We are living in stormy times. As the relatively stable world order of the last few decades passes away, sudden shocks and sharp swings to right and left rock one country after another. No more dramatic example can be found than Britain, whose underlying fault line has manifested itself in the Brexit referendum victory.
The aftershocks of the 2008 crash kick-started a turbulent period in British society. In the decade since then there have been just two years of majority government, sandwiched between the first coalition government since the Second World War and a minority government dependent on a provincial communal party. There have also been a wave of youth riots; an unprecedented series of referenda; a narrow defeat for Scottish independence; the collapse of the “power-sharing” government of Northern Ireland; the emergence of new or previously moribund parties (the Scottish National Party, UKIP, the Brexit party, the Greens); the assassination of one Labour MP by a neo-Nazi and a narrow escape for at least one more; and a sharp political polarisation, squeezing out the previously dominant “centre” with a mass influx into a revived Labour Party on the one hand, and a resurgence of chauvinistic jingoism personified by UKIP, Farage, the street gangs of Tommy Robinson and the ranks of the Tory party.
What a contrast with the traditional image of a sedate, stable, moderate, civilised “United Kingdom”. In its heyday, Britain ruled “an empire upon which the sun never sets”. Trotsky once wrote that the British imperialists “do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents”. As the world’s dominant power, they had become virtuosi at balancing, playing off rival foes and fleeting allies in their maintenance of power and prestige. It seems hard to reconcile this majestic image of Victorian statesmanship with the antics of their descendants today. Two world wars and the collapse of their empire forced their descendants to accept a hobbled status subordinate to US imperialism, its horizons severely curtailed. Their stunted offspring of the contemporary generation today stagger on blindly from one day to the next, recoiling in xenophobic nostalgia to their island base, improvising from one stopgap stunt to the next.
How does British capitalism find itself in this mess? It was historically the first in the world to overthrow a feudal monarchy and chop off the head of a king; the first to industrialise, making Britain “the workshop of the world”; a global power that once ruled the largest empire in history. Half a century ago a former US Secretary of State remarked that Britain had “lost an empire but not yet found a role”; that is a thousand times truer today. By the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher had deliberately destroyed all but the last remnants of Britain’s flagging industrial strength in a desperate bid to curb the power of the trade unions, leaving the British economy to the mercy of its most predatory and parasitic sectors: finance and property, launderers of black money sucked in from the world’s oligarchs, hiding their profits in offshore tax havens. All that sustains the political authority of this increasingly dominant wing of the ruling class is its exploitation of the vile imperial heritage of jingoistic chauvinism to siphon the discontent of its millions of suffering victims into a xenophobic revolt against the EU.
The now dominant faction of the Tory party is salivating at the prospect of a decisive break with the EU, tearing up whatever limited safeguards it had imposed against “unfair competition”, and opening the floodgates to unregulated trade deals with the USA, including outright privatisation of the National Health Service. Another, based in the declining manufacturing sector, knows that its best interests lie in continued membership of the EU, which after all offers it free access to lucrative continental markets and an inexhaustible supply of cheap labour, or at least a “soft” Brexit. Some are pushing for a “Norway plus” deal – which would mean accepting all the rules of the EU while forgoing any share in formulating them; others, for the thermonuclear option: a “no deal” Brexit which would plunge Britain into the unknown.
Manufacturing industry – in its heyday the traditional base of the British economy – nowadays represents only a small fraction of it. Ever since the wilful destruction of British industry by Thatcher’s government in the 1980s – a deliberate strategy to smash the power of the trade unions, cheerfully continued under Blair’s subsequent “New Labour” government – the face of Britain has been transformed. There are virtually no shipyards, coal mines or steelworks left, and the only car plants are assembly lines for foreign manufacturers reliant on parts from and sales to Europe, which had strategically targeted a British location for no other reason than precisely as a stepping stone into the European market. Now that Britain is on the way out of the EU, these companies are pulling up their stakes. Already the Japanese car manufacturers Honda and Nissan are hurrying to relocate to the European mainland, and the Indian company Tata is drastically cutting back its operations. Even the City of London, whose crooked practices had already plunged the economy into catastrophe, risks losing its pre-eminent financial status as banks and financial services follow suit. It is hedge-fund speculators, property magnates and corporate money-launderers who constitute the real face of British capitalism today, plus a layer of provincial skinflint entrepreneurs smarting with resentment at such intolerable impositions as taxes, regulations and trade unions.
