I marched with you on 23 March, having organised to make the demonstration as big as possible. I have spent time defending it since against pro-Brexit people on the left – against claims that the marchers were exclusively upper-class and white, hostile to democracy, indifferent to other injustices and so on. It is precisely because I was there and am committed to stopping Brexit that I feel the need to speak out.
Contrary to the distortions, the marchers last Saturday represented a wide spectrum of society, most as far as I could tell with broadly progressive and humanitarian views. Many were people whom socialists like me could engage in a friendly dialogue with. But the charge that the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign represents the predatory interests of capitalism have more truth to them – much more truth. And that is not something people who oppose Brexit because they want a better world should be content with.
Look at one of the keynote speakers at the march, widely feted for his role before and since: Michael Heseltine. There were a whole load of senior Tories who were speakers at the march, to whom much of what follows also applies. In fact it applies to most of the leadership of People’s Vote as an organisation (as opposed to the wider movement against Brexit and for a second referendum in a more diffuse sense).
I am picking on Heseltine in particular because he seems to be succeeding in making himself popular among liberal and even some left-leaning people – because of his ‘elder statesman’ gravitas, his independence from day-to-day politics and his special willingness to speak out energetically against the hard-right pro-Brexit Tories.
A look at Heseltine’s record shows you the problem with an anti-Brexit movement led by such people.
He is a millionaire hundreds of times over, grown fat on the labour of others in favourable conditions for exploitation which he worked to create. He was for decades and essentially still is central to a political and economic project which has not only devastated the lives of millions, but which through this devastation produced the Brexit vote in 2016.
In the Guardian recently, Heseltine wrote that the Brexiteers “want to dismantle much of what we regard as the underpinning of civilised life in the modern world”. That is true – but of course this process did not begin with Brexit. This is what the same man said of David Cameron in 2015:
“David Cameron had to combine two central themes: first, the urgency and inevitability of the cuts… and second, the improvements and opportunities that flow from resolute early decisive action… What burns through is the sense of faith in the individual: the bigger the contribution people make to their own lives and the community, the more fulfilment they will feel and the greater satisfaction they will derive from the way they live. This conflicts with the traditional view that the state has limitless obligations to the individual… therefore… the cuts are not only necessary but will open many doors that present restraints keep firmly closed.”
This was not an aberration, but the logical outcome of his entire life and role in politics. Heseltine was a key player in the 1980s and 1990s Tory governments, occasionally critical of Thatcher and often projecting a liberal image, but fully supportive of and centrally engaged in the project of dismantling the social gains working people had fought hard to win over many decades. He was personally responsible for the first privatisations, for council house sales, for attacks on local government and for defending Britain’s nuclear weapons program against opponents.
Heseltine has been widely praised as a champion of regenerating of regenerating run-down urban areas – as you may know or can guess, this was not quite what it was presented as.
Of course the governments of which he was part also pursued a nationalist and anti-migrant agenda. Tory xenophobia and hostility to migrants did not start suddenly in 2016.
Heseltine is famous as a principled and independent-minded politician, for instance for grabbing the House of Commons mace in the 1970s. But why did he grab the mace? By his own account, because Parliament had voted to take part of important industries, aircraft-production and shipbuilding, into public ownership – and he was upset by workers’ political representatives celebrating by singing the labour movement song The Red Flag.
This man is a determined enemy of working people’s interests. His liberal and internationalist rhetoric makes him more dangerous in that respect, not less.
Leadership of any progressive movement by such people is morally and politically wrong. It is also practically wrong, because it cuts against winning over the millions who voted for Brexit as a perverse protest against the miserable status quo which Heseltine and his comrades created in Britain through a decade of brutal “austerity” and four decades – unbroken by the Blair and Brown Labour governments – of Thatcherism.
An important section of Leave voters (not the only section, of course) are concentrated in areas of country which were laid waste under the governments of Thatcher and Heseltine, and which have never recovered since.
That is why on the 23rd us socialists helped organise a thousands-strong Left Bloc with trade unionists, migrants’ rights campaigners, climate change activists and left-wing MPs, among others. That is why, though we will continue to join and build anti-Brexit protests, we do not accept the leadership of the People’s Vote campaign or of representatives of the rich like Michael Heseltine. Neither should you.
• Sacha Ismail, Clarion editor and Labour for a Socialist Europe committee member (pc)
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