How to revitalise progressive politics in Brexit Britain

Yanis Varoufakis

, Articles

Below is a speech that Yanis gave at the DiEM25-Another Europe event at the LSE on October 8, 2016.


Before the referendum DiEM25, our Democracy in Europe Movement, and Another Europe Is Possible, joined forces to argue the ‘IN the EU and AGAINST this EU’ line. In town hall meetings, on the streets, on radio and television, in newspaper interviews and articles, we traversed the country to convince the people of Britain that another Europe is possible.

We failed! On June 23, the people of Britain opined that another Europe is not possible. Aided and abetted by an official Remain campaign that was disrespectful of the people, of the truth, of arithmetic even, Brexit won.

The question now is: How can progressive politics be reinvigorated in post-Brexit Britain? How can we salvage the genuine advantages that the otherwise problematic EU has conferred upon the people of this country and of every member-state? How can we prevent a bonfire of rights to environmental standards, labour standards, not to mention of freedom from the scars on the planet’s face also known as border fences? First, we need to grasp the constituents and the extent of our failure:

To a people craving instant change, and a drubbing of the status quo, we offered a worthy policy: IN and AGAINST. A policy which, nonetheless we would need to be in government on June 24 to deliver. Except that we were nowhere near in government. So, if Remain had won – as we recommended – we wouldn’t be in Downing Street with the Parliamentary majority necessary to confront Brussels’ from within as we were proposing.

So, a Remain victory would be grist to the mill of the David Camerons, the Tony Blairs, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the Bilderberg Group – and it would be interpreted by the establishment as a licence to continue business-as-usual – the one thing that voters opposed the most.

Does this mean we were wrong to oppose Brexit? Of course not. But it does mean that it was not foolish of voters hankering change to turn their backs on us. The lesson here is simple: Unless we back up our views on Europe with a surge throughout the country that will see these views implemented from the commanding heights of 10 Downing Street, the people will turn to those who offer them realistic change NOW. Even if it is the wrong kind of change.

Taking a more Archimedean perspective, our failure is fragrant of the overarching progressive forces’ failure to harness the anti-establishment rage caused by two simple facts:

  • For forty years now 80% of the people are being taken to the cleaners 95% of the time by the most privileged 20%
  • For thirty years now 30% of the people are being treated like discarded persons whose opinions do not matter, squeezed out of influence by the tyranny of the shifting median voter.

Want to know why Brexit won? UK government statistics reveal that over a period of 13 years, the median British voter suffered a fall in real incomes after taking into account housing costs. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It is the austerity, stupid!”

“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. It’s not an accident that this is a line from the Tempest. Our Tempest today takes the form of a political shake up that the world has not seen since the 1930s. A Great Deflation is now gripping both sides of the Atlantic, re-kindling political forces that had been dormant since the 1930s. I have news for you: Just like no UK government can stem climate change on its own, no UK government can address this Great Deflation breeding the Great Discontent.

This is why passion is returning to politics, but not in the way we’d hoped. Passion is now fuelled by fear; to generate loathing – mainly of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’ who becomes the proxy for the unseen economic forces condemning masses of people to the heap of the discarded – workers too expensive and too indebted to be coveted by employers or bankers.

Before the referendum, we were aghast when fellow progressives backed Brexit hoping that it would divide the Tories and would allow the Left to reconnect with a working class lured by the sirens of UKIP. We warned them of their folly.

  • We warned that the Tories, the quintessential class warriors, unlike Labour, would never be divided. For they know how to salvage unity out of the jaws of division by prioritising the services they must offer their class – the ruling class. (If only Labour could do the same, what a wonderful world it would be?)
  • We warned them against the illusion that it was possible to win a bidding war with right-wing isolationists, by offering a version of immigration-phobia-light.

Our world is shaped today by a monumental new political clash, not only in Britain but in continental Europe and America. On the one side there is the global troika of neoliberalism, financialisation and globalisation, represented by the likes of David Cameron, Hilary Clinton, the Brussels-Frankfurt-Berlin triangle. Opposing it is an emergent Nationalist International, of right-wing Brexiteers, Donald Trump, Le Pen, Austrian fascists, Hungary’s Orban, the list is endless.

The trouble with this clash is that it is both real and misleading. Brexit showed that it is real. But it is also misleading because the Global Establishment and the Nationalist International are accomplices, not enemies – as Theresa May’s easy conversion to a hard Brexit illustrated. They feed off each other. They reinforce one another. For they are both reflections of our Great Deflation – of the deep crisis of capitalism and of our environment that deepen as this faux opposition unfolds.

