Britain: political crisis intensifies as draft Brexit deal unveiled
19 November 2018
The unveiling of the draft agreement on withdrawal from the EU has intensified the political crisis within the British ruling elite - provoking a rash of resignations from the Conservative government; threats to overthrow the premiership of Theresa May; and warnings of dire consequences should it fail to win support in Parliament.
The draft agreement has brought clarity to a number of issues. One of these is the weight given to Irish concerns in the negotiations. Despite all the talk about Ireland being high on the agenda it was the relationship between the UK and the EU that was the overriding priority. Issues such as the Irish border were prominent but only to the degree that they could be used as a means to advance the EU’s broader aims. An EU that imposed 42% of Europe’s banking debt on the Irish people would have no hesitation in sacrificing them again to secure an agreement. Another myth that has been dispelled is one surrounding the influence of the DUP over the British government. When it came to formulating the draft agreement the British were prepared to override their objections - the unionist tail didn’t wag the British dog. If the DUP does have any influence it is because their views are shared by the most right wing elements of the Conservative party. On the European-wide stage the political and social weight carried by northern unionists is very limited.
The draft agreement - which
largely conforms to the demands of the EU - also reveals the relative weakness
of the UK. Despite the threats of walking away without an agreement
- the so-called “no deal” option - the British were forced to accept what
was offered. Theresa May’s earlier claim that “a no deal was better
than a bad deal” has now been completely reversed. And there is no
doubt the draft agreement is a bad deal that puts the UK in a worse
position than if it had continued as member of the EU. Its
main provisions include:
The terms of this agreement will be hugely damaging to the British economy. It is not the soft Brexit or the least worst option that many commentators are portraying it as. But given the relative weight of the parties to the negotiations (the EU’s $14 trillion economy, as against the UK's $2 trillion economy) this was likely to be the outcome. The overriding priority of the EU to preserve itself as a political and economic bloc - which required a clear demonstration of the disadvantages of Brexit - was always going to prevail. What the draft agreement clarifies is that the only choice there was (and continues to be) is not between a hard and soft Brexit but between Brexit and no Brexit.
For many arch Brexiteers the draft withdrawal agreement has dealt a bitter blow to their vision of how a post Brexit Britain would operate on the world stage. While they may console themselves with the thought that they were betrayed by government officials the truth is that their vision bore no correspondence to material reality.
In a global economy dominated by trade blocs and customs unions an “independent” Britain was always going to find itself in a relatively weak position. This weakness was exposed in the negotiations. It was also exposed in the lack of progress in advancing trade deals to replace the ones that Britain was a party to as a member of the EU. There was no evidence that renegotiating existing deals would produce better terms. There was also no evidence that Britain was advancing negotiations on new trade deals with other regions not covered by EU trade deals. Most of the trading blocs favoured negotiations with the EU rather than individual states. Many of the Brexiteers proposals on trade seemed to be based on the belief that the legacy of the British Empire would help the UK develop trading relations with former colonies. This ignored the fact that the days of colonialism and imperial privilege are long gone and that countries such as India are expanding economies and regional powers in their own right. They may be interested in trade deals but those deals will reflect the current power relationship between the two.
The much trumpeted US trade deal also came to nothing after it became obvious that it too would be unfavourable for Britain. Most of the negativity towards this proposed deal centred on the prospect of the US dumping cheap agricultural products (the infamous chlorinated chickens) into the UK market. While this was just one element of the proposed deal it did highlight how the US would use the relative weakness of Britain to force changes in regulations and standards not just in agriculture but across the whole economy (including public services). The fall-back position for the Brexiteers was that Britain did not need a deal with the EU as it would be covered by WTO rules which would allow trade to continue. This ignores the fact under those rules much of Britain’s trade would be subject to additional tariffs. It also assumes that the UK would be automatically admitted to the WTO. However, this is not the case and several countries, including China, have already raised objections over outstanding disputes. There are also doubts over the continued existence of the WTO with the Trump administration threatening to collapse the organisation. The current trends of consolidating trade blocs and increasing conflict over trade would place a British economy outside of the EU in a very vulnerable position. That some leading Brexiteers have been reduced to forecasting a fifty year wait for the benefits of Brexit to materialise really shows the weakness of their economic arguments.
Where the Brexiteers believe they are on firmer ground is on the question of sovereignty and the claim that it will enable Britain to “take back control”. Yet the likely outcome of negotiations shows this claim to be as dubious as those made on the economy. The reality is that Brexit, by weakening the economy and removing it from the political institutions of the EU, actually diminishes British sovereignty. It places the UK in the position of adhering to rules that it will have no role in formulating. One of the arguments made for Britain joining the EEC back in the 1970s’ was that a pooling its sovereignty with other states would increase its influence and arrest the relative decline Britain had experienced in the post WWII period. Brexit would be a complete reversal this long standing strategic orientation of British capitalism the consequence of which would likely be an acceleration of economic decline and a further loss of sovereignty.
