Beneath the immediate crisis over whether, when and how Britain is to leave the European Union lies a deeper trend: the chronic decline and death agony of British capitalism. Where once it was the “workshop of the world”, today it is losing its last remnants of productive industry, most of them by now assembly plants owned by Japanese, Indian and other foreign companies. Where once it ruled “an empire on which the sun never sets”, today it is just one referendum away from losing Scotland, and possibly before long seeing Northern Ireland conclude a reunification deal with the Irish Republic. Following the collapse of the British Empire has come the disintegration of the United Kingdom: no longer “Great Britain” – just England and (perhaps) Wales. It could soon sink to the status of an offshore island off the European mainland, a tourist spot for sightseers visiting such ancient relics as the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s birthplace, perhaps also taking in the whisky stills of neighbouring Scotland in a double bill.
In just the same way, when Spain’s empire rotted away, it underwent a slow decline over centuries, and ended up racked by civil war, fascism and national fragmentation.
A POLITICAL WONDERLAND
And that explains the current outlandish situation: “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice might have said. Britain staggers towards its third general election in four years, under an unelected Prime Minister who has won not a single vote in parliament and reacts by shutting it down. He watches his wafer-thin parliamentary majority literally vanish in the course of his first speech; goes on to expel a couple of dozen of his former ministerial colleagues, including the grandson of his historic idol; and manages in the process to turn a majority of one into a minority of 42. Cabinet ministers resign a month after being appointed. His own brother gives up politics rather than endure any longer the “tension between family loyalty and the national interest”.
What next? Outright defiance of laws passed by parliament? Advice to Her Majesty to withhold royal assent? Proposing a vote of no confidence in his own government? Sending the EU two contradictory letters for and against extending Article 50? Vetoing his own application to delay Brexit? Barricading himself in Number Ten? All of these Monty Pythonesque scenarios have been seriously contemplated.
Yet this pantomime is no laughing matter. In the tradition of that genre of horror movies in which the monster wears a clown’s mask, beneath the bluster a sinister plot is under way.
Johnson justifies his violation of established parliamentary procedures on the grounds of one single snapshot vote held more than three years ago. This comes straight out of the totalitarian handbook; a plebiscite has always been the preferred instrument of dictators. Britain really is lurching into an era of coups and civil strife.
Johnson is acting out the role of comic-opera Englishman as a counterpart to Trump’s fake redneck masquerade. To quote the Washington Post again: “The political atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic is so similar that it’s like one of those British films that’s been adapted in Hollywood for an American audience.”
Both Trump and Johnson should take heed of the already shaky flagging grasp of comparable regimes throughout the world: the fall of Salvini, the disgrace of Bolsonaro, the electoral humiliation of Erdogan, the protests against Orban, the general strikes of 200 million trade unionists in Modi’s India.
The rash of vicious regimes that has sprouted across the world has been described as “creeping fascism”. The warning is timely, but misplaced. What marks out these rabidly reactionary regimes is their instability and fragility. Every one of them having come to power by constitutional parliamentary means, they strive to impose an authoritarian regime they don’t yet have the means to maintain for long in the face of resistance and factional splits. Their hold on power is precarious.
Meanwhile, waves of revolt continue to sweep across the world: in France, Algeria, Sudan, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong… The ruling class can’t yet impose stable repressive regimes; the working class can’t yet put together a programme to overthrow them. A period is opening up of extreme volatility worldwide.
Likewise, if Johnson wins an outright majority in the coming election, that will be just the start of his troubles. His laziness, vanity, arrogance and shallow incompetence, symptomatic of his surrounding coterie of speculators and profiteers, will soon bring him down in disgrace.
Paradoxically, his time will come only if and after he loses. He will find himself in his element as the ugly figurehead for a real future far-right mass street-fighting movement. Already the cry has been heard: “Hail Boris”.
Labour has a crucial mission. Corbyn and McDonnell have both performed brilliantly in recent debates. Parliamentary manoeuvres do have their place. But so far all the resistance has been focused on the parliamentary plane. Now we are bracing ourselves for the most important election since 1945. Labour’s message needs to be taken right now to the streets and the workplaces. Labour must shift the focus back to the real issues facing working people, stake out a position markedly distinct from those of both the Brexiteers and the Europhiles, and campaign for an outcome which upholds workers’ rights, consumer safeguards and environmental protection, all subject to popular ratification in a future referendum.
