Time for the left in Scotland – and beyond – to have a real conversation about Brexit



Whatever our starting positions going into the exit process, we should acknowledge at the very least that there are some opportunities in being outside the EU, argues Pauline Bryan 


THE referendum on membership of the European Union was not of the left’s choosing.


The left was divided and, with some exceptions, there was not a strong left voice in either the campaign for Remain or for Leave. The Remain case was not based on a strategy for how the EU could advance socialism.


It was late in the day when Yanis Varoufakis articulated a case for remaining in but against Europe’s established order and institutions.


He had to acknowledge, however, that the EU “will continue to throttle voices calling for the EU’s democratisation and they will continue to rule through fear.”


On the Leave side the left struggled to be heard as the money and media coverage went to Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their like.


The case for Leave was largely based on a vague idea of sovereignty and an end to the free movement of European Union citizens.


The Leave campaign in Scotland was headed up by Tom Harris. As a right-wing Labour MP he sided with Blairite and neoliberal policies. He launched his campaign on the basis of “putting our own country, our own economy, our own people first.”


When Britain eventually leaves the EU there will be a number of powers coming back to Britain.


The question is where will those powers rest? Part of the case for progressive federalism is that, where practicable, powers should be administered by the closest democratic body to the people they will most affect. This is a particularly relevant argument in Scotland where the SNP government is centralising more and more.


It would be a dereliction by Westminster and Holyrood if decisions are made without having a public debate about the most appropriate place for powers to be held.


Britain’s own economic and industrial strategies have been circumscribed by its membership of the Common Market ever since it joined in 1971.


The founding principle of the Common Market was to reduce barriers between countries. This resulted in significant changes to the UK, including the reduction in manufacturing and the growth of the financial sector.


Over the last 45 years the ability of member countries to be able to plan their own economic and industrial strategies became increasingly restricted and instead it was the role of the market to shape the economies of member countries. While not underestimating the difficulties, an end to EU rules could provide exciting opportunities for the Scottish government to plan a more dynamic economy.


Being outside the EU will allow governments at UK or Scottish level to intervene in their economies.


Jeremy Corbyn has outlined his plans for economic and industrial strategies. He committed a Labour government to a 10-year investment package for Scotland of £23 billion.


This could enable a strategy for growth, producing well-paid secure jobs backed up by an industrial strategy to support renewables, advance manufacturing and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.


He promises a massive campaign of housebuilding as well as the public ownership of railways and energy providers.


It should be recognised that much of Corbyn’s strategy would have been met with resistance, if not downright refusal, from the EU.


In Scotland we need a government that is prepared to match Corbyn’s ideas and ditch the economic orthodoxy of the present Scottish government.


The EU rules relating to procurement are intended to open up every possible opportunity to the private sector. Previously the SNP has justified its resistance to Labour’s demands that it use its powers of procurement to ban blacklisting and tax avoiders by saying it would not be permitted under EU rules.


The then deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon stated that “I want to ensure we abide by the law and that we don’t put our public bodies at that risk of being taken to [the European] court.”


EU regulations for both the fishing and agricultural sectors have damaged smaller-scale locally based fishing fleets and farms.


The marketisation of fishing quotas has been to the benefit of global companies with large trawlers.


Scottish tenant farmers have suffered most from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with the bulk of grants going to large farms and agribusinesses.


And the Socialist Health Association believes that CAP has been detrimental to health by encouraging the overconsumption of saturated fat and the under-consumption of fruit and vegetables.


The EU’s environmental protection regulations have not protected us from horrendous levels of pollution resulting in thousands of early deaths each year.


Labour’s shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU Keir Starmer argues that “we should make the case for more progressive, more ambitious domestic environmental policy ... Not to match EU standards, but to go beyond them.”


It is important that there is no reduction in the EU’s “guaranteed workers’ rights.” Even though these are minimal, there are still many workers not receiving even these basic rights.


For example, if you have two jobs, rest hours and working time directives mean very little, zero-hours contract employers are adept at avoiding holiday, sick pay and maternity leave.


Trade unions in the UK and Scotland should decide as a movement what minimum standards for workers’ rights they will demand for the whole of the UK, and in Scotland the STUC should strive to raise Scottish workers above the minimum.


Whatever our starting positions going into the exit process, we should acknowledge at the very least that there are some opportunities in being outside the EU.


Some will weigh the losses as being greater than the gains, while others will see the opportunities as worth the losses.


What we could agree on is that this period of flux is an ideal time to have a constitutional convention.


The repatriation of powers presents us with the opportunity to review the devolution of powers to the nations and regions in a comprehensive rather than piecemeal way based on the principles of redistribution of wealth not just between the nations and regions but within them, the democratisation of our economy at UK, national, regional, and local levels and ensuring enhanced standards for workers’ rights.


Pauline Bryan is convener of the Red Paper Collective. This article first appeared in the Morning Star on February 24th