While the arguments of the arch Brexiteers may be delusional they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have an appeal to a section of the capitalist class that sees a benefit in doing away with regulations and human rights. It is no coincidence that the models for post Brexit Britain are authoritarian states such as Singapore. If this vision was to prevail it would usher in a wholesale assault of the living standards and democratic rights of the British working class. While such predictions may sound alarmist it would be wrong to underestimate the irrational and destructive tendencies inherent within capitalism. The historical record shows that they have prevailed before and there is no reason to believe that they will not prevail again.
Conservatism and populism
The factional struggles within the British ruling class over Brexit are reflected in the current upheavals within Britain's traditional ruling party. While the Conservative party is often portrayed as the party of big business the need to construct an electoral majority means it's base of support stretches across class lines - encompassing not only the bourgeoisie but also the petit bourgeoisie as well as backward sections of the working-class. It was these latter two social layers that were critical in delivering the Brexit vote.
It is also the case that a faction of the capitalist class itself - based primarily upon finance capital - was also in favour of Brexit. Indeed, it was hedge funds that provided much of the finance for the various leave campaigns. This was evident at the time of the referendum and has become even clearer from the subsequent investigations into the networks that funded the advertising and mass data collection operations such as Cambridge Analytica. There is a notable trans-Atlantic character to this with some of the main funders of the pro Brexit campaign - such as hedge fund boss Robert Mercer - also being among the biggest donors to the Trump presidential campaign.
It is this nexus of finance capital and far right politics that has been the driving force of populist movements across the world. Their emergence in the period following the financial crash is evidence of the decay of capitalism and - as a consequence - the intensification of rivalries between different factions of the capitalist class. They fit the Marxist definition of populism as an attempt by a sectional interest to impose itself within the ruling class and upon society as a whole.
The rise of right wing populism - and the aggressive nationalism and racism at its core - also points to a growing rivalry between capitalist states. The intra capitalist rivalry operates not only on a domestic but also a global level - populism and imperialism are therefore completely bound up together. We see how inter imperialist rivalry has been ratcheted up over the recent period as the Trump administration seeks to restructure US relations with other states within north America and between itself and the other political-economic blocs in Europe and Asia. Much of this is currently centred around trade disputes with the US using tariffs and the threat of tariffs to impose terms on its rivals. One of those rivals is the EU and the Trump administration clearly sees Brexit - and more generally the rise of right wing populist movements within Europe - as a means to weaken it. Trump himself has explicitly backed Brexit and even suggested that the leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson would be a better choice for prime minister than Theresa May.
While such rhetoric from a president is new the US view of the EU as a rival or potential rival has a long history. Indeed, one of the reasons the US supported British membership of the EU in the past was the belief that its close ally would act to limit the ambitions of the bloc. Within the EU the UK has played a spoiling role - promoting expansion over integration and limiting the development of any independent capacity in the areas of defence and foreign relations. The danger for the US is that a UK outside of the EU diminishes its influence. For the British the risks are potentially greater with a post Brexit UK - that is more closely aligned with US interests than ever before - being viewed as a hostile entity by the EU. In this scenario the prospects of a so-called soft Brexit recede even further.
The dynamic of Brexit is towards greater confrontation between the UK and the EU. This is necessitated by not only the conflicting priorities of the two parties put also the unequal nature of their relationship. The demands of the Brexiteers - and their backers in the US - can only be achieved through a weakening of the EU. And though it appears contradictory - given its nationalistic character - Brexit if it is to have any chance of “success” has to be exported to other parts of Europe. This is why the wave of right wing populism has increasingly been organising on an international level with links being forged between various states and parties across the globe that ranges from the British Brexiteers to the Trump administration and the reactionary governments in Eastern Europe and most recently to South America with the success of the far right in Brazil. What we are witnessing is the formation of a right wing international promoting its own perverted version of permanent revolution. The irony is that when it comes to an internationalist understanding of politics the populist right is currently miles ahead of a left - whether that be social democratic or so called revolutionary - that cannot raise its sights beyond a national level.
Despite the recent success of the populist faction of the capitalist class it is still uncertain that it will be successful in imposing its programme within the ruling elite or upon society as a whole. In the face of the populist upsurge the dominant sections of the capitalist class are seeking to reassert themselves through their weight in the economy and influence over state institutions. In the US this is seen clearly in the opposition of many sectors of business to Trump’s trade policies. The warnings from business leaders - and from officials such as the Governor of the Bank of England - about the dire consequences of a no deal Brexit are evidence of this intra class struggle in Britain. In the face of this the most ardent Brexiteers within the Conservative party have been put on the back foot with their latest threats to overturn the leadership on Theresa May coming to nothing. Most of the right wing forces in Britain - whether they are leave or remain - are now consolidating around the approach to Brexit set out by the government. Whether this will hold remains to be seen but it does show the determination of the ruling class and the ruling party to remain united.
