Remain’s Imperial Realism

Tory Brexiteers’ talk of a “global Britain” is a mere fantasy of returning to the glory days of empire. But even left-wing Remainers are pushing the case to maintain British military supremacy — and using it as a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally calling for a general election in Westminster on July 25, 2019 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

Amid the sharp polarization of the Brexit debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was tasked with the most perilous balancing act of all. He had attempted to maintain something of a compromise position — implementing the result of the referendum but with a ‘soft’ form of exit. But this stance, backed by an ever-shrinking number of shadow cabinet allies, now appears to be crumbling.

Long months of lobbying by a well-funded and eclectic pro-Remain alliance are beginning to pay dividends, as even the Unite trade union seemingly supports a second referendum. It now seems inevitable that Labour will (at least try to) fashion itself as what deputy leader Tom Watson called a “Remain Party” rather than one that unites working people across the divides of the 2016 referendum.

Given both the public prominence of pro-EU campaigners and their success in winning much of the Labour Party to their cause, it’s only right that we pay closer attention to their project. Supporters of a “Remain and Reform” stance have already been critiqued from the more Euroskeptic left. It accuses them of being naive about the real chances of reforming the EU away from its foundational neoliberalism, and being short-sighted — at best — in their indifference to the dangers of entrenching cultural conflict as the enduring dividing line in British politics.

More pressing is the question of what project unites the forces who raise the call to “Remain and Reform.” After all, this slogan unites some unlikely bedfellows — indeed, one could postulate all sorts of “Reform.” Given its apparently contingent character, the Remain alliance might seem to mirror the multifaceted coalition of forces who support Brexit.

But across the spectrum, the leaders of the Remain campaign are united by a common vision of Britain’s place in the world. From leftists to liberals and Blairites, they see membership of both the EU and NATO as key means of protecting the residues of imperial power. And as we see from their attacks on the Labour leader, it’s a vision at loggerheads with Corbynism’s own internationalist promise.

Brexit and Empire

This point is rarely at the center of discussions of Remain. After all, far more thought has been given to what drove Brexit and gave it political shape. One reading popular among commentators and academics is to cast Brexit as a kind of postimperial spasm: the nadir of Britain’s prolonged and tortuous reckoning with the end of empire. There’s much to agree with in this view, which counts Pankaj Mishra and Fintan O’Toole among its sharpest proponents.

Tory Brexiteers’ delusions about a “global Britain” — with even ministers indulging flights of fantasy about the cushioning effect of trade with the Commonwealth — recall in spirit right-wing opposition to plans for Britain to join the Common Market in the early 1960s. In late 1961, the owner of the Daily Express warned Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan that support for the Common Market stood “against [his paper’s] faith in the Commonwealth, a traditional and ineradicable clause in our creed.”

Others have highlighted that the racism unleashed by the referendum was no coincidence, but linked to the invocation of a sovereign British nation which has long been racialized as white — a point too often passed over by those who prefer to interpret the Leave vote as a more straightforward triumph of popular sovereignty.

Such a vision of a global Britain, dubbed “Empire 2.0” by civil servants, is little more than fantasist ideology. Its adherents — like their 1960s forebears — are mired in denial about how far the British state’s global stature has sunk. But if a significant chunk of those leading the Brexit charge are afflicted by a postcolonial pathology — coupling hubris with melancholia — how do Remain’s leaders envisage imperial power?.

In Europe’s Defense

The unspoken but clear answer is that many prominent supporters of Britain remaining in the EU are what we might term imperial realists. .Decades ago, many politicians and civil servants who urged that Britain should join the Common Market insisted that there was simply no alternative, if Britain was going to remain a major power in the wake of decolonization.

Today, realist Remain supporters lament that leaving the EU will diminish the British state’s imperial power by closing off a key platform for its projection. Their strategic objective, then, is to maintain the institutional and structural avenues through which this power can be exercised and maintained.

This is the assessment offered by Tony Blair. In an interview in late May, he declared that Brexit means the UK giving up one of the two international alliances crucial to the protection of its “interest,” and so constitutes an “unbelievable act of self-denial.” He concluded: “For me, it’s just a very simple thing, power is power.”

He was derided for speaking in such apparently simple-minded terms, but such are the calculations that have often driven Britain’s disastrous foreign policy, including Blair’s own. Indeed, some leading foreign-policy experts opposed Brexit precisely on the grounds that it would weaken the international projection of the British state, as well as Europe’s federal institutions.

This very concrete support for protecting the British state’s international standing — and the Western domination to which it is bound — is the political and ideological thread that ties Blair to voices on the left like Labour MP Clive Lewis and the journalist Paul Mason. With him, they share a common vision of a “democratic” or “liberal” global order in which the institutions of European integration, but also NATO — both, in more typical times, under the ambit of American empire — are the critical anchors.

Mason does denounce aspirations to any “global [military] reach” as a colonial-era fantasy. Yet what he instead advocates is a defense strategy that sees Britain as “a major regional player in the defence of Europe against destabilization and of our own society against terrorism.”

These kind of geostrategic concerns are hardly the preoccupation of most Remain supporters. Many simply oppose the harmful effects of Brexit, rather than positively valuing Brussels. Yet such thinking is predominant among a wide range of politicians and commentators who dominate the Remain campaign itself. It is also a glue that binds and coheres the elite political coalition in favor of Remain — indeed, reflecting an accurate assessment of the future prospects for British power.

