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British gymnastics over Irish protocol

20 May 2022

British PM Boris Johnson examines a missile at a Thales facility during a visit to Belfast.

There is no doubting the reality of the Brexit crisis for Britain and Ireland. Both are contradictions obscured by fantasy. In Britain, the fantasy is that British capitalism can produce a land of milk and honey by breaking from Europe. In Ireland, the illusion is that the DUP privately support the Good Friday Agreement and that Stormont must be revived to resolve social and economic problems, despite its utter failure throughout its history to form a functioning administration.

Against this background the latest moves by the British government to break free of the Northern Ireland protocol have dramatically increased the political crisis in Britain. The latest move to break the Northern Ireland Protocol involves arguing that it has caused political collapse in Ireland. Boris Johnson has called in his DUP allies to provide evidence of that collapse by refusing to agree the formation of a new Assembly while publicly decrying their failure to do so.

Boris Johnson’s attorney general has received what is claimed to be legal advice from the government’s Chief Law Officer and Johnson toady Suella Braverman that it would be lawful to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This provides cover for Johnson and his unhinged foreign secretary Liz Truss to gut the Brexit deal.

The main part of the inane justification is the claim that the protocol causes such deep division and “societal unrest” in the North so as to damage the Good Friday Agreement. It is up to the DUP to provide evidence of such instability even in the face of generalised indifference amongst the voters and evidence that the area is obtaining an overall economic benefit from joint membership of the British and European markets.

There will be plenty of warnings about consequences in Ireland, but what is the strategy of British Tories and what impact will it have for Britain?

At the heart of Brexit is a Tory rentier class driven mad and seeking a promised land where workers have been pushed into the dirt and capital operates without restriction. This group have tapped into a deep vein of English nationalism and racism. The dreams of Singapore upon Thames have come to nothing and there is now a contradiction between maintaining political power and bringing about economic development. Luckily for the Tories the opposition forces are not willing to confront reaction. Corbyn dodged the question and Starmer promises to make Brexit work.  Many socialists and trade unionists avoid the issue.

The result is a cycle of decay. The government is mired in criminality and corruption.  The main qualification for government office is slavish support for Johnson. Even a police conviction is not a bar to government office. The recognition that Johnson is unlikely to survive as leader adds to the instability and allows Truss to outflank him as the standard bearer of English nationalism, hardening further the line on Europe.

The outcome is endless cycles of bluster: Threats to tear up legal obligations. Retreat from threats.  Pressure on Europe to do more. Failure to propose any solution. Any concessions are ignored in order to start the cycle again. It is not surprising that the recent programme for government presented at Westminster contained very little beyond widespread threats to human rights aimed primarily at migrants and at the right to demonstrate.

The Brexit break the law replay is a sign of the direction of travel. Johnson and Truss move to gut the Northern Ireland protocol. They simultaneously claim that this is nothing but an insurance policy and that they expect Europe to concede. The legal process buys them time with the hard right but they simultaneously have to avoid retaliation from Europe. The real British policy in Europe is on display in Ukraine, where special forces are embedded in an attempt to forge closer ties with the US and advance their own interests through military force. Johnson's Belfast visit to the Thales missile factory in Belfast, source of major shipments to Ukraine, may well have been the most significant element of his visit.

As legal action and fake negotiations drag on there will be further chaos in Britain. Living standards will continue to decline.

Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England, warns of "apocalyptic" food prices, saying he feels "helpless" amid soaring inflation. Covid-19 and the Ukraine war are named, but he also makes clear that Brexit remains a source of economic disruption.

The Tories have already provided the lowest level of protection in Europe for workers, shown themselves tone deaf to appeals for help and engaged in Thatcherite insults aimed at the poor, suggesting that they take up cookery and work longer hours.

Many face poverty and starvation, and capitalism will press ahead to maximise exploitation. Just how much this is resisted is shown by the withdrawal of many workers from the workforce, unwilling after Covid to return to the old wages and conditions.

The key problem is that of opposition. Sir Keir Starmer is a pallid tory, crushing any expressions of leftism, suggesting that he would more efficiently implement Brexit, so right-wing that he responds to charges of breaking covid rules by putting his leadership in the hands of the police - offering to resign if they reprimand him.

A savage battle will be fought by the more organised workers in the unions. Whatever pay deals are negotiated will fall far short of workers' needs.

Opposition will need a political core and that must be opposition to Brexit from a working class and internationalist perspective. How else are socialists to explain the tragedy engulfing the working class?

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