This report on the national situation in the UK was adopted by a recent general meeting. Its aim is to examine the historical background to the present political mess afflicting the British bourgeoisie.
Brexit and the historic decline of British imperialism
The true depth of the historical earthquake that has been shaking British capitalism can only be fully understood by placing it in its international context. The Resolution on the International Situation adopted by the 22nd ICC Congress, updated the Theses on Decomposition and drew out the following points:
- Decadent capitalism has entered into a specific phase - the ultimate phase - of its history, the one in which decomposition becomes a factor, if not the factor, decisive for the evolution of society.
- This process of decomposition of society is irreversible.
- Populism is, along with the refugee crisis and the development of terrorism, one of the most striking expressions of the decomposition phase.
- The rise of populism is not the result of a deliberate political will on the part of the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie. It is an emanation of civil society that escapes the control of the bourgeoisie.
- The determining cause of this rise of populism is the inability of the proletariat to put forward its own response, its own alternative to the crisis of capitalism. In this situation of social impasse, the tendency to look to the past, to look for scapegoats responsible for the disaster, is becoming increasingly strong.
- The rise of populism has a common element that is present in most advanced countries: the profound loss of confidence in the 'elites' because of their inability to restore the health of the economy, to stem a steady rise in unemployment or poverty. This revolt against the current political leaders is a (reactionary) revolt that can in no way lead to an alternative perspective to capitalism.
- In the absence of a longer-term perspective of growth for the national economy, the living conditions of the natives can only be more or less stabilised by discriminating against everybody else.
In the period since the adoption of this resolution, the ICC has sought to deepen this analysis by placing this advance of decomposition within a broader historical framework. Central to this analysis has been the understanding that with the rise of populism we are seeing the terminal stages of the post-Second World War economic, imperialist and political structures. This is exemplified by the election of Trump and the political, economic and imperialist strategy of the fraction of US capital that he represents. This is a policy based on:
- the undermining of its main economic rivals (especially China) through trade wars;
- the support for the destabilisation of the EU through the encouragement of populist movements, Brexit etc, going so far as to call into question the World Trade Organisation (a pillar of post-war efforts to contain economic contradictions);
- the calling into question of NATO.
This attempt to overcome the USA’s economic and imperialist weaknesses by retreating behind the walls of the nation state, and doing all it can to undermine its rivals, is a direct challenge to the state capitalist policy of globalisation.
The main rivals of the US oppose this challenge. China, which has gained most from this policy, is presenting itself as the champion of globalisation. The EU has also benefited from, and is integrated into globalisation.
In this context of increasing struggles between the major powers over economic policy, the deepening of the economic crisis, along with imperialist tensions, will take on an even more chaotic character, threatening to throw world capital into lethal economic convulsions (due to the collapse of international cooperation) and explosions of imperialist tensions that could lead to the destabilisation of more regions of the planet.
British capitalism has been thrown into this whirlpool of international instability, chaos and accelerating tensions. A second-rate power, in danger of being cut loose from its most important economic market, has been left to fend for itself in a world increasingly marked by an economic policy of 'every man for himself' and protectionism. At the imperialist level, its ability to manoeuvre against its rivals in Europe has been severely undermined, while its ‘special relationship’ with the US has gone, with Trump openly trying to undermine the British government.
The end of Empire
Brexit is a major step in the historic decline of British imperialism from superpower to a struggling second-rate power. To understand the depth of this fall it is worth briefly analysing this decline.
The period of decadence has seen the decline of British imperialism, the ascent of the US, and the challenges of German imperialism, as laid out clearly by Bilan and the articles on the ‘The History of British Imperialism’. From the beginning of the twentieth century to the mid-1950s British imperialism strove to slow down its decline, particularly by greater exploitation of the Empire (exports to the empire in the 1930s were double those of the beginning of the century, as British capitalism bled the empire dry to offload the impact of the depression). However, US imperialism made very clear to British imperialism that the price of saving its bacon in the Second World War was the opening up and destruction of the empire, that is, the end of British imperialism's ability to use the empire as an economic and imperialist support. This marked the end of British imperialism as a world power, and an undermining of its economy.
