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  March 7, 2018

The Brexit Dilemma

As conservatives continue to defend a 'hard' Brexit that is deeply unpopular among business leaders, Jeremy Corbyn seized the opportunity to present Labour as the more sensible and business-friendly party
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Richard Seymour is an author and broadcaster based in London, most recently author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and many other publications. He is a founding editor of Salvage magazine.


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. There was a great deal of coverage of the British Prime Minister Theresa May and her plans for Brexit in the media last week, where she emphasized that she wants a broad range of items covered in Brexit negotiations.

THERESA MAY: I want the broadest and deepest possible partnership covering more sectors and cooperating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today.

SHARMINI PERIES: Here, she was sending a staunch warning to the eurosceptics that a complete split from the EU was near impossible, peddling back from her campaign promise for a clean break with the EU. Meanwhile, little attention was paid to the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn and his reaction to the Brexit dilemma. Let's have a look.

Jeremy Corbyn: We will remain close to the EU. That's obvious. Every country, whether it's Turkey, Switzerland, or Norway, that is geographically close to the EU without being an EU member state has some sort of close relationship with the EU some more advantageous than others, and Britain will need a bespoke negotiated relationship of its own. Labour would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, this Labour Party position statement comes shortly after several other important policy statements were made public in recent weeks, such as nationalizing the railways and the energy grid in order to move closer to a green economy. Joining me now to analyze the Labour Party's recent policy proposal is Richard Seymour. Richard is a writer and broadcaster based in London. He writes regularly for The Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as Jacobin magazine. He's also the author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, published by Verso Press. Thanks for joining us, Richard.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Richard, there is a lot of controversy within the Conservative Party in terms of Brexit and the negotiations and how it's going, but what is that rift about?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: The unrest is essentially about Theresa May trying to square an impossible circle. Essentially, she's torn between two things. On the one hand, she has committed herself to a hard Brexit position, which the civil service don't want, the old Tory establishment don't want, business doesn't want. They're the Tories' traditional allies. The only people who really do want it are the middle class right, which is the Conservative Party base. Now, the other side of this is they have to make sure that they don't destroy the Northern Ireland peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement. Part of that means not having a hard border between the north and the south of Ireland.

Well, Brexit means taking every part of the United Kingdom territorially out of the European Union, and that means there has to be a hard border, if you're going for a hard Brexit that is. If you keep a customs union, if you keep a single market, there need not be a hard border. But as soon as there are customs and tariffs, then you have to have a border. That's an impossible thing for her to square, and she's been trying to work it out and trying to avoid Conservative collapse over this issue, and not doing very well. Hence, her speech was an appeal for everybody to get together and support her in doing her job. She is probably going to have to retire before she gets any rest from that.

SHARMINI PERIES: Does that position have anything to do with Corbyn coming out with his position on the customs union?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Yeah, I think so. If the Conservative Party took a sensible, sort of for the Conservatives, a sensible, moderately soft Brexit position, if you can imagine supporting the single market, supporting the customs union, having a reasonably amicable divorce with the European Union, rather than pushing these fights over, for example, the divorce bill which didn't work for them. If you can imagine them doing all this, they would be behaving as they have always been as a fairly competent, business-led party. They're not doing that at the moment. So, that's given Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party the opportunity to look a little bit more appealing to their enemies, if you like, traditional enemies, big business, than the Conservatives.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, is this move, is it really trying to contain capital flight in case Labour takes power? And is this a position that is different from what Corbyn had taken in the past?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Yeah, it's definitely different. Corbyn has tended to say something along these lines. Leaving the European Union means leaving the single market. Now, in a strict sense, that's true, because you leave and then you have to renegotiate entry to the single market. But it was always an open question whether Britain would want to be part of a customs union, would want to be part of the single market. And so, Corbyn has slightly changed his emphasis on his rhetoric, and I think very clearly Corbyn is historically a eurosceptic. He's very opposed to the institutions of the European Union, particularly the neoliberal provisions, the Constitutional Treaty and so on. So, this is a change for him.

There was always a prospect that business would start to engage in an investment strike or to withdraw capital from the economy, particularly in the city of London. However, with the Conservatives defending a hard Brexit that almost nobody in business actually wants, Corbyn has allowed his allies essentially to lead him into a position where Labour is more sensible for business in principle than the Conservatives. Now, of course, that's always contingent on a whole series of other things. There are many things about Jeremy Corbyn's Labour that business still doesn't like, but in terms of the policies regarding investment in the infrastructure, borrowing to invest, business is in favor of that. Business is in favor of investing for a new railway network, investing in green technologies, all of this stuff.

So, this is not a hugely radical program in historical terms. It's just that there hasn't been the experience of particularly a left wing government delivering these policies before and they don't trust him. To some extent, he's had to negotiate these changes, but the other side of it is that the right wing of the Labour Party, particularly the Parliamentary Labour Party, was always going to apply some pressure on him on this question. On the one hand, you have the sort of fairly conservative nationalist right wing of the Labour Party, and on the other hand, you've got the sort of Blairite rights who are very pro-market, very pro-EU. And then beyond that is sort of the soft left position, which is also pro-European Union. Corbyn has been under a lot of pressure from those different forces. What you see here is a kind of compromise and probably the only one that he would ever have reached.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, stepping back a bit, you recently wrote about Brexit more generally and said Brexit is a real dilemma for the British public. What is this dilemma about?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: It's a dilemma in as much as the, Britain is not going to get out of Brexit what the Brexiteers thought they were going to get out of it. So, for example, it's not just a question of 350 million a week that they're going to get back in order to spend on the NHS. That was a fantasy. More generally, it's the idea of a kind of imperial revival. The idea of Britain as a global trader is linked to the historic idea that Britain could be an empire as in the 19th century. Now, of course, everybody knows that's not going to happen, but there's some sort of idea that Britain can be globally more powerful if it was freed from the clutches of the European Union.

Now, what we know is going to happen instead is that Britain is going to suffer from declining exports. Its financial system is going to weaken. Probably the property market is going to weaken. Here's the thing, the property market, which is the core of the Conservative Party's political support, the so-called property-owning democracy, props up a standard of living for millions of people that will disappear because if you have rationed housing as is the policy in this country, that guarantees that the prices of houses will continue to rise and rise and rise. You can always mortgage your house over and over again to spend it on something that you need.

So, there's lots of people who had been subsidizing their wages and their incomes through the debt speculation economy. They depend on it. That's going to weaken. It's going to crash at some point. It's not sustainable. So, what happens then? It seems to me that there's all sorts of political possibilities. Those people could go to the far right, or if Corbyn is able to offer a solution, maybe some of them will move to the left. But it's a dilemma. Things cannot go on as they have been.

SHARMINI PERIES: Richard, the Labour Party has recently come out with a number of policy statements. Last month, Corbyn announced that Labour wants to nationalize Britain's energy grid, and that this was somehow seen as a move towards combating climate change. Given that this is a very important thing for Labour to embrace, climate change, given its new base of young people, how are the older members, who are, let's say, mine workers and other members of the Labour Party, going to respond to this kind of policy initiative on the part of Labour?

RICHARD SEYMOUR: I don't think it will be an issue at all. This is not an issue that afflicts Labour anymore because the mine workers and those older generations who might have been linked to that kind of constituency have been politically and industrially broken. So, as insofar as they were ever in a position to demand more investment in coal as perhaps they might have argued for coal as a clean-burning fuel or something like that, that's not going to be an issue.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Richard, I thank you so much for joining us today.

RICHARD SEYMOUR: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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