British patriots have been singing “Britannia rules the waves” since the 18th century. But in 2020 the situation has completely changed: the waves of the pandemic, of divisions within the bourgeoisie, of the international trade war, and imperialist tensions all wash over British capitalism. With the decision to opt for Brexit and turn away from the EU, by far its largest trading partner, and by the absence of any real alternative options, the UK is sailing without a map or compass and is completely at the mercy of the waves.
As we have written in many previous articles, since the Second World War the UK has lost its status as an imperialist power of the first rank while membership of the European Union did not mean a recovery of the status that the British bourgeoisie desperately longed for. Isolated, weakened and divided, the UK is faced today with several serious challenges which it will have to face between now and 2021.
The irresponsible ‘return to normality’ … before a return to semi-lockdown
Test, track and trace. This was the mantra for the UK government for fighting the coronavirus, easing the lockdown restrictions and returning the country to ‘normal’ conditions. Both the app and the manual contact tracing are part of the larger strategy to contain the virus. However, up to now, all the experiments with the app have failed and massive testing has not been followed up by a rigorous contact and tracing operation. Shortages in human contact tracers and a permanently overwhelmed system - it has been completely inadequate.
Moreover, the number of infected people that are prepared to cooperate with the NHS to trace the source of the infection has fallen well below the level of what is needed. This is certainly linked to decreased confidence in the government, especially after May when chief adviser Dominic Cummings spectacularly broke lockdown rules and travelled hundreds of miles away from London. The inclination to comply with government instructions was seriously undermined by this. After six months the government has not yet succeeded in implementing an effective strategy against the virus and has to resort to on/off local lockdown measures, rule of six, bars closing at 10 pm etc.
On 2 September infections were on the rise and the R factor in the UK stood at 0.9-1.1, which is a risky figure to ‘return to normal’. The government nevertheless decided that restrictions should be eased and workers pushed to get back to the workplace. But this decision was met with resistance by local authorities in Northwest England who were faced with a new rise in Covid-19 cases. At the last minute it was decided to keep the local lockdown rules in place after all, which signified yet another U-turn by the government, aggravating the chaos and showing the lack of control of the pandemic.
The completely irresponsible strategy of the government became apparent on 22 September when the UK recorded nearly 5000 new lab-tested cases of coronavirus, the highest daily spike in infections since May 7, and Johnson’s government was forced to abandon its campaign to ‘reopen the economy’. Between mid-August and mid-September the situation seriously worsened as the number of daily virus infections quadrupled and the R factor rose from 1.1 to 1.4. The appeal by the government to return to work in early September had been a big ‘adventure’ with a lot of casualties. The growth of a second wave of infection appears to be a direct result of the failed attempt to ‘return to normal’.
The endangering of public health for sordid economic interest, along with the overall incompetence of the government’s response to the pandemic, which has cost already at least 60,000 deaths (taking the excess deaths estimate) - these are striking expression of the decline of the capitalist state’s ability to manage society.
On a collision course with the European Union
In September the UK and the EU had their eighth round of negotiations with zero result. Both sides have entrenched themselves and do not intend to budge an inch, while accusing each other of sabotaging the talks.
After the Withdrawal Agreement was concluded in October 2019, and signed on 24 January 2020, it opened up a transition period in which negotiations could start on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. They agreed a broad ‘economic partnership’ between them, with a ‘level’ playing field’ in terms of trade and for ‘open and fair’ competition. This agreement was approved in parliament with all Tories voting in favour. The ink on the agreement had barely dried when the campaign started against certain clauses in the Withdrawal Agreement which supposedly infringed on UK sovereignty.
A notable moment in the campaign came in July when a report by the Centre for Brexit Policy (CBP) warned that the Withdrawal Agreement could jeopardise Britain’s freedom from Brussels’ control since it contains “poison pills” which will undermine British sovereignty and could leave the country with a debt of £165 billion. The CPB report advised Boris Johnson to renegotiate the agreement. At the beginning of August the European Research Group insisted that the closing deal with the EU should include revisions to the Withdrawal Arrangement. This was followed by a statement from ex-Tory Leader Iain Duncan Smith, leaving no doubt whatsoever about the intentions of hardline Brexiters toward an eventual deal with Europe. “We became a sovereign country earlier this year and the EU must start treating us as such.” The populist agenda is still being followed, regardless of its impact on relations with the EU.
The UK now calls, in the words of chief negotiator David Frost, for “sovereign control over our own laws, borders and waters” which includes the Irish Sea, as laid down in “The UK’s Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol”. