Lexit is a thing now

Image: leftleave.org

This weekend we had confirmation (if any was ever needed) that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s plan is for the UK to exit the Single Market and probably the Customs Union. Leaving the Single Market would give a future Corbyn government the powers to take more of a commanding role in the UK economy. It is now time to seriously consider what Lexit (a left-wing Brexit) would look like.

Luckily, last week Professor Richard Tuck of Harvard University — one of the world’s leading historians of ideas – set out his case for Lexit. It is worth reading his lecture at conservative think tank Policy Exchange  in full for the scale of the ambition and also for the interesting reflections on why “sovereignty” arguably means more from British MPs who unlike their continental counterparts are not formally bound by a fixed constituency.

Two ideas particularly struck me. Firstly, a recognition that for Labour to take power it needed Scotland. And to keep Scotland in the Union, Brexit needed to happen (spoiler: the UK staying in the EU makes it easier for Scottish independence because Brussels would make trade frictionless between the two countries). Tuck also thinks Brexit will inoculate the UK against the populist right as a series of current grievances will have been aired (in particular on immigration).

On the NHS, Tuck raises an interesting point:

"My favourite example of this, and something of great relevance to the general theme of this lecture, is the creation of the National Health Service in Britain. It required a very unusual constitutional order, since its most distinctive feature, and the thing which still sharply differentiates it from the single payer systems found in most developed countries (and even, in many respects, in the USA), was the fact that it involved a mass expropriation of private property, in the form of the so-called ‘voluntary’ hospitals, some of which like Bart’s had been independent institutions for over eight hundred years.  This was the issue which was most fiercely debated within the Attlee cabinet, and the result of Nye Bevan’s victory there was one of the most far-reaching examples of nationalisation from those years, and the only one which has survived more or less intact.  It is often asked by opponents of the NHS, “if it’s so good, why don’t other countries copy it?”  But in this respect it would be extremely difficult for other countries to copy it, since in most modern states expropriation of private property without compensation would be legally impossible without a far-reaching constitutional amendment which might be very hard to pass.  In Britain in 1946, all that was needed was a single sentence in an Act of Parliament: ‘there shall, on the appointed day, be transferred to and vest in the Minister by virtue of this Act all interests in or attaching to premises forming part of a voluntary hospital or used for the purposes of a voluntary hospital…’”

I have a few qualms with Professor Tuck’s overall thesis. He points out that the EU’s four freedoms make democratic socialism difficult: “A British government could theoretically change the tax regime on the City, but the free movement of labour and capital within the EU would permit the banks simply to transfer operation to a friendlier tax regime elsewhere in the Union”.

Yet, as all true believers in the Third International know, there is no socialism except for international socialism! The great achievement of the European Union is it has built both a truly pan-national single market (or approaching one) but has also engendered the conditions for social democracy even while removing barriers to trade. Polish workers get 20 paid holidays, so do car workers in Luton. The race to the bottom that the market can facilitate has been alleviated through solidarity across the European continent. This is one of the reasons that left-wing Euroscepticism is weak in Europe, because ultimately the EU has been good for markets and workers, arguably in a way that NAFTA hasn’t (which has removed barriers to trade, but has done nothing to protect workers’ rights). While it is true that a UK government couldn’t change tax regulations on the city within the EU, it is also true that the type of legislation that would tax financial trading (the so-called Robin Hood, or Tobin tax) is probably only ever going to be achieved in an economic market of 500 million consumers, not 60 million.

A second point is that while the British constitution does, I agree, sit uneasily with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, it is not entirely incompatible. Parliament has agreed for the UK to be bound by the Charter, and cannot bind successor parliaments to the Lisbon Treaty in the same way that membership of the EU is no more binding on future generations that any single piece of legislation.

One way to move beyond this bind, if we ever were to stop the clock on Brexit, would to make it far clearer in an act of parliament that membership of the EU is by consent of the people through parliament and is not binding on any future parliament. Brexit should always be possible, we just choose for it not to be.

Finally, as a long-standing member of the Labour party, I remain unconvinced that the public will buy Lexit and the reshaping of the British economy away from globalisation in the same way I doubt they’ll buy Liam Fox’s mad vision of Singapore-on-Thames. Neither globalisation unbound or socialism in one country is likely to happen.

The irony is, as Corbyn makes his qualms with the Single Market more explicit, the Conservative party may well rediscover why it fell in love with the idea with a European Single Market in the first place. Tuck ends with, “I was very struck by a recent piece in the Telegraph by Charles Moore raising the question of whether it might be best to stay within the institutions of the EU in order to block Corbyn’s policies.”

Lexit is a thing now.

European Union
Jeremy Corbyn
Professor Richard Tuck