Boris Johnson’s penchant for double-think reached new heights in September. In defence of the Internal Market Bill to Parliament he tried to justify taking legal powers that would break national and international law and turned reality on its head: “As we debate this matter the EU has not taken that particular revolver off the table. And I hope they will do so and that we can reach a Canada-style free trade agreement as well. Indeed it is such an extraordinary threat and it seems so incredible the EU can do this, that we are not taking powers in this bill to neutralise that threat, but obviously reserve the right to do so if these threats persist”.
The Withdrawal Agreement (the so-called revolver) is the exact same weapon he armed himself with during the 2019 general election, claiming it was an “oven ready” deal that would “get Brexit done!”. During its passage through parliament 20 Tory MPs were thrown out of the parliamentary Party for voting against it. The government has even spent months and millions of pounds setting up the infrastructure for putting in place the internal trading border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK: the provision that the government now says was unacceptable.
Britain’s contribution to breaking up the old international order
Hardline Brexiters claimed that tabling the Internal Market Bill was a display of British pluck, a refusal to be bossed around by the EU, and an example of “taking back control”. For those parts of the bourgeoisie opposed to Brexit it was another expression of the total irresponsibility of the government. All five living Prime Ministers spoke out against it. Even some long-term Brexiters such as Norman Lamont and Michael Howard found that this brazen threat to break international law was a bridge too far.
The government’s resort to such a desperate act, which amounts to holding a gun to its own head, expresses the further weakening of the whole of the British bourgeoisie. Only a few years ago the British bourgeoisie was a symbol of intelligence and experience; now it is reduced to threatening to inflict long-term damage on its international political, economic, military relations in order to somehow intimidate its European rivals.
The bourgeoisie has no hesitation in disregarding the law, but to do this so blatantly is not at all an expression of strength. Johnson is not the first Prime Minister to openly break international law. The US invasion of Iraqi in 2003, with the support of the Blair government, was declared illegal. Then as now, such an open flouting of international law was an act of weakness. The US had to try and impose its imperialist dominance after years of decline. Blair supported the action in the hope of improving the standing of British imperialism. The Johnson government’s threat to break international, and even national, law marks a qualitative acceleration of its decline.
Brexit is a humiliating experience for the British ruling class. For all its centuries of experience of ruling an Empire, and then boxing above its weight internationally even when the Empire had collapsed, it failed to contain its Brexit-supporting factions. A minority of the ruling class was able to use the growth of populist sentiment within the population, faced with decades of economic decline and a government that promised much but actually delivered even worse conditions – in a context exacerbated by the migration crisis of the mid-2010s - to win the recklessly called referendum. German imperialism’s growing domination of the EU weakened the influence of Britain; and this along with the economic impact of the 2009 economic crisis promoted support for Brexit within parts of the bourgeoisie. Since the referendum a political crisis marked by bitter factional struggles around Brexit has paralysed the bourgeoisie. The appeal to populism in the referendum and in last year’s election produced results for a faction of the bourgeoisie, but it has also deepened divisions within capitalism’s political apparatus.
‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ - leaders will emerge that fit the political moment. Johnson is the perfect expression of the moment. A politician whose only political ambition was to become Prime Minister. Beyond his ambition, and his image as a political buffoon (the opposite of the series of managerial types who had been previously been Prime Minister: Blair, Cameron, May) and a period as Mayor of London, he has no other political qualities. His adoption of populist demands such as Brexit had nothing to do with any principles but corresponded to his own personal goals, not necessarily in line with the interests of the national capital.
His government is formed by those loyal to him and the Brexit project, not for their political or administrative abilities. These second-rate politicians are dominated by Dominic Cummings along with other special advisors who have no party loyalty and an open disdain for parliament, including the Tory Party. They see the norms and structures of bourgeois rule as obstacles to their project to return to a fantasy world of Britain as a buccaneering free market world leader, and rival to the EU. Central to this aim is a concentration of control in the hands of a small faction, in order to bypass the restraints imposed on government by Parliament and the Civil Service - a system based on centuries of experience.
Rather than political cohesion and authority, British capitalism’s governing team is defined by its chaotic political vandalism. The impact of this vandalism on the traditional procedures of the Establishment has been clear in the pandemic. The incompetence of the government and its chaotic response to the health crisis has led to tens of thousands of extra deaths.
The government’s imposition of more centralised control, political and economically, is an attempt to try and contain this damaging loss of control. The collapse of the old imperialist blocs let loose imperialist, economic and political tensions that had been held in check by the threat of the other bloc. Today we are witnessing the acceleration of this process through the breaking up of the imperialist, economic and financial structures of the old bloc. Both internationally and within each nation state, the inevitable factional tensions within the bourgeoisie have been set free. The fear of the Russian bloc has gone, whilst at the same time the norms of the political apparatus are being cast aside. Instead of the usual jockeying between factions through long-agreed conventions, there is cage fighting.
The bloodletting in the Tory party around Brexit and the pandemic, or in the Labour Party around Corbyn’s leadership, are examples of these conflicts. Factional interest, short-term political and personal gain, and naked corruption are replacing the defence of the national interest.
Economic decline accelerated by the pandemic and Brexit
The Internal Market Bill is a provocation based on illusions about the EU being intimidated, on the idea that if Trump can threaten to rip up deals the Johnson government can too, and on a short-term political vision that the UK is too much of an important market for others not to make trade deals with it. All of which is fuelled by a fanatical believe in Brexit’s ability to breathe life into the UK’s economy. The contrary will be the case. Britain’s economy has already shrunk by a fifth this year owing to the coronavirus pandemic. A report from the London School of Economics warns that “the most immediate and visible impact of a no deal with the EU will be seen at the border, with risks of queues and shortages of food”. On top of this, “the total cost to the UK economy over the longer term will be two to three times as large as that implied by the Bank of England’s forecast for the impact of COVID-19.” The cumulative effect of the Covid crisis, a No Deal Brexit and the increasing internal chaos will be devastating. International confidence in the probity of the government has been severely damaged. Trade deals will be more difficult to negotiate and will be to the disadvantage of British capitalism: distrust of perfidious Albion will escalate.
The government’s inability to provide any coherent policy around Brexit or the pandemic (apart from the initial funds provided by the Chancellor) is frightening not only the more coherent parts of the ruling class but former supporters. What gives them nightmares most of all is that this increasingly chaotic mess is the best they could come up with given that Brexit has already profoundly undermined its political coherence.