Socialist Alternative

Understanding Britain’s Brexit Crisis

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Britain’s ongoing Brexit crisis has entered a new and spectacularly explosive phase. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is in a state of chaos. His attempts to regain control, including via the dissolution of Parliament, have so far failed. Johnson’s first week in parliament as Prime Minister saw him lose six parliamentary votes in six days, including two failed attempts at calling a general election.

It was also a week in which the thin thread that had been holding together the Tory (Conservative) Party’s warring factions finally broke. Twenty-one Conservative MPs, including Philip Hammond, who just weeks ago held the office of chancellor under Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, were thrown out of the party by Johnson. Hammond’s name sits alongside a series of former cabinet ministers and several notable “grandees” who have all been de facto expelled by the prime minister.

Chaos ensued in the House of Commons as the archaic rituals associated with proroguing – or suspending Parliament – were carried out. Chants of “shame on you” came from Parliament’s benches. The speaker of the house, himself a Tory MP, described Johnson’s decision as an act of “executive fiat.”

But far more important than any of the MPs’ stunts or Tory machinations have been the thousands of workers and young people who have turned out on protests against what is commonly referred to as Boris’ “coup.” Up to 100,000 people took part in protests across Britain in the week the proroguing was announced. And the Tory party conference was also marked with a major protest through the streets of Manchester. While the demonstrations have inevitably reflected the confusion that exists around the question of Brexit, and while they have sometimes been led by middle-class and pro-capitalist forces, these protests have offered a small outlet for the tremendous pent-up anger that exists within society. They hint at the huge potential for working-class people to be mobilised against Tory rule, to fight for an end to austerity, and to demand much more than that.

This was followed in late September by the U.K. Supreme Court’s decision to overrule the proroguing declaring it “unlawful.” But while this was certainly a setback for Johnson it did not lead to any clarity on how the Brexit crisis would be resolved.

The political implosion that took place in September had been brewing for a long time. In June 2016, a majority of British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, thus ushering in a new era in British politics – one of profound crisis and uncertainty

Three Years of Drift

Three years later, the issue of Britain’s relationship with the EU has only increased in dominance. And the Brexit crisis and the utter malaise in which British capitalism finds itself, has continued to deepen.

Mere hours separated the counting of ballots in the 2016 referendum and the resignation of the then Tory Prime Minister David Cameron. His replacement, Theresa May, who in the end faced no serious challenger, was the almost unanimous choice of the capitalist establishment. She was the chosen “safe pair of hands” – trusted to prioritize their interests in deeply uncertain times.

May was chosen for an historic task: the task of delivering a “Brexit in name only,” of mitigating and minimizing the damage done to Britain’s capitalist class by the “Leave” vote. In practice, this meant securing a deal that would maintain Britain’s membership of, or at least close relationship with, the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, meanwhile respecting the result of the referendum in a formal sense.

In short, her mission was to regain control of the situation for the capitalist class. But far from succeeding, she resigned her office in utter defeat. She became the second Tory Prime Minister to fall victim to the Brexit crisis. But the cost of her failure to Britain’s capitalist class was far greater.

May’s inability to deliver did not stem fundamentally from personal weakness. This incredible loss of control by the capitalist class – symbolized in the maverick figure of her Trump-idolizing successor, Boris Johnson – was not caused by personalities and egos. Instead, this situation has arisen out of the deep, global crisis of the capitalist system, combined with the more specific, long-term decline of British capitalism.

Once known as the workshop of the world, Britain now has lower levels of productivity than impoverished Greece. Rather than investing in the development of new technology and technique, Britain’s capitalists instead tend to rely on low wages for the maintenance of profitability. Meanwhile, ten years on from the crisis of 2008, amidst stagnant living standards, the UK is once again heading for recession, with negative growth reported for the first quarter of 2019.

It is this malaise which was the underlying cause of the initial defeat suffered by the establishment in the referendum. It’s this which explains the profound difficulty the capitalists have in winning a stable social base of support for politics which represent their interests.

The explanations most commonly offered in the capitalist media for the Brexit vote are centered around the issue of immigration. But, while capitalist politicians on both sides of the debate used anti-migrant and, in some cases, openly racist rhetoric, it is not accurate to describe racism as the central feature of the Leave vote. In actual fact, in a confused and inchoate way, the Leave vote represented a revolt by primarily working-class voters. It was a revolt against a capitalist establishment responsible for a decade of austerity, for the decimation of communities through de-industrialisation, for wrecked public services, privatization, slashed benefits, and food-bank Britain.

