Whither Remain or will Remain wither?
Phil Vellender highlights some of the problems the Left in England have in relating to political developments in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Some Remain voters are setting up ‘Rejoin EU ASAP’ groups. This is an entirely understandable reaction to a traumatic hard Brexit that no one voted for, and certainly many would not vote for again, given all the evidence we now have of the shenanigans and empty promises involved in the Cummings-Elliot Leave EU campaign. But before we expend a lot of energy on a project with, let’s face it, scant chance of success as things stand now, it might be timely to address some domestic constitutional matters those ‘yearning to return’ may have overlooked when they unreservedly and single-mindedly backed the People’s Vote campaign, and its demand for a ‘Second Referendum’.
Among these domestic matters, specifically, was a reluctance for Remainers to fully take into account Scotland and Northern Ireland’s own Remain vote as well as the growing desire for independence in Scotland, and the increasing likelihood of an ever younger Northern Irish population pressing for reunification with the Irish Republic. In short, Remainers now need to begin a reassessment of their views on the Union and, yes, as important, turn their attention to the archaic and arcane, profoundly undemocratic, constitutional monarchy and the Crown/ Executive that currently governs us. It may be very dry-sounding material, but it is now vital.
The People’s Vote campaign has drawn fire on two main grounds. First, that it was ultimately undemocratic, seeking to overturn the June 2016 result and, second, that in the minds of many of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, it was really engaged in giving succour to Labour’s right wingers (eg those backing Tom Watson and Peter Mandelson) who wanted to further destabilise Corbyn’s leadership.
Clearly, Remainers will have to do better than just re-running the failed 2016 Remain and 2018-19 People’s Vote campaigns. Remainers are probably right to claim that opinion has shifted since 2016. As a republican socialist Remainer, I really hope this is the case. However, any future campaign that does not centre itself on the principle of democracy in general and the inalienable democratic rights of Scotland to become independent and, ultimately vote to rejoin the EU, as well as Northern Ireland’s right to vote on reunification, in particular, would be risking a repeat of the iteration of the People’s Vote Second Referendum campaign, which was aimed at, and led by, predominantly English liberal-Unionist Remainers who were, almost to a person, utterly uninterested in the rights of Scotland and NI to decide their relationship with the EU.
There are still many Remain groups, but for our purposes here I’ll cite one, Best for Britain. This organisation’s name exemplifies many of underlying contradictions which may explain why Remain failed to convince last time and risks failure once more. ‘Best for Britain’ points to an unhealthy and enduring preoccupation with a predominantly English nationalism (despite the ostensible use of the term ‘British’) which was a significant prime mover for triggering Brexit in the first place, although later both Leave and Remain campaigners invoked ‘Englishness’ to varying degrees.
This Best for Britain, ‘slogan-as-name’ sits quite happily with the rancid racism of Gordon Brown’s dictum, ‘British jobs for British workers’. Its continued use post Brexit indicates a failure to understand that, in the not too distant, Brexit future, Remainers won’t necessarily be talking about a ‘Britain’ anymore, because now that ‘Brexit has got done’, in all probability Remain Scotland will vote for independence and apply to rejoin the EU, while Northern Ireland will vote for reunification with the Irish Republic. Worse still for liberal Remainers, many being sentimental Unionists, recent polling shows one in three people in Wales are now pro-Welsh independence too. Consequently, if English Remainers want to rejoin an almost entirely republican Europe, they will have to dial down on their own versions of English nationalism, rediscover England’s historic republican tradition(s) and renounce their unexamined attachment to the anachronistic, 1707 Tory-confected Union.
The ‘Better Together’ fakery of IndyRef1 in 2014, which promised the Scots a ‘No’ vote would mean continued EU membership, is what signed Labour’s death warrant north of the border and, along with Brexit itself, has precipitated the (slow) death of the Union. Remain’s enduring commitment to Free Movement, its openness to international culture and internationalism generally, is definitely the right direction to follow henceforth, as a vital counterweight to right-wing European populism. However, in order to consolidate and protect this optimistic, solidaristic, internationalist spirit, Remain will need to open up the entire constitutional debate and argue for democratic constitutional change in this country. In other words, find an answer to the ‘English question’ as the Tory Union gradually, or not, disintegrates.
Our tin-pot, essentially Tory, notion of democracy is not only totally unfit for domestic purposes, but, in addition, has proved itself wholly incapable of coherent decision making and constructively engaging with our nearest international partners. However, unless and until we Remainers grasp the nettle of democratising our own state, ie the Crown, and our hopelessly anachronistic institutions, we will continue to ‘remain’ in the same pitifully infantilised condition we have existed in for decades. What’s more, Left Remainers, especially, need to adopt a broad constitutional reform agenda. It’s hard to suppress a wry smile now when reflecting on the absurd arrogance of the Another Europe Is Possible campaign’s claim that they wanted to ‘remain in the EU’ and ‘democratically reform’ it? How ridiculously ironic this sounds, emanating as it did from a country which claims to be ‘modern democracy’ yet whose fundamental constitutional and political structures have remained ‘unreformed’ since the Glorious Revolutionary period of 1688-1714!
Therefore, it is on the demanding task of wholesale democratic reform of this confused, and confusing, political state of England, that Remainers will now need to focus. The people of Scotland and Northern Ireland know where their future lies: out of the Union and in a productively, integrated relationship with Europe. We English Remainers, on the other hand (and this will include what remains of the English Left too, of course) are going to have to do the heaviest of this constitutional ‘heavy lifting’ if we want to entertain even the faintest prospect of following our fellow Scottish and Northern Irish citizens when they return to a 21st century, democratic, republican and federal Europe.