26 February 2018

Brexit: Blair paved the way

The policies of Tony Blair and New Labour paved the way for Brexit.

Tony Blair is rightly loathed. For the left, Blair takes pride of place among the Judas Iscariots, Vidkun Quislings and Ramsey MacDonalds. But should we re-evaluate him in light of his opposition to Brexit? Can the progressive left share a platform with this war criminal? The answer is a resounding no on multiple grounds. But one basic reason, often not singled out, is that Blair did more than anyone else to pave the way for the disastrous referendum result of June 2016. How is that so?

The New Labour government took steps to make sure that the UK became a Mecca for central and east European casual workers. In 2004, ten states, mostly former ‘socialist’ countries, joined the EU. Britain was one of only three (the other two were Ireland and Sweden) that immediately permitted workers from the new member states to take up employment in Britain’s weakly regulated employment market. Blair’s reasons were seemingly simple: to provide labour in Britain’s credit boom economy, keep wages down and see xenophobia prevent a united working class response to growing inequality.

As New Labour embraced marketisation, praised wealthy oligarchs, ciritised and privatised the public sector and marginalised trade unions, economic inequality continued to grow. Blair did not give birth to the ‘left behind’ in the post-industrial wastelands; Thatcher had already done that. But he did take away hope that Labour could make a difference to the lives of ordinary working people. As hope evaporated, especially following the financial crisis of 2008, anomic anger exploded and the 2016 referendum provided an outlet for that anger for the Barnsleys, Stokes and Hartlepools.

But even so why did so many in Britain think the UK was different and better, so that it could profitably stand alone, while the rest of Europe needed the EU? After all, economic analysis suggests the exact opposite. Post imperial illusions played a part, but the single biggest injection of national arrogance were Blair’s wars around the globe. With the exception of France, Britain is the only military power in the EU. And Blair, locked in an alliance with the US, loved military might. With Gordon Brown in tow, he promoted militarism, relished it, thereby bolstering the myth of British difference, superiority and strength.

And Blair’s was also responsible for Brexit for what he didn’t do. In 2002 he could have overcome Brown’s opposition and taken the UK into the Euro. Yes, had other things been the same, Britain would have had a worse recession in 2008, but Brexit would have been just too difficult to contemplate in 2016.

So when Blair gets up to put the case for reversing Brexit - and he does so rather eloquently - we should remember his role in bringing it about. In this, as in everything else, Blair is the consummate hypocrite.

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