While there may be divisions within the capitalist class what all the factions - liberal, conservative or populist - are united on is the overriding priority to maintain their rule and to counter any potential advance for the working class or for socialism. In a period of acute crisis the ruling class will opt for fascist and authoritarian solutions over the most modest of reforms. This is the lesson of history and it is the lesson of today. It also points to the folly of a Popular Front strategy to counter the populist right that attaches the working class to a supposedly more “progressive” faction of the bourgeoisie. This can only end in disaster.
Labour and the working class
The working class must look must look to its organisations and parties. In the case of Brexit this means the trade union movement and the Labour Party. Unfortunately, their current position on Brexit is almost indistinguishable from that of the Conservatives. Rather than oppose Brexit and its ruinous consequences for the working class the Labour Party accepts the outcome of the referendum and says that a Labour government would negotiate a withdrawal from the EU.
It has put forward six tests on which to judge any withdrawal agreement. These include the UK having the “exact same benefits” as it currently has as members of the Single Market and Customs Union; and preventing a race to the bottom in terms of employment rights and conditions. The Labour leadership know these tests cannot be met. But rather than use them as a basis on which to oppose Brexit the tests have become a mechanism to appease various factions within the labour movement and to distance the party from the coming disaster. In practice the Labour party has adopted a position of passive acceptance of Brexit. Some left commentators have argued this is a clever strategy from Labour that will see the party sweep to power as the government falls apart. However, the sharp economic downtown and boost to reactionary politics that will follow from Brexit would not provide conditions favourable to the election of a social democratic government.
Labour’s position on Brexit has been in keeping with Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to most issues in which the preservation of the unity of the labour movement has been the overriding priority. In the case of Brexit the leadership has sought to balance between the Blairites who oppose Brexit (but also want to maintain the status quo) and the traditional right within the labour movement who want to pander to the anti-immigration sentiments of the most backward elements of the working class. Another current within labour (and which Corbyn has long been aligned with) is one that has opposed the EU on the basis that it is a barrier to the implementation to of a socialist programme in Britain. This current has a long history from the CP’s British Road to Socialism of the 1950’s, the Bennite movement of the 70’s & 80’s, the trade union backed No2EU of the 2000’s, right up to the present day advocates of Lexit. Despite their diversity the ideological thread that runs through all these is the proposition that socialism can be advanced at a national level.
In order to justify its stance the Labour party has indulged a number of myths surrounding the referendum outcome. The most common of these is the regional divide - that there was a marked difference in the views of Labour supporters on Brexit depending on where they lived. There is an assumption that most Labour supporters in the Midlands and north of England voted for Brexit. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of the disproportionate number of Labour MPs representing constituencies that voted Leave. While this supposed dilemma for the party has been used to justify the cautious approach of the Labour leadership it is not one that is actually based on reality. Various studies and surveys related to the referendum result have revealed that almost two thirds of Labour supporters voted Remain. It is also the case that most people in employment voted Remain. Moreover, levels of support for Remain among Labour supporters and people in employment were similar across all regions. Such research presents a sharp contrast to the lazy stereotype of working class people as being more prejudiced than other sections of society. This is not to say that there are not backward elements within the working class but by themselves were not decisive in determining the outcome of the referendum. They will also not be decisive in the election of a future Labour government - either because they would never support the party or in a general election many of them would vote on issues that took priority over Britain’s membership of the EU. Indeed, there was evidence of this in last year’s general election in which the predicted advances by the Tories in Labour held seats in Brexit voting regions of England never materialised.
