This episode comes to you on February 6, 2020, just six days after so-called “Brexit Day.” That is, the day Britain legally departed from the European Union. In honor of this occasion, in this episode we talk to another returned guest, Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick. You may remember Owen from Episode 4, where we talked with him about the 2017 British General Election, and the surprising performance of Jeremy Corbyn, and the British Labour Party. In this episode, Owen is going to help us try to get our heads around not only some of the implications of Brexit but, more importantly, the implications of the 2019 election for the British left.
Now, as you know, in our last episode, we had Lee Jones of the Full Brexit blog on, giving his take on the election. And Lee’s views on the election are complex, but the basic idea I think is that he sees the election as effectively a second referendum on Brexit, and an underlining of the desire of the British electorate to leave the European Union. In this sense, taking his cues from scholars like Peter Mair, Lee sees the election as a kind of revenge of those who feel themselves materially abandoned by mainstream liberal democracy. Continue reading Episode 21: Morbid Symptoms on Brexit Day, with Owen Worth→
Hello friends, and welcome to Episode 20 of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast.
Its January 4, 2020, and kicking off our fourth season of the show 2020 with two episodes on the recent elections in the UK. In this episode, we are joined by a former guest, Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, who is also a contributor at the blog, The Full Brexit. In the next episode, which should be posting sometime in the next few days, we’ll have Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick.
Now, both these guests have been on before and, as you’ll see, they have slightly different explanations not only about what happened in the UK election, but about where the left goes from here. But today we get the ball rolling with Lee Jones. The last time you heard him on this show was in Episode 14, in December 2018. We recorded that episode right after the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Its hard to imagine that, a year later, after countless delays, Britain is actually about to leave the European Union!
The UK election took place on December 12, just before Christmas. The results were one of the worst ever for the British Labour Party and so, as we might expect, there have been a lot of “what happened” pieces circulating in the last couple weeks. But one of the more prominent explanations circulating is that the result was kind of a “revenge of the boomers” scenario, or the triumph of British nationalism, or what some even call “nativism.” On the night of the election, for example, Paul Mason tweeted that the results represent “a victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet.”
In this episode, you’re going to hear Lee Jones repudiate that argument in no uncertain terms. As he argued in a recent blog post on The Full Brexit, the results of the election are intimately connected to the politics of Brexit, which itself can’t be understood unless we first have a grasp on the strange tragedy of the British left. In the episode, we’re going to talk about the significance of the decision at the Labour Party’s 2019 annual conference, to support the call for a second referendum. For Lee, however, this decision was merely the latest in a long series of betrayals by the Labour Party of its working class base. This is a contestable argument, I should note, and in our next episode you’re going to hear Owen Worth push back on it, a little. For now though, Lee’s critical point is that this defeat was more a wake up call for the British left than a defeat of leftist ideals and principles. And, as we discuss towards the end of the show, there are lessons here for other leftist parties around the world, and especially for activists supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States.
Welcome back, listeners, to what I hope you’ll agree is a very special episode of Fully Automated. As you know, the last two episodes have been focused on the Brexit debate, and whether or not the cause of the British left is best served by a departure from the European Union (EU), or by “remaining and rebelling” within the EU, in the hope of reforming it.
Two episodes ago, our guest was Lee Jones — an advocate of ’The Full Brexit.’ During the show, Jones advanced the idea that the ideals of the Left cannot be satisfied within the EU, whereas the most meaningful historic victories of the left have been achieved only by wielding the power of the state. Then, in our last episode, we heard a rebuttal of this idea from Luke Ashworth, who suggested that while the political entity we know as the modern state has played an important historical role for the Left, its time has been fleeting, and the forces of globalization are today of such power that any project of returning to sovereignty will prove inevitably fruitless.
Recorded late in the afternoon on Friday, March 29, in the lobby bar of the Toronto Sheraton, during the 60th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, this episode brings Jones and Ashworth back to the microphone, this time for a live, in person debate. To keep things cordial, we bought them a brace of beers. And they appreciated the gesture it would seem, as the exchange proved to be probably the most collegial airing of political grievances in podcast history.
A quick note for listeners: with the Parliamentary dynamics surrounding Brexit now in a state of rapid flux, we’ve here largely avoided the topic of whether or how Theresa May can at this stage secure her deal, and avoid a ‘drop out’ Brexit. That said, for listeners who are interested in a play-by-play analysis of what’s going on in the House of Commons, we can recommend staying tunes to Novara Media’s Tyske Sour. Today’s show featured Sienna Rodgers and Owen Jones, and looked at a number of important questions, including whether Theresa May is prepared to sacrifice the Conservative Party, in order to cede meaningful ground the Labour Party’s demands for a Common Market deal, and the various divisions within Labour on question of a second referendum.
Finally, the bar we were in was starting to get pretty noisy by the end of the session. We’ve done our best to clear up the sound, but we ask your patience all the same.
(PS: listeners coming to this page may be curious if Molloy has plans to release any t-shirts bearing his “Tortuga on Themes” slogan. He has not responded to our queries).
Back before Christmas, in Episode 14, we heard Lee Jones offer what was perhaps not exactly a ‘Lexit’ (or ‘left exit’) position on Brexit, but nevertheless a progressive position very much in favor of a full Brexit. At the core of Jones’s arguments was, I think, the view that the EU is an essentially anti-democratic and unreformable project. The only way to address the problem, he claimed, was to restore British sovereignty. In this sense, Jones was critical not only of the deal Theresa May proposed, last December, but also the position of the Labour Party, with its now infamous six tests — that is, essentially, the idea that whatever deal the UK should pursue, it should be one that results in the “exact same benefits” as as those currently enjoyed by the UK, as a member of the Single Market, but with special additional provisions, including “fair management of migration.”