This process of declining imperial and economic power did not happen overnight. Between 1945 and 1956 British imperialism tried to maintain its world power status by presenting Britain and its Empire/Commonwealth as a third global force. Labour and Tory administrations were consistent in their efforts to maintain a global role for British imperialism. This vision was the basis of the strategy towards Europe: that is, any developed relations with Europe had the aim of maintaining the UK's global position. Churchill pushed the idea of a United States of Europe, but in the context of his idea of the three circles of power: the US, Britain and Europe. This was basically the idea that Attlee, Bevin and the rest of the Labour government defended. It was the agreed position of the state. The main differences were over whether to maintain the idea of Empire and the Commonwealth, and the various ideologies which went with these ideas. Churchill maintained the idea of the leading role of the Anglo-Saxon race, whilst Bevin dressed up his defence of the continuation of the Commonwealth with ‘socialist' phrases. The idea of Britain’s role in a 'United State of Europe' was based on the assumption that the Commonwealth would also be involved in any such structures. Not surprisingly, the other European powers were not keen on subordinating their efforts to rebuild their economies to the interests of Britain and its empire.
This effort to maintain the Empire was constantly faced with the US’s insistence that the British open up the Commonwealth, i.e. subordinate it to US interests. The US also pushed for the British to be involved in Europe, as a counter-weight to France, and a possible emerging Germany, as well as to the Russian threat. The US also played off the other European powers against Britain. It supported the greater integration of the main economies. For the US, the idea of a ‘special relationship’ was a sop for the British to hide their humiliation. As one US diplomat pointed out, the US also had a ‘special relationship’ with Germany which was even more important given its geographical position and its re-emerging industrial might.
The British bourgeoisie may still peddle the myth of the ‘special relationship’ but they know full well that it is nothing but a fig leaf to hide their decline and the increasing power and domination of the US.
This was firmly underlined by the decision of Attlee's Labour Government to have an independent UK nuclear arsenal, and all the efforts the US made to stop this happening, or, once it had, to make sure that this arsenal would be subordinated to the US.
The dismantling of the Empire and its replacement with the Commonwealth increased the influence of the US on such important parts of the Commonwealth as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These countries could see that Britain had to have closer relations with Europe and that this would have an impact on their dependence on the British market especially in agriculture. This pushed them towards the US. As did the need to defend their own imperialist interests: the Second World War had shown that British imperialism, on its own, was unable to defend its interests militarily.
After the Suez humiliation
This disentangling of the Commonwealth was strikingly confirmed during the Suez Crisis when Australia, New Zealand and Canada refused to offer military support to the British/French/Israeli adventure and sided with the US in its call for the ceasefire. This robbed the British bourgeoisie of any illusions it might still have had about using the Commonwealth to back up its efforts to remain a world power.
Thus, not only did Suez graphically illustrate to the British ruling class that the US would not support it uncritically but also, maybe more importantly, the main Commonwealth countries now understood that their best interests lay in supporting the US. In two world wars British imperialism had been dependent upon the support of the Empire/Commonwealth: now it was clear it was on its own. British imperialism by 1956 had been robbed of its Empire and seen the most important countries of the Commonwealth abandon it in time of crisis. Its illusions of being able to maintain its global role were brutally crushed.
This situation removed the basis of the consistent national strategy which the state had followed since 1945. Now the British bourgeoisie was faced with difficult choices about how to defend the national interest in a world where it was now a secondary power, and whose economic and imperialist interests pushed it increasingly towards closer ties with Europe. Previously the British bourgeoisie had approached Europe as part of its global strategy; now it approached it as a visibly weakened power. This was at a time when the rest of Western Europe was undergoing the post-war ‘boom’, in part based on a greater economic and political cooperation. There were important parts of the bourgeoisie that had close ties to the Commonwealth and could see that closer relations with Europe meant loosening ties with the Commonwealth. The Labour Party had always been very hesitant and opposed to closer relations with Europe because they felt it made their management of the national capital more difficult. There was also a strong weight of suspicion of a re-emerging German imperialism across the state and its parties. Even these elements understood that greater integration with the booming European economies was vital to slowing down and perhaps reversing the dramatic weakening of the British economy, although they never wanted to be part of a federal Europe. The need to go to Europe cap in hand underlined to the whole bourgeoisie just how far British imperialism had plummeted in 60 years and was one of the greatest humiliations for British imperialism: it graphically displayed to the whole world the depths to which this once great power had fallen.