If opposition to Brexit is high among Labour supporters it is even higher among the party membership with surveys showing ninety percent in opposition. This opposition was demonstrated at the party’s conference this year with dozens of anti-Brexit motions being submitted and a motion calling for the party to “support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote” being overwhelming backed by delegates. The Labour leadership has said that its preference is for a general election but for such an election to have a decisive impact Labour would have to adopt a position that was unambiguous in its opposition to Brexit and which would contrast dramatically with that of a Conservative party under the likely leadership of an arch Brexiteer. An election in which clear alternatives were posed would also deal with the argument about respecting the outcome of the referendum that the leadership has hidden behind. A victory for Labour under these circumstances would be a demonstration of a shift in public opinion and provide a mandate to change the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
While the above would be the best scenario on Brexit it may not be what comes to pass. The ability of the ruling class to hold together and impose their own solution - railroading a deal through parliament or holding a second referendum, or going for a hard Brexit if its populist faction wins out - cannot be dismissed. Indeed, given the slowness of the Labour leadership to evolve its Brexit position, these latter scenarios are probably more likely. The least that should be demanded of Labour is that they follow through on their six tests on Brexit and vote down whatever withdrawal agreement the government brings forward. The worst case scenario would be for Labour to support the withdrawal agreement on the basis that any deal is better than a no deal scenario. As the deadline for approval of an agreement approaches the pressure on the party to act in the “national interest” will be intense. Given the record of the Labour leadership and the trade unions on caving in to such pressure - most recently over allegations of anti-semitism - this is a real possibility. Such a move - by facilitating the ruinous consequences of Brexit and disappointing the hopes that millions of people (particularly the young) have invested in a Corbyn lead Labour party - would be a huge betrayal that would destroy any prospect of a social democratic government coming to power in Britain.
As the deadline for Brexit approaches the campaign for a People's Vote has been ramped up. This is the call for a referendum on the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU. Though not stated explicitly this is designed as a mechanism for stopping Brexit - the assumption is that a rejection of the withdrawal agreement would see the UK continue its membership of the EU. The People’s Vote campaign very much aligned with the interests of the dominant section of the capitalist class who favour the status quo. That can be seen in the financial sponsors of the campaign and also in its spokespeople who are drawn exclusively from the so-called “centrist” current within British politics that encompasses Blairites, Lib Dems and a section of the Conservative party. The main spokesperson for the campaign is Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell. Increasing interventions on Brexit by the former PM suggest that he is one of the main figures in this conservative opposition to Brexit even though his unpopularity keeps him off any public platform. Blair’s role highlights the weakness of a campaign that seeks to mobilise popular support but which promotes a brand of politics and accompanying personalities that have long been discredited. The conservatism of the People's Vote campaign is revealed by its hostility to the social democratic policies promoted by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. For them it is not just about preserving the status quo in relation to Britain’s membership of the EU but also in relation to politics and class relations within Britain. What they share with Brexiteers is an implacable opposition to anything - even the modest programme of reform put forward by Corbyn - that could give encouragement to the revival of a working class movement.
As it stands the working class in Britain - and more broadly across Europe - have been bystanders to the factional struggles within the capitalist class and the various bourgeois parties aligned to them. On Brexit the alternatives presented - whether they be for or against - all fall within the framework of continued capitalist domination. This goes unchallenged despite the supposed ascendancy of the left within the membership and support base of the Labour party. What this points to is a severe weakness not only in terms of organisation but also in terms of politics - of adapting to public opinion rather than advancing a programme that promotes an independent working class and pro-labour position. While we have no illusions in the reformist approach of the Labour party (even one lead from the left) its current position on Brexit is actually putting its own platform of modest social democratic reform in doubt.
The left (whether revolutionary or reformist) must oppose Brexit on the basis that it is wholly reactionary. It is reactionary in the political sense that it gives free reign to nationalism and racism but it is also reactionary in the economic sense in that it seeks to turn back the clock to a period when national economies and nation states were dominant. It flies in the face of the ongoing development of capitalism towards greater integration of markets and internationalisation of production. The delusion underpinning Brexit and the other forms of right wing populism is that these historical trends can be overturned.
Socialists shouldn’t concede anything to such reactionary delusions or retreat back to the perspective of the nation state. At the same time we should not hold any illusions in an EU which is irredeemably pro-capitalist and is irreformable. The recent experience of the bailouts and crushing austerity programmes imposed on Ireland and Greece are ample evidence of this. What the EU represents is a failing attempt by European states and capital to adapt to the integrating and internationalising trends within capitalism. It is the contradiction between these economic trends and the attachment of the European ruling classes to their own nation states that is at the root of the crisis and which is fuelling the rise of right wing populism.
Socialists, especially those
guided by Marxism, recognise that the tendencies inherent within capitalist
development cannot be reversed. Indeed, the nature of these developments
- particularly the expansion and integration of the working class - point
towards more favourable conditions for the achievement of socialism.
Of course this is not an automatic process - it is dependent on the creation
of an international working class movement which has socialism as its explicit
aim. This is undoubtedly a huge task and one whose realisation seems
far off. Yet the future of such a movement lies in the social and
political struggles of today and the solidarity that is being built across
national boundaries. One of these current political struggles
is over Brexit. While it will be fought primarily within the British
labour movement its consequences will be felt in many other countries (not
least in Ireland). Workers cannot afford to be reduced to bystanders
but through their own parties and organisations seek to shape the outcome.
For socialists in the Labour party and trade unions this demands the development
of a political position that goes well beyond a defence of Jeremy Corbyn.