British Referendum A Victory For Democracy

Tommy McKearney writing from a left perspective welcomes the Brexit result.

"Undoubtedly, strident attempts will now be made to attribute this result, in its entirety, to the impact of migration exploited by xenophobic British reactionaries within and outside the Conservative Party."

The left campaign for leaving the EU

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. Its electorate has done so in spite of exhortations to remain from, among others, David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, a majority of FTSE 100 chief executives, Goldman Sachs, the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and Enda Kenny. It’s difficult, therefore, to overestimate the significance of this outcome. It has happened in spite of enormous scaremongering by the Remain campaign and its shameless exploitation of the murder of Jo Cox MP.

Undoubtedly, strident attempts will now be made to attribute this result, in its entirety, to the impact of migration exploited by xenophobic British reactionaries within and outside the Conservative Party. It would, of course, be wrong to dismiss the part played by racism. Britain is a former imperial power, and contempt for other peoples was an endemic feature of its past and has not been eradicated. Nevertheless, this tendentious argument deliberately ignores the fact that there have been waves of migration into Britain for decades, all accommodated thanks to an expanding economy.

Worse than being a deliberate misrepresentation is the fact that concentrating entirely on resistance to migration denies what the Financial Times described as the “rage from Leave voters alienated by London and globalisation.” No matter who legislated for the referendum or for what reason, voting was open to all, and the working-class movement had an opportunity to participate in a crucially important debate and decision-making event. Herein lay, perhaps, the most ominous aspect of the entire campaign. Apart from a small, coherent minority centred mainly on people in the RMT Union and the daily Morning Star, the left in Britain (in its widest definition) either failed to recognise or, worse, chose to ignore the despair felt by so many working people in the UK.

In part because of the depoliticisation of large swathes of organised labour as a result of the pernicious right-wing influence of New Labour’s Blairite cohort, there was a general absence of any critical narrative, not to mention socialist analysis, in relation to the European Union. This weakness led to the mistaken assertion, when the referendum was first announced, that being anti-EU was tantamount to being anti-migrant and xenophobic. Stepping back from positive engagement meant that the debate was dominated at first by feuding reactionaries.

Fearing a split in his Blairite-dominated parliamentary party, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, felt forced to support the Remain campaign, though offering a different rationale from that of William Hague or Theresa May. With little by way of evidence, he argued that the European Union protected workers’ rights and offered access to a lucrative market for British manufacturing.

Depressingly, Corbyn’s lead was gladly followed by both the TUC in Britain and the ICTU in Northern Ireland. In fact the referendum debate in the North of Ireland paralleled that in Britain. The DUP supported quitting the EU for reasons similar to those of right-wing conservatives, while Sinn Féin argued a Remain case along lines employed by New Labour. The Northern Ireland committee of the ICTU strongly supported the Remain campaign but, interestingly, did acknowledge its deep-seated flaws at public meetings attended by this writer.

In the face of powerful opposition it seemed almost inevitable that the Leave campaign — including the well-reasoned left “Lexit” case — would succumb. That this did not happen is worth consideration. Over the past forty years many British working-class communities have endured deprivation, with industries closing, low wages, zero-hour contracts, the welfare state undermined, and public services being privatised. As a consequence, a large number of these societies have been damaged, and many less-well-off people feel alienated from the political establishment, whether it is in the EU or London.

The EU is clearly not directly responsible for every socially destructive effect suffered by the British working class; but its overarching neo-liberal ethos has certainly facilitated the devastation. Equally pertinent is the fact that the right-of-centre social democrats of New Labour have not only failed to offer working people a viable remedy but have colluded with the free-marketeers in inflicting their punishing programme. Kevin McKenna, writing in the Herald (Glasgow), accurately reflected the feelings of working people in the north of England towards the party when he said that “during three successive Labour governments they had been made to feel like an embarrassment to the metropolitan Islington elite who thirsted for power and money . . .”¹

