Brexit Debate: What Does Shocking Vote in UK Mean For Fight Against Neoliberalism?

June 24, 2016


Joseph Choonara

member of the Socialist Workers Party and spokesperson for Lexit, the Left Leave campaign.

Alex Scrivener

policy officer at Global Justice Now. He campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the left campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.

Britain has stunned the world by voting to leave the European Union, putting an end to a 43-year relationship. British Prime Minister David Cameron led the campaign to "remain" in the union, and responded to the vote by announcing he would resign by October. The so-called Brexit vote passed by 52 percent, and the United Kingdom will now become the first major country to leave the bloc of 27 nations. European Union President Martin Schulz called on the remaining member states to enter discussions to help protect the eurozone and the pound. We go to London to get reaction and examine the country’s next steps with guests on both sides of the vote: Joseph Choonara, member of the Socialist Workers Party and spokesperson for Lexit, the Left Leave campaign, and Alex Scrivener, policy officer at Global Justice Now who campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the left campaign for Britain to remain in the EU.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Britain has stunned the world by voting to leave the European Union, putting an end to a 43-year relationship. The so-called Brexit vote passed by 52 percent to 48 percent. The Guardian calls it a "turning point in British history to rank alongside the two world wars of the 20th century." Britain will be the first major country to leave the European Union. The decision to leave rather than remain means Britain will now launch a two-year-long process to renegotiate trade deals and political links with what will now become a bloc of 27 nations. British Prime Minister David Cameron led the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, and he responded to the vote by announcing he would step down by October.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path. And as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction. I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months, but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination. This is not a decision I’ve taken lightly, but I do believe it’s in the national interest to have a period of stability and then the new leadership required. In my view, we should aim to have a new prime minister in place by the start of the Conservative Party Conference in October. And I will do everything I can to help. I love this country, and I feel honored to have served it. And I will do everything I can in future to help this great country succeed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Polls ahead of the Brexit vote showed the race would be close, and the momentum had appeared to be on the remain side. The referendum turnout saw the the single highest U.K.-wide election turnout of the past two decades. The final figure was 72 percent. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is from the same party as Prime Minister Cameron, was the most prominent supporter of the leave campaign and could be a leading contender to replace him. Today Johnson was booed as he left his London home.

PROTESTERS: Boo! Boo! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Later in the morning, Boris Johnson praised Cameron after his resignation announcement and promised that he would not rush to leave the European Union.

BORIS JOHNSON: In voting to leave the EU, it is vital to stress that there is now no need for haste. And indeed, as the prime minister has just said, nothing will change over the short term, except that work will have to begin on how to give effect to the will of the people and to extricate this country from the supranational system. And as the prime minister has rightly said, there is no need to invoke Article 50.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Britain’s Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, called for a Brexit government.

NIGEL FARAGE: I hope this victory brings down this failed project and leads us to a Europe of sovereign nation-states trading together, being friends together, cooperating together. And let’s get rid of the flag, the anthem, Brussels and all that has gone wrong. Let—let June the 23rd go down in our history as our independence day!

AMY GOODMAN: Global financial markets have plunged in response to Britain’s vote. Today, European Union President Martin Schulz called on the remaining member states to enter discussions to help protect the eurozone and the pound.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by two guests. Joseph Choonara is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, spokesperson for Lexit—that’s the leave—the Left Leave campaign. Also joining us is Alex Scrivener, policy officer at Global Justice Now. He campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the left campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s first go to Joseph. Your response? This is what you pushed for.

JOSEPH CHOONARA: Yes. This is a really historic decision, and we have to remember the big picture here, which is that the European Union has been underneath the U.S., one of the key organizers of neoliberal capitalism on a global scale, a key force of imperialism in the world, and the organization that has been punishing workers in Greece, in Spain, in Ireland, under the period of austerity. It’s operated as a sort of reserve army for the capitalist classes of Europe in extremis. And in a sense, I hope that Britain voting to leave—which, of course, Britain is the second-biggest economy in Europe—begins to precipitate the breakup of this huge bosses’ club. So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Joseph Choonara, how do you respond to those who say that the driving force of the Brexit campaign was an anti-immigrant, xenophobic and nationalist movement, and that this—that your portion of the left in Britain has basically united with that movement?

