The British ruling class is in a mess over Brexit. Two and a half months before the March 29 deadline, parliament finally had its ‘meaningful’ vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, which lost by a record 230 votes. It’s not just parliament that is divided on the question, so are both the Tory and Labour parties. Parliament is vying for more government powers (eg Speaker Bercow allowing an amendment to insist the PM comes back to parliament with plans 3 days after losing the vote, when it is not allowed in the normal rules); Jacob Rees-Mogg has proposed parliament should be suspended. 2 months before Brexit is due businesses are complaining about the uncertainty of what will happen and particularly if the country crashes out of the EU with no deal.
How could such a thing occur in a previously stable bourgeoisie with a reputation for control of its political apparatus? For The Economist “The crisis in which Britain finds itself in large part reflects the problems and contradictions within the idea of Brexit itself” (19.1.19). But this hardly explains why it has exposed itself to these problems and contradictions, why the Cameron government, which despite the divisions in the Tory party was firmly in favour of remaining in the EU, should hold an in/out referendum and both main parties promised to honour the result. Something has changed since the Major government was plagued by the Eurosceptic “bastards” making things difficult but never able to fundamentally change the policy of remaining in the EU. Since then we have seen the growth of right wing populism on an international scale with its strongly nationalist, anti-immigration and “anti-elitist” ideology. These are all clearly bourgeois themes that have been used by governments of left as well as right (such as the Blair government’s condemnation of “bogus” asylum seekers and May’s infamous “hostile environment” for immigrants) but the populist forces are irrational and disruptive as we see with the current Italian populist government, the Trump presidency and Brexit. In France populism has heavily influenced the Yellow Vest protests. Populism has taken the form of Brexit and UKIP in Britain, and found a substantial echo in the Tory and Labour parties, because of the divisions that had already opened up during the UK’s decline from a global imperialism to a second rate imperialist power over the last hundred years (see ‘Report on the British situation’ pages 4 and 5). If the ruling class is heading for the Scylla of Brexit it is above all because of its efforts to avoid the Charybdis of populism.
Ruling class forced onto rocks of Brexit by populist tide
Everyone can criticise May’s Withdrawal Agreement. Brexiters don’t like it aligning UK regulations to the EU to avoid a hard Irish border – some of them would be happy with no deal; Corbyn wants it to do the impossible, keep in a customs union with the EU while also avoiding the free movement of labour; some Remainers want to have a new “people’s vote” in the hope of overturning Brexit. Yvette Cooper is calling for a delay so government and parliament can agree a deal. Some of the hard Brexiters such as Rees-Mogg have been making noises about possibly supporting a new deal. But unless it crashes out with no deal the final settlement is not up to Britain, but the 27 EU countries.
Uncertainty reigns throughout the bourgeoisie. Businesses want certainty so they can prepare. NHS departments are discussing how they will manage the supply of medication. The CBI is warning a no deal Brexit would lead to an 8% loss in GDP, and its director general, C Fairbairn, said “At my meetings at Davos there is a recognition that the causes of vulnerability of the global economy now include Brexit” (Guardian 24.1.19). She went on to note that it is leading to a questioning of the UK’s global brand, and emphasised the need to rule out no deal to protect investment and jobs. Businesses, including the NHS, need the post-Brexit immigration model to continue to allow the immigration of workers from the EU earning less than £30,000.
The importance of keeping the Irish border open, insisted on by the EU, which is causing so much consternation to Brexiters who don’t want to be aligned to EU rules, is one of the pillars of the Good Friday Agreement. Since power sharing has broken down for months as the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot agree, the border is what remains in operation. As if on cue to remind everyone what is at stake, the New IRA set off a car bomb outside a court in Derry on 19 January.
The problem of Brexit is widening divisions in both the Tory and Labour parties. If the strong Brexiter wing among conservatives is obvious, we should not forget that in 2016 there was a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn by the parliamentary LP because he was such a reluctant Remainer, and was widely blamed for the referendum result. The divisions in the LP were widely thought to threaten its unity in 2016 and the 2017 election only reconciled the PLP to put up with Corbyn temporarily. The difficulties in the LP should not surprise us when we look at what is happening across Europe with the Socialist Parties in France and Spain being largely eclipsed by France Insoumise and Podemos respectively. Nor when we see the poor showing of the German SP after years in a grand coalition with Angela Merkel.
