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The Tories are in trouble – and it will get worse for them if the referendum delivers a vote to leave the EU, writes Alex Snowdon

On Thursday 23 June 2016, there will be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Millions of voters will have a straightforward In/Out choice. Most polls have indicated a victory for those seeking to remain in the EU, though some have given a tiny lead for leaving the EU.

It is the first such referendum since 1975, when those wishing to retain British membership of what was then called the Common Market – which Britain had joined just two years earlier – won around two thirds of the votes. The Labour left, led by the likes of Tony Benn, was opposed to the Common Market and played a very major role in the Leave campaign. Tory Eurosceptics were fairly marginal, while racist arguments barely registered.

In 2016, the mainstream EU debate is dominated by the Tories and involves two competing right-wing blocs. Labour is almost entirely united in wanting to remain in the EU, a position also supported overwhelmingly by Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP.

The EU has been through a process of progressive enlargement, now consisting of 28 countries with a combined population of 510 million people. No country has ever left the EU. If Brexit is the outcome of June’s referendum, it will have profound repercussions for the EU as well as deepening the existing crisis of Britain’s Tory government. Tory MPs are split down the middle and it is likely David Cameron would be forced to resign as prime minister in the event of a defeat for Remain campaigners.

Cameron made a pre-election promise to hold a referendum by 2017. Since winning the May 2015 general election, he has been obliged to deliver on his promise. He had originally wanted to placate Tory Eurosceptics and stem the rise of hard-right party UKIP. He would rather get the referendum out of the way, hoping to re-unite Tories after a Remain victory – but this is likely to prove wishful thinking, with divisions persisting whatever the referendum result.

Pressures within the Tory Party obliged Cameron to take the remarkable, and highly risky, step of allowing a free vote, even for cabinet members (giving them permission to campaign on either side in the months before the vote). Several cabinet members are Leave supporters. Division over the EU has intersected with other tensions to generate an ongoing Tory crisis, highlighted by Iain Duncan Smith’s dramatic resignation as work and pensions secretary and the furious speculation about the political future of George Osborne, the beleaguered chancellor of the exchequer.

Cameron renegotiated the terms of UK membership of the EU in early 2016. There was little substance to the deal, but it was wholly reactionary; designed to win over a layer of Eurosceptics, it involved attacks on migrants’ rights and benefits. This undoubtedly failed – with around half of Tory MPs backing the Leave position – and it means the nature of British EU membership is even more draconian than before.

The Tory party is traditionally the loyal party of the British ruling class. But there is a contradiction: the British ruling class is overwhelmingly pro-EU, correctly recognising that it serves the interests of broad swathes of British capitalism, while the Tory Party is profoundly split on the issue.

The EU and its forerunners have always been an elite capitalist project, backed by the great majority of the wealthy and powerful. From the 1950s onwards it became apparent that the UK couldn’t rely on the old empire – or the Commonwealth after the post-war wave of decolonisation – for trade and business. Closer economic ties within Europe, especially with Germany and France, were deemed good for business.

The dominant idea was that this should be combined with a close trading and business relationship with the US – and of course an exploitative relationship with the ‘developing world’, especially former colonies. This was considered a crucial element in sustaining British standing in the world.

Since the 1990s the EU has been explicitly committed to the neoliberal doctrines pioneered by Margaret Thatcher in 1980s Britain. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 enshrined these in EU law, a process continued ever since (including the Lisbon Treaty of 2009). The UK has been in the vanguard of pushing neoliberalism – privatisation, deregulation, cuts – at European level.

Tory divisions over EU integration have continuously flared since the early 1990s. Many Thatcherites perceived the EU as a barrier to full-blooded neoliberal transformation. It epitomised, for them, a soft ‘social compromise’ model, a view encouraged by EU Commission President Jacques Delors’ speech to the TUC in 1988, which was characterised by (largely illusory) promises of social protections.

There have also long been genuine differences of emphasis inside the ruling class over international alliances, reflected in some Tory politicians advocating a looser approach to Europe. Such politicians often emphasise the relationship with the US as an alternative focus, or perhaps stronger links with ’emerging markets’ like China.