It is demagogues like Johnson and Farage – their raucous cries eagerly amplified by the billionaire media moguls who have no domicile and whose empires sprawl the English-speaking world – who have peddled jingoistic bombast to conjure up the cruel fantasy that British imperialism is still somehow capable of restoring the faded glory of 150 years ago, when it was a “great trading nation”.
Britain is rapidly becoming little more than a money-laundering tax haven, siphoning up the dirty money of the world’s oligarchs and gangsters into a booming property market that shuts out the local population from any hope of ever buying or even renting any adequate living space. It could end up as just another offshore island off the European coast: a theme park living off guided tours of sightseers round the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s birthplace, something like the ruins of Pompeii.
As the Marxist economist Michael Roberts has pointed out, by far the greatest threat to the British economy comes not from Brexit but from the looming world recession. Nevertheless, the Brexit vote has already hit the economy hard. The value of sterling has dropped by more than 20%. Britain’s trade deficit with the rest of the world has widened to 6% of GDP; real GDP growth has fallen from over 2% a year to below 1.5%, and industrial production to 1%. In 2015, the UK economy was doing better than most G7 economies; it is now doing even worse than Italy. Devaluation of the pound has forced up the rate of inflation, and investment has stagnated.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would have a disastrous effect on the UK economy; it could shrink it by 8% in 2019, while interest rates would rise to 5% to guard against rampant inflation, and house prices could fall by 30% – a bigger drop than in the 2008 recession.
Europe is Britain’s main trading partner, accounting for 57% of goods and 40% of services. A prolonged transition period would paralyse trading and investment plans. Brexit could cost the British economy up to 10% of GDP over the next decade or so – equivalent to about £1000 per person per year, especially a “hard Brexit” cut loose from the customs union and the single market.
This leaves out of account the effects of the coming world recession. The 2008 recession has already cost the British economy a permanent relative loss in GDP of over 25%. Since the 1990s it has become far more heavily dependent on financial services and is weaker than other OECD economies. Its trade in services with the EU could fall by up to 65% after Brexit.
Hundreds of millions of pounds have already been transferred to new hubs in the EU by banks, insurers and asset managers, and around forty London banks have applied to the European Central Bank for licences. This could turn into a flood.
According to the Trades Union Congress, the average British worker has lost £11,800 in real earnings since 2008 – worse than in any other major economy. In what is already the most deregulated country in the OECD, leaving the EU now threatens to cost British workers whatever meagre protection they had gained from EU regulations to limit working hours, enforce health and safety regulations, and provide subsidies and environmental checks, in addition to free movement of labour, which has enabled 1.5 million British citizens (mostly employed) to live in Europe.
The Brexiteers are hell-bent on driving the UK out of the EU without a deal. This would leave it dependent solely on World Trade Organisation rules, opening the way to a flood of American imports including previously banned items such as chlorinated chicken, and above all into the lucrative NHS market, and demolishing the already minimal workers’ rights and consumer safeguards stipulated by the EU.
Meanwhile, the sharp fall in the value of the pound threatens to send the price of fuel, food and other essential imports sky-high. Brexit will bring in its wake the added pressures of mass unemployment and soaring inflation – both of them problems which the British economy had so far avoided since the 2008 recession.
“WE ALL HATE HER!”
Marx talked famously of history repeating itself as farce. However, even he might have found it hard to envisage the pantomime that the British ruling class now finds itself performing. “Strong and stable”? Its government is behaving more like the slapstick clowns of the silent movie days, constantly dodging custard pies and slipping on banana skins.
It was an act of breathtaking irresponsibility for Britain’s last prime minister, the Old Etonian “toff” David Cameron, to frivolously gamble away the strategic interests of his class by fobbing off an increasingly demented UKIP/Tory rabble with the rash promise of a referendum – the third in his brief period of office, following previous narrowly-won gambles on changing the voting system and on independence for Scotland. Having not the slightest inkling of how to win it, and consequently losing, the very next day he coolly walked away, leaving his former colleagues to cope with the wreckage.
Cameron was rightly judged the worst British prime minister to date – but his successor Theresa May has turned out worse still. Previously a dutiful Remainer, not daring to challenge the clique of cynical media magnates who manipulate “public opinion”, she overnight became a champion of a “hard Brexit”.