The British bourgeoisie, in the late 50s and early 60s, was thus faced with a multitude of rivals seeking to push it further down the imperialist pecking order. There were also strong resentments about the loss of Empire, towards the US for bringing this about, towards the Germans as an historical rival, and towards French imperialism as one of the leading states of the Common Market (the EEC). To defend the national interest in this morass of historical and contemporary dynamics posed a huge challenge to British imperialism
The US drove home the weakened position of the British by putting enormous pressure on Britain to maintain its military commitments around the world (at a huge cost to a weakened economy) and to join the Common Market. Even if the British bourgeoisie had wanted to maintain its independence the US would not have allowed it. All of which reinforced tensions. The US wanted Britain in Europe because it would serve to counter the ambitions of Germany and France, but also in order to try and bolster the declining British economy as a potential market for its goods.
There were still parts of the bourgeoisie that strongly opposed the Common Market for various reasons: parts of the Labour Party due to their vision of a strongly centralised and ‘independent’ state, supported by the Commonwealth, as defended by Benn, Foot and other Labour lefts. In the Tory party there were those who had a similar vision of Britain and who could not accept the profoundly weakened position of British imperialism. Both of these factions cooperated closely in order to oppose the Common Market.
Once the entry into the Common Market was confirmed by the Referendum of 1975, the Labour government clearly stated British imperialism’s intentions to do all it could to defend its interests within Europe and to oppose all moves that might undermine its position. The Wilson/Callaghan government, for example, began the negotiations for a rebate. Thatcher continued this attitude and was able to do it with more intransigence due to the needs of the economy, with her image as the Iron Lady and her rhetoric of the Right in power. There was no real change of policy, it was simply down to a more ‘hard-line’ stance. However, when it served the national interest, Thatcher was willing to sign up to greater economic integration. Thatcher’s stance was not seen as being anti-European. In fact, the radicalisation of the Labour Party, under Foot, in the early 1980s, was to a large degree based on its opposition to the Common Market and thus Thatcher. Here we can see the British bourgeoisie using the long-term euro-scepticism of Foot, Benn etc to their own ends.
The fall of Thatcher in 1990 is integrally linked to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Thatcher had always been hostile to Germany. Her unlikely friendship with Mitterrand was linked to their mutual distrust of German imperialism. This hostility became increasingly open and counter-productive when she organised a symposium on Germany, at Chequers, just after the collapse. This brought together academics and others who clearly all had very hostile views towards Germany. When this meeting and its findings were exposed, this placed British imperialism in a very difficult situation faced with the inevitable re-unification of Germany and all that meant to the balance of power in Europe. Thatcher was given the boot by her own party.
Britain all at sea in the “new world order”
The deepening of decomposition marked by the collapse of the bloc system has been the historical context for the unfolding of the increasing difficulties of the British bourgeoisie in defending its imperialist interests internationally and in the EU. The instability of international relations, the widening imperialist chaos, the growing difficulties in managing the political game, mounting corruption of political life, all served to make the question of the relationship with the EU much more complicated. Thatcher could get away with ‘hand-bagging’ her way around Europe, in the national interest, when the blocs existed: all the bourgeoisies had a common enemy. Once the Russian threat went the common interest became more complex. Each national capital had to find its own way in this “new world order”.
This unstable situation put into question the ability of the EU to stay together, but at the same time led to the strengthening of the tendency towards integration in order to counter these centrifugal forces. This situation placed British imperialism in a very difficult situation. No longer able to punch above its weight in Europe, it was faced with moves to greater integration in order to try and stabilise the EU. The national interest was best served by careful and subtle diplomacy in order to allow British imperialism to defend its interests. We see the policy of the Major government, appearing to be more pro-EU than Thatcher, but aimed at continuing the policy of limiting the ability of Germany and France to use the EU for their own ends.
New Labour maintained the same policy. The Labour Party’s ability to look less anti-European than the openly faction-ridden Tory party enabled British imperialism to manoeuvre more easily in Europe. For example, the British state pushed for the extension of the EU into Eastern Europe and the Balkans in order to draw in countries that were historically antagonistic towards German imperialism and with whom British imperialism could try to contain and limit German capitalism’s domination of the EU.
