Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Marxist Case against Brexit: Trade Union Leader Manuel Cortes on International Solidarity

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Marxist Case against Brexit: Trade Union Leader Manuel Cortes on International Solidarity

Article excerpt

A Venn diagram of those in Labour opposed to Brexit and those critical of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership reveals much overlap. An outlier is Manuel Cortes. The Gibraltarian is a radical socialist, a decades-long friend of Corbyn and the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA). He also believes that Brexit is a catastrophe that must be stopped.

The trade union leader, who became head of the 22,300-member TSSA in 2011, is a regular platform speaker and op-ed writer but has seldom given detailed interviews. Intrigued by Cortes's views and his background, I met him for lunch at Hache in Camden Town, north London, a short distance from the TSSA's headquarters in Euston Tower.

Cortes, whose wiry ponytail and earring reflect his activist heritage, speaks in staccato bursts, never equivocating or wavering in his convictions. "The collapse for the third time of the franchise on the East Coast Main Line just shows that privatisation doesn't work," he says of the British railways. "It's a scam--heads or tails, the private operators [Virgin and Stagecoach] always win ... They continue to run other franchises where they're still making money." He highlights the irony of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, a Brexiteer who vowed to "take back control", allowing "the Dutch state, the French state and the German state" to profit from British franchises. "The only state that is not allowed to run our railways is our own--that is just craziness."

Cortes was born in 1967 in Catalan Bay, Gibraltar, and raised on the Glacis council estate ("The climate was a hell of a lot better than the UK's," he quips of the British overseas territory). His father was an unskilled labourer and his mother a hairdresser.

The family spoke only Spanish at home and Cortes left his English-language school at 15 with no qualifications. But after becoming an apprentice electrician, and achieving a diploma in engineering from the Erith College of Technology in London, he won a place at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University to study electronic engineering. A tutor advised him to improve his English by reading the Financial Times (a title once described by Noam Chomsky as "the only paper that tells the truth").

As a teenager, Cortes followed the exploits of Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinistas on Spanish TV and was a founding member and chair of the youth section of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (Labour's sister party). After securing a Master's degree in optical electronics from Strathclyde University, he later returned for a second Master's in economics. Cortes was determined to absorb the theories needed to challenge capitalism. "For many years people have tried to bamboozle me and others in the labour movement, saying that there is no alternative to the way the economy is run. …

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