One of the reasons Theresa May has consistently given for ruling out a second referendum, despite the impasse of the Brexit deal, the weakening of the UK’s economy and standing in the world, and the likelihood of a change of opinion, is essentially the fear that it would stir up a loss of confidence in democracy and thus open the door to a populist-influenced social unrest.
Divisions used against the working class
While the government is more immediately afraid of populism, it is the “executive organ” of a capitalist class that can never forget the threat posed by the working class. We saw this when the PLP was temporarily reconciled to Jeremy Corbyn after the better than expected election result, showing he could mobilise a number of young proletarians who were previously disaffected with politics. It is shown by Theresa May, after losing the vote on the Brexit agreement, being at pains to try to meet all important political figures to discuss the next steps, including TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and leaders of Unite, GMB and Unison. Not that the unions speak for the working class – they don’t. They play the role of understanding the mood of the workers, just how far they can be pushed in the imposition of austerity and lay-offs before they react, and of keeping any struggles within safe legal boundaries. The fact that they have been consulted, and that May was so keen to emphasise the need to keep workers’ rights, is evidence that the bourgeoisie has not forgotten about its gravedigger, in spite of its more immediate concern with populism.
It would be a great mistake, however, to think that the disarray in the ruling class in the face of populism is helpful to the working class. Right now there is a historically low level of strikes and the proletariat is finding it very difficult even to recognise itself as a class. It risks falling for and being divided along the lines of the various ideologies put forward by the ruling class. None of these ideologies, for Brexit or Remain, for referendums or parliament, have anything to offer the working class. Whichever way Brexit goes, the world economic crisis will continue to deepen, and in response all factions of the bourgeoisie will be obliged to press ahead with austerity and new attacks – and they will no doubt be blamed on the referendum result even if very similar attacks are being imposed on workers elsewhere, either inside or outside the EU.
For the workers to resist attacks they must unite and struggle together. Capital can only divide us: Brexiteer against Remainer; ‘white working class’ in the North against more ‘cosmopolitan’ workers in London; old against young who have to live with the consequences of the vote; ‘native’ against immigrant. Let us not forget that both Labour and Tory parties are in favour of limiting immigration to those needed by capital, and both are quite capable of blaming lack of health services and schools on the newcomers after running them down for decades. Above all we must not be caught up in campaigns for or against populism.
The danger of being caught up in populism is evident in its open nationalism and obvious will to divide workers between ‘native’ and immigrant – for example UKIP’s poster showing immigrants in Europe to frighten people into voting Leave. Internationally we can see the same themes from AfD in Germany, Trump with his wall and “bad hombres” in the USA, the refusal of immigrants in Italy. We see the same themes in the Yellow Vest protests that started in France, a “popular revolt” that actually undermines the ability of workers to struggle: “This ‘popular revolt’ of all the ‘poor’ of ‘working France’ who can’t ‘make ends meet’ is not as such a proletarian movement, despite its sociological composition. The great majority of the ‘gilet jaunes’ are workers, paid, exploited and precarious with some not even affected by the SMIC (minimum wage), without counting the retired who don’t have the right to the minimum pension. Living in isolated urban or rural areas, without public transport to get to work or children to school, these poor workers need a car and they are thus the first to be hit by the increase in petrol taxes and new technical requirements for their vehicles…
The explosion of the perfectly legitimate anger of the ‘gilet jaunes’ against the misery of their living conditions has been drowned in an inter-classist conglomeration of so-called free individual-citizens. The rejection of ‘elites’ and politics in general makes them particularly vulnerable to the most reactionary ideologies, notably extreme-right xenophobia. The history of the twentieth century has largely demonstrated that it is the ‘intermediate’ social layers (between proletariat and bourgeoisie), notably the petty-bourgeoisie who make the bed for the fascist and Nazi regimes (with the support of bands of hateful and vengeful lumpens, blinded by prejudice and superstitions which hark back to the dawn of time).” (https://en.internationalism.org/content/16621/police-violence-riots-urba...).
The divisiveness of populism does not mean we should fall for anti-populism, with its illusions in liberal democracy, or the Labour Party, which has also attacked the working class every time it has been in government (yes, even the Atlee government which brought in the NHS) and restricted immigration when capital did not need such an expanding workforce. We must not be drawn in to supporting one ideological cover for the capitalist state over another. Above all we must reject the idea of blaming a section of the working class for populism. We have to remember that whether unemployed in a rundown industrial area, on zero hours for one of the new internet businesses, struggling with student debt, or worried about living on a declining pension, we are all part of the same class, and the capitalist state and all its political forces are our enemy. Alex 26.1.19