real clincher for me is Tony Blair…in my view the most disgraceful politician of our age…a man whose opinion should alienate any decent person.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Annie June 23, 2016 / 1:48 PM

      Heather, so you don’t think other types of men see women as meat and other types of men don’t groom and abuse young girls??? It’s just that small handful of nasty men who happen to be muslim which is making you stereotype in a racist way.


  8. mainlinez March 10, 2016 / 5:29 PM

    Hi, I’m on board with Tony Benn’s arguments – almost all of them – as a general rule. And I would also generally agree that the centralized EU model is undesirable for democracy. BUT I have yet to read of any left wing party (or even any NGO) that has a solid platform or a plan of action as to how the nation should proceed in a more democratic way AFTER the Brexit. Everyone just seems to be assuming it will work out the way that THEY want… which is fantasist thinking!

    Let’s face it: no one has any plan of action. Not on the right, not in the center, and not on the left. However, the right wing’s platform is a bit more developed, has more support from the electorate, and has been around for much longer.

    Therefore, I have no choice but to conclude that my left wing views would have no place in shaping the future of the UK following a Brexit. Not any more than they do right now, anyways. Meanwhile, UKIP would feel emboldened and militarized borders would become the norm, because well, that’s the only platform that they seem to have. Is that better than what we have now? Erm…. NO!

    In principal I could be in favour of the Brexit referendum, but ONLY if it was well-planned and ONLY if there was a coherent left wing alternative to UKIP being offered. Neither thing is true. This puts us on track to a reality where UKIP and the Tories have the upper hand, let’s face it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper March 10, 2016 / 5:51 PM

      Many thanks for your comment. I sympathise with your predicament – because of (what I see as) the cowardice of the Left, the eurosceptic arguments have been carried by parties of the political Right, and so it is understandable that you fear what a post-Brexit country might look like.

      I would simply appeal to your sense of democracy – is it fair that more left-wing positions are foisted on Britain by the EU than would be possible if it were solely down to the British electorate? Is it fair for those on the Left to take advantage of the supranational nature of the EU to avoid having a political debate at home? For me, the EU referendum is about democracy. Whether Britain moves to the political left or the right in the short and medium term is far less important to me than the British people being able to make and live under the laws that they choose.

      On your further point about the lack of a plan of action, I would strongly encourage you to read Flexcit, which provides a very well thought-out step-by-step plan for Brexit, and also the Harrogate Agenda which looks at revitalising British democracy after we leave the EU.

      Flexcit is here:

      And the Harrogate Agenda is here:

      Many thanks again for reading and sharing your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

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