The most important factor determining how likely someone was to vote Leave in the referendum was class. Almost two-thirds of low-paid workers – classified as “C2DE” in surveys in Britain – did so. When surveyed about their reasons for voting the way they did, only a third of Leave voters cited the issue of immigration as their main reason for doing so. By far the most common factor referred to – the reason given by almost 50% – was the issue of democratic control, the desire for a proper say over the decisions that affect our lives. What is this, if not an acknowledgement that the society we live in is “rigged” in favour of the super-wealthy – that working-class people lack a genuine voice in the way our society is run? Surely underlying this sentiment, even if it is not always clearly articulated, is an understanding that the European Union plays its part in the “rigging” that is inherent in capitalism – that it is part and parcel of this establishment.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a clear lead coming from the workers’ movement outlining a socialist and internationalist Leave position, many working-class and young people supported Remain – repulsed by the bigotry of Johnson and Farage. But this instinctive internationalism of many workers and youth has nothing in common with the neoliberal capitalist project that is the EU, nor with the Tory leaders of the official Remain campaign, who themselves used anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout.

What we have witnessed in the past years has been a process of slow disintegration within the Tory Party. This is a process which Boris Johnson’s election as leader has now accelerated to a dramatic climax. The Conservative Party is the oldest and, in many ways, the most successful capitalist party in the world. And its falling apart, especially at the same time as the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn occupies the leadership of the Labour Party, leaves the capitalist class without any reliable and stable form of political representation.

This has resulted in a situation where the capitalist class – which overwhelmingly supports Britain remaining in the EU – is currently unable to guarantee against a no-deal crash out.

Looming General Election

Indeed, very avenue available for attempting to stop such an outcome is fraught with problems for them. In normal circumstances, a general election would be the chosen “way out” of such a deadlock. But the lack of reliable political representation for the capitalists means this is not straightforward.

It’s possible a general election could deliver Johnson a larger majority. Or that the newly formed right populist Brexit Party could become a significant parliamentary force, with what remains of the Tories reliant on their votes for a majority.

Another possible scenario – one which the capitalist class is toying with as a potential way out – is the possibility of Corbyn coming to power.

Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015 based on a massive upsurge of working-class and young people who wanted to see a voice for anti-austerity politics expressed in the mainstream. But Corbyn’s emergence as leader was not the result of a steady transformation of the Labour Party from the ground up. Instead, Corbyn emerged at the head of a party which, in Parliament, in local government, and in its apparatus and machinery remained completely dominated by neoliberals linked to former party leader Tony Blair. Under Blair’s leadership, the party renounced its commitment to socialism and sought to move in the direction of the U.S. Democrats. And despite having led the party for four years, and the tens of thousands of Corbyn-supporters who have joined the party to support him, Corbyn has failed to mobilize these forces to conduct a campaign to wrest control of the party – including through the reselection of MPs and so on – from the hands of the neoliberals.

That’s why elements within the capitalist class are now weighing up whether a Corbyn-led government, if it were adequately restrained by the presence of the Blairite fifth column which has been allowed to remain dominant in the parliamentary party, might be preferable. Its potential merits are being openly discussed among the more serious capitalist commentators. But they are playing with fire. Especially if it came on the back of another Corbyn “surge” like the one which brought him into the leadership, such a government could inspire huge expectations among workers and young people. It could generate a confidence and willingness to fight for pro-working-class policies, and an appetite for more far-reaching, socialist change. This type of surge also occurred in the 2017 general election when Corbyn ran on a program of bold pro-working-class reforms and shocked the establishment by leading Labour to a far stronger result than they expected.

In any case, such an outcome is far from guaranteed. The failure of both Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union leaderships to adopt an independent, class-based approach toward the question of Britain’s relationship with the EU has contributed to a situation in which tremendous confusion exists over the issue.

As far back as 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the leadership of the Labour Party, this was among the issues on which he came under most pressure to retreat. By abandoning his historic position of opposition to the EU as a neoliberal bosses’ club, instead taking a type of “soft Remain” line, Corbyn played a part in allowing the development of the contradictory and in many ways false polarization that currently exists on the question of Brexit – polarization which does not sit neatly along class lines. Indeed, the failure of the labor movement to put its mark on the issue has opened a door to the racist and xenophobic right.

Johnson spent the summer seeking to shore up a base for himself in the context of an insurgent right-populist force in the form of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which romped home in the European elections in May winning nearly a third of the vote. In attempting to undercut this serious electoral threat to the Tories, Johnson has made sacrosanct the 31 October withdrawal date for Britain leaving the European union – with or without a deal. This has been combined with a series of pledges for increased public spending aimed at creating the impression that a Johnson government will move away from austerity.

What Would A No-Deal Brexit Mean?