While not underestimating the significance of a vote to leave the EU, it should not be taken in isolation from its wider European context. Disenchantment is not confined to Britain. A recent article in the Financial Times revealed the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly unpopular among people in its member-states.² Quoting from an extensive survey of opinion, Timothy Garton Ash mentioned that in eight of the ten member-states surveyed, a majority disapproved of how the EU manages the economy, and only 51 per cent are in favour of retaining the union.³

Admittedly these statistics are garnered by a research company, employing opinion poll surveys, and so must be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless some facts are indisputable. One is that the European Union, with its treaties enshrining neo-liberal economic policies, has exacerbated austerity in many of the member-states, and offers no obvious way to correct this deficiency. Furthermore, the legal structures and constitution of the union not only make reforming its institutions practically impossible but also, as the Greek people (as well as the Irish and others) have learnt, makes futile resistance from within.

As a consequence, working-class people throughout the EU have an objective need to dismantle the EU as an entity; equally important in the light of its rapidly diminishing popularity, there is now a realistic possibility of doing so. However, this will require a carefully crafted and enlightened strategy, because otherwise fascism will exploit the misery created and perpetuated by the neo-liberals.

Essential to the success of such a strategy is challenging comprehensively and dismissing the illusion peddled by centrist social democrats that the EU can be reformed. The British referendum result shows that demolishing this myth is now a realistic option. Running in tandem with this, however, is the need to promote a clear and unambiguous socialist alternative that speaks to the needs of the majority throughout the continent. Undoubtedly this will pose challenges; but when has building socialism been easy? And when has that been a reason for not trying?

This article first appeared in: Socialist Voice July 2016

1. Kevin McKenna, “EU vote truly signals the end of a Union dearer to me,” Herald, 25 June 2016, at

2. Timothy Garton Ash, “The fading of Europe is a result of both its failures and successes,” Financial Times, 11 June 2016.

3. Pew Research Center, “Euroskepticism beyond Brexit (


  1. A couple of weeks on and the UK is now signing new trade agreements. Looks like the world hasn't ended either.

    Funny that.

  2. I think the endless immigration since the Irish, the West Indies and all and sundry in recent times has finally taken it's toll on the English public. Saturation point. A toff network in both political parties has left the ordinary punter in their wake. Business owners on tv saying they cannot get local people to work in their businesses is merely code for we can get 3rd world peasantry from the EU periphery to work for fuck all. It cuts no ice. Labour Parliamentary MPs are after failing in a cut-throat conspiracy to get rid of Corbyn 'in-house' and will now be toast after the election contest - or at least should be. The disconnect is that they believe by getting rid of Corbyn they could see off UKIP in the next election. When the reality is the general public, or a large enough portion of it are as fed up with THEM as they are with the endless immigration and destruction of their communities and industries. Interesting times all round. Happy days. Cannot wait for the Tory trash to hit article 50. Then the fun and games can begin proper. It's like a wheelbarrow, it's all in front of us.

  3. Aye, while I agree it's a victory for democracy, it's far from over. The political, military and media elite will ensure a few more twists and turns. My personal hope is Brexit is the incentive for a Europe wide agitation against the E.U. not confident though.

  4. Boris Johnson as foreign secretary is a triumph for democracy?

    Evidence that the EU allows access to a lucrative market for British manufacturing might be found in the terms of the Treaty of Rome.

    Is it not the case that EU rules will now require Ireland to fortify the border with the North? In terms of the 1998 agreement, can this be done without electoral consent on both sides of the border? If so, how, given that the majority in the North voted against it?

    Not only was the Remain campaign a complete shambles, but to allow such a vaguely worded question on the ballot paper was an invitation for the coalescing of the disparate and mutually antagonistic factions required by any successful revolution. Hence we see socialists like Tommy allied to the likes of Farrage, Johnson and Gove. Now the victory has been won, we'll see the extent to which the good guys get a share of the spoils. The appointment of the patrician liar Johnson as foreign secretary gives us some idea of how the workers are going to fare.

    The referendum is a victory for the capitalists who believe the workers can best be shafted outside the EU, over the capitalists who think the best place to shaft the workers is inside the EU.

