Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the party conference in Brighton
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the party conference in Brighton © Charlie Bibby/FT

Britain’s opposition Labour party stole a march on the government by committing to a standstill interim period after Brexit before the government realised there was no good alternative in the short run. But as the annual party conference now under way in Brighton shows, Labour is having a much harder time deciding how it wants the UK’s permanent new relationship with the EU to look.

This inability has deep roots, which go by the name of “Lexit”. That was the moniker for the case some on the left made for leaving the EU, and what defines it is a conviction that the EU is hostile to socialist political programmes and that EU membership is therefore a hindrance to a committedly socialist national government, which Labour now aspires to become. Lexit, in short, is a necessary prerequisite for socialism in a country.

Where it becomes interesting is in the specific form that conviction takes; the mechanism by which the EU is thought to frustrate the coming of socialism.

The most prominent strand of Lexit is the romantic one. The romantic Lexiter observes how countries such as Greece have been under the thumb of its creditors, and how eurozone machinations installed technocratic governments both there and in Italy. And so either simply to express disgust or, more ambitiously, to provoke a collapse of the European project, they wanted Britain to leave the EU. What their disproportionate horror (which we addressed in Free Lunch before the referendum) never quite made clear was why the UK, permanently exempt from the euro and with a strong influence in the EU, should not rather stay to make things better.

Another strand is more pragmatic. This second type of Lexiter argues that the laws of the EU make it impossible to pursue appropriate leftwing policies. This worry seems to be shared by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, at least to judge by his comments on The Andrew Marr Show: “we need to look very carefully at the terms of any trade relationship because at the moment we’re part of the single market, obviously. That has within it restrictions in state aid and state spending. That has pressures on it through the European Union to privatise rail for example and other services.”

Corbyn, then, is suggesting that it may not be good to stay within the single market because the rules on government subsidies (“state aid” to companies) could preclude some policies he wishes to pursue. But it is all very non-committal, which may be politically useful, or simply reflect a lack of knowledge: “Well, there are issues of state aid rules which are endlessly disputed.”

If single market rules put constraints on Labour’s agenda, shadow chancellor John McDonnell did not mention them in his muscular call for nationalisation of a host of services in his conference speech on Monday. And as it happens, two lawyers have looked carefully at the general structure of state aid laws and how they would apply to the policies set out in the Labour manifesto. Their analysis concludes: “Neither EU state aid rules, nor other EU rules which are distinct from state aid rules but sometimes considered in the same bracket, provide any obvious barrier to the implementation in the UK of the measures contained in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.”

Not only that. “The design of state aid rules is not intended to promote neoliberalism, but the kind of ‘social market’ economy associated in particular with Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.” And critics often neglect “progressive effects of European state aid law in preventing multinational corporations from extracting tax and other subsidies from national governments”.

Finally, there is a philosophical Lexit view, which is altogether more coherent. It is best expressed by Harvard political theorist Richard Tuck, who advocated leaving the EU in an essay for Dissent magazine before the referendum, and defended a hard Brexit as the best opportunity for leftist politics in the UK in a Policy Exchange lecture in July. The philosophical Lexit claim is that the EU’s reliance on written constitutional texts, rather than any particular rules, is inherently biased against socialism.

In Tuck’s view: “Popular politics is precisely what the EU was designed to obstruct. Like independent central banks and constitutional courts, its institutions are essentially technocratic.” And the technocracy tends towards market liberalism. In contrast the Labour party in 1945 had used parliamentary power for deep socialist reform, unconstrained by constitutional wing-clipping.

This is an intriguing claim. To be persuasive, however, it must account for two things. The first is that the move towards market liberalism in the UK under Conservative and Labour governments since the 1980s was hardly forced by EU membership but exercised through precisely the unfettered parliamentary power whose supposed waning Tuck laments. Now one could argue that this move was chosen, not forced, but that constitutional constraints mean there is no way back.

The argument’s second problem is its British exceptionalism. Every western country had a strong turn to a mixed economy and a comprehensive welfare state in 1945, not just Britain, and regardless of what strictures any particular country’s constitution imposed. If the unique lack of a single constitutional law shaped the specifics of the UK model, it cannot have been the enabler of the overall social democratic transformation. Claiming otherwise is to confuse the institutions with the politics.

If constitutionalism as such is a red herring, the philosophical Lexit argument may fall back on economic interdependence: it is not so much constitution-like rules as the economic globalisation they are designed to manage that makes socialism in one country (let alone many countries) hard to achieve. That is a common view; but as I have been at pains to argue, it vastly underestimates the powers that remain in national leaders’ hands even today — in the UK and elsewhere.

Be that as it may, focus instead on the implication of that view if true. It would mean that leftwing politics require a radical retrenchment from economic openness — far more than “just” withdrawing from Nafta or from the EU. It would require undoing the web of free-trade agreements that has moved globalisation along, including the World Trade Organisation, with the intention of insulating national economies behind the high tariff walls that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Romantic Lexit is self-defeating, pragmatic Lexit is impractical (because it is wrong). Philosophical Lexit is coherent but unpersuasive — and to the extent it is right, it is extraordinarily radical. If it did, improbably, pave the way to socialism in one country, it would do so because it would be each country for itself.

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