Here’s a question to all my socialist/left-leaning Europhile friends. Which ‘Europe’ is it that you are so dedicated to? The Europe of Pizarro and Cortes? The Europe of Robespierre and King Leopold II? The Europe of Hitler, Salazar, Franco and Mussolini? The Europe of Auschwitz and Srebrenica? The Europe of Marine Le Pen and Golden Dawn?
And which Britain is it that you disparage as being so ignorant, brutish and racist? The Britain of William Wilberforce and Sylvia Pankhurst? The Britain of Shakespeare and Milton? The Britain of the NHS and the Open University? The Britain of Tolpuddle and Peterloo? The Britain of Adam Smith and David Hume? The Britain of Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft? The Britain of Elgar and Turner? The Britain of Bowie and the Beatles?
I ask this because I regard myself as a socialist internationalist but find myself at odds with many in Britain who claim to be of the left because I am sceptical about the EU and ‘European values and they are passionate supporters of Britain’s membership of the EU. And a significant part of the left/liberal Remain narrative is that modern Britain is a uniquely inward-looking and racist country that is, and always has been, a philistine, cultural back-water compared to the ultra-civilised Europeans. Yet my opening paragraphs illustrate that this narrative crumbles into dust when subjected to even the most cursory historical or comparative analysis.
And yes of course I could put the question the other way round by listing the great civilising men and women of Europe and the brutes and tyrants of British history… but that is my point. Framing the Brexit debate as a moral battle between the ‘good’ Europeans and the ‘brutish’ British or vice versa is fallacious and also a large part of why the debate has become so toxic.
The issue is actually simply a technical one about whether the UK should remain part of a bureaucratic, political and economic association. Yet for many on both sides it has become a moral battle between good and evil, between civilisation and tyranny, between culture and brutality. Both sides see the other as embodying and arguing for tyranny, brutality and oppression.
Remainers conflate the bureaucratic institution of the EU with the cultural idea of an enlightened, progressive, civilised ‘Europe’ and call all who disagree ignorant racists. Leavers fear and despise the potential ‘tyranny’ of the bureaucratic institution of the EU but ignore the potentially unifying benefits of a pan-European association of the many rather than the few and accuse Remainers of being traitorous, middle-class, metropolitan elitists.
In my view both are to some extent correct and also profoundly wrong. I say this because I believe that whatever anyone says on either side of the Brexit debate, Britain is, and always has been, part of ‘Europe”, but I think that fact is NOT something we should celebrate.
Staying in or leaving the institution of the EU will not change Britain’s historical, cultural and geographical situation as part of Europe. British language, values, culture and even our Royal family are, and always have been, intimately connected with and inter-dependent upon Europe. The idea that Britain can detach itself from “Europe’ culturally, economically or politically is simply foolish. But for me this is simply a geographical and historical fact, rather than a statement of desirable political or moral values.
Indeed, as a socialist and Internationalist I am deeply sceptical about ‘European’ enlightenment values that in the last two hundred years have been used to justify ‘civilised’ Europeans, including the British, enslaving most of the rest of the world. I do not identify my interests as being linked with the interests of the ruling class of Europe or indeed anywhere else in the world; I identify my interests as being aligned with the interests of the oppressed of the world and most of those have historically, and many still are, being oppressed by Europeans or people of European descent. Yet in the passion of the Brexit crisis many Remainers on the UK left seem to have lost sight of the regrettable reality of European history and indeed the unfortunate political realities of Europe today.
Europe’ and ‘Europeans’ (including but not limited to the British) are responsible for the violent invasion and racist, colonial rule of almost all of our planet apart from perhaps China… although even there the colonial Opium Wars and other interventions by ‘Europeans” were devastating.
We ‘Europeans’ are responsible for developing a commercial slave industry responsible for transporting perhaps as many as 12 million human beings to the other side of the world at the point of a gun, then buying and selling them like cattle until finally working them to death under the constant threat of lynching and the lash.
And this is the whole of Europe, not just the evil British Empire. Much of the current narrative would have us believe that the British were uniquely responsible for global colonialism and the rest of Europe were innocent bystanders. This is nonsense. Yes the British Empire was in my view a great evil, but so were all examples of European imperialism… and it is crucial to recognise that colonialism was pan-European with even countries like Denmark and Belgium ruling third-world colonies through brutal military violence.
