“To live in London you are really comfortable
Because the English people are very much sociable
They take you here and they take you there
And they make you feel like a millionaire
London that’s the place for me.”
- Lord Kitchener, London is the Place for Me
Before Britain refused to fund the European Union they refused to fund the British West Indies Federation in the Caribbean. Historically, Britain’s “Remain and Leave” relationship with Europe has forced shifts in Caribbean economic and diplomatic policies.
A Rasta man told me that Caribbean people have been taking the Brexit matter to heart too seriously. He shared, “this is a fire in Babylon.” He was right. This is a matter in the U.K., an empire we were taught to believe was the highest form of civilization, superior in political culture and norms; and, now the whole world has witnessed their feelings of anger and anxiety, a picture different from the sterile museums of their imperial legacy. But this fire in Babylon is connected to a world system of social and economic relations. In the region, we also know that when your neighbour’s house is on fire, you must water yours. Our foot-in-the-door to Europe through our commonwealth and colonial link to Britain is now in question.
At the “Brexit Symposium” hosted at the University of the West Indies, Regional Headquarters, Mona Campus, Jamaica, Professor Hilary Beckles put forward, “This action by the English is not an act of irrationality. It is an action that is consistent with the historical trends of the behaviour in relation to the continent … Long-term, the trend has been for Britain to keep Europe divided, to keep Europe off-balance and within that process to reaffirm its specific supremacy within that geographical space.” In other words, the British have consistently put their national interest above the survival of a European bloc. However, this long economic historical approach should not overlook the political developments of the day.
For Left activists and organisers in the Caribbean, the internal divisions of the Brexit demand a number of reflections. Many persons in the Caribbean preferred and expected a win for the Remain camp. The victory of the Leave campaign came as a shock. Democracy, beyond the guarantee of “one person, one vote” requires a democratic environment of information that allows complex matters to be debated in complexity. The reductive “Remain” and “Leave” campaign has done more to fuel xenophobia and racism because the hard Right was able to convert the referendum to one on immigration.
In more ways than one, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign approach was correct. To be a supporter of the free movement of people and deeper regional integration does not mean that you have to love the European Union. This layered messaging was in fact closer to the feelings of Labour voters. He maintained a critical distance from the Conservative Party-led Stronger In campaign, publicly shared his criticisms of the European Union and committed himself to the Remain campaign in order to deny victory from a reactionary and discursively violent right-wing. What some left-wing activists and socialists failed to come to terms with in this political moment is that a “Lexit” was not on the table. Both the Stronger In and Leave campaigns were dominated by the Right and therefore Left mobilization around a vote to Leave ultimately lent support to their anti-immigrant political opponents. Ed Rooksby summed it up correctly, “Referendums don’t register subjective preferences.” The choice was always between a Conservative rock and an ultra Right hard place. If this point was missed then the Left needed to take a deeper look into the situation of not just an abstract working-class Britain, which I could not help but notice the media portrayed as almost exclusively white, but dig deeper into the feelings, concerns and pains of non-white working class communities of West Indians there since the 1960s and black and brown peoples who are British and still receive cutting stares of judgment.
As a consequence of the Brexit outcome, not only has the ultra Right of Europe found a louder speaker for their anti-immigrant position disguised in the political discourse of “Euro skepticism”, the Left movement of Europe has been wrecked further. The debilitated performance of Podemos in Spain is a sign of the weakened position of the Left in a period of widespread angst and political discontent across Europe. And now the right have both the political mandate and climate to do what Donald Trump is attempting on the other side of the Atlantic, to make ‘Europe (white and) great again’.
Prime Minister David Cameron made the decision to take larger regional political matters into a national political party cat and dog contestation and failed in his attempt to silence the hard Right of the Conservative Party and UKIP. The CARICOM should be watching this development closely. While the regional projects of the EU and CARICOM are contextually different, we can make connections to the outcome of the Brexit. Anti-EU and Euro skeptic positions hold the view that national sovereignty is trumped by the unelected technocratic European Union policy-making elites. In the CARICOM, the reverse is true.
The weakness of the integration project lies in the fact that Member States’ enshrined national sovereignty pushes against any sort of supra-national powers of the CARICOM to build consistent and collective decisions for the region with implementation efficiency. Debates on the Caribbean Court of Justice continue, inter regional movement continues to plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies and prejudices at immigration offices and the single market is fundamentally uneven and facilitates greater movement for large corporations than workers. In spite of the major achievements in the CARICOM in areas of education, health and government collaboration, put to a vote, ordinary people may question the relevance of their nation’s membership in the regional bloc. Whether it is the former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago’s “ATM” remark or Prime Minister Andrew Holeness’ appointment of a CARICOM Review Commission in Jamaica that has fuelled a wider public discussion of a “Jaxit,” the integration effort in the regional bloc is wanting.
Only a collective regional response can defend our vulnerable economies from the financial shocks of a Brexit. But a CARICOM that leaves persistent social gaps and is disconnected from everyday people, especially, the Caribbean poor, is not a response to international crisis, it is the path to implosion.