The election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, with a large majority, which meant the end of the parliamentary logjam and brought the UK’s formal departure from the EU on 31 January, would appear to mark a decisive break from the political crisis that has engulfed the British ruling class over the past few years. The political paralysis was ended by a simple process: Labour and the other opposition parties agreed to the holding of an election, the Tories campaigned round the basic theme of “Get Brexit Done”, the electorate trooped into the polling booths, and, fed up with years of arguments over Brexit, delivered an unambiguous majority for the Conservatives, despite their presiding over the last decade of austerity.
British capitalism has left the EU but the social contradictions that generated the deep political crisis of the ruling class over the past few years have not evaporated. Internationally, over 50 years of deepening economic contradictions and crises have led to a situation of acute economic tensions between the main capitalist powers. The US, China, and the EU are all locked into deepening trade wars. The US faced with its competitors and its own lack of competitiveness is desperately seeking to use any means to undermine its rivals. At the imperialist level the collapse of the Eastern Bloc has not led to a New World Order but bloody chaos as the declining US superpower desperately seeks to impose itself on its rivals. The social stalemate between the bourgeoisie and proletariat means that the economic, social and political contradictions of a dying capitalism are daily exacerbated. This situation of advancing decomposition has also made it increasingly difficult for the bourgeoisie to maintain control of its political apparatus
Out of the bowels of this rotting system has emerged populism. This is the expression of despair, frustration, and the anger generated by capitalism’s crisis that the existing political parties seem to have no response to, and the populists are able to exploit and manipulate. The populist politicians have big uncosted spending plans for the national economy, but mostly offer scapegoating, of immigrants, Islam, and the EU, and also the ‘elite’ that has ignored the needs of the ‘native’ population.
An ideological assault on the proletariat
Johnson’s victory will not solve the problems of British capitalism, but it marked the culmination of an ideological assault on the working class where everything was reduced to the question of leaving or remaining in the EU, of a deal or no deal, of a soft or hard Brexit. All of these questions were supposedly either ‘solved’ with the referendum of 2016, or conclusively solved with the 2019 general election.
The bourgeoisie wants to convince the working class that voting really matters, that it can have a ‘voice’ in bourgeois democracy. Johnson’s courting of parts of the working class in the North and Midlands is meant to reinforce this illusion. The working class appears to be back in fashion with the main parties after years of seeking to prove it no longer really existed whilst brutally attacking it.
The Tory Party under Theresa May was getting nowhere in parliament and declining in the polls, but, as soon as Johnson took over, the polling figures for the Tories started climbing and continued to climb up to the election. The election was not won by the Tories but by a combination of Labour’s contradictory and incomprehensible policies, and by the opportunism of Johnson and those around him, particularly Dominic Cummings his chief advisor. Without Johnson the Tory party would not have won. The British bourgeoisie has been reduced to relying upon a political chancer who shamelessly mobilised populist sentiments in order to further his rise to power. There was no other politician who had the necessary lack of scruples to wage the bitter factional struggle within the Conservative Party and then during the election campaign.
Johnson and Cummings framed the political conflict as ‘parliament against the people’, with Eton and Oxford educated Johnson as the figurehead of ‘the people’. The prorogation of parliament, the battles in the courts, the provocative statements of Johnson and his backers, all created an atmosphere of crisis and confrontation, of division between leave and remain, between the supposed ‘elite’ and those ‘left behind’.
This atmosphere was kept up during the election. The Tory party brazenly issued false and manipulated videos of their opponents, set up false websites, etc. The shamelessness of Johnson’s lying reached such a level that during a TV debate the audience laughed when he talked about trust. All of these tactics had been learnt from Trump and other populist campaigns.
Johnson, while using the tactics developed by Trump, is not simply the British Trump. He is not a newcomer to the Tory party. He grew up within the ‘establishment’ but, much like Trump, he has shown no scruples and ridden the populist tide, and, like Trump, he has used an established party to satisfy personal ambitions. Like Trump, he also understands that his lying, provocative statements will not damage his standing with parts of the population.
