Hard or soft?: what does Brexit mean for Scotland’s workers?
The ‘common sense’ position advocated by many is that Brexit is a con, which was voted for by naïve and silly people. These people decry Brexit as the worst catastrophe to ever have been foisted upon well-meaning and righteous liberals. They share a prevailing hope that someone other than Jacob Rees-Mogg will ride up on a white horse to save us from ourselves. In the meantime, they demand that Corbyn seizes power from the Tories instantly and, if he isn’t going to call another referendum, then he should at least ensure we remain in the single market.
But this Brexit isn’t quite the Brexit which Farage hoped for. We haven’t seen a rise in fascist boots on the street. We haven’t seen a stronger Tory party. We haven’t seen a Blitz-spirit Churchill-esque coming together of Britain. Instead, we have Corbyn claiming victory over May’s busted fuss of a general election, Trump unable to announce a date to come to the UK for fear of the public protests, UKIP in total disarray, something of a constitutional crisis in Scotland and in the potential unification of Ireland, cultural figures and celebrities denouncing the Government at every turn, and an establishment in crisis. Therein lies the hope.
Brexit could be an opportunity, but one which requires a strategy that puts working class values and solidarity at the core. We do not need what Neil Davidson aptly describes as a ‘policy-exit’ from the EU. Instead, we have the capacity to bring together resources from across the labour market to identify what we need and want from a post-Brexit society. The way to ensure those demands is an active, living and breathing social movement which fosters a level of political class consciousness sorely lacking in Scottish society since the independence referendum.
We already know our demands. Stopping privatisation of services which should allow people to be put before profit; investing in our infrastructure and technology for the benefit of people, not just profit-makers; re-nationalising our industries; start manufacturing and rebuilding other valuable industries; stop making people choose between heating and eating; and building enough social housing to ensure every single person has a home in this country. However, the single market oft-cited as our only hope leaves us with services wide open to privatisation and state aid rules which prevent a serious programme of national economic planning. In short, we would be left outside the EU’s social and cultural hub but with the technocratic rules which hinder successive governments from implementing our demands.
Without understanding the processes and impacts to some degree, many people will simply not engage with Brexit, how important it is and the opportunities it might afford us. So instead of town-crying the end of world, it is up to us to inspire hope that this constitutional situation can present a progressive opportunity.
Firstly, we need to stop telling people that workers’ rights and migrants’ rights are going to be decimated. Apart from the point that Fortress Europe has always excluded millions of people, it is disempowering and incorrect to claim that rights and progressive legislation come from an on-high benevolent parliament. Not all EU law is more progressive than British law (for one example, under UK legislation we have higher minimum holiday entitlement than under the EU directive). We need to be clear that progressive legislation and rights enshrined in EU law have been fought for and won by collectives of workers and other campaigners, as they were in Britain and as they will be again.
We should build on the idea of enforcement of rights and democratic control of our institutions. That includes nationalisation and ending current procurement rules, which allow public money to be thrown at profit making companies like Carillion. We should pressure the Scottish Government to ‘govern as if in the early days of a new society’ by pushing for a Scottish national investment bank, a public infrastructure company, a publicly owned energy firm and so on.
Let’s continue to expand our practical solidarity for migrants and ensure that community-led initiatives on language, culture sharing and unconscious bias training are part of all anti-racism work. And let’s discuss alternatives. Other models of working (e.g. democratic workers’ cooperatives) may become more common place.
By ensuring we have an organic and palpable political movement, we can ensure our values of solidarity and collectivism are the principle factors taken into account if and when Brexit happens. Our current work in terms of ensuring funding for public services, winning wage rises for working people and keeping up with the changing labour market are all ongoing with or without Brexit.
Equipping workers with the tools to democratise their workplace in key industries, sectors and regions is vital to ensuring an inclusive post-Brexit society. Whatever campaign the wider left seeks to instigate or get involved in, we must ensure we’re placing responsibility for action in the hands of working class people. Why? Because whatever happens, there’s no silver bullet for radically changing society other than us.
Sarah Collins is a union activist and member of RISE (Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) political party.