One of the most striking facts about the Brexit debate was that it was mostly conducted as if it were a normal British general election, in which matters of policy were to be decided for the next five years or so. The arguments about levels of immigration, and the desirability or otherwise of different types of immigrants, that came to dominate the debate exemplified this — as if what was at stake were the British government’s immigration policy over the next few years.
I was even told explicitly by a number anti-Brexit friends that what mattered was preventing a Tory victory, and that the issues in debate could be sorted out later.
But of course it was not a normal general election, and the electorate as a whole turned out to be more aware of this than the commentators. The best way of thinking about what happened is in terms that are unfamiliar to the British, though very familiar to Americans: It was a debate about a constitutional amendment, of a very far-reaching kind, to do with the constraints on the legislature.
It is often said that Britain does not have a constitution of the American kind, and that if it has a constitution at all it is "unwritten," but this is not in fact the case. Fundamental constitutional rules on matters such as the succession to the crown, the powers of the House of Lords, the relationship between England and Scotland, and accession to the European Union itself, are written down as parliamentary statutes.
The difference is that until recently these kinds of statutes were like any other parliamentary legislation on quite trivial issues: There was not, as there is in the US, a different way of legislating for the constitution from that used in ordinary congressional legislation.
A vote to "Remain" would have tied the left’s hands for a generation
But over the past 40 years, a new convention has grown up in Britain: that any major constitutional changes will be put to the vote of the entire people. Technically these are consultative referendums, but the idea that they could be disregarded seems to most people about as fanciful as the idea that the queen could actually use the power, still technically in her hands, to veto a parliamentary statute.
Even in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, few people have advocated simply ignoring the result; the popular anti-Brexit response has been instead to call for a second vote. So Britain has now effectively moved into the situation of most modern states, in which a constitution decided by popular vote determines the powers of the political institutions, including the legislature. In Europe, almost all states decide these questions by referendums, as the UK now does.
When these constitutional questions were occasionally raised in the debate, they were treated with some contempt as an academic matter of no real concern to the electorate. But one is inclined to say, adapting Trotsky, that you might not be interested in constitutions but constitutions are interested in you.
Americans in particular understand this very well. What in effect was at stake in the referendum was a choice between two constitutional proposals. One was that certain key issues of economic and social life should be taken out of the hands of the domestic legislature and decided by the European Court of Justice on the basis of principles enshrined in EU laws, laws for the amendment of which there is no straightforward or transparent procedure other than a comprehensive rethinking of the EU treaties.
The other was that the British Parliament should in principle be the body that decided policy in these areas. People talked misleadingly about "the sovereignty of Parliament" during the debate, but in fact, as I said, Britain no longer has a sovereign Parliament in the old sense. The critical question was instead whether key political decisions should be made by an elected or an unelected government, and be capable of speedy change as circumstances alter.
Despite the extremely poor public debate on the referendum, it gradually dawned on many people that if it continued in the EU, Britain would create for itself a constitutional structure of a kind it was unused to, in which it was possible for a political debate to be closed down for a generation or more — as, for example, the issue of money in politics may have been closed down in the US following the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.
The essence of the EU is neoliberal
Moreover, the political debate the EU has closed down is the central question of our time, the debate over the role of the market, which dominated the 20th century and which has been revived across the world since the financial crash. It is a debate that cannot be conducted effectively in Europe.
The central fact of the EU is that the policies that are enshrined in its treaties and in its administrative structures are essentially those of the neoliberals. It is no surprise that Margaret Thatcher originally supported the common market, and only surprising that she later turned against it.
Four "freedoms" are baked into the EU — the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. Consistent Thatcherites around the world have always endorsed all four; after all, why insist on competition in production if one does not have competition in the labor market?
And over the years these freedoms have been interpreted to preclude most economic measures that a left-wing government might want to take. For example, it could not give state aid to industries and certainly could not nationalize them; it could not introduce different corporation tax for different regions (something that would immediately make far more difference to the voters of the depressed old industrial cities of England than restricting immigration); it could not subsidize agriculture or control fisheries in ways that would be appropriate to the needs of its own workers and consumers; and so on.
The voters who voted to leave the EU need not have known the details of all this, but their instinct that the inability to restrict immigration was part of a general inability to intervene in the old way in the market was absolutely correct.
Many thoughtful people on the left across Europe are well aware of this. For people in countries that adopted the euro, there is a whole other set of constraints on what the left can do, as the Greek experience amply demonstrates, but even in the countries that did not, the fundamental character of their economic life has been tilted permanently away from the kind of economic management characteristic of Europe in the '50s and '60s, and toward an entrenchment of the market at all levels.
What people like Yanis Varoufakis, the left-leaning economist who served as Greek finance minister from January to July 2015, want instead is a pan-European movement to wrest control of the EU from the neoliberals and implement left-wing policies at the European level. But no one has any realistic program for how to achieve this, particularly given the technocratic character of the EU institutions, which are specifically designed to be impervious to political pressure.
If the left is to wait until the time is ripe for a pan-European transformation, it will simply continue in practice to endorse the neoliberal policies of the EU. The fantasy that one day in some unspecifiable future it will secure its goal will disable it from taking the only actual course of action that is readily available — namely, to use the existing democratic state machinery in most European countries, which the EU has never wholly dismantled, and to restate the principles of democratic socialism as they were understood in postwar Europe and as they have now been revived (to some extent) by Bernie Sanders in the US.
Once this is done, we can think about rebuilding European institutions in such a way that we are never again locked into these kinds of constraints, but it has to be this way around. That is at least the possibility opened by Brexit.
"Terror" of being labeled xenophobic short-circuited debate
Hegel wrote of the cunning of reason, in which we fulfill the goals of reason without knowing it. The tragedy of the left and the EU could be described as the cunning of capitalism: Terror of appearing xenophobic has led the left to support structures that in happier days they would have been the first to condemn.
How is it that so many people in Britain who think of themselves still as socialists could use as conclusive arguments against their opponents that their policies will weaken London’s banking industry, or damage the UK’s international competitiveness, as if all we can do is join in the race to the bottom prescribed to us by global capitalism?
Do they not remember all the times those arguments were used against them, and how they seemed to be merely the cries of anguish from a threatened class? Once, they could easily reply that competitive markets are selective in their distribution of benefits and need to be controlled in all kinds of ways by democratic politics.
Why did they forget this? How have they allowed themselves to be persuaded that people should not make the conditions of their life through political action but have them made for them by market forces over which they have no control? In short, how did they take on all the attributes of a conservative governing class, and fail to take advantage of the one opportunity they were given to put their old principles into practice?
Perhaps in the aftermath of the astonishing Brexit vote they can still do so, though I should say that the vicious class prejudice voiced in recent days by so many erstwhile socialists, as they accused the pro-Leavers of being driven by racism rather than by a desire to assert control over their lives, does not give me much grounds for hope.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that political structures matter: Put into a setting where they are once again free to offer a wide range of policies to the electorate, left-wing politicians in Britain may eventually begin to realize the electoral benefits they can reap in the post-Brexit world. But they need to hold their nerve over the next few years, and not double down on their historic mistakes.
Richard Tuck is the Frank G. Thomson professor of government at Harvard, and the author of many books on political theory, most recently The Sleeping Sovereign (Cambridge University Press, 2016).