Brexit: it hasn't gone away y'know
A pandemic of repression is on its way
30 May 2020
After months of silence Brexit has returned to the headlines. It's sudden reappearance runs alongside a realisation that nothing has been done, and that a deadline of June 30th is rapidly approaching without any progress. The signs are that a slow motion car crash is taking place and that Britain is falling out of the European Union without any agreement.
There is little to be surprised about here. Johnson and his cronies have a long history of recklessness, bombast and of hoping that they can face down the opposition without any cost.
What is surprising is the lack of any opposition within Britain itself. The main reason for this lack of opposition is that Brexit is being treated as a singular vote. The vote has been held and the opposition declares itself democratically bound to accept the result. Behind this fatalism lies another reality. There is very little real political opposition. The Labour right-wing, now in control of the Party, are determined to be a loyal opposition, eventually winning over sections of the reactionary currents supporting Brexit. In any case their position of unconditional support for capitalist Europe has been weakened by the fragmentation and financial chaos arising alongside the pandemic and on the other side of the equation there are many on the old labour and trade union sectors who share the nationalism and anti migrant sentiment held by the Tory right.
But Brexit is not a formalistic difference of opinion about procedures. It is a major political offensive against the interests of the working class. It doesn't have an end point where the British will have "done" Brexit. Rather the depth of the crisis gripping Britain and the scope and intensity of the offensive will become greater and greater. Talk of a soft Brexit where departure from Europe would have a limited economic effect has long gone. The Brexiteers openly boast that a hard Brexit and the end of regulation (i.e, workers legal protections) will force higher productivity from the workforce. A central element coming back into focus is long standing Tory opposition to European human rights legislation and a determination to rewrite the book on civil rights alongside a crushing of economic rights.
As with many current right wing populist movements, past assertions and promises can be readily abandoned. Deals with Europe, with the US and with other countries have all turned sour but Johnson and company hope to press ahead under cover of the Covid 19 pandemic with the main strategy now being a kamikaze attack on Europe, hoping to split the opposition.
So, having given no ground, the British send a letter complaining of European intransigence. Their demand is for a deal like the one agreed with Canada or Japan, disregarding the low level of trade and the geographical distance of those countries. Alongside their proposals they list the tariffs that will apply to German cars and Irish beef. France will be barred from British fishing waters, which also includes the North of Ireland and Rockall for Southern boats. Beef from the Irish state will face crippling surcharges. Britain is negotiating with Europe as a whole, but each state has a veto and they hope to fragment the opposition.
In addition the Tories have published proposals that address the Irish land border and that are in essence a negation of the agreement already made with Europe. The only formal step is livestock inspection at Belfast harbour and the agreed border in the Irish sea will not occur. In fact the British deny the whole withdrawal agreement, describing it as a draft as opposed to a legally binding international treaty. The strategy by the British of fragmenting their European opponents has a number of major weaknesses. The first is the disparity of forces. Cutting trade in manufactured goods with Britain would reduce Europe's economy by about 6%, while British trade would see a 46% drop. Secondly, while the British can put the squeeze on individual countries, the European commission can also apply a great deal of pressure. The strategy may win Johnson some concessions, but it is not a game-changer.
More seriously, plan B, an alliance with the USA, has gone rancid. It was already common knowledge that eating chlorinated chicken and selling off the remnants of the NHS were part of the deal, but now Trump demands lockdown. The British would need US permission to make further trade deals, essentially lining up with Trump in a confrontation with China and in a policy of economic strangulation and military intimidation of US opponents.
For many on the Tory right this is not a bug but a feature. All the signs are that whatever can be negotiated with the EU is largely a sideshow. Under cover of the pandemic a new agriculture bill has just gutted both local farmers and the consumer, leaving the way open for a race to the bottom to reach the low bar of US standards. Alongside this a whole raft of Tory grandees are linked to UK/US bridge schemes aimed at sucking the marrow from the British public sector. Many of Johnson's allies are pressuring him to sign up with the US campaign of intimidation aimed at Huawei.
All this has taken place with almost no resistance. The EU are determined to hold to a level playing field - that is not to give the British market access while they tear up common regulation. It will bend a little at the edges but is more deeply concerned with an ongoing disintegration of the overall European project.
There is even less hope of a coherent resistance in the UK. Scotland and Wales, and even to a limited extent the fanatically loyal Unionists in the North of Ireland, have distanced themselves from England, but cannot themselves remain in the EU and have no radical project that could link to resistance in England itself.
Sir Keir Starmer has a cunning plan. He is to give Johnson his head in the expectation that he will realise that a deal is not possible in the given time frame. Boris will then have to back down and will lose credibility. The most likely outcome is that Starmer and his pals are likely to find their fishbowl smashed, gulping for air in a new Trumpworld.
Ireland will yet again rise from obscurity. It has been largely forgotten that it was Leo Varadkar who exchanged a backstop guarantee backed by all the European States for yet another British promise that, to the Irish government's surprise, has turned out to be false. Varadkar was widely praised in Dublin for his stupidity. The native Irish economy is heavily dependent on the British market, as is "the national herd", a patriotic term for big agribusiness. The Dublin government is also keen to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and prevent any unrest around the national question. The obvious response to an enhanced Irish land border, a united Ireland, is not even considered. Britain, having defeated the IRA, has little to fear in Ireland and thus has a significant advantage when it comes to dealing with Dublin.
Having sipped with the Devil and been disappointed, Dublin have little choice but to return to the table again. Luckily for them a class understanding of Brexit is almost totally absent in Ireland. Sinn Fein are ardent supporters of Europe and the main Socialist groups largely uninterested bar an odd whimper about "Irexit". However it is in Britain, where resistance should be most acute, that the left failure goes well beyond Labour. Trade union sentiment favouring British nationalism, the rancid rump of Blairism, the pliability of many socialist groups on the issue and the fervent pro-imperialism of much of old Labour has meant that the main target of the Brexiteers - workers rights - has rarely been an issue.
Boris Johnson shares Trump's flair for combining incompetence with reaction. No matter how hard he twists the arm of Ireland and other individual nations, Britain is unlikely to gain preferential treatment and a hard Brexit is by far the most likely scenario. The economic consequences of Covid 19 will be combined with a Brexit downturn in an economic catastrophe. US and British capital will close in on the British working class, on the public sector and on any regulatory restraints on profit.
We are entering a period of chaos. The government's support, firm only with a minority, is shrinking as the fog of patriotism and clapping for the national health service dies away. The indifference and incompetence of the government has led to one of the highest death rates in the world. Anger is growing as government advisors exclude themselves from the restrictions imposed on everyone else. Dominic Cummings, the right wing architect of hard Brexit, holidays on the family farm while workers are excluded from their parents death beds and many women are locked down with violent partners and no opportunity to escape.
If the British government is incompetent it shines beside the utter imbecility of a Labour movement back in the clutches of Blairism, a movement that thinks a pointed question at Prime Minister’s Question time is a major victory and that believes that letting Boris Johnson have his head until the Tories see sense is a viable strategy.
There is a large youth constituency, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, who might have become demoralised if not for the fact that desperate circumstances leave no room for demoralisation. There are immediate battles that can be won. The government has spent months praising a NHS that will now face privatisation as part of the deal with the US. A hard Brexit will seal off escape to Europe for many young people as a scheme to support workers’ income is phased out. Many workplaces can only maintain profitability if there are substantial changes to work practices and regulations to protect workers will be quickly watered down.
Socialists will of course be active in all these struggles, but the major task is to present a vision of an alternative future - of a society where we are not sacrificed to profit - where workers are free to travel across borders - of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and a United Socialist States of Europe.