Fox: I am on the Left and I want to exit

Brexit gives voters a mandate to control politics. Slawek Blich interviews Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas.
Claire Fox

Slawek Blich: As a long-standing critic of the EU, are you happy with the result of the referendum?

Claire Fox: Yes, I was delighted with the Brexit vote. I think it is an important democratic moment as well as an expression of the demos not prepared to be told what to do by the establishment.

Claire FOX
is the director of the Institute of Ideas, a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint. She convenes the yearly Battle of Ideas festival. She is a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is regularly invited as a commentator on TV and radio programmes in the UK such as Newsnight and Any Questions? Claire is a columnist for the Times Education Supplement and Municipal Journal. She is author of a new book on free speech, entitled I find that offensive (Biteback)and No strings attached! Why Arts Funding should say no to instrumentalism (Arts&Business).

It must have been delightful to celebrate the UK’s independence day along with Nigel Farage and Donald Trump?

No, but there were more than 17 million people who had the right to celebrate the Leave vote.

‘Democracy has been served’.

Yes, and people exerted their democratic will. It’s interesting, because the initial response of the people who lost the referendum in this instance was to immediately assume that the Brexiters have made a terrible mistake and why have they not listened to the important people?

I don’t want to over-romanticise it either, but it is important to note that people didn’t vote for Brexit because they were told to do so by Nigel Farage or indeed Donald Trump, but because they listened to different voices and arguments themselves.

Will you call it the UK’s independence day?

It’s just a slogan, and people have them. I don’t want to be churlish about it.

The fear of democracy, fear of what it would mean to give people the right to decide, fear of suggesting that ordinary people might have any insight, that has really come to the fore.

You are the head of the Institute of Ideas, the point of which is to challenge established orthodoxies. And ‘the liberal left don’t like that’, as you like to say. What is it that is so wrong with the EU that we don’t get? 

First of all, I need to say, that historically there were quite a number of people over the recent years from the liberal, far- and the Labourist left in Britain, who was sceptical about the European Union. That includes many trade unions, or people such as Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner, who were stout critics of the EU. There has always been a tradition on the left that was critical, in fact some of them even hated the EU.

Yet ultimately the majority of UK’s trade unions and the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership supported the Remain campaign.

The irony is that Jeremy Corbyn is completely anti-EU. He made a terrible error of judgement in my opinion. The left’s cowardice on this has actually left Labour in much bigger disarray than the Conservatives.

Secondly, what then happened was that many of those traditionally critical people lost their nerve in relation to this particular ballot. And even though they were publically admitting the EU was unreformable, the majority of them immediately pulled out to say: ‘we’re so nervous about this referendum now, so we’re reluctantly backing Remain’.

And so did the liberal-left mainstream.

Which only proves that there are many people on what one might describe as the liberal left, or The Guardian left, that are increasingly drifting away from the aspirations, the preoccupations and the interests of the ordinary people. They indeed feel much happier in their homes, with their notions of the European Union as an enlightened, cosmopolitan, informed project with its benign values. The fear of democracy, fear of what it would mean to give people the right to decide, fear of suggesting that ordinary people might have any insight, that has really come to the fore. And sadly it was the liberal left who led that kind of sentiment in this referendum.

I still hear Mr. Farage’s triumphalist speech about the ‘victory for ordinary people’.

I think you underestimate the forces that were lined up against the people arguing to leave the EU.

So why do working-class people unite with posh and manipulative people like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage? To give middle-class people a kicking?

By no stretch of the imagination was it the posh people leading the campaign to leave the EU versus middle-class, enlightened and moderate people advocating to stay in. If you look at who was leading the campaign to stay in the EU, you will see…

The majority of the Conservative party…

… and the majority of the Labour leaders, some of them were very sluggish and reluctant in their support. By the way, that’s the Labour party that is increasingly divorced from its base amongst the working-class. There were daily letters, largely published in national newspapers like The Guardian or The Times, written by literally everyone from the establishment, not mentioning every single major corporation or multinational financial institution lined up to say that we should stay in the EU.

The Brexit vote was actually about who controls and who makes decisions. The whole forgotten point of democracy is that everybody is equal as a voter.

Please, could we at least try not to frame Brexit as a working-class, left-wing revolt against the establishment?

That would be a very naïve and wrong thing to say and I am not doing that. But there are some facts in the debate that we need to stress if we want to be honest. There was a case where the CBI, the UK’s leading business lobbyist, basically instructed business owners to gather around their workers and tell them not to vote for Brexit, because otherwise they will lose their jobs as a result of an unavoidable economic recession.

Perhaps they simply tried to inform workers about the potential consequences?

Really? The atmosphere was almost like the old feudal days, where the bosses believed they own their workers and can tell them how to vote. That was remarkable! If you want to know which aspect of the Brexit vote I celebrated, it was the fact that people defied that. That they weren’t intimidated by that.

The proponents of Remain overemphasized the economy in their campaign?