  5. There's no doubt the business interests in the remain and leave campaigns care primarily about profit. That's not really the point. On any issue, any major issue to be settled by a referendum is a triumph for democracy. Like it or lump it. Voting to leave the E.U doesn't make anyone an ally with Farage etc. Maybe like myself they see the E.U as an undemocratic, increasingly militaristic, corporate serving, dangerous organisation.

  6. Rock and a hard place, rock and a hard place + ideology founded upon rock, easy.
    Farrage + Johnson + Gove is okay in the same sentence.
    Your last paragraph is enlightening, if you can't finish the task then sit in the van.

  7. Folks might be interested in this interview I did with Paul Embery, London regional organiser of the firefighters' union and national organiser of Trade Unionists Against the EU. It deals with a lot of stuff about British firefighters, but also the wider British working class and also the Brexit vote:

  8. David H,

    Don’t agree with your point that “ANY major issue to be settled by a referendum is a triumph for democracy” (my emphasis), except perhaps in the sense that referendums can show the limits of democracy. An example would be the 1934 German referendum which agreed to merging the roles of President and Chancellor, hence allowing Hitler unchecked power. Hardly a victory for democracy.

    It might also be said that, if we’re going to have referendums then we need a mechanism for deciding when they should be held, and what questions they decide. While it’s certainly valid that the people should decide important questions, this referendum was arranged by Cameron in order to secure his position within the Conservative party. Are we going to have a referendum on Trident? Or having an elected head of state? Probably not, as neither would suit the ruling group’s interests. Isn’t it less than democratic that the guy in charge gets to choose which issues the people can decide on?

    Regarding your point that “voting to leave the E.U doesn't make anyone an ally with Farage etc.”; my understanding of “ally” would be that it is something temporary, and contingent on a particular context, for example Stalin and Churchill between 1941 and 1945. Allies don’t have to agree about everything, but if your vote was counted in the same pile as Farage etc. then in the context of the referendum you acted in alliance with such individuals, just as my vote to remain made me a temporary ally of Cameron and Osborne.

    I share your concerns about the EU, but I don’t get how 48% of the population losing their European citizenship because the other 52% don’t want them to have it makes the world more democratic or less militaristic or less dangerous. And I can’t see the UK being less corporate serving in the days and years ahead.

    Finally, I imagine that in other contexts, you and I might agree on a lot of things.

  9. Ramon,
    Obviously democracy has limitations. But the question was is the referendum a victory for democracy and for me it was. Democracy in it's purest form is majority rules, if the decision end's up a disaster it is still a democratic result. The alternative is to leave all decisions in the hands of a shower of whores selling themselves to the highest bidder, albeit elected whores. Secondly a slim majority is still a malority, how else could democracy work?
    You right leaving the E.U is not going to solve the world's ills, it's a step in the right direction. I am and always will an advocate of sovereign nations, without them there is no accountability, very little with them, and I don't for the life of me understand why Irish republicans or Scottish nationalists want to hand any future hard earned sovereignty to Brussels.
    The U.K will never be anything but corporate and my whole political hopes is Ireland has no further direction from London but that wasn't what was on offer. Let the English be sovereign, let all nations be truly sovereign and we could have a better opportunity to keep corporate, military and banking fraud in check, if people can be active enough.
    The argument that superstates prevent nationalistic wars is a nonsense for me. The first world war was one block of states against another and the next one will no doubt be the same. I know you didn't make that point but others have. As far as allies go it's stretching it pretty thin. Both white supremacists and the nation of Islam have spoke out against mixed marriages, does that make them allies. At some time you can agree with your deadliest enemy, for completely different reasons.

  10. I appreciate people are not happy with the EU as it stands but that is an argument for another day and post.
    England and wales voted to leave the EU - Scotland and Northern ireland didn't.

    If we are calling the referendum a triumph of democracy surely those votes matter too?Just consider the effect of brexit on ireland - does anyone want that?

    here are just a few of the questions people in NI and scotland should be asking themselves and demanding answers to in the aftermath of the brexit vote

  11. Euro, Whether I like it or not the people of this island voted for partition and by extension Brit rule in the six. Scotland voted to be British, Britian voted to leave the E,U. That's democracy.

  12. What a truly stupid wordpress article.