If you’ve heard a whirring noise in the background of today’s momentous vote, don’t worry: it’s just Tony Benn turning in his grave.
Benn was one of Britain’s keenest, and most articulate critics of the European Union. He and other Labour grandees, along with top trade unionists, raged against the EU for being aloof and arrogant and for usurping parliament. Summoning up his Chartist soul, his love of the Levellers, his belief that radical Britons didn’t fight and die over centuries for the sovereignty of parliament just to see it overturned by some well-fed suits in Brussels, he would slam the EU for having not a ‘shred of accountability’ and for being second only to the Kremlin for its anti-democratic antics.
Yet now, just two years after his death, his self-styled heirs, his fanboys, even his former minion Jeremy Corbyn, have thrown their miserable lot in with the EU. They haven’t only shrugged their shoulders and said ‘Oh, what’s the alternative’; they’ve beat the streets, toured the country, pumped out tweet after tweet and finger-jabbed on Facebook about what a boon for peace and freedom the EU is. Benn’s face no doubt stares down from their bedroom posters, sad, wondering how the hell the left, his left, so spectacularly lost the plot.
In all my time as a leftie, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a craven sell-out by my comrades as I have over the past couple of months. The left’s lining up with the EU begs a really serious question: what is the left for anymore? If it won’t even take a stand against the EU — against the nagging, undemocratic, austerity-enforcing, Greece-pummelling EU — what will it take a stand against? If it won’t even agitate against this 21st-century oligarchy, on the side of the working classes, poor and Northerners who seriously dislike this oligarchy, then it cannot be trusted ever again to counter wrong or tyranny.
Let’s not beat around the bush. The left, which claims to care about the little people and justice and democracy, is siding with an institution that plunged much of the Greek working class into poverty. Which has demanded the undemocratic imposition of employment reforms in France that have irritated French workers so much they rioted. Which oversees an unemployment rate of 20 million. Which imposed an unelected government on Italy, pressured an elected PM out of office in Greece, and helicoptered into Ireland a bunch of bankers (rhyming slang intentional) to make sure Irish workers’ livelihoods weren’t too extravagant. Which discriminates against migrant workers from Africa and Asia. Which has paid money to dodgy African leaders to keep their pesky peoples away from Europe. Which sneered at the French, the Dutch and the Irish when they dared to vote against EU constitutions. And which far from protecting workers’ rights — as every ill-read leftist claims —has abolished collective bargaining in Greece and Hungary in exchange for bailout money. Collective bargaining, as these Brussels cheerleaders will discover if they consult their biographies of Benn, is the bedrock of trade unionism. Gone, kaput, wiped out by an institution for whom keeping the European Central Bank in good nick is far more important than letting workers have any clout.
By any rudimentary left-wing assessment, this is a bad, backward, rotten institution. And yet today, right now, there are leftists across Britain pleading with people to vote for it, to save it. It’s surreal. It’s nuts, in fact. It’s as perverse as if a Thatcherite were to agitate for a bigger welfare state or a libertarian for censorship. It makes no sense. Why are we acting as if it does?
Leftists always give the same two knackered reasons for their campaigning for this rotten outfit. First they say that the people opposing the EU — Boris, Farage, fat blokes who watch football — are so vile that our most pressing task is to keep them in check by voting with the other side, with the EU. What cowardice. They’re elevating their reputations over their consciences; their desire not to rub shoulders with Ukip people over the small matter of principle and what is the right and good left-wing thing to do. What’s more, the only reason the eccentric right has been able to become the No1 critic of the EU’s anti-democratic, economy-strangling behaviour is because the left vacated the field, bottled it, and in the process handed the moral authority of being anti-EU over to the right. They wonder why the right is leading the anti-EU charge, not realising that it’s their sorry, sheepish fault. Goodness, they’re dumb.
And the second reason they give for their bowing before the EU is that Brussels acts as an above-politics guarantor of certain rights: workers’ rights, maternity-leave rights, etc. Let’s leave to one side the (massive) fact that the EU is no friend of working people. What’s ultimately being said here is that we need a distant authority to guard our rights and our wellbeing because we can’t always trust our own governments to do so. Wow. This shatters everything — everything — the left once fought for. It lays to waste the ideals of the Chartists, and the Levellers, and other radicals, whose cry can be summed up as: ‘We can look after ourselves, thanks. Give us the right to do that.’
Benn summed up the folly of leftists looking to Brussels for justice and rights. ‘They believe that a good king is better than a bad Parliament. I have never taken that view’, he said. In a nutshell, the left’s worldview used to be that people power is always preferable to external forms of authority. And now that worldview is dead, done in by a left more concerned with its feelings and standing than with the hard business of fighting for what’s right, and which is now so estranged from ordinary people that it views the good king of Brussels as preferable to the bad parliament us plebs might one day elect. The EU might survive today’s events, but the left won’t. It’s dead, and not only dead but buried. It has thrown its lot in with the very people it was founded a few hundred years ago to challenge: kings and tyrants and other benign guardians of the stupid people.