To break up this fake opposition, that is poisoning our planet and dragging down our peoples, we need a Progressive International. It is this Progressive International that DiEM25 is building throughout Europe, based on the simple thought that our greatest challenges will defeat us unless we reach out across borders, across existing political parties.

But let me get back to the referendum for a moment. How must progressive internationalists respond?

Our first task is to reconfirm in our hearts and minds that we were right to argue against Brexit. Already, it is becoming obvious that the final verse of “Hotel California” was accurate: Checking out was easy. Leaving is a real and unmitigated mess. The paradoxes mount: Do free marketeers truly believe it is logically coherent and believable, to say to continental Europeans “Britain is open for business but you are no longer welcome to come here at will”?

Our second task is to prevent the major error of alienating those who voted for Brexit: The balance was tipped by those who yearned for the change that we failed to convince them we could deliver. So, instead of talking down to them, we should accept the responsibility for our failure to convince them that we can gain power to implement a progressive internationalist economic and political agenda for a UK within the EU.

Our third task is to put forward a roadmap for Brexit that respects our democratic agenda and our Progressive Internationalism. While I understand why some of you have been thinking, and speaking, of a second referendum, I will risk telling you that it is a colossal error. When Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, the EU forced them to vote again until they delivered the “right” outcome. Do we want to alienate the people of Britain by proposing something similar? Especially at a time when the rush to a hard Brexit is gathering pace? Do we really want to be Owen Smith’s last disciples?

Here is what I propose: (1) Demand that Theresa May triggers Article 50 today, beginning the two-year de-coupling process immediately. (2) Announce now that London will, during these two years of negotiations, seek an off-the-shelf Norway-like arrangement for the full Parliamentary term that commences after the end of the two-year period. (3) Commit to a full debate, in Parliament and within British society, during that Parliamentary term on what future arrangements the people of Britain want.

This way we shall have a seven-year period of: (1) certainty for business and those whose lives straddle the UK and the continent, (2) at least one full Parliament that has the time and space to debate the kind of links Britain wants with the rest of Europe and the world, (3) simultaneous respect for voters who opted for exiting the Union and for voters aghast at the thought of a tiny circle of insiders choosing amongst the infinite varieties of Brexit.

This proposal offers progressives in this country a seven-year period during which we can succeed in doing that which we failed to do last June: To show to the good people of Britain that they do not need to settle for bad change overseen by the wrong, regressive, isolationist type of government that we have now. That good government in the UK is a realistic prospect opening up the road toward strong links with a better Europe.

Friends,

Brexit is a mere symptom of a disintegrating Europe that causes the xenophobic Right to be rising everywhere. New electrified fences are rising everywhere. Hope’s candle is trembling in the cold wind of a nationalism that is fanned by pan-European austerity. We cannot fight this wind except through evoking the old adage: United We Stand, Divided We Fall!

Today, our organisations DiEM25 and Another Europe Is Possible are taking decisive steps in this direction. We are here to discuss our joining forces. I am gratified by the internal poll of AEIP members favouring this merger and happy to report that this merger enthuses thousands of DiEM25 members from Ireland to Turkey and from Finland to Portugal. United we are determined to stand! This is why we are here today.

Since its formation on February 9 in Berlin, DiEM25 is doing in every European country what Another Europe Is Possible was doing in the UK in the run up to the referendum: forging an alliance of progressives keen to bring about a surge of democracy throughout Europe. It is only natural that the two organisations merge.

The referendum was a slap across our faces. Voters looked us in the eye and said: “No mate, we don’t believe you that another Europe is possible”. The only way of changing their mind is by demonstrating to them that another Britain, the Britain they want, is only possible if another Europe is possible. And explaining to them, convincingly, of exactly how this other Europe can come about. This means that Another Europe Is Possible, the organisation and the slogan, must now spread its wings with the power that only a pan-European movement can provide.

DiEM25 is that movement. For we refuse to be a confederacy of national organisations or chapters. We demonstrate our disrespect toward borders by traversing them. There are, I understand, those of you who wish to retain your UK-based legal and organisational structure. We respect this. However, recall what Winston Churchill once wrote: “We are with Europe, but not of it” – “We are linked but not comprised”. Well, DiEM25 implores you: Don’t be Churchillean. We must demonstrate to the people of Britain how we can work together in a trans-national, pan-European movement that respects no borders. Comprised, not just linked. If we don’t demonstrate that Another Europe Is Possible by leaving behind our national-based organisation, who will?

But enough words. Let’s join forces. Let’s prove to ourselves that, when the stakes are high, the course of progressive politics, unlike that of true love, can run smooth. There is no time to spare. We have a continent to win. For the sake of so many forsaken peoples.

 

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