Despite his self-presentation as a determined hard Brexiteer, it’s clear Johnson would prefer to arrive at some form of agreement with the European Union. But for him to be able to justify such a deal to his own support base, both in parliament and outside it, this would need to be one which included significant concessions, particularly on extremely the thorny question of the “Irish backstop.” This refers to the border between Southern Ireland, part of the EU, and Northern Ireland which is part of the U.K. The Good Friday Agreement in 1997 brought an end to the “Troubles,” the previous period where the Irish Republican Army waged an armed campaign to force the British state to relinquish control of Northern Ireland and reunite the North with the South. Part of the Good Friday Agreement involved the withdrawal of British troops from the streets and patrolling the border while the IRA disarmed.

But the Good Friday Agreement also created a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive which enshrined sectarian, communal division. Today Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, dominates in the Catholic community while the hardline Democratic Unionist Party dominates in the Protestant community. The underlying sectarian division in the North has actually become more entrenched in the past 20 years. As a result of this polarization, the institutions created by the Agreement have ceased functioning.

If Brexit leads to a hard border between the North and South of Ireland it will create mass opposition among the Catholic population and even has the potential to reignite the troubles. But the alternative of creating a border between the whole of the island and Britain across the Irish Sea (an “East-West” border as opposed to a “North-South” border) would lead to strong opposition among Protestants who would see it as part of the drift towards a united Ireland.

On a capitalist basis, this problem is in many ways intractable. From the perspective of the EU, any arrangement in which the UK ends up outside of the Single Market or Customs Union without a deal which closely aligns Britain to its central regulations and agreements, would necessitate some form of border. Socialists strongly oppose hardening the border within Ireland or creating a new border in the Irish Sea.

From Johnson’s perspective, agreeing to the proposed “backstop,” which would essentially keep Britain in the Customs Union for an indefinite period and which would make impossible the negotiation of new trade deals, would be seen a huge climbdown. What’s more, it would open the door for the far right-wing leader of the new “Brexit Party” Nigel Farage to paint him as a Brexit traitor in an upcoming election. Johnson’s latest proposal for how to square this circle seems dead on arrival with the Irish government and the EU.

On the other hand, Farage’s strategy – simple and effective – is to call for a “clean break Brexit,” which is another way of saying no deal. He and his acolytes link this to the idea of a renaissance in British manufacturing, and the return of well-paid, skilled jobs to areas of the country that have been laid waste by more than thirty years of neoliberalism. This approach is combined with a conscious attempt to whip up anti-migrant and racist sentiment.

In the context of a huge fog surrounding the question of Brexit, and of a correct sense among many working-class Leave supporters that the capitalist establishment is attempting to overturn the 2016 referendum result, the seeming clarity of this approach cuts ice with many ordinary people. A recent ComRes poll found that 38% of voters would favour a no-deal exit on October 31 if an agreement has not been reached before then. This growing sentiment not only threatens to eat into the Tories’ base, but Labour’s as well – especially in many of the party’s working-class heartlands in the north of the country, many of which voted by a large margin to leave the EU.

The threat posed by Farage has pushed Johnson to at least pretend to take a harder and harder line on the negotiations, leaving him with little room to manoeuvre. Johnson hoped that by dissolving parliament he could buy himself space to seek a new deal with the EU. The plan was to put a take-it-or-leave-it style bill to parliament with just one week left to prevent a crash out. Despite the setback for Johnson caused by the Supreme Court ruling, his basic strategy seems unchanged. Nonetheless, he has now indicated he may be forced to request an extension to the deadline, and he could be potentially be jailed for defying parliament should he refuse.

In threatening a no-deal exit he has placed his own ambition and narrow electoral interests ahead of those of the capitalist class more widely.

While the stories hitting headlines threatening economic Armageddon in the event of a no-deal Brexit do contain a large element of “project fear,” they are not a pure fantasy. There would be real consequences.Even a two minute delay for each truck coming in from Europe at the port of Dover, something which could easily be caused by the necessary new customs checks, would be likely to result in a queue stretching back for more than seventeen miles!

The potential for the capitalists to carry out closures and job losses based on the disruption of supply chains is also not simple scaremongering. But neither are these outcomes inevitable. The reality is that many of the firms threatening job cuts and closures related to Brexit were in many cases planning them anyway – with Brexit a handy “excuse” – part of an attempt to shift blame for economic distress onto working-class Leave voters. Equally, relocations are costly and take time. The more extreme threats of a potential mass exodus of companies from the UK almost overnight are exaggerated. It would be possible for a left government to intervene to prevent closures and job losses – if it was prepared to take companies threatening such measures into public ownership, guaranteeing the jobs and the conditions of those who work there.

This emphasises the importance of Corbyn intervening now with a clear program on these issues. It underlines the need for an independent, pro-working-class approach to the issue of Brexit.

Political Realignment

As we have explained, he British ruling class is seeking to regain some semblance of control over the situation. In particular they want to use of the parliamentary Remain majority, which in reality consists of a coalition of pro-capitalist MPs from all the main political parties, to tie Johnson’s hands.

