The Brexiteers have had a bad few weeks. Their trade arguments were trashed with enormous dignity by Barack Obama while their economic arguments were steamrollered by a lengthy Treasury document. Their responses to these have been blatant racism (Boris Johnson accusing Obama of being 'part-Kenyan' and having an 'ancestral dislike of the British Empire', as if Obama is basically a secret member of Mau Mau) and self-destructive economic relativism (the Treasury is making impossible predictions about economic performance - which might be true but also covers the Brexiteers own arguments).
One thing that strikes me about the right-wing Brexiteers' argument sis the odd way that they are so often using left-wing arguments to support Brexit. They talk about democracy, and accountability, and they wring their hands about the poor. The poor will be liberated if we leave the EU, they say.
Here's a simple bit of history that will tell you what you need to know about these claims.
In the 1970s, broadly, it was the economic right-wing that favoured the EU (Thatcher campaigned to stay in the European Economic Community, for instance) and the left-wing that opposed it (Tony Benn campaigned against). Now it's the left-wing that favours the EU and the right-wing that want out. I simplify but not that much.
This switcharound happened in the late 1980s and it happened because of the 'social chapter'. Its proper name is the 'Protocol on Social Policy and the Agreement on Social Policy' which is part of the Treaty on European Union, also known as the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. But why did this make a big difference?
The EU began its life in the 1950s as the 'European Coal and Steel Community', a small-scale customs union, designed to eliminate tariffs on coal and steel between the member countries (and, as a hefty side project, reduce the chance of war between them). It was signed by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. This customs union added some administrative bodies to oversee its operation and evolved into a fuller European Economic Community, with the aim of integrating their economies. Various countries joined over the next couple of decades: Denmark, the Republic of Ireland and the UK in 1973, Greece in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986. But at this point, in the mid-eighties, it is still, overwhelmingly, a customs union with a little bit of regulatory harmonisation attached; it is fundamentally about creating a free-trade bloc for those countries. And the Tories are - with a bit of flag-waving xenophobia attached, are still enthusiasts for EU membership while Labour campaigned in 1983 on a manifesto, parts of which argued for pulling out of the EU altogether.
But in 1985, Jacques Delors became President of the European Commission (the institution concerned with European legislation). In the Treaty of Rome there were broader aspirations than simply being a free trade zone; it also enshrined freedom of movement for workers (Articles 48ff), to establish basic standards across Europe for working conditions, union recognition, social security, gender equality in pay and conditions, and more (Article 117ff), and a Social Fund to raise living standards and working conditions (Articles 123ff). He noted that while the customs union had been a priority, little progress had been made on these social aspirations and Delors was determined to bring the social aims of the Union up to speed with its economic ambitions. To this end he and his team drew up the Social Charter (or, to give it its full title, 'Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers'), setting out a series of protections and support for working people across the Union. And it was signed up to by all member states in 1989.
All? No not all. One member did not sign up to it and I bet you'll never guess who that was. Margaret Thatcher and Jacques Delors were never going to be friends. She a standard-bearer for the neoliberal right, he a fighter for the European left; she an individualistic Methodist, he a communitarian Catholic; she a monetarist, he a socialist, etc. He accepted an invitation to address the Trade Union Congress in 1988, which became the signal for the Tory press to vilify him. And they didn't get on. Thatcher resisted the social charter all the way down the line, culminating in refusing to vote for it in 1989. Why? After all, most of the social charter was there in the founding documents of the EU for which she campaigned in 1973. Because she believed, dogmatically but sincerely, that regulation kills jobs and is bad for business. She liked the idea of a free trade zone but did not want the social side of the EEC.
By the time that the social charter was due to be enshrined in European law - in the Maastricht Treaty, which would replace the Treaty of Rome - Thatcher was gone but her successor, John Major, was just as opposed to the social charter. Under Major, Britain negotiated that the clauses on social policy would not be part of the main document, but form a separate protocol from which Britain would be able to 'opt out'. Put another way, the Tories ensured that workers in Britain would be uniquely unprotected from inequality, unemployment, unsafe work environments and more. Even so, the right-wing Conservatives back home saw Maastricht as a document that enshrined a new liberal-left consensus in Europe and gave John Major's government a horribly rough ride in ratifying Maastricht and went on to undermine him right the way through the 1990s.