In fact despite the horrors of British Imperialism, Britain was the first major European country to outlaw the slave trade in 1807, followed by an outright ban on slave ownership in 1833. France only followed in 1848 and Portugal not until 1858. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the Americas were brutally racist and purposefully destroyed age-old civilisations killing hundreds of thousands in the process. The descendants of those Spanish and Portuguese colonialists in S. America, who even today live according to largely ‘European’ values, are today destroying the lives and habitats of thousands of indigenous people’s. The French in N.Africa, the Far-East and what became Canada were/are no less brutal to indigenous people’s in the lands they conquered than the British. Similarly the Italians in Ethiopia and little old Belgium in the Congo, committed almost unspeakable horrors in the name of Empire.
In the 20th Century civilised ‘Europeans’, hugely influenced by the racism inherent in colonialism, developed the ideology of fascism and dragged Europe and the entire world into industrialised, mechanised warfare… twice! In those wars, at least, the British and Americans fought totalitarian ‘Europeans’ in the name of freedom and democracy.
In fact it is worth noting that throughout most of the Modern era (from 1500 to the present day) Britain, but especially England, has been seen by many radicals in Europe as a beacon of liberty and freedom as opposed to an oppressive and often totalitarian Europe. Wave after wave of the oppressed of Europe have escaped to England including 50,000 French Huguenots in the 1570’s, the 13,000 ‘Poor Palatines’ from Germany in 1709, the 30-50,000 Poles and other Eastern Europeans after the failed insurrection against the Russian Empire in 1831, the 100,000 + Jews of Eastern Europe who fled the programs of the East in the 19th Century and finally a myriad of foreign radicals such as Karl Marx and Trotsky who could live and write freely in England as nowhere else in Europe.
Even today the fascist-right is much stronger in most of Europe than it is in the UK. ALL the countries of Europe face a threat from the far-right and in some countries, nationalist parties are major players in politics, such as France’s National Rally, Finland’s True Finns, Estonia’s Conservative People’s Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, Austria’s Freedom Party of Austria, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn , Armenia’s Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Poland’s Law and Justice, Slovakia’s Slovak National Party, Denmark’s Danish People’s Party etc.
Many of these parties have an equivalent political presence and a consistent 15-20% share of the vote that is similar to our LibDems… who are regarded as the ‘third’ party in our two party system. This contrasts with the UK where far-right parties like the BNP are marginal at best and in reality are often little more than rhetorical gestures. And I include UKIP and the Brexit Party in that analysis, because both are single-issue parties with little evidence that they could maintain mass support beyond the resolution of Brexit. Indeed, UKIP almost completely collapsed as an institution in the wake of the first referendum result and fared disastrously in the 2017 GE as voters shifted back to more mainstream parties once the Brexit issue was resolved… or so they thought.
Socialist Internationalism is NOT about aligning with the ruling elites of other wealthy European countries to exploit the poor of Europe and the rest of the world. Socialist Internationalism is about class solidarity across nations.
Socialist internationalists like me claim that the working-class of England have more in common with the working-class of say France or South Africa than we do with the ruling class of England. Like many of us I really enjoy travelling in Europe both for recreation and work. At the moment I am in love with Greece. I find the Greek people to be courageous, hospitable and funny. But I also find that to be true almost everywhere I go whether in Europe or the rest of the world. The people of Europe are great, superficially different from us but fundamentally the same as us, and I have far, far, more in common with a waiter in Greece than I do with a CEO of a multi-national in the UK!
The ruling-class of both Britain and Europe are bastards, as they are everywhere, and the EU, by definition, is an institution of the ruling-class that acts in the interests of the ruling-class. I feel I am inevitably connected with the working-class across the globe because of my own socio-economic circumstances and supporting an alliance between the ruling-class of Britain and the ruling-class of Europe as represented by the institution of the EU is NOT internationalism. At best the EU is simply a trading institution that is part of capitalist globalisation at worst the EU is a technocratic mechanism for the 1% to by-pass local, regional or national expressions of democracy (see Greece) and rule over the 99% with impunity.
So please Comrades remember that although there are perfectly reasonable, and indeed compelling, arguments for supporting Remain, the sort of unthinking, unseeing, valorising of the EU and the idea of a uniquely civilised Europe, does not serve your cause well and leads many to disregard all your arguments.
[For the record I voted Remain in the last referendum and would do so again in any subsequent vote. I do so not out of any particular love of ‘Europe’ or ‘European values’ and certainly not through any loyalty to the EU. I do so because exiting the EU on a right-wing, nationalist agenda will be a triumph for right-wing nationalism, which I am unalterably opposed to.]