This aspect of British imperialist policy took a serious blow with the debacles of Afghanistan and Iraq. British imperialism's efforts to get the main EU countries to support the war produced hostility, whilst its retreat from Afghanistan and Iraq with its tail between its legs left British Imperialism even more weakened as an imperialist power.
“British imperialism will find it very difficult to find a way out of the impasse and all but impossible to regain the power it has lost. At a practical level, the scale of the cuts in the defence budget means that it will be less able to intervene. The contradiction between its ambitions and this reality is revealed in the almost comic decision to build aircraft carriers without any aircraft. At the strategic and political level, it has to continue to acknowledge the reality of American power in the world and German domination in Europe. While the growing imperialist power of China and to a lesser extent other emerging countries like India offer new fields for action it is unlikely that the former will become a serious challenger to the US in the near future while the latter remains focussed on its regional ambitions. Moreover, the imperialist situation will continue to be characterised by great complexity since there is no real dynamic towards the formation of new blocs that would impose some order on the situation. The inescapable reality for Britain is that like most lesser powers it is dependent on grasping opportunities from the evolution of the situation that is shaped by greater or better positioned powers. Increasing the size of the special forces may enhance its ability to undertake covert operations but these can rarely gain more than tactical victories. In terms of developing networks beyond the major powers Britain has relatively little to offer such powers while the baggage it still carries from the days of empire and the legacy of its arrogance towards lesser powers and peoples that it retained even after the sun set on the empire is a hurdle to forging alliances of any duration or stability.” (Resolution on the National Situation, 19th Congress of WR, 2010)
This continued weakening of British Imperialism took place in the context of the 2008 economic crisis. Within the British bourgeoisie this added fuel to the long-standing historical divisions over Europe. The EU did not look such a pillar of economic stability. This helped to feed the rise of a faction of the bourgeoisie calling for an exit from the EU in the interest of the national economy: “a significant development over the last few years has been the growth of the view that sees withdrawal from Europe as being in Britain’s interests. A few years back this faction seemed largely restricted to the likes of UKIP but the attempt to force through a referendum on Europe last year revealed that it exists within part of the Tory party... While this points to the spread of incoherence within the bourgeoisie, since leaving Europe is likely to weaken Britain’s economy, as well as leaving it more isolated on the imperialist stage, it is unclear how wide-spread these views are in the Tory party. We suggested at the time of the last election that the right is dominant in the party and in a recent update that the majority in the party is Eurosceptic; both points may be correct, but this does not imply they all want to leave Europe or that they agreed with last year's call for a referendum” (ibid).
The emergence of populism in the UK
It is against this background of historical decline and divisions about how to deal with this decline that the growth of populism and its destabilising impact has to be understood. The already existing divisions have become dominant factors in the state’s efforts to control its political apparatus due to the instability caused by the rise of populism.
The disaster of Brexit underlines the historical paradox facing British state capitalism: its ability to control its own political apparatus and the social situation is being undermined by capitalism’s own rotting entrails - by decomposition and its political manifestation par excellence, populism.
This paradox is further deepened by the fact that the policies of the bourgeois state have themselves nourished the growth of this political chimera that feeds on all the anti-social characteristics of capitalism.
The proletariat in Britain had been the centre of a well-coordinated strategy by the state to smash its main militant bastions and to break its confidence in itself, from the end of the 70s and throughout the 80s. The collapse of the US bloc and the international reflux in the class struggle had a particularly powerful impact in Britain on the back of the defeats of the miners, car workers, steel workers and others. This has led to a historically low level of workers' strikes throughout the last three decades. This has, in turn, generated an increasing sense of hopelessness and an idea of the pointlessness of trying to struggle.
The abandoning of whole regions of the country, especially in the north and in Wales has bred lumpenisation with the destruction of the local economies. This has led to cities, towns and estates being left to rot, with high levels of crime, poverty and despair, leaving them prey to the most poisonous ideologies
In this social situation of decomposition, the state under New Labour developed, along with the media, a sophisticated ideological campaign of demonisation and scapegoating of those on benefits, the disabled, immigrants. A ‘reign of terror’ was imposed around the social security system with increasingly more difficult criteria for receiving benefits. At the same time, ministers condemned those on benefits. In the media, the mocking and condemnation of the poor became popular entertainment. Systematic campaigns to generate Islamophobia were carried out in the context of the fear of terrorism. The whole social atmosphere has increasingly become a morass of scapegoating, hatred, ridicule and contempt.