A Palace Coup?

Clive Lewis and Paul Mason are not marginal figures in the left-Remain milieu; they are among its most vocal and prominent supporters. Together with Caroline Lucas, they are headlining the Another Europe is Possible campaign’s “Remain, Reform, Revolt” summer roadshow.

The gloves came off in the aftermath of Labour’s poor performance in May’s European parliamentary elections, when Mason spearheaded a public attack on Corbyn’s closest advisors. Particular and persistent targets of Mason’s attack are Seumas Milne, chief strategist, and Andrew Murray, a senior Unite official who oversaw Labour’s 2017 general election campaign.

Some of the calls for these two Corbyn allies to be “removed from positions of influence” also target Karie Murphy, the Labour leader’s chief of staff, as well as Unite leader Len McCluskey. These are the so-called “Four M’s” scapegoated for the supposed failure of Labour’s Brexit strategy. But more widespread are explicit ideological objections to Milne and Murray, who were previously central figures alongside Corbyn in the anti-war movement.

Earlier this year, Clive Lewis, who has consistently voiced his support for NATO membership, said in an interview with Vice: “there’s a part of the left which is disproportionately powerful in Corbyn’s office and has always seen leaving the EU as part of a longer term project against Nato . . . I don’t buy into it.”

More recently, Mason suggested, in a thinly veiled allusion to this part of Corbyn’s team, that a principal barrier to Labour coming out for a second referendum and Remain was “the old, Stalinist wing of the movement, with its perennial obsessions: opposition to Trident, NATO, and the EU.”

Compare such sentiments with those of the neoconservative commentator David Aaronovitch, who wrote in January lamenting that “for both men [Milne and Murray] the struggle against ‘imperialism,’ i.e the American form of capitalism, is the most consistent part of their ideology.”

That the foreign policy arguments of prominent leftists in the Remain camp bear more resemblance to Atlanticist propaganda than to any socialist internationalism worthy of the name is telling. Here, opposition to the stance that prominent Corbyn allies take toward the EU is driven not by strategic concerns — electoral expedience — but by nakedly ideological objections.

In other words, leading proponents of a “Remain, Reform, Revolt” approach to Brexit share the central doctrinal plank of establishment antipathy to Corbyn, Milne, and Murray: disdain for their anti-imperialism, often couched in anti-communist language befitting cold warriors of decades past.

These attacks are so dangerous because, as has been noted before, it is precisely Corbyn’s sharp break with the Atlanticist foreign policy consensus that constitutes one of the most radical, promising, and — to many — threatening components of his leadership. Perhaps there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Milne, Murray, and the old leadership of the Stop the War Coalition. That they stridently oppose NATO and Trident and are skeptical of the European Union is not one of them.

Remaining Imperial?

Arguments for Lexit (a left exit) have tended to focus on the ways in which the EU’s anti-democratic institutional architecture enshrines neoliberalism, and how it might function to frustrate attempts by a future Corbyn government to transform the British economy. This is an important line of critique, but its political utility in Britain at present is questionable. To break free from regulatory convergence would require, as Costas Lapavitsas, Richard Tuck, and others have shown, leaving both the single market and the customs union — a socialist version of a “hard” Brexit.

Given the fact that Jeremy Corbyn has been outgunned even on the basic democratic principle of upholding the original referendum result, this is clearly not a viable position for Labour to adopt today.

But how should the anti-imperialist left see Brexit as a question of foreign policy? A sensible starting point would be to agree with the assessment of clear-eyed Remainers that it will likely act (to different degrees) to diminish the power of both the British state and extant EU institutions. But for anyone who wants to stop powers like Britain striding the international stage, often imposing their hegemony through the bloodiest of means, this can only be a good thing.

European integration helped “rescue” the nation-states of Europe in the post-war period, less “securing the peace” than shoring up their hemorrhaging imperial power through pooling sovereignty. Coupled with NATO, it was a pillar of America’s Cold War strategy. And long since, the EU has developed an important junior role in Washington’s imperial orbit: among other things, supporting war in Afghanistan, enforcing sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, and maintaining close relations with Israel. This while calculatedly immiserating its southern periphery and strengthening a murderous external border regime.

These are not institutions or structures of power that would be of any use to a Corybn-led Labour government in pursuit of a solidaristic foreign policy. More than this, their weakening would be an important precondition for any effort to, say, support the restructuring of the global economy away from neo-colonial hierarchies — a task that has never been more urgent than in the face of today’s climate emergency..

Break Their Dreams

From the start, Brexit served as a useful “wedge issue” for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents, offering a pretext for the failed 2016 coup against him. Now, the combination of a fracturing electoral coalition and heightening pressure from Brexit’s opponents make it unlikely that the leadership will be able to hold out much longer against even more fulsome support for Remain.

Such an apparent embrace of the status quo is a hazardous proposition for an insurgent political force and risks sapping Corbynism’s radical, anti-systemic promise. As we have seen, this risk is most acute when it comes to Labour’s potentially transformative foreign policy.

But against the push by the politically diverse exponents of Remain to protect Britain’s position as a buttress to Western imperial power, and indeed the Tory Brexiteers’ dangerous postcolonial “dream worlds,” our only hope is a Labour Party and movement that is as sharp in its anti-imperialism as it is confident in its internationalism.