A further similarity is the tendency to ride roughshod over long-standing traditions and impose a more dictatorial form of rule. Johnson’s February ministerial reshuffle, in which Chancellor Sajid Javid was compelled to resign, showed that, with the control of special advisers, Johnson/Cummings will try to keep tight control of the executive, and also that there will be no rigid fiscal controls by the Treasury. This will open the door to a populist version of big-spending Keynesianism, illustrated by schemes like HS2, that will supposedly benefit the North and other more deprived areas.
However, Johnson is not Trump’s man in Britain (that’s Farage) and he and his team are aware of the bitter price that the bourgeoisie had to pay for getting too close to US imperialism in the early 2000s. The dispute between Trump and Johnson over the use of Huawei in the UK technical infrastructure is one example of the real divisions between the UK and the US. On the other hand, the Americans are aware of the UK’s weakened position when in search of trade deals, which make British capitalism vulnerable to US demands. And with the EU talking tough as it enters post-Brexit trade talks, there is still the possibility that Britain will be faced with the consequences of a no-deal, which would further weaken Britain’s economic standing in the face of a looming world recession.
Possibility of the break-up of the UK
The integrity of the British state has been put into question by the Brexit fiasco. The Scottish National Party has dominated the Scottish Parliament since 2011 and Scottish elections to the UK parliament since 2015. The SNP took Tory, Labour and Lib Dem seats in the 2019 election. The very size of the Tory victory in England and Wales has reinforced the ambitions of the SNP, who prosper by denouncing the rule of Johnson, the caricature of a typical English toff. Preventing the break-up of the UK, which is implied by the drive for Scottish independence, is going to be a challenge for the British bourgeoisie. With Johnson’s history of open disdain for Scottish independence, there is every prospect of growing conflict between London and Edinburgh
Even before the election there was an accentuation of tensions in Northern Ireland. Unlike May, Johnson had no deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. Indeed, in order to remove the backstop from the withdrawal agreement with the EU (which means there will be an effective border between Britain and Northern Ireland) the DUP were not just ignored but thrown under a bus. The DUP had kept the Tory party in power after 2017, but dismissed by Johnson in order to get a deal. Northern Ireland is now in a situation of half in, half out of the EU. This will further fuel the tendencies toward the break-up of the UK.
The cohesion of the political apparatus in danger
The latest electoral defeat for the Labour Party has opened up the prospect of its fragmentation. In other European countries ‘Socialist’ parties have been in a process of decline, but in Britain the rise of Corbyn produced a growth of the party, and in the 2017 election produced an outcome that was better than generally expected. But now the very much reduced circumstances of the Labour Party might begin to make it irrelevant as an opposition and, with no prospects of a return to government, the opportunity for further conflict within the party. The danger for the ruling class is that Labour might tear itself apart when it is still required to play a role in the democratic pantomime.
Meanwhile, with the size of the Tory majority, and with a large number of MPs with no government role, the possibility of divisions within the Conservative Party turning into renewed conflicts cannot be discounted. The parliamentary jam has been cleared, but that gives space for the eruption of underlying divisions. The likelihood of further economic decline for Britain outside the EU means that the political apparatus will have an important role to play against any response from the working class.
As things stand, in 2019 the working class was drawn into the charade of parliamentary elections again, with all sides saying that it was a crucial election, the most important in a generation etc. At this level it was a success for the forces of bourgeois democracy. However, the strains and tensions within the political apparatus show that the problems for the bourgeoisie in controlling the situation have not diminished. The current British Prime Minister is an unpredictable chancer whose line of march can’t be easily gauged; the main political parties are still riven with divisions; the main opposition party is a shadow of its former self, and the break-up of the United Kingdom is not a far-fetched fantasy. ‘Global’ Britain has plenty of political problems ahead.