Migration had also become a more prominent question. The Labour Party, through its support for the extension of the EU into Eastern Europe and the single market, used the influx of migrants looking for work to stir up divisions in the class, and as sources of cheap labour. The state was fully aware that the already chronic supply of housing, schools and health care was going to be impacted by its policy, but the ideological divisions of the class were a very powerful weapon to divert any reactions to the attacks into blaming migrants. To give legitimacy to these divisions Gordon Brown made promises of "British Jobs for British Workers" (an old slogan of the neo-Nazi National Front in the 1970s, and Moseley's fascists in the 1930s). The LibDem/Tory Coalition government continued these campaigns.
The power of the democratic mystification was also tarnished by the campaign that followed the collapse of the imperialist blocs. This emphasised that that now the ideas of Left and Right are old fashioned, it's the centre, the Third Way that's the way forward. This campaign reinforced the idea of the defeat of the working class and its disappearance as a social force, so that the political parties become the mouthpieces of an indistinguishable and distant political class with nothing to do with the everyday lives of the population, especially the working class. This bred a real cynicism.
This cynicism was greatly reinforced with a series of parliamentary scandals which exposed MPs lining their own pockets whilst the population was being told to accept austerity.
The sense of the parliamentary system being a remote and alien world with no real connection with people had been given further impetus by the way in which New Labour had ignored the mass protests against the Iraq war. These pacifist demonstrations were well-organised attacks on any real questioning of the war, but they also led to a deep sense that nothing could be done. This compounded the feeling within the proletariat that strikes were no longer able to gain anything and there was nothing that could change the situation.
When UKIP emerged, it had a simple answer to all these problems: leave the EU. Its leader Farage appeared to be all that most politicians were not: blunt, politically incorrect, and condemning of the elite. Support for UKIP was fed by disillusionment in the established parties, in a context where the working class was not able to make its weight felt in society. Effective opposition to the main parties became identified with UKIP and its bizarre politics and behaviour,
UKIP and populism also played on a reactionary desire in the population faced with the increasing complexity of the world situation for a return to the 'good of days' - to find safety and comfort in the apparent stability of the past.
UKIP also tapped into a deep scepticism about Europe linked to this reactionary nostalgia, which saw membership of the EU as a constant reminder of the decline of British imperialism and its place in the world. The idea of ‘making Britain great again’ has a real weight as it did in the US Presidential campaign of 2016.
The referendum as a response to the populist tide
The rise of UKIP, which emboldened the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party, posed a real problem to the ruling class. How to limit the rise of the political “nutters” (as Prime Minister Cameron called them), because they were destabilising the British bourgeoisie's manoeuvrings around Europe? They posed the danger of the Tory party becoming infected with populism and increasingly destabilising the party. This was the reason the Cameron government took the decision to hold the referendum - in order to try and face down the rising tide of populism.
Within the bourgeoisie there was great unease about this tactic. For example, the then Chancellor George Osborne opposed the idea because he was convinced that the Remainers would lose. However, the Referendum went ahead. This led to the greatest political disaster for the British bourgeoisie since the Second World War, casting it adrift in an increasingly complex and dangerous world situation.
Why did Remain lose?
1. The central fraction of the British bourgeoisie completely underestimated:
- the depth of disillusionment and anger within the working class;
- the ability of the Leave campaign to channel this discontent into voting Leave, making the Leave vote as much about delivering a rebuke to the 'elite' as it was about leaving the EU. Leave's ability to mobilise 3 million voters who had either not voted before, or who had stopped voting, swung the referendum;
- The Remain campaign paradoxically fed this vote by its constant threats that there would be more hardship for those who were already suffering the impact of austerity.
2, “Events dear boy, events” (as Prime Minister Harold MacMillan might have said). A cocktail of international events served to generate or reinforce fears about remaining in the EU:
- the crisis in Greece,
- the euro crisis,
- the wave of migration,
- the rise of China and the emerging economies.
With the Eurozone apparently drowning in a crisis, and Greece looking like it might leave the EU or would suffer a terrible price in economic pain for remaining, it did not make the EU look an inviting proposition.
The terrible wave of fleeing humanity from the Middle East and Africa was cynically used to play on existing fears about migration and terrorism.