The bogus anti-semitism witch-hunt must end. Which is more likely to “bring the Labour Party into disrepute”? Accusing it of racism, or defending it against that accusation? The Labour Party must be the only organisation in the world where those of its members who heap abuse on it stay safe in their prominent positions, while those who defend it against slander risk expulsion.
The democratic right of constituency Labour Parties to select parliamentary candidates of their choice must be upheld. Those rejected MPs who protest that they are accountable to their constituents and not to the party activists who work the doorsteps are welcome to put that to the test and see how far they get. The process of trigger ballots and the steady stream of right-wing defections represents a welcome impetus to the process by which the working class is reclaiming the Labour Party. That is the only way to build genuine unity and solidarity.
PREPARE FOR POWER
Whatever the result of the impending election – a Johnson/Brexit government, a Corbyn Labour government, or a hung parliament – a period of turmoil is opening up.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader – twice, overwhelmingly, on the votes of hundreds of thousands – there has been an unremitting bombardment of sneers, smears and poison from the establishment. At one point during a Prime Minister’s Question Time, Theresa May leaned over the despatch box and hissed at Jeremy Corbyn: “You will never be Prime Minister. We won’t let you.”
There are myriad plots under discussion to forestall a Corbyn government. In the increasingly likely event of a vote of no confidence in Johnson, moves are afoot to ensure that his replacement would be almost anyone other than the Leader of the Opposition: Ken Clarke, Harriet Harman, Uncle Tom Cobley… There has been talk of forming a (grossly misnamed) “government of national unity”. Labour must resist this strenuously – in parliament, in the constituencies, on the streets.
But that is nothing to the pressure that would be exerted on a future Corbyn government. The British state has perfected a range of underhand practices over centuries of colonial rule. Most of the world’s current trouble spots are the direct legacy of its time-honoured tactic of divide and rule – in Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus, the Indian sub-continent, etc.
Enormous financial pressure would be amassed to undermine a left Labour government. Whether this could be achieved by economic destabilisation alone depends not on national characteristics – not on “very British” traditions rather than the “hot-blooded” Latin temperament – but on the degree of popular resistance. Economic sabotage alone was not enough to depose Allende, and it remains to be seen whether or not it will be enough to remove a left government in Britain. The fact is that military threats – overt or covert – have periodically been deployed in British history, from the Curragh mutiny in 1914 to threatening manoeuvres and tentative coup plots under even mildly reformist Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s, to say nothing of the use of torture, blackmail and assassination in Northern Ireland and outright military terror in the colonies. Rather than dismiss these incidents as fanciful “conspiracy theory”, let’s remember that such devices are the normal stock in trade of any state’s intelligence and security forces.
A Corbyn government would be one of genuine and radical reforms, like Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile. And as we saw under that government, every dirty trick imaginable would be brought into play to frustrate it. In 1964 Harold Wilson accused big business of conducting a “strike of capital”, and his economics minister George Brown denounced “the gnomes of Zurich”. In 1966 a conspiracy was underfoot to impose a royalist coup under Earl Mountbatten. More seriously, under the subsequent Labour government in the 1970s (swept to power by the miners’ strike after an election called by the outgoing Tory prime minister over the question: “who rules Britain?”), there was a mushrooming of private armies; military manoeuvres were staged at Heathrow airport; and the media were openly debating the viability of a full-scale military coup along the lines of Pinochet’s recent operation in Chile.
A Corbyn government would be undermined from the very beginning by economic sabotage, fabricated scandals, royal diversions, racist hysteria, foreign wars, assassinations and terrorist outrages both by far-right and Islamist fascists, each playing into the others’ hands, committed as the security services look the other way or even as fully-fledged false flag operations.
But by standing firm it could also count on the inexhaustible loyalty and support of tens of millions of working people, and transform the mood throughout Europe and the world.
A decisive period is coming. Labour must prepare itself theoretically, politically, and practically.