JOSEPH CHOONARA: Well, actually, we set up the Lexit campaign precisely because we wanted there to be an independent voice that didn’t unite with those people. But it’s true that there are people in the exit camp—Nigel Farage, who we just heard from, Boris Johnson and so on—who are perfectly happy to play the race card and whip up xenophobia against migrants. That’s entirely true. However, it would be a gross mistake for people on the left and progressives to believe that all those who voted for exit were motivated by racism. Of course, there was a racist exit vote, but there were also huge numbers of people—the vast majority of skilled, unskilled and semiskilled workers in this country voted to leave. Major cities in the north of England—Sheffield, Bradford and Birmingham, for example—big, multicultural cities, voted overwhelmingly—or, not overwhelmingly, but narrowly, to leave in this referendum campaign. It’s not true that all those people are motivated by racism.

It’s also the case, on the remain side, there are racist forces. You take David Cameron, who led the remain campaign. He’s just launched—or, he launched a few months ago a Islamaphobic campaign against Sadiq Khan, who is running for mayor of London, abusing his authority in the Houses of Parliament to smear that figure, Labour Party figure, and claiming he was sympathetic to ISIS, when there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. The Tory government has also put through one of the most draconian immigration bills in British history, something which will turn every estate agent, every employer into effectively a border guard for Britain. So, we shouldn’t assume that the leave campaign have a monopoly on racism. We do have a very, very big struggle to fight against racism in this country. That will be the case whatever the outcome of the referendum. But I think both myself and Alex are very committed to now, whatever the outcome of the referendum, taking forward that struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alex Scrivener, you’re pro-remain; you wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. Respond.

ALEX SCRIVENER: Well, I think we need to be clear and wake up a little bit to the reality of and the enormity of what’s happened here. I don’t think this is anything else but a massive defeat for progressive forces, not just in the U.K., but across Europe. You know, we see celebration from the likes of Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, far-right forces in Germany and Austria. This is a victory that the most unsavory parts of politics, not just here in the U.K., but across Europe, are celebrating. And I think, as people who are progressives and believe in an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic future for our country and for our continent, we should be very, very worried. We’ve woken up today to a Britain in which it is a much, much scarier place to be a migrant.

And, yes, I mean, there are many problems with the European Union. My campaign, Another Europe is Possible, we campaigned explicitly to stay in to change it, to make it into a better organization, to democratize it. The EU is—what the EU did in Greece was an abomination. But that—I mean, despite all that, what is definitely clear is that this referendum, which has been fought by the leave camp pretty much on two issues, one of which is—sort of basically lies about putting more money into NHS, which I think everyone almost agrees, including many people in the leave side agree, were basically untrue, and the second issue, which I think was probably overwhelming and probably led to their victory, was immigration. And I think that should scare us a lot. And it does scare me. I have been up all night, and I’m genuinely terrified about the future for this country and this continent. And, you know, from Trump in America to Le Pen in France, the enemies of progressive politics, the enemies of internationalism are celebrating, and we should be worried.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Alex Scrivener, what about the issue of—you mentioned immigration. What will happen now in terms of immigration policy in Britain, especially because the European Union obviously allowed the flow of labor from one country to another, in terms of migrant laborers being able to enter Britain?

ALEX SCRIVENER: I mean, it’s very difficult to predict exactly what is going to happen. What I would suspect is very likely, since a large proportion of this vote has been about immigration, unfortunately—and that’s a failure of us on the progressive side to appeal to people and to make the argument, a positive argument, for immigration and for free movement—because of that, I very much suspect that this country is going to become a much scarier, much more difficult place to live, if you’re—if you don’t sound like Boris Johnson or Michael Gove.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, British Prime Minister David Cameron assured investors Britain’s economy remains strong.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Across the world, people have been watching the choice that Britain has made. I would reassure those markets and investors that Britain’s economy is fundamentally strong. And I would also reassure Brits living in European countries and European citizens living here that there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances. There will be no initial change in the way our people can travel, in the way our goods can move or the way our services can be sold.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s British Prime Minister David Cameron. This was European Parliament President Martin Shulz’s reaction to the impact of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

MARTIN SCHULZ: Both sides should respect mutually their different views. Now, the United Kingdom decided to leave, and therefore the member states who remain in the European Union must discuss how to improve the European Union and how to protect—especially the eurozone countries, how to protect the eurozone in the next coming month, to protect against what is happening already now with the pound, what is already happening on the international markets. In that time we are entering, in turbulent times, we need stability, and that’s what I hope what will be the outcome of the next meetings.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Joseph Choonara, I’d like you to respond to those comments. And also, could you talk about what you think will happen now with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, who was also a supporter of the—of staying in the European Union?

JOSEPH CHOONARA: Yeah. I mean, on the first point about the economic situation, I think part of the problem is, for most ordinary working people in Britain, there’s a sense that the British economy is failing them. There’s massive inequality. Millions of people feel left behind. And for those people, it’s very unclear to them what the European Union was doing to help those people. All they see from the European Union is more democratic unaccountability, more neoliberalism and all the rest of it. Let’s see what happens with the economic situation at the moment. My own view is that the crisis of 2008 is far from over. Whichever way the vote went, there was a prospect of the economy worsening.