Faced with an EU apparently racked by crises, the idea of trading freely in the rest of the world market, especially the emerging markets of China, India etc, offered a rational alternative to parts of the bourgeoisie who were not tied to Europe.
These combinations of errors and events led to the Remainers losing the 2016 Referendum.
The British bourgeoisie greatly weakened
The result of the referendum has many debilitating consequences for the British bourgeoisie:
- Its ability to manage its political apparatus has been deeply damaged and there is now open warfare between different factions of the British bourgeoisie as it tries to deal with the immediate, medium- and long-term impact of Brexit.
- Its international reputation was already in tatters. A once powerful superpower was now reduced to looking like it had shot itself in the foot. It had already weakened its international standing and ability to manoeuvre by the fatal decision to support the US in the Second Gulf War.
- This international standing was placed in even more danger by the election of Trump. The Trump administration, and those in the US bourgeoisie that back it, may have an interest in weakening the EU, but Trump soon showed that he was not going to treat the UK any differently to any other country.
- Trump's rise, above all his calling into question all of the post-war political, diplomatic and economic structures, pulled the rug from under the feet of those who said Brexit would allow a better relationship with the US and the rest of the world market. British capital is about to turn away from its main market at the same time as competition on the world market is entering a new period of intensity. This for an economy that is already very weak competitively!
- Socially the atmosphere has become even more soaked in populist hate, rage, irrationality, racism, violence. This is not just on the Leave side: the bitterness of those who voted Remain is equally as marked by hatred for the 'white working class', the uneducated, the North.
- The life of the bourgeoisie has been thrown into deep crisis, as it struggles to cope with the aftermath of the vote. The whole parliamentary agenda has been totally taken up with Brexit. The apparatus of the state has had to take on the task of negotiating Brexit and organising for it, but in a situation of great weakness. However, the civil service, the backbone of British state capitalism, has tried to do this, despite the obstacles created by the politicians.
- The very integrity of the UK is now in doubt. The situation with the Northern Ireland border is one where no one is satisfied. Everyone says there should be no border with the rest of the UK and a frictionless border with the Irish Republic. But Northern Ireland can't be both in and out of the customs union at the same time. Also, the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement has revived nationalist tensions in Scotland where already the Scottish National Party has been warning that it will call for a new referendum if they are not happy with the final deal.
- The complete disaster of the 2017 general election, which was meant to strengthen the hand of the Tory party by increasing its majority, has led to the worst possible situation, a minority government supported by unreliable Unionists, even further narrowing the bourgeoisie's margin of manoeuvre.
The bourgeoisie’s response to this disaster
The current dilemmas of the British political apparatus have fully confirmed what we said in an internal text we wrote two years ago, regarding the paradox of populism: that it is both a product of disillusionment with the “democratic process” while also serving to strengthen the totalitarian grip of democratic ideology:
“The populist parties are bourgeois fractions, part of the totalitarian state capitalist apparatus. What they propagate is bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology and behaviour: nationalism, racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, cultural conservatism. As such, they represent a strengthening of the domination of the ruling class and its state over society. They widen the scope of the party apparatus of democracy and add fire-power to its ideological bombardment. They revitalise the electoral mystification and the attractiveness of voting, both through the voters they mobilise themselves and through those who mobilise to vote against them. Although they are partly the product of the growing disillusionment with the traditional parties, they can also help to reinforce the image of the latter, who in contrast to the populists can present themselves as being more humanitarian and democratic”.
Since the calling of the Referendum there has been a systematic campaign to revive the whole democratic mirage that was becoming tarnished. Despite the disaster of Brexit, the bourgeoisie has been able to focus the attention of society on its parliamentary circus, and with renewed vigour because they are desperate to demonstrate that that 'voting does matter'. By voting for Brexit, millions of those who had not voted for years, or ever, had a direct impact on the life of the ruling class. After the Referendum it has been a question of 'will parliament respect the vote?' For those who voted to Remain there's the question of whether they should accept the result or call for a new referendum. All social questions are focused on Parliament. In October 2018 there was one of the largest demonstrations ever in London, with 750,000 people marching for a second referendum, without any support from the main political parties, or big unions, or most leftist groups. All social and political life, as portrayed in the media, has been reduced to 'You are either for or against Brexit'.