She tries to model herself on the Tory icon Margaret Thatcher – a decisive leader of her class who had single-handedly privatised whole swathes of the economy, destroyed its manufacturing base, and ruthlessly curbed the trade unions. It’s a laughable facade. Mimicking Thatcher’s shrill voice and imperious tone, but lacking any trace of her strategic vision or will-power, May looks like nothing more than a pantomime puppet, a cardboard cut-out parody of the “iron lady”. Her most notable achievement within a year of taking office was to wantonly throw away the Tories’ first parliamentary majority since 1992. It is worth remembering that the traditional party of the ruling class has enjoyed a parliamentary majority for just two years in the last 28.
Precariously perched in the chair of prime minister, May reduced herself to constantly parroting hollow platitudes: “Brexit means Brexit”, “no deal is better than a bad deal”, “strong and stable government”… Opinion polls were giving the Tories a huge lead of up to 25 percentage points. Having taken office less than a year earlier, on a mere random whim May declared a new election, impulsively yielding to the temptation of an easy landslide victory and justifying her U-turn with feeble waffle about the need for a “strong mandate” ahead of the coming Brexit negotiations. Lacking any clear programme and fearful of exposing her emptiness to the glare of public scrutiny, May then locked herself away in hiding, shunning public exposure, refusing to participate in TV debates, and addressing only secretly convened “public meetings” staged in front of sycophantic hand-picked audiences.
Once the election was called, while maintaining as before an unremitting barrage of distortion and vitriolic abuse, the media were nevertheless obliged to give some air space to Labour’s programme. Under its newly elected left leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour was fighting on a radical manifesto, including an end to austerity, defence of the National Health Service, abolition of student tuition fees, a public housing programme, restoration of school funding cuts, nationalisation of major public utilities, long-overdue rises in public sector pay, and other reforms, all to be funded by a rise in corporation tax and higher income taxes on the rich. This programme gained enormous popularity. Corbyn addressed enthusiastic mass rallies up and down the country. Young people, habitually hard to register and motivate for elections, mobilised in huge numbers. 70% of voters aged 18-24 supported Labour. It was Labour’s success in inspiring the youth and other normally apathetic strata of the electorate which swung the election for Labour.
In the event, in a sharply polarised election in which the minor parties were all squeezed, the Tories’ vote rose by 5.5%. However, they lost several seats and May ended up humiliated, bereft of an overall majority. In contrast, Labour’s vote shot up by 9.5% to over 40%, the highest increase in its share of the votes since 1945, and the best Labour result since Blair’s landslide in 1997 (in which, unlike Corbyn, Blair had wallowed in lavish support from Murdoch and Big Business). Over the course of the “New Labour” years, Labour had lost five million votes. In the 2010 election, under Gordon Brown Labour had won just 29% (8,606,527), and in 2015, under Ed Miliband, 30.4% (9,347,304). By contrast, in 2017 Labour won 40% of the votes: 12,858,652. Excluding Scotland, where the decay of a corrupt Labour machine had brought the previously defunct Nationalists into power, this was actually Labour’s best ever electoral performance, surpassing even those of 1945 and 1997.
May found herself in a hopeless trap. She had confined her propaganda slogans to a bunch of alliterative mantras, shrilly repeating the need for “strong stable government” and warning of the dangers of a “coalition of chaos”. These spectacularly backfired on her. No government could be weaker or more unstable than May’s own “coalition of chaos” with the ultra-right DUP, the party of Protestant bigotry in Northern Ireland.
Since that election, so far 32 government ministers have resigned, including a Deputy Prime Minister, two successive Secretaries of State for Exiting the EU, two Northern Ireland Secretaries, the Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Defence, International Development, Education, Transport, Work and Pensions, to say nothing of a host of lesser mandarins. The only factor now holding back a further rash of resignations by mutinous hardliners is their fear of who might replace them. May’s own days in office are shrinking fast. She barely survived a Tory leadership confidence vote only with the backing of those MPs on her payroll.
But compared to some of her rivals, May looks positively statesmanlike. Among the drastically diminished and aging ranks of the Tory party, the most popular figure is Boris Johnson, who has cultivated a buffoonish profile while cynically calculating his ambitions. On the eve of the referendum, he had drafted two alternative articles, for and against Brexit, before making up his mind which side he was on. Then there are May’s two last Brexit secretaries: David Davis, who announced “I don’t need to be intelligent to do my job”, and Dominic Raab, who confessed that he “hadn’t quite understood how important the Dover/Calais route was to the trade of goods into and out of the UK”; and the Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, who “did not understand that people in Northern Ireland voted for different parties based on their religious affiliation”.