Yes, they could not stop talking about how Brexit would trigger recession and market volatility.

If you work on zero-hours, your boss times your toilet breaks and you don’t get paid enough to cover your bills, would you be persuaded?

Not at all. The threats of economic disaster simply don’t work with people with lives defined by economic exclusion or insecurity. Nonetheless, pro-EU people consequently underlined the economic aspect of the referendum, warning that there was a threat to people’s economic livelihoods. It was almost as though they believed they can bribe people to vote in a particular way, or frighten them with economic insecurity by saying things like: ‘you’ll be this much worse off, your house will soon be too expensive’.

Everything was couched in the language of money.

A lot of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom are in Wales, and a lot of these places receive large EU grants for places of economic deprivation. And you know what? Despite all that Wales voted to leave the European Union by a majority of over 5%. So there must have been more they wanted than just crumbs from the EU table.

Let me guess, taking back control?

That, again, was only a slogan of the Leave campaign. But yes, one of the most crucial facts about the post-referendum debate is the fact that many people have felt re-enfranchised by the Brexit campaign.

There is a distinctly important point to make – one of my critiques of the EU was precisely that it has always been set up to protect decision-making from the popular mandate and from accountability to the people. You have seen this in Greece or Italy, where the financial institutions of the EU undermined popular sovereignty. So the Brexit vote was actually about who controls and who makes decisions. The whole forgotten point of democracy is that everybody is equal as a voter, and that we, the demos, have control over our elected representatives. That we have the right to sack politicians.

People voted themselves out of the EU, because they wanted their franchise to actually mean something?

Let me give you an example: in a national democratic election in Britain, as in many other countries, people are often taken for granted because of the way the voting system works. There will be areas in the country that are considered to be ‘safe Labour’ or ‘safe Conservative’ seats, so the presumption is just that everybody in that area is voting either Labour or Conservative candidates, no matter what.

Gerrymandering – they invented that in America, that isn’t the EU’s fault either!

Yes, but nonetheless the result is that even though, in its idealised form, people hold the vote and are equal as voters, in practice their vote may not count or will never make a difference. Just to use an example – in the last UK election, only one member of the UKiP party was elected. Not the party I like, not the party I support, but whatever you think of them, there are still millions and millions of people voting for them who are not able to get past the so called ‘first past the post’ electoral system, which delivers just one MP for millions of votes.

If that stops Mr Farage from eyeing No. 10…

I would rather not be silly about it. We just had a historic referendum where every single person felt that their vote counted. And although both sides of the referendum were led by people that most of us find galling and irritating, everybody all around Britain were arguing and discussing this issue for weeks. People started to take politics seriously. I think it was an incredibly positive move that so many people were involved in thinking about the issues of politics. It felt like democracy as it should be.

Do you genuinely think that having Johnson & Gove govern now is a true expression of democracy and something we should rejoice in? Will Boris Johnson now come to deliver social democracy and a more equal society?

Oh, certainly not. But I was never voting in this election for one version of a Conservative party or another.

But you had to weigh consequences.

Yes, but I don’t support Cameron either. Democracy is really not about me having to choose which conservative leader I like less.

This referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime, historic decision about whether the decisions about the future of this country could be made by the people of this country.

To hold Boris Johnson accountable.

If he were chosen to be the person leading this country, it is a democratic prerogative of the people of this country to hold him accountable. Now the EU commissioners, the EU presidents, the Eurozone group, all that layer of leadership that we could not have any control of, has been removed. And yes, that also removes alibi from our leaders, who frequently hide behind the EU to excuse some of the decisions they make.

Is it a freeway now for the Tories to turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island?

It’s really fascinating how the liberal left is suddenly preoccupied with neoliberalism and Thatcherism. You would think that we lived in a wonderfully fair, equal and socialist republic only three days ago. For goodness’ sake! We did not live in that land – we lived in a country that voted for a Conservative government twice in a row. Over years all working-class fights in this country were organized by the British trade unions themselves. The idea that Brexit was a secret plot to bring in Thatcherism is the left’s excuse for why they didn’t side with the people in a democratic fight earlier.

But was it really because of Brussels? Weren’t they let down by the democratically elected British elite since the destruction of heavy industries by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the eighties?

I fought Margaret Thatcher like everyone on the left at that time. But, as a side of the political spectrum, we lost. The left lost. We have to recognize that.

A lot of time has passed since Margaret Thatcher. So why do we still emphasise somebody who is a figure of history, if there have been Labour governments for many, many years since, which have absolutely destroyed the lives of the majority of people in this country? They have such a malignant influence on the lives of people in this country, that they turned once more, in their millions, to the Conservative party.

And against Europe.

Brexit is certainly not a silver bullet or a nirvana by any means, but you have to be careful about falling into an old left trope, which is to constantly blame someone else rather than to take responsibility for their own actions in 2016. Harking back to the seventies and the eighties, to some period in history when you felt you had a bit more influence, is hardly a sufficient or an admirable way to launch a new movement for a free society.