Combined with the breaking up of the Tory Party and the ongoing (if rather one-sided) war within Labour, the “Remain coalition” that has developed in parliament in the last weeks hints strongly at the potential for the broader political realignment that has been inherent within the situation for some time, but which has so far failed to crystallize.

The parliamentary campaign to stop a no-deal outcome has resulted in a bill being passed which requires Johnson to seek an extension of article 50 (delaying Brexit) should he fail to reach an agreement ahead of October 31. So far, his approach has been to say that he will defy this law if there is no agreement. Theoretically, this would make it possible for him to be jailed for allowing a no-deal outcome.

This parliamentary rebellion has also resulted in MPs blocking, on two occasions, Johnson’s attempts to call a general election. With his parliamentary majority gone – down from +1 to -43 – there is ultimately no way for him to continue to govern without a new election.

Meanwhile, Corbyn has participated in the cross-party approach to stopping a no-deal Brexit and whipped Labour MPs to participate in blocking a general election both times it was put to the vote. There are grave dangers posed for Corbynism in the current situation. And with an autumn general election still overwhelmingly likely, the importance of him resisting the tremendous pressure he is under to capitulate, both on Brexit and on a myriad of other issues, is heightened.

While it is not necessarily wrong for Corbyn to have opposed Johnson’s general election on the basis of it potentially allowing him to maintain control over the Brexit process, the Labour leader’s failure to seize the initiative on this question has allowed him to “blend into the background” of Remain MPs.

There is potential for another “Corbyn surge” to take place. This could be combined with a huge mood of revolt against Tory austerity, and particularly against the bigoted and reactionary figure of Boris Johnson. But there should be no complacency about the outcome of a general election. Any hint of Corbyn participating in some form of “rainbow Remain alliance” would be toxic for him and would likely end in catastrophe.

That’s why Corbyn needs to spend the next weeks speaking directly to and for working-class people. He needs to, in a clear way, outline an independent, class-based approach on all the central questions facing society.

This should begin with calling on trade unions, climate strikers, and all those suffering under austerity, to take to the streets in mass protests against Johnson’s government – fighting to kick out the Tories.

A Socialist Program

On Brexit, Corbyn can offer clarity and unity. A socialist approach to the issue has the potential to cut through the false polarization that has been created, uniting working-class Leave and Remain voters behind a common program. As a starting point, Corbyn must make clear that a government led by him would act to guarantee jobs and protect living standards, whatever the outcome of the Brexit process. In particular, that means pledging now to bring any company threatening closures or layoffs into public ownership, with compensation only paid to shareholders on the basis of need.

Corbyn’s approach should include fighting to re-open negotiations on a totally different basis – laying down as red lines not the interests of big business, but those of workers, young people, and pensioners. This means opposing all the treaties and agreements that the EU has institutionalised which act to encourage a race-to-the-bottom in pay, or which would place obstacles in the way of a left government carrying out pro-working-class policies such as bringing sector like the railways which were privatized back into public ownership. It means opposing racism and attacks on migrants, as well as the erection of any new borders in relation to Ireland. It means taking a clearly internationalist approach – appealing over the heads of pro-capitalist EU negotiators to the workers of Europe, many of whom are already engaged in battle against austerity. In short, it means posing the question of a new collaboration of the peoples of Europe – one only possible on the basis of socialism.

Such an approach, if it were linked to a bold program to end cuts, introduce free education, give workers a real living wage and carry out huge investment in public services, would gain tremendous support.

But the reality is that getting elected would only be the first of a whole series of major challenges faced by Corbyn. The context of crisis in which he could come to power means there will be a ferocious campaign of sabotage by the neoliberals and the right against any attempt by him to implement a genuinely pro-working-class program.

That’s why it’s necessary to use the next five weeks, as well as any future election campaign, to prepare for what could come.

Faced with direct economic sabotage, or with the immediate fall out of a chaotic Brexit, Corbyn would need to take swift measures to defend the interests of working and middle-class people. Within a short time frame, that would mean being prepared to take control of the key levers of economic power within society – starting with bringing the banks into democratic public ownership. It would require taking into public ownership the big monopolies that currently dominate the economy and consequently the lives of millions, allowing for society’s resources used to the benefit of people and planet.

Crucially, for Corbyn to succeed in this, he would need to be prepared to decisively break with the representatives of capitalism who currently sit behind him in the Commons. He would need to rely not on a Parliament stuffed with pro-capitalist MPs, but on the mass of working-class people who, when mobilised and organized, represent the most important force needed to change society.

It is this approach and this program which members of the CWI in England, Wales, and Scotland will be organizing around in the next period. And while Britain’s capitalist class trembles in fear at what the future holds, we are confident in the tremendous opportunities that are opening up for us to build the forces of socialism in capitalism’s birthplace.

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