Last week, I went to one of the debates at the Cambridge Union about whether or not Britain ought to have a second referendum on Brexit. It struck me that the way this argument works is very misleading. The two sides pretend to be arguing about whether it would be democratic to have another referendum, and frame their arguments around procedural fairness and democratic legitimacy. But that isn’t really what the argument is about. There’s a much deeper disagreement, about whether Brexit is an acceptable outcome in the first place–if it’s the kind of result which, by its very nature, invalidates the process which led up to it.
It’s been more than a month since British Prime Minister Theresa May told the British people that her deal was the best they were likely to get, and they still don’t believe her. In theory, Brexit can end one of four different ways:
4A: May extracts further concessions from the EU, increasing British policy independence while retaining economic access to Europe.
4B: A general election produces a Labour government, and then Jeremy Corbyn extracts further concessions from the EU, accomplishing the same result as in 4A.
The problem is that #4 is not possible in either its A or B form, but nearly everyone in British politics operates under the delusion that it is.
It’s been a little while since we’ve talked about the situation in Britain. For Jeremy Corbyn, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s increasingly clear Theresa May does not have a Brexit deal that can pass the commons and is unlikely to get one. On the other hand, May is determined to delay a vote on this deal until there is no time for there to be a general election followed by further negotiations. These two conditions–combined with the fact that most Labour MPs, party members, and voters want a second referendum–put Corbyn in a very sticky situation. Let’s run through the logic of his position.
When I was in undergrad, I was for open borders. The people in the postcolonial states have been badly screwed over for ages. The western states did this to them–why not let postcolonial peoples get access to western job markets, western public services, and yes, even the western welfare state? They’re human beings, just like us. The purpose of borders is to determine who has access to the juicy western stuff and who doesn’t. Why should anyone be denied access to that stuff? It’s patently unfair. The global economy is a system. The rich countries have gotten rich off the backs of the poor countries–our achievements are their achievements too. Why can’t they share in the spoils?
More recently, I wrote a piece for Current Affairs about the value of political unions. In this piece, I argued that we couldn’t economically integrate territories–permitting capital and people to move freely within them–without politically integrating those territories. Political integration is hard–people in rich countries don’t want to have to redistribute resources to people in poor countries, and they don’t want people from poor countries to get a say in decisionmaking. It’s much easier to get people to support free trade and free movement than it is to get people to support creating and expanding federal states. I reluctantly concluded that we can’t open our borders economically until we’re ready to open them politically. Free movement and free trade with Mexico requires political union with Mexico, and until Americans are willing to do the latter the former will cause trouble.