At the same time, the left in Britain, bruised by the brutal treatment of workers and unions by Thatcher's governments in the 1980s, saw the EU's social dimension as being a welcome support for the principle of raised working standards. Having seen the EEC as a 'capitalists' club' for twenty years, the unions and Labour moved towards greater enthusiasm for the Union, just as the Conservatives were backing away in horror.
And that is where we still are. Mostly. The EU's treatment of Greece sent, I think, shockwaves through some on the left. The neoliberals with their lust for austerity have seized the European Central Bank with the support of Angela Merkel and it has been shocking to see the naked bullying of a democratically-elected left-wing party in the name of a right-wing ideology for which few people voted. There is, indeed, a horrible democratic deficit in the EU which must be addressed.
But the positions still seem to be holding. The right tend to be against the EU, the left are broadly in favour. I still simplify but still not that much.
This is what you need to remember when people like Iain Duncan Smith wring their hands and say that they are campaigning for Britain to leave the EU because they are thinking of the poor. Yes, they genuinely believe that regulations to protect the poor actually damage the poor, despite the disgusting record of successive conservative administrations since 1979 in consigning people including millions of children) to poverty and having to rely on soup kitchens and charity. The idea that austerity helps the poor is rubbish and they either believe it, in which case they are stupid, or they don't in which case they are liars.*
But you know what? It's even worse than that. The right-wing Brexiteers are not just advocating departure because they don't like a bit of regulation. No, they've seen an opportunity. If we leave the EU, the EU will survive - and it will be on our doorstep. Forget all the rubbish about us negotiating to stay in the free-trade zone; why would the EU let us do that? It would cause a domino effect of other right-wing countries (fuelled by scare stories about immigrants) asking to leave on the same terms. No, the EU obviously won't give us access to their markets on the same terms.
They may give us access but at a price. There might be some negotiated lower tarrif compared to some other non-European countries, but that will still add to the costs of business. So how will we compete? By making ourselves attractive to overseas investment - and that will mean savagely lowering corporation taxes, wage costs, health and safety protection, anti-discrimination legislation. What choice would we have? As Iain Duncan Smith said on TV this morning 'We have to run our economy in such a way that [foreign investors] have confidence in it’. In some ways this is always true - the power of foreign investors and the exchange markets constrains the power of individual states - but this is why states need to work together to ensure they can't be picked off one by one and forced into a spiral of competitive austerity. But IDS and his gang actively want us to picked off like this.
You know that bit in the horror movie when the heroine locks the door and thinks she's safe but the cop on the phone says, The killer's inside the house with you? If we vote Brexit and lock ourselves out of Europe, the killer will be inside the house with us and we'll be on our own.
Because this is the right-wing Brexiteers’ ultimate aim, isn't it? We had an opt-out from the social chapter (though New Labour - quite fucking rightly - signed us up to it, because British workers deserve the same protection as workers in Germany and Italy and France) but they don't just want to pull us out of that; they want to force us into a completely radical and unprecedented demolition of all our social provisions. They want you and me to be completely exposed to the depradations of global corporate capitalism. They want to roll back the frontiers of the state in a way that Thatcher could only dream about. Do they really think the poor will do better under such conditions? Of course not and they don't care.
We must vote REMAIN. Europe is our future and our hope.
* And here’s another thing. At the very best – the very very best – some market mechanisms might improve things for some people. But they never do this deliberately; market mechanisms make things socially better for people only at best as a side-effect of the search for profit. (I’m saying absolutely nothing controversial here by the way; this is completely mainstream neoclassical theory.) But if the social good comes into conflict with the quest for profit, the social good is always abandoned. Not because capitalists are nasty people but because that’s how the system works. Do we want a system where we have to hope that profit will protect our fundamental rights? IDS and his gang do want that, because they are radical right-wing revolutionaries: they think a fully marketised society will revolutionise our sense of what our fundamental rights are. In fact, they think we have none and faced with the ineluctable law of the market we will realise that we must become entrepreneurial or die. Literally, die. They think all of our liberal bla bla about fundamental human rights will wither away like obsolete ideas from past centuries like the Four Humours or a geocentric universe. All that is apparently solid, they think, will melt into air. But that assumes market mechanisms are a god-like principle for revealing the truth and they are not: they are just an immensely powerful mechanism to turn everything into an analogue of themselves, a ghost of economic exchanges, zombie-entities in which every value is removed and replaced by money value. And right at the heart of this is that basic structure at the start of this note: protecting fundamental rights must not be left as the hopeful side effect of something else; human freedom is more important than economic liberty and when they come into conflict, it is economic liberty that must buckle, not our humanity.