MPs and even ministers are defying party whips. In one vote, the minister who moved the motion then went on to vote against it, while the Chief Whip abstained. This was the same Chief Whip who while himself publicly attacking the Prime Minister also complained that other ministers had shown “the worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history”. The plight of the Tory Party today is best summed up by the anonymous comment of one Tory MP quoted in the Daily Mail: “We all fucking hate her. But there is nothing we can do. She has totally fucked us'”.
WAITING FOR BREXIT
That could well be the epitaph of the entire British ruling class. This government’s ineptitude has left it in turmoil. After eighteen months of paralysis, May submitted to her Cabinet the so-called Chequers deal; by the next day it had already collapsed. The final “withdrawal agreement” imposed by the EU has now been humiliatingly rejected in parliament three times, the first time by a colossal 432 votes to 202 – a resounding and historically unprecedented government defeat. May’s subsequent recourse was to put into operation her cunningly devised Plans B and C: namely, to try Plan A again. She duly suffered further defeats – the last time after promising to resign, not if she lost but if she won, thus luring the twenty-plus aspiring replacement prime ministers and their camp followers to switch votes. By this means she managed to reduce the majority against her to 58.
Almost three years since the vote to leave the EU, and literally just hours before the expiry of yet another already deferred deadline which came within an inch of hurling Britain into the abyss, a battered and humiliated prime minister has now been forced to accept a further extension to Brexit. Having spent two years making futile concessions to the backwoods Tory ultras, she then launched an elaborate charade of mock negotiations with the Labour Party, in a desperate ploy to convince the EU that there might be some point in extending Article 50 still further.
The EU has now imposed yet another delay, another deadline has expired and the process is still stuck in gridlock. Brexit is looking more and more like Godot – something that everyone is waiting for, but no one knows quite what it is or when it will come.
Looming ahead is the likelihood that this joke of a government will at last fall to pieces. May’s downfall is delayed only because none of her rivals are keen to replace her until the Brexit fiasco is resolved. Meanwhile, the possibilities are wide open: forced participation in Euro-elections, concerted sabotage by a new crop of pro-Brexit Euro-MPs, the collapse of a Cabinet already barely functioning, a definitive split in the Tory party, the defenestration of May and her replacement by an irreconcilable Brexiteer, continued parliamentary deadlock, a new referendum, a snap election (the third in four years)…
The ultimate outcome will probably be some kind of fudged accommodation with the EU: either through a bespoke “Norway plus” deal, by which Britain would stay in both the customs union and elements at least of the single market, and go on paying the full price of EU membership while forgoing any of its rights; or by the gamble of a second referendum, in the hope that it might result in a vote to cancel Brexit altogether.
And this is leaving aside the growing likelihood of the break-up of the British state. Not for the first time, the British establishment is finding it hard to shake off the demons of its past crimes in Ireland. After thirty years of virtual civil war, the last wave of “troubles” in the North was only brought to an end in the context of both countries’ common membership of the European Union, which opened up the border and facilitated the acknowledgement of an “Irish dimension”. Without a continued customs union, which May has ruled out, the erection once again of a hard border threatens to conjure up once again the ghost of past conflicts. And that is not all. On top of losing the last corner of Ireland that it had with great difficulty clung on to for the last hundred years, the “United Kingdom” also risks losing Scotland, which even before the Brexit crisis was already straining towards secession, and which voted overwhelmingly against Brexit.
A ”PEOPLE’S VOTE”?
Extreme circumstances demand extreme solutions. If necessary, one faction of the ruling class might even consider accepting a brief spell of Labour government to extricate it from this mess. Now that the threat of open selection of Labour candidates has been averted by the deal cobbled at the Labour Party conference together with the unions – something which would have been inevitable if the will of the rank and file had prevailed – a quick election would guarantee the survival of a substantial cohort of irreconcilable “New Labour” MPs to maintain a veto over any proposed radical measures. Whenever deemed necessary, the withdrawal of Corbyn’s majority could be secured overnight. Meanwhile, with responsibility for the negotiations resting in the safe hands of Sir Keir Starmer, why not let Labour bear the brunt of all the odium from the resurgent ultra-right for “betraying the will of the people”? And then, when the time comes, all the classic dirty tricks might be deployed to destabilise a Labour government – a run on sterling, an investment strike, racism, rioting, terrorist attacks, if necessary “false flag” operations, assassinations, even a military mutiny…
A brief spell under Labour could be tolerated in the hope that it might be the only way to prick the Corbyn bubble. But it’s a dangerous strategy. Irresistible expectations would be aroused by the election of a left Labour government. It would take the whole panoply of dirty tricks to destabilise and topple it. But that’s the nature of the period.