This long-running conflict inside the Tory Party is now being played out against the background of a deepening crisis of the EU itself. There are three strands to the crisis.

Firstly there has been a set of tensions resulting from economic crisis, since the Crash of 2008, accentuated by imbalances in the Eurozone. The PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) – which tend to be characterised as the ‘periphery’ in contrast to the ‘core’ (led by Germany) – have suffered especially harshly. The crisis of the Eurozone has been the basis for deep austerity programmes which have reduced working class living standards. The EU has played an important part in all this, trampling over democracy when necessary.

Secondly, there is the destruction of Greece’s left-wing government. The capitulation of the Syriza-led administration to the dictates of European capitalism – with the EU in the vanguard of the attacks on the Greek people and their elected government – represented the defeat of an important attempt to break from austerity. This created a crisis of legitimacy for the EU, leading to disgust at its anti-democratic savagery from many people across the continent. It exposed any rhetoric about ‘a family of nations’, or ideas about the EU being socially progressive, as a sick joke. The reality of the EU was laid bare.

Thirdly, there is the refugee crisis. The EU’s racist ‘Fortress Europe’ policy has led to thousands of desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean in recent years. Fences are now going up in parts of Europe, as countries squabble over how many (or how few) refugees they are willing to offer sanctuary to. Strains between nations have intensified and racist populism has increasingly been deployed by EU governments.

Vicious authoritarianism is the new normal. There is a ramping up of domestic repression at the same time as efforts to keep refugees out of Europe, despite the fact that a confederation of over 500 million people could certainly absorb the numbers seeking refuge.

The threat of Brexit is now another problem for the EU. The withdrawal of such a major nation state will significantly weaken the whole project. The dominant pro-EU elements in the British political elite and ruling class are engaged in Project Fear to avert that outcome. In this, they are strongly supported by European elites and indeed also the US administration – Barack Obama has warned that Brexit would damage the US-European relationship, which is to some extent mediated through the UK.

For Cameron and his allies, EU membership remains a vital element in sustaining the UK’s economic, political and military standing in the world. It is similar in this respect to Nato membership, Trident renewal, participation in air strikes on Syria and the unity of the British state (as opposed to Scottish independence). All of these things are, in their eyes, aspects of British prestige and global standing. It was no surprise, for example, when a list of former armed forces chiefs signed a letter urging voters to choose to remain in the EU.

Much of the opposition to the European Union comes from the political Right – both from one half of the Tory Party and from the Tories-in-exile found in Ukip. But – as should be obvious from the sketch of the political context above – there are also sound reasons for the left to advocate leaving (and consequently weakening) the EU.

The EU is a profoundly undemocratic set of institutions dominated by an unelected Commission, with a very weak and remote parliament. It has for over two decades been central to the pushing of neoliberal policies across the continent and, since 2008, has spearheaded often devastating cuts. The EU and its constituent governments are key drivers of racist scapegoating.

For these reasons, socialists should vote to leave the EU on 23 June. The Labour Party continues to be dominated by pro-EU thinking, despite the leftwards shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (and Corbyn’s own reservations on this issue), though there is little enthusiasm for meekly echoing Tory arguments and allying with Cameron. This has made it impossible to build a mass, broad-based campaign for a leave vote, on a left-wing basis, but it is still essential to communicate the facts and arguments.

At the time of writing, there is a mounting – and seemingly intractable – crisis for the Tories. George Osborne’s budget was a disaster and was swiftly followed by Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the cabinet and a major climbdown on cuts to disability benefits. The tide of public opinion has turned against austerity and the government’s proposals for forced academy conversion have generated a fierce backlash from teachers, parents and others. The crisis in the steel industry, with 40,000 jobs at risk, damaged the Tories and the Panama Papers’ revelations have hit the prime minister personally.

The Tories are in trouble – and it will get worse for them if the referendum delivers a vote to leave the EU. Labour, led by Corbyn and John McDonnell, is now providing real opposition on many issues, while protest movements challenge the Tories on the streets and the junior doctors’ strikes threaten to herald a revival of collective workplace resistance to government attacks. The referendum takes place in a time of extraordinary flux in both British and European politics. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).