Johnson’s Brexit Plan is ‘Political, Not Economic’

October 2, 2019

Britain's left and right both face internal struggles over Brexit. The Labour Party ought to allow more internal debate for "Lexit," says Prof. Costas Lapavitsas.

Britain's left and right both face internal struggles over Brexit. The Labour Party ought to allow more internal debate for "Lexit," says Prof. Costas Lapavitsas.


Boris Johnson

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a new wave of scandals, including accusations of improper conduct from when he was the Mayor of London, and most recently, even accusations of sexual harassment. Still, he refuses to resign and insists that he will continue to implement the UK’s departure from the European Union with or without a deal with the EU by the end of the month. Last week, Britain’s Supreme Court declared Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament to be unconstitutional, but this hasn’t stopped him either. He now hopes to recruit the EU itself to help push the UK out of the EU without a deal, threatening to make the EU’s existence difficult if they decide to postpone Brexit.

BORIS JOHNSON: It is certainly true that other EU countries also don’t want this thing to keep dragging on. And they don’t want the UK to remain in the EU truculent and mutinous and in a limbo and not wishing to cooperate in the way that they would like.

GREG WILPERT: Meanwhile, Britain’s Parliament is preparing legislation to force Johnson to ask the EU for a delay of the October 31st Brexit deadline in order to give both sides more time to negotiate a new deal.

Joining me now to discuss the latest Brexit developments and what they mean for Britain’s left is Costas Lapavitsas. He is a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. Also, he’s the author of the book The Left Case Against the EU and also has a forthcoming article in the journal Monthly Review titled Learning from Brexit: A Socialist Stance Towards the European Union. Thanks for joining us again, Costas.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Thank you, Greg. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

GREG WILPERT: So you write in your article that in the case of a no-deal Brexit, British businesses would be assigned the status of third country actors, which would severely impair their ability to trade with the EU. So who, in effect, is going to actually benefit from a no-deal Brexit, if anybody?

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Certainly not British big business. Large industrial and commercial enterprises in this country and big banks do not want no-deal. And in fact, they do not want Brexit altogether because the terms of trading and the conditions under which they interact with the other businesses in Europe and across the world are most properly served by being in the European Union. There’s no question at all about it.

So it’s not an economic issue. A lot of people on the left get very confused about that. They imagine that the supporters of Brexit in this country among the rich and powerful are ultra-neoliberals, mad liberalizers, a section of British capital that really wants to completely demolish all protections, and so on. That’s not the case. That is not what’s behind Brexit. And we can see it evidently, clearly, from the expressed support for the EU among the British banks, big banks, and other major centers of economic power. The British establishment does not want Brexit on an economic basis; not at all.

GREG WILPERT: So who in effect is actually behind it then, economically speaking? I know obviously there’s a nationalist sentiment against the European Union. But are there any economic interests behind it?

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: This would not be the right way to approach it. I know that there’s strong instincts among the left to approach it in these terms and try and identify some kind of clear economic interest that’s making for exiting the European Union on the part of Britain. In fact, the main interest is political; it is political, and it has to do with sovereignty.

It is, of course, connected to some industrial and financial and other interests, but it’s not a very strong economic component of the British ruling class. The main element here is political. And particularly sovereignty, the question of sovereignty; who has sovereignty in the country and how? How is sovereignty defined, shared, applied and so on in this country? That’s the main question. Right now in the British establishment, the British ruling block is split very severely on that, right down the middle.

GREG WILPERT: Now you, yourself of course have made the argument for a left Brexit, or a Lexit as some have called it. Briefly summarize for us what the main arguments are in favor of that.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: To make the case for Lexit and to understand the case for Lexit, one must start from what I just mentioned to you, which is that the main concentrations of big business in this country want the European Union.

The European Union serves their interests. The European Union is a bulwark of neoliberalism. It protects the interests of big business. It protects the interests of big banks. That’s why it was constructed, and it keeps their big banks and big business safe from popular pressure. One must start on that, understand the nature of the European Union in this connection.

Therefore, insofar as there is going to be exit, which I think there should be, the only exit that makes sense from the perspective of workers and others is an exit that also hits clearly without hesitation the interests of big business. That’s the only exit that makes sense for Britain, and that’s a left exit. It’s a kind of exit that takes the opportunity of leaving the European Union to deliver a body blow to neoliberalism. If Britain is free from the confines of the European Union, then delivering a body blow to neoliberalism becomes much more plausible, much more effective in specific terms, which I can explain to you, in terms of investment in public ownership and so on as well.

GREG WILPERT: Now, you mentioned that of course the British ruling class is very divided over Brexit, but so is of course the Labour Party. Many of the Labour Party’s constituents voted for Leave, and now Corbyn himself is walking a tightrope between Brexit supporters and opponents among his own base. Now, how do you think that Corbyn and the Labour Party are handling this moment, given your own arguments in favor of Lexit?

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: See, this has been the tragedy of the Brexit debate the last three years since the referendum of 2016, which basically was a referendum won by Leave to a large extent because the British working class–strong concentrations of workers in most geographical areas–wanted to leave the European Union. The tragedy has been that after this vote–which was, I repeat, was based on working class support to a large extent–this vote, the left of Britain failed to advance the progressive arguments for Brexit, the only argument that would make sense, the Lexit argument that I mentioned you. They in other words failed to say that Brexit is an opportunity to attack neoliberalism, to hit neoliberalism where it hurts.