If only enough “New Labour” MPs could be lured to defect in advance of a general election, prop up May against a Tory rebellion and push through her deal, then that might offer a solution. But only a pitiful handful, already reconciled to their inevitable deselection, have taken that step. Let us mark the words of Tom Watson, chief strategist of the Labour right, whose only description of their defection to form the so-called Independent Group was that it was “premature”. Why premature? What plans are being hatched for after the election of a Labour government? We have been warned.
While for all its xenophobic overtones the Brexit vote did represent in a distorted form a mass revolt against austerity and the establishment, it has alarmed young people, who are quite rightly apprehensive about what Brexit will mean, in terms of shut-down workplaces, the block on emigration, the devalued pound, etc. Meanwhile, the parliamentary remnants of “New Labour” are staking their claim for leadership of that section of the ruling class that is seeking a way out of the impasse. The growing call for a second referendum is popular, especially among the youth. A million people marched for it, and six million have signed a petition.
But it should be treated with caution. Opinion polls are meaningless random snapshots – and so was the original referendum. Given the power of the rabidly pro-Brexit press moguls, with practically the entire popular media screaming betrayal, there’s no guarantee that a second referendum would produce a different result from the first. And just because the NO victory last time resulted in a horrific surge of racist attacks, that doesn’t mean that if the result were overturned this time that process would be reversed. On the contrary, it would give Britain’s newly energised fascist street gangs a nightmare pretext to rampage against minority scapegoats and the Labour Movement.
A SOCIALIST EUROPE
Corbyn is right to resist pressure from yesterday’s displaced establishment to hold out for what at best could only mean a restoration of the failed status quo, ignoring the furious backlash that it would provoke. He is right to give priority to insisting upon negotiating a deal which would guarantee workers’ jobs and living standards and consumers’ rights. Only then should it be submitted to a confirmatory referendum to ratify it. As he says, the real divide in Britain is not between the Leavers and Remainers, but between the many and the few.
However, what is still crucially needed is the courage to uphold free movement as a natural human right, proclaim unconditional solidarity with migrant workers in Britain, and link up with workers across the continent to build a socialist Europe.
Labour must avoid the appearance of equivocating. If it were to make a clear statement exposing the chauvinistic delusions of the Tory Brexiteers, while equally denouncing the Eurocrats – who would inflict upon a Corbyn government a regime no less brutal and draconic than the one they imposed on Greece’s SYRIZA government – then it could begin to unite the working class around such a programme.
Of course, rather than breaking loose under a fog of Tory chauvinism, it would have been far better to risk Britain’s expulsion from the EU under a Corbyn government for enacting socialist policies in defiance of its rules, and appealing to workers across Europe for solidarity. But what matters is the fight to protect and enhance workers’ rights and living standards. Never again must a Labour government bow down to the dictates of the ruling class – whether from Brussels, Washington or the City of London.
NOW’S OUR CHANCE!
Life for the many is reverting to Victorian levels of inequality and poverty. The true extent of unemployment is hidden, with around a million workers employed on “zero hours” contracts and around five million misleadingly classified as “self-employed”. 8.4 million people are “living in households that struggle to put enough food on the table”. Four million rely on food banks. Hundreds of thousands are sleeping on the streets or housed in “temporary accommodation”. Children are going to school literally hungry.
What was once the British Empire is in the late stages of a slow decay. When Spain lost an empire and entered into a prolonged decline, it ended in coups, national disintegration, years of civil war and fascist dictatorship. Britain is still far from such an end, but there is a distinct whiff of Weimar about Britain today: a mood of unprecedented volatility marked by riots, assassinations, bombings, street crime, demands for secession, threats of mutiny…
Ian Duncan Smith, perhaps the Tories’ most obnoxious politician, recently announced that “Corbyn’s sole purpose in life is to destroy this country”. On the same day, a video was published showing paratroopers on target practice firing at a poster of Corbyn. One general has already explicitly threatened mutiny. One Labour MP has been murdered by a Nazi, and a second has been revealed as the planned target of another. Corbyn himself has been physically assaulted.
The ruling class are right to be worried. With the surge of support for Labour under a socialist leadership, Britain has entered into a period of great hope. But that also means a period of danger. We can’t afford too many mistakes. Now’s our chance!