On the question of Corbyn, it’s very interesting. You see, Corbyn, historically, has been an opponent of the European Union, on the same sort of basis that I’m opposed to the European Union. And one of the things he’s charged with by the right wing of his own party, the Labour Party, which has now a petition calling for Corbyn’s removal, is that he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about the European Union. Now, part of the problem here, I think, is it’s a mistake for the radical left to prop up these institutions of neoliberal capitalism. See, it’s true, what Alex says, that there are people on the right across Europe cheering on British withdrawal from the European Union. There are also people on the left. I have two messages from Greek workers, before I came into the studio, saying that people were celebrating in Athens about this. The point is that there is going to be popular opposition to these kind of institutions. Does it receive a right focus or a left focus? That’s the challenge for us. And I think, therefore, it was a mistake for Corbyn not to come out and campaign against the European Union on a left perspective. It would have made the voice of people who wanted a left exit far louder if we had had a Corbyn onside. Nonetheless, what Corbyn has said this morning is that we have to accept the results of the referendum, and now we have to campaign for a fairer Britain and a better deal for working-class people, immigrants and all the rest of it. And I support Corbyn in that. Personally, one of the things I will be campaigning for, now Cameron has said he’s stepping down, is a fresh election in Britain, because whoever steps into Downing Street will have no mandate. Therefore, we’d like to see new elections. And in those elections, I would hope that Jeremy Corbyn would win.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s get Alex Scrivener’s response. Also, Donald Trump made a remarkable trip to Scotland in the midst of all of this and made it very clear, using the media, being Trump TV, showing him live wherever he is—he simply made it an ad for his Scottish resort, his golf club. When asked about what’s happened, the big, massive news of Brexit, he said that it would be a good time to visit his golf resort, because the pound was low. Alex Scrivener, if you can talk about what you see happening now? I mean, we’re having an unusual debate: two people on the left for and against Brexit. You have Thomas Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox, who shouted "Britain First" when he killed her. She was, of course, pro-remain. And now, what, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy—is the European Union seeing the beginning of the end, Alex? And what difference does that make?

ALEX SCRIVENER: I mean, I hope not, but the prospect of that is truly terrifying to me. I think this is where I disagree most sharply with Joseph, you know, that you can call the EU a bosses’ club all you like. One thing it has definitely done is it’s secured peace on this continent since the Second World War. And, you know, the Europe that Nigel Farage describes, the Europe of sovereign countries, the Europe of countries divided and doing their own thing, we had that Europe. We had that Europe for going on 2,000 years. And in those—for those two millennia, we have seen constant war, constant suffering on this continent. And this short period of the postwar era has been the longest period of peace on this continent. And I fear, with the rise of the far right—Austria came within a whisker of electing a far-right president. We are living in very terrifying times. The National Front may be—is leading the polls at the moment for the French presidential election. You know, I think we’re on a level of political crisis here we haven’t seen since the 1930s. And I think that the sort of glee on some parts of the left about the EU breaking up, I think people are going to regret that, if that leads to a retreat into nationalism, which is already happening.

I mean, there is no such thing as a left exit to the European Union from the U.K. And there may have been in Greece. There definitely isn’t here. The only exit that was on the menu was the exit offered by Nigel Farage and the exit that was supported by people like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen. And unfortunately, the people of Britain have narrowly taken that option. And I think to pretend that, you know, the left in this country, the progressive side of the political spectrum, was more or less—you know, not completely united, obviously, as Joseph is on the opposite side, but all—most, the vast majority of trade unions, labor unions, the vast majority of progressive organizations in this country, anti-racist campaigners, the vast majority were in favor—albeit reluctantly, for many reasons—for remain, because we were afraid of what was going to happen. And unfortunately, what we’ve seen so far is going along that script that we really feared. And I think, you know, we need, as there is a huge responsibility on all of us, no matter which side we were on, on the progressive side of the spectrum, to fight for migrant rights, fight for those people who are going to lose hardest from this historic and tragic moment in our history.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Alex Scrivener, pro-remain, Global Justice Now, campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the left campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, which did not happen. A record vote is leading to Britain leaving the European Union. And Joseph Choonara, member of the Socialist Workers Party, spokesperson for Lexit, the Left Leave campaign.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we come back to the United States, another major decision, this one a U.S. Supreme Court decision, huge defeat for the immigrants’ rights movement in this country. It was a split U.S. Supreme Court. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: The Clash, "Should I Stay or Should I Go." Well, Britain has decided: They’re going. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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