The success in the revival of Parliament and democracy within the wider population has had a powerful impact on the proletariat. It was pulled into the referendum. Those regions, cities and towns most impacted by the economic crisis through the destruction of industry and the spread of lumpenisation voted in great numbers for Leave, although in these areas there were difference between the younger workers and the older ones. In other parts of the country workers came out to vote in favour of staying. The proletariat was divided up into for or against, young or old, uneducated or educated etc.
Since the Referendum these divisions have constantly been reinforced with persistent messages about defending the “will of the people”, or the talk about whether Leave areas have now changed to Remain. However, the revival of the parliamentary circus could again be weakened given the inability of any of the political parties to put forward a coherent plan This would lead to the further growth of cynicism and anger about the mess of Brexit.
But, above all, the working class is left standing at the edge of social events helplessly looking on as the ruling class battles it out over leaving the EU.
This democratic crusade has also been used to smother discontent with the last decade of austerity and its effect on the proletariat. This report will not go into the detail of these attacks, but it is necessary to underline the way that the growing discontent faced with these attacks has been diverted into the Brexit carnival. The government has acknowledged that there is a growing discontent but say that while they want to stop austerity this cannot be done until Brexit is finished. Any idea of a response from the class is lost in this constant cacophony about Brexit.
The strategy of the bourgeoisie faced with populism
The contribution ‘On the question of populism’, published in 2016, lays out three strategies that the bourgeoisie has used so far to confront the populist upsurge.
“Firstly, that it is a mistake for the 'democrats' to try and fight populism by adopting its language and proposals…
Secondly, it is insisted, the electorate should be able to recognise again the difference between right and left, correcting the present impression of a cartel of the established parties.
The third aspect is that, like the British Tories around Boris Johnson, the CSU, the 'sister' party of Merkel’s CDU, thinks that parts of the traditional party apparatus should themselves apply elements of populist policy.”
Faced with the referendum and Brexit, the British bourgeoisie has used options 2 and 3.
Adopting the polices of the populists
The bourgeoisie’s political machinery has tried to steal the fire of the populists and the Brexit hardliners, through:
- The leading factions of the Tory and Labour parties accepting the result of the referendum.
- May appearing to adopt a hard line on Brexit (“Brexit means Brexit”), talk of “red lines” about leaving the customs union, etc.
- Both parties said they will end freedom of movement for EU citizens, and introduce ‘fairer’ migration controls.
The first result of this strategy of stealing the populists’ fire was the collapse of UKIP. This small victory should not be underestimated.
Creating blue water between Labour and Tories
Corbyn’s assumption of the leadership of the Labour Party may not have been planned by the bourgeoisie but it has certainly helped them to implement the second strategy. There is now clear water between the Tories and Labour. The Labour Party, whose image as a party representing the downtrodden, seriously damaged by the leadership of Blair and Brown, was now presented as a radical party interested in defending the working class once again. This image has mobilised thousands of young and other people to join the party, and importantly won back to Labour voters who had been tempted by UKIP.
The Labour Party has been shaken by challenges to Corbyn from the Blairite wing, including the 172-40 vote of no confidence by Labour MPs in June 2016, which Corbyn was able to ignore. He and his team have beaten off such challenges with a clever use of the democratic mechanism of the party: 60% of the party's members and supporters voted for Corbyn.
The vote of no confidence was provoked by Corbyn’s immediate reaction to the Referendum result, saying Labour will respect the result and work for Brexit, but on terms that will keep it as close as possible to Europe. The Blairite wing blamed Corbyn for the loss of the Referendum due to his lacklustre campaigning, but it is clear that, for whatever motives Corbyn himself may have, the Labour Party is still wedded to the bourgeoisie's attempts to deal with the impact of Brexit.
The various campaigns against Corbyn, plus the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by the state, have served to make him and his team more acceptable as a possible government. They are now in a position to defend the bourgeoisie’s policies, even including a second referendum if this is thought necessary, and to replace May if required.
All this might make it seem that social democracy in Britain is going against the general trend of the decline of socialist parties in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece etc. What must be added to the picture are the divisions within the British Labour Party. It is divided over Brexit, there is a division between the membership and the majority of MPs, and there is a division over whether to confront anti-Semitism in its ranks. Any of these divisions, if deepened, could seriously weaken the Labour Party. And, if it came to power, it would have to continue with the imposition of austerity, which would further exacerbate its internal divisions.
