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UK: May triggers Article 50, a bad day for workers in Britain and the EU

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FREEDOM screams the hate Mail. The blinding Sun, “beams this message from our iconic White Cliffs to our neighbours. DOVER AND OUT”. The Telegraph roars JUBILATION. But nearly half the population in Britain as a whole, and clear majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are far from jubilant. On Saturday, March 23, 50,000 according to police estimates, probably double that number according to participants, took to the streets of London to protest against May’s imminent action.

In fact, the Sun’s Dover cliff is an appropriate image when the ferociously chauvinist right-wing press are marching the people of Britain, union flags flying, over the cliff of Brexit. It will be over and out. Few of the Brexit-maniacs either know where they are going or what awaits them there. What is sure is that if the Tories and the tabloids remain at the controls, there will be a hard landing with many broken bones.

Having deluded just over half the voting population for a single day, 23 June 2016, that all their woes could be resolved if we “regained our sovereignty” from the Brussels bureaucrats who tried to straighten our bananas or recover “our” jobs from Polish builders or Portuguese nurses, the long and brutal awakening is only just beginning. We predict that in a few short years Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Theresa May will be reviled as the Brexit criminals.

Red Flag warned from the beginning against the pack of lies that blamed ordinary people’s real worries on “foreign competition”; that the long term decline of well paid jobs and stagnant wage levels were all caused by cheap labour from the continent or that the crisis in hospital Accident and Emergency departments and housing shortages were caused by immigration. Of course, this diversion of attention suited British bosses and privatising politicians very nicely.

Nor did the Brexit Press and the right wing politicians, Tories and Ukippers, need any originality when searching for arguments. They just pulled them out of the rubbish bin of history. The prejudices their forbears used against the Irish, the Jews, the West Indians, the Pakistanis and Indians did good service once again. Back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries weren’t they too stealing our jobs, changing our culture, straining our health services, occupying our houses?

In reality, they were becoming our workmates, enriching our culture with their food, music and sporting skills, staffing our NHS and building our houses. Any list of our names bears witness to this. The British working class is multinational, multi racial, multi-faith and multicultural. This has contributed massively to the richness of life, the breadth of experience and the depth of solidarity within the labour movement.

Red Flag warned that a Brexit vote would unleash a carnival of reaction and so it has with the 3 million people from the continent living, working and studying in Britain now feeling insecure, some suffering outright abuse and threats. But, as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. As the conflict with the 27 EU states hots up over trade and tariffs, over visas and frontier checks, over what the UK owes the EU, the spiteful and malicious anti-European demagogy will get worse and worse.

Every “concession” by the government will be trumpeted as a betrayal and a surrender. Every adverse vote in parliament or judicial decision will be denounced as treachery. When the severe economic consequences of severing economic ties and rights, built up over four decades and more, begin to be felt, this will be interpreted as the EU waging an economic war on us. There will be mounting calls for reprisals, for boycotts and bans that will only make matters worse.

That is why it is vital that the labour movement, the trade unions and the Labour Party, takes a firm and explicit stand against Brexit now. It is no use saying, as Labour’s left leaders Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have done, that, “the British people voted for Brexit and we have to respect their decision”. Not if it was a barmy decision. Not if it was taken under a barrage of misinformation and without any experience or foresight as to what it would entail. If it was right to oppose Brexit before the referendum, it remains right after it.

Workers, Labour supporters, who voted for Brexit, whatever their motivation, were in effect voting against their own interests. Brexit will weaken those who voted for it and isolate them from those who are their real comrades and allies, the workers and young people of Europe and the world. In this situation, the responsible thing to do is not to emphasise your respect for the vote, let alone help to carry out the policy behind it, but to oppose it.

The divisions in British labour go back a long way; to the 1970s. Labour Lefts, like Tony Benn and the young Corbyn, because they believed that socialism, by which they meant social services and (some) nationalised industries, could only come through a series of reforms enacted by the UK parliament, played up the fact that the EU, or the Common Market as it was then, was the real obstacle to this. Their strategy was to get out of the EU and elect a left Labour government so that the march to socialism, begun in 1945 but interrupted by the Tory victory in 1951, could be resumed.

That is why John McDonnell sees Brexit as “a great opportunity”. It is why the Morning Star, the CPB’s daily, which has always provided the serious ideas for the labour Left, seriously wrong ideas, joined the Tory right wing in jubilating over May's letter triggering Article 50, quoting the CPB's Secretary, Rob Griffiths:

“Triggering Article 50 opens the way to progressive policies outside the EU to control capital, raise public funds for infrastructure investment, enforce equal rights for migrant workers and radically cut or abolish VAT. Such policies would remain unlawful if we stay in the single market.”

Doug Nicholls of Trade Unionists Against the EU echoed the jubilant tabloids calling it, “a great day for workers in Britain. Forty years of being controlled by those we don’t elect will soon be over, and we can rebuild a full-employment economy”.

More circumspect, the “revolutionary” Lexiteers of the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party are trying to divert attention from the reactionary festival that has been encouraged by the anti-immigration core message of the whole Brexit campaign by blaming it all on Donald Trump’s election.

There is going to be a battle royal inside the Labour movement between those who accept Brexit and see it as a golden opportunity to resume the British road to socialism and those who see the class struggle as inseparable from building unity with workers and young people in Europe.

Therefore, when Theresa May, aping Thatcher, claims to be restoring “our” lost sovereignty, Red Flag pledges itself to fight for the labour movement to stop Brexit by every means possible, to defend our freedom of movement, to work, to study, to live “abroad”. That is what is at stake, the freedom of both European and British workers, of the young people of all nations, and of those seeking asylum from unspeakable suffering, to travel and settle where they want.

Labour should never have voted for Article 50. Jeremy Corbyn should never have retreated from regarding free movement as a principle. He should not have recognised the June 2016 decision as irreversible. Now, Labour’s rank and file should fight to reverse these unwise and unprincipled concessions and to ensure that the party opposes the Great Repeal Act and fights to maintain all the protective and human rights legislation that the Tories will try to remove.

Labour should certainly demand that the Tories make their negotiation objectives clear and transparent at every stage but the party must also use every means, inside and outside Parliament, to alert the working class to the dangers and to oppose the passage of the whole reactionary Brexit project.