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Brexit: a great opportunity for the UK, a missed opportunity for the left
Writer and journalist
According to most policymakers and commentators, Brexit was a tragically ill-fated decision that will spell disaster for the UK. In this brief article, I’d like to propose a radically opposite view – of the vote itself and of its potential consequences.
Let’s begin with the former. I’m of the opinion that the Leave victory was not, as Remainers (or, now, Rejoiners) contend, a triumph of ignorance, racism, nationalism, right-wing propaganda etc. (which is not to say those elements didn’t play a role), but was rather, on a deeper level, a moment of great democratic insurgency.
For the first time in many years, the British people were given a chance to – quite literally – change the course of history through the ballot box. And they proceeded to do just that, by yielding an outcome that most people (including the Tories that sponsored the referendum) considered impossible, especially given the incessant anti-Brexit fear-mongering by the media and political establishment. After decades of hollowing out of the democratic process (in the UK and throughout the West), this re-entry of the masses into history – and their wholly legitimate demand for ‘taking back control’ of the political and economic process – should be seen as an exciting new development.
The real historical importance of the Brexit vote, however, lies in the fact that it broke the TINA (there is no alternative) spell that has been the main driving force behind the neoliberal consensus, depoliticisation of democracy and death of radical politics in recent decades. By demonstrating that there is always an alternative, Brexit dramatically widens the Overton window, opening up a whole new range of political possibilities. Especially considering that the surrendering of national prerogatives to supranational institutions and super-state bureaucracies (most notably the EU itself) has been a central aspect of depoliticisation: i.e. the insulation of macroeconomic policy from popular contestation.
In this sense, leaving the EU – an anti-democratic neoliberal juggernaut based primarily around the protection of capital rights – should be seen as a positive achievement in and of itself. Moving forward, there is no reason to believe Brexit should spell disaster for the UK. On the contrary, it creates the policy space to implement truly transformative politics that would be impossible under EU law. Will the Tories seize this opportunity? Probably not. But a Corbyn-led Labour could have, which is why its refusal to embrace Brexit – which ultimately sealed its fate – is such a tragedy.
Nothing good for Ireland comes from Brexit
Former MEP for North Ireland, Sinn Féin
The North of Ireland has a unique constitutional status.
The GFA (Good Friday Agreement) provides for any constitutional change to be voted upon.
It also put in place a range of provisions which would ensure closer north-south cooperation, it establishes north-south bodies, and identifies a number of “agreed areas of cooperation” with a view to these areas of cooperation being extended as the need arose.
In order to recognise and manage the constitutional dispensation of the agreement, political institutions were put in place to deal with governance within the North, on a north-south basis and on an east-west basis.
The effect of the unilateral decision of the British government to remove the North of Ireland from the EU amounts to a major constitutional upheaval – effectively a constitutional change without the agreement of the majority.
The EU Customs Union and the Single Market allows for the development of an all-island economy and the removal of border infrastructure.
North-South cooperation across a range of areas is embedded in EU rules.
EU membership ensures that a range of rights are available to citizens in the north on an equal basis, regardless of whether they were British or Irish or both.
Undermining these undermines the GFA itself.
The only possible way to respect the British vote to leave the EU and uphold the GFA was to put in place special arrangements for the North of Ireland – a sort of special status. This evolved into the so-called “backstop”, which is now being rejected by the British government – effectively a rejection of the Good Friday Agreement as a whole.
Even with the “backstop”, Brexit still damages Ireland, and in particular the North.
EU funding across a range of areas will disappear; access to the single market will only be partial; EU rights are not fully protected for Irish/EU citizens in the North.
Undoubtedly it is better for the North of Ireland to remain in the EU, as voted for by the majority in the Brexit referendum. This can, and should, be decided on the island of Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement by the calling of a referendum on Irish unification.
This article was written when Ms. Anderson was still in office, before the UK withdrew from the EU on 31 January 2020.