Trying to control the Brexit process
As the ICC has said since the Referendum, the bourgeoisie has accepted the outcome of the Referendum in order to steal the fire of the populists and also because it does not seem to have another option. To resist Brexit would pour petrol onto the flames of populism. Thus, the state has been working to try and control the Brexit process in order to gain the best deal it can, in a very difficult and unfavourable situation.
Both main factions of the two main parties accepted Brexit and the need to get the best deal.
Through May the state has sought to corral the hardliners through:
- May’s apparent support for the possibility of a no deal Brexit: “no deal is better than a bad deal”. This has left the hardliners wrongfooted because they did not know if she was really supporting this position or not;
- the inclusion in the Cabinet of all the main popular Brexiters: Johnson, Davis, Gove, and giving them positions of responsibility in the Brexit process;
- May constantly holding out the threat of a Corbyn government if the hardliners caused too much instability.
At the same time, the state, which controlled the negotiations, did all it could to get the best possible deal.
The final outcome of the negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement has shown that this strategy has at least allowed the state to negotiate some kind of deal with the EU. It also clearly demonstrated that May had been blatantly deceiving the hardliners with her claim that “No deal is better than a bad deal”
The fury ignited by the Withdrawal Agreement was not a surprise to the state and to May. Even before the Agreement was published, the government had informed the media of its details in a 4-week campaign to sell the deal. They used this against the hardliners to:
- expose Brexiters as having no coherent plan for Brexit;
- put those Brexiters still in the cabinet into a bind: either bring down the government or accept the deal. The decision of Michael Gove and others to remain in the Cabinet was a real blow against the hardliners;
- the European Research Group, a group of hard-line Tory MPs has been outmanoeuvred. They fell into the trap of talking about leadership challenges but were unable to mobilise enough MPs to call for the removal of May;
- the idea of a no deal Brexit, crashing out, has been made to look like the policy of arrogant and irresponsible hardliners.
This policy of facing down the hardliners appears to have had some success. However, given the depth of irresponsibility shown by parts of the bourgeoisie who have been nourished by the spread of the poison of populism and decomposition, this whole approach could lead to a new explosion.
The historic depth of the crisis engulfing the ruling class and its impact on society, especially the proletariat, cannot be underestimated. The state may be able to get its Withdrawal Agreement through, but this is only the first step. It still has to negotiate a future political and economic relationship with the US, along with seeking to navigate the increasingly stormy water of the world situation. A task that is going to underline just how destructive Brexit has been to the British ruling class, politically, economically and at the imperialist level.
Losing the relative stability it had when in the EU is going to create more and more difficulties for a ruling class that is already deeply divided over the policy for British capital in this new period. The complexity and instability of the world situation can only generate even more tensions within the ruling class itself. The instability caused by the divisions over Europe are a foretaste of those that will come as the bourgeoisie is faced with having to take increasingly difficult vital decisions about the national interest.
The outlook for the proletariat is very sobering. The impact of the ideological battering over the past few years and for the foreseeable future has been extremely harmful. The divisions produced by the referendum and Brexit will be used by the ruling class to do all it can to undermine the inevitable discontent within the proletariat faced with continuing austerity. The proletariat in Britain was already disorientated and demoralised before the Brexit fiasco due to the crushing defeats of the 1980s. Brexit and the initial periods following it are going to increase this disarray in the class.
However, the economic crisis will continue to deepen, and will be exacerbated by the economic turmoil caused by Brexit. These attacks will generate discontent and reflection, even among a weakened fraction of the class. But it will be the international struggle of the proletariat that will be vital to the ability of the proletariat in Britain to overcome the further setbacks it has suffered with Brexit.
The coming period is going to be one of deep and persistent problems for both the bourgeoisie and proletariat in Britain.
 International Review 159, https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201711/14435/22nd-i...
 The following articles are essential reading for understanding the historical context: - WR 212 and 213 ‘Evolution of British imperialism’, reprinted from Bilan
- IRs17 and 19 ‘Britain since World War 2’
- WR 216 and 217 ‘History of British imperialism’
 International Review 157, https://en.internationalism.org/international-review/201608/14086/questi...