Free from immigrants?


Millions of people certainly voted Leave because of the immigration question. That saddens me, as I am a pro-immigration internationalist and I have advocated for an open borders policy for many years. But I also found it very galling to have to listen to the pro-EU open borders camp, proclaiming themselves as open borders, but then actually being advocates of ‘Fortress Europe’, those technocrats who try to stop African or Asian people from seeking asylum in Europe or in the UK. And today there are articles in the press quoting university professors saying: ‘What am I going to say to my Romanian students?’.

What would you say?

I’d say: ‘what were you saying to your Indian students before’? Many immigrants of previous generations in this country voted for Brexit, many Afro-Caribbean, Indian and Asian people felt that the EU immigration policy allowed in many Eastern Europeans, but didn’t allow their families and friends from other parts of the world. That doesn’t make them racist xenophobes!

But the fact that politicians talk about ‘controlling borders’ instead of ‘closing borders’ does not mean that there is no xenophobia or racism involved.

You have to be very careful about saying that people who were anxious or worried about border control are all racist. Again – people do have the right to have a democratic decision about how politicians shape immigration policy. And in the EU, you don’t have that. The ordinary people were constantly told that they had no choice because we’re in the EU and there are open borders. In this sense the issue of immigration was also made by the pro-EU side who constantly said: ‘stop moaning about immigration or we will call a racist ignorant. We have no choice, we’re in the EU, that’s the deal’. So consequently people felt angry, but powerless.

The European Union is in disarray also because of endless exemptions, concessions or rebates it made to the UK and other fearless Eurosceptics, including Hungary and Poland. A project that aspired to strong political union turned into an expanding free-market, neoliberal cash-machine. Maybe we don’t need you, British people, in our Europe?

But there was never a European demos! The EU was set up as a top-down elite project, and we know that the demos can only emerge when it is forged around the notions of accountability. And because of the very lack of it the EU was never meant to make it, it only managed to govern by force. You hardly need reminding what happened to Greece or Italy, who had their elected representatives kicked out by the EU, or with austerity-driven youth unemployment rates of up to 50% in southern Europe. That’s the antidemocratic hues that the left hardly noticed, but surely didn’t fight against it hard enough.

I think that the spectre of 1939 is overplayed, patronising and overstated scaremongering. I genuinely think that being out of the EU turns politics into something people feel they own much more.

Yanis Varoufakis and the Diem25 movement’s exact claim is that our only hope is to act trans-nationally, but within the EU – only in this way do we have a chance to constrain global capitalism.

Yanis Varoufakis has become an international star of the speaking circuit. He was one of the most articulate people who explained the pernicious, outrageous and negative aspects of the EU, yet now he advises us to stay within the EU, although he says it is unreformable. Why should we listen to him?

Because Brexit will not get you to where you would have been had you not entered. The nation state is not the right instrument to confront truly pressing global issues.

I do not think that the nation state per se is the ideal form of organizing, but neither is the European Union.

Will you get a better TTIP deal outside of the EU?

It probably depends on how hard they negotiate. There are no guarantees in politics.

But when they eventually go in to negotiate, those politicians will then stand exposed for their poor negotiation to the people of Britain. As opposed to the British ruling class, being able to hide behind the failures, weaknesses or strengths put forward by the EU negotiators. As a matter of fact, the EU has not come along with a different way of giving people the mandate, or the franchise to control their own destiny. And I believe in democracy.

That’s great news for Scotland, because 62% of its people just voted Remain. Will you support Scotexit?

If they had voted for their independence in 2014, I would have accepted their democratic will. But they didn’t.

But the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon came close to promising a second Scottish independence referendum after the Brexit vote. You need to support it if you want to be taken seriously as a democrat!

The British government is not antidemocratic in its nature – the EU is.

But let’s see if Nicola Sturgeon calls a second referendum. She might think again when she actually looks at the numbers. Indeed, the majority of Scots voted to remain, but about 50% of the people who voted for Brexit in Scotland, guess what, were SNP voters. And if they called the second referendum and lost again, that would be it for them. And Nicola Sturgeon knows that.

The EU is turning 65, and it is also showing signs of sclerosis, with nationalist and populist voices calling for its dissolution. Don’t you feel you are one of them?

Although there are parts of the Leave campaign that I didn’t agree with, I think that the spectre of 1939 is overplayed, patronising and overstated scaremongering. I genuinely think that being out of the EU turns politics into something people feel they own much more. They engage in politics rather than passively sit back while the elites are making decisions on their behalf. It is not a guarantee what will happen now, but at least people can feel as though there is a possibility, no less than a possibility, that they might be able to shape the way things are going in the future.

48% of the people of your country voted Remain.

I am not complacent about the challenges ahead. I do feel hopeful, but we have serious work ahead.


Digital editor, journalist and webmaster at Krytyka Polityczna/Political Critique.