Since we spoke to Jones, there have been a number of important developments, but little by way of clarity as to how the drama will end. On January 15, in the greatest parliamentary defeat of any PM in British history, the British Parliament rejected Theresa May’s deal. Since then, following the terms of the so-called Brady amendment, passed on January 29, she returned to Brussels in order to try to negotiate “alternative arrangements.” She plans now to present her new deal to Parliament on March 12, just two weeks before the deadline March 29. This is very close to the wire, but May hopes to be able to get the EU to budge on the backstop — something she must do, if she is to persuade Tory Eurosceptics to support her plan.
In this episode, you will hear Ashworth engage with a number of Jones’s key points, including the ‘WTO rules’ issue, the importance of not overstating the power of the Far Right in Europe, and the history of reactionary politics, on the British left. But Ashworth’s core arguments stem from his concerns about the future of the Irish border, and the unacknowledged costs of a return to the fantasy of ‘the sovereign people’ — especially in an era where complex global flows of capital have made it harder and harder for the Left to leverage the state, as it pursues its mission of defending labour and democracy, from the interests of the global financial elite.
Importantly, this episode with Lucian Ashworth was recorded on February 16. Due to technical issues, it wasn’t ready for broadcast until today, February 28. This delay does not significantly effect the value of the interview, since our discussion focused mainly on the historical context of Brexit, and abstract questions about globalization, and its complex consequences for our traditional models of politics and economic life.
That said, it is worth mentioning that on Tuesday, February 26, Theresa May announced that, should her deal fail to pass the house, she is going to allow a vote on an extension of Article 50. The pressure is on, however, as we have also begun to see rebellion breaking out, and the creation in Parliament of a new ‘Independent Group,’ composed of rebels from both Labour and the Conservatives. Corbyn, for his part, announced his support for a second referendum — putting before the people a choice between whether to remain in the EU, or to pursue Labour’s alternative vision of a Brexit deal, which includes a permanent customs union.
If you have any questions or comments about the show, you are welcome to reach out to us via Twitter: @occupyirtheory — equally, feel welcome to leave us a positive rating on iTunes, or your favorite podcast software.
This weeks guest is Lee Jones, a Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the people behind the blog, The Full Brexit. I’ve known Lee for a number of years, and I find him to be a thoughtful and provocative commentator on a range of issues. He was one of the early voices, for example, to challenge the mainstream liberal analysis of the 2016 US election, and the idea that blame for the election of Donald Trump should be lain at the feet of white working class voters and other so-called “deplorables.”
Yet, I have found it harder to agree with Lee when it comes to the topic of Brexit. Drawing on the scholarship of Peter Mair, among others, Lee and his fellow bloggers at The Full Brexit have been developing a serious critique of the EU. At the core of their argument is a claim that the EU is a fundamentally anti-democratic project. One that was designed, from the outset, to disempower voters, by transferring jurisdiction over decisions to do with the economy from member states, to an anonymous technocratic body, called the European Commission — a body which, mind you, has only one directive, and that is to advance the European neoliberal project.
Now, to be clear, I pretty much agree with all of this critique. My problem, however, is that I find myself deeply confused about what the left ought to be doing about it and, thusly, what to do about Brexit. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the likes of Grace Blakeley, who has an excellent piece on Novara right now, arguing:
At its heart, the problem the EU presents to the left is not enough democracy and too many veto players. Even if the left managed the heroic task of taking control of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council both have a veto, and both continue to be strongly influenced by both the national interests of the most powerful states and special interest groups. The combination of these factors would prevent any attempt at socialist transformation within the EU.
Equally, however, I do find it helpful to try to step back and listen to people like Yanis Varoukfakis, who argued in a recent appearance on The Dig podcast that we simply may not have a choice but to take our battle to the EU itself. This is the so-called remain and rebel strategy. Now, sure, as folks at Novara Media will be quick to argue, there is no European Demos — and in the absence of an authentic European polity, its hard to imagine how the EU could ever be reformed. But as Varoufakis points out on The Dig, the existence of a demos may be beside the point. If the European Union falls apart, its not like the alternative will be a return to nation states. It will likely be something much, much worse.
So, obviously, two very well-reasoned left positions, with diametrically-opposed strategies. This is the first in a series of episodes we’ll be doing on Brexit, and the European Union more broadly. And this one, I think, couldn’t be coming at a more relevant time. Lee and I recorded this interview on December 3, at the start of one of the most tumultuous weeks in British parliamentary history. One week earlier, the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement, a large technical document which sets the schedule and terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, beginning in March 2019. But, as I post this episode, it is anyone’s guess what it going to happen next. This coming Tuesday, December 12, the draft is set to go before the British parliament, where it is expected to fail. After that, a confidence vote could be called for, but as James Butler of Novara Media has been arguing, that’s no easy proposition, either.
And there are a number of reasons why, especially from a Left perspective, we might want it to fail; principally, its commitment to a (potentially permanent!) version of the so-called backstop, which would put serious constraints on state aid, and thereby tie the hands of any future government led by Jeremy Corbyn. But in a dramatic development on Tuesday, Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve passed an amendment stating that parliament can amended whatever deal May comes back with, which she must, within 21 days, according to the EU Withdrawal Act. This may make a no-deal Brexit impossible, tho Tory Brexiters have suggested the motion cannot be binding. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, all that to say, much is up in the air right now, in Brexitland. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to take a moment to step back, and spend some time thinking about the EU, and its democratic credentials. So, to get our Brexit series off the ground, here is Lee Jones.
Note: Lee’s latest article, referred to in the interview, can be found here.