The Labour Party and the British left allowed public debate to be dominated by internal debates of the conservative party, which basically transformed the entire thing into finding a better trading deal for Britain once the country would have left the European Union. The whole of the country engaged in a pointless debate of trying to find better arrangements to trade after we would’ve left the European Union. But there is no better arrangement, there is no better for British big business. British big business has been told this many times openly: the best arrangements for them are the European Union arrangements. So the entire debate was pointless, and the Labour Party allowed that pointless debate to happen for three years. Why? Because the Labour Party is facing an impossible situation internally during these three years.

Its leadership is a left leadership. Some of these people are genuine socialists and they understand how the world works. They’re versed in Marxism, they’re versed in radicalism, and they are very, very skeptical of the European Union, which has been the historical position of the Labour Party in this country. Historically, the Labour Party has been rejectionist, highly skeptical of the European Union, and it was right to be so. The skepticism has been proven right in the fullness of time because the European Union has turned into–it’s become a neoliberal citadel. So the leadership of the Labour Party understands the nature of the world and understands that Brexit was an opportunity for sustained anti-neoliberal, potentially socialist measures to be enacted in this country.

The membership of the Labour Party, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. The membership has changed dramatically, reflecting changes in British society. And it comprises to a large extent, especially in the big urban areas, of people who have joined the working class in recent years; white collar workers; workers with different norms, political outlook, disposition towards the world and towards radicalism than the traditional Labour voters. These Labour members, and Labour in big cities in particular, are pro-Europe. They have adopted, fallen, to the ideology of Europe. Because it is entirely an ideology: the ideology of Europe and the European Union being a defender of workers’ rights. Nothing could be farther from the truth, but it has been accepted by the vast majority of the Labour Party membership, 80% or more. So That’s the second part of the difficulty.

The third part, making it even more complicated, is that the electorate, the voters that vote for Labour–and again, very different–there are among the voters of Labour huge numbers, especially in the working class areas, in working class concentrations in the Midlands and in the North of England, these concentrations are solidly for Leave, solidly for exit. If the Labour Party is to form a government, it must secure the vote of these people. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t stand a chance of forming a government again, particularly because it has very little influence in Scotland, lateral influence in Scotland.

So it must win the vote, secure the vote of working class concentrations, which won’t leave.

So the situation has been incredibly difficult for the Labour Party leadership to resolve. And it has been prevaricating, adopting confused positions, and above all avoiding an open debate on the merits of left wing exit: Lexit. I avoid entering that debate openly by saying, “Listen, Brexit can be a good thing for the working class. Brexit can give us the opportunity to do things which neoliberalism does not allow us to do.” It has actually made that argument weaker than we need it to be in this country. There’s a lot of public debate to be dominated by nonsense, by silly arguments. And that has been a real weakness for the left in this country.

The real import of what has happened the last couple of weeks at the last Labour conference relates to this last point. The leadership–as I’ve already mentioned to you–around Corbyn understands the nature of the world, wants a radical program, and is Euro-skeptic. It came under enormous pressure from the membership and from established conservative forces in the Labour Party that wanted to come out completely for Remain. They want the Labour Party to come out and say, “We are the party for Remain,” openly and finally. It came under enormous pressure to do that in the complex situation that I described to you, but it held its ground.

Had it actually accepted that position and formally come out for Remain, had it buckled under pressure, then that would’ve been the end of Labour as a force of radicalism in this country. It would’ve become a fully Remain party and that would have been the end of any hope of a radical challenge in the British establishment, But the leadership held the line. Now–

GREG WILPERT: We’ve established that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are internally divided. However, in the last couple of months, the Conservatives have been doing very well. That is, they’ve been rising in the opinion polls again, whereas Labour Party, which was doing fairly well earlier this year, has dropped well behind the Conservative Party by around ten percentage points according to the most recent polls. So why do you think there has been this loss of popularity for the Labour Party recently?

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: I effectively alluded to it in what I said to you just a few minutes ago. The Labour Party failed to take a position of Brexit that could openly honor the result of the referendum of 2016–be seen to be defending therefore democracy, the democratic vote of British people–and at the same time say that Brexit could give an opportunity for radical politics in this country. It failed to do it openly. and certainly increasingly the last few months during that period, the supporters of Remain in the Labour Party became stronger and stronger. Disillusionment among its voters became equally strong. So prevarication was deadly, really problematic for the Labour Party.

I repeat; The significance of the Labour conference that has just finished is precisely this: the Labour Party left room open to say, “Look, you can be for Brexit and be in the Labour Party. It is a totally acceptable position. We are not a Remain party and we have a radical program, and we can defend the radical program outside the European Union too.” That’s a very important position, and that gives room and hope for the left in the Labour Party to come out and for the first time in three years argue openly for Brexit. I expect that something like that will happen in the coming period. There are already moves afoot to have something like that publicly declared on the part of the Labour Party. That will be a first in the last three years.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, we’re going to continue to follow the situation of course, especially as we get closer to October 31, but we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Costas Lapavitsas; he’s a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London. Thanks again, Costas, for having joined us today.

COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.