Whichever way the vote goes on 23 June, Chris Bambery argues we all need to come together to resist austerity and racism
What is the future for British capitalism? That is surely the big issue in the current European referendum, but one which is not being addressed directly by either camp.
For all of my adult life the British ruling class has been at odds over membership of what is today the EU.
Back in the 1950s the argument was between those who saw economic integration with Western Europe as boosting Britain’s sluggish economy, sluggish in contrast to Germany, France and Italy, and those who still clung to the idea that Britain could remain a great power and go it alone.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was between those who regarded Europe as the key market for the UK, and a minority who had invested in the USA, where Britain was and is the largest overseas investor.
Today a majority of big business and finance support Remain but there is also a significant section backing Leave: hedge funds who abhor EU regulation, companies who concentrate on the domestic market and others.
So what vision do either camp have for the future of British capitalism?
For the Remain camp the priority must be to stay in the EU because its Britain’s biggest trading partner (although the UK imports more than it exports from EU states).
For Leave the promise is that the UK can cut free trade deals with the EU itself (because it’s a big market for EU states), the USA, India, China etc. In that way it will boost British trade. Those in the City of London who back Leave project the idea of Britain being a western Hong Kong, a financial base for Chinese and other capitals.
None of these visions address the fundamental problems of the UK economy – problems which are largely the same as when Britain entered its long economic decline after being overtaken by the USA and Germany in the wake of the American Civil War and German unification.
Today, as then, the British economy is plagued by low investment, low productivity (the two are linked) and a balance of trade deficit. Even during the economic good times post war, Britain was plagued by a pattern of boom and bust. Economic expansion sucked in imports, led to a fall in the pound and government measures to try and put a brake on growth. That pattern remains. Post war British economic expansion paled in comparison to its major competitors.
The importance attached to the City of London is largely attributed to Margaret Thatcher but in truth it predates her. It dates to back to the end of the First World War when the British elite attempted to use its financial clout to offset industrial decline.
What is new is that Britain has become largely a low skill, low waged economy - another cause of low productivity.
Neither of the official camps in this referendum can address all this because they don’t have an answer. The truth is neither do the British ruling class. As a consequence there is little public discussion about the continuing economic decline of British capitalism. We’re simply told Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown or George Osborne have turned things round when they hadn’t. It was refreshing during the Scottish referendum two years ago that it was discussed as people engaged in how an independent Scotland could build up an industrial base. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have also begun to address it, pointing out austerity measures will only drive things down even further.
So the problem for the Remain camp is that remaining in the EU means being part of an economic bloc which is still living through an era of zero or low growth, which has now lasted the best part of a decade. There’s no end in sight to Britain’s trade deficit with the EU and the “drive to the bottom” across Europe means constant pressure to cut labour costs and welfare, and to privilege capital. The very future of the EU is at stake over the current refugee crisis, as members states go their separate way in erecting border fences, the latest between Austria and Italy – the core and the periphery of the EU.
The problem for the Leave camp is how is Britain going to become this global player. What is it going to export? It suggests even more importance being attached to finance and similar pressures to cut labour costs and welfare, and to privilege capital.
Either way it is an unattractive prospect for all but a tiny minority of the British population.
What is surely required is a completely different vision: one which privileges people over capital. During the Scottish referendum the radical wing of the Yes movement was able to start doing that.
For me that requires breaking with the EU because it is the driving force of neo-liberalism and austerity in Europe, and indeed of racism. Those who say another EU is possible need to explain the mechanism for that, because there isn’t one.
In three weeks time if the vote is to Remain anti-capitalists and the left – whatever tactical position they took on the referendum - need to start discussing what to do about the EU in tandem with their comrades elsewhere in Europe. Tariq Ali has suggested a people’s campaign for a new European constitution. It’s a good suggestion.
But either way we all need to come together to resist austerity and racism – here and across Europe – and to start demanding measures to boost investment, to create growth and to rebuild industry.
For the British ruling class the future is one of relentless decline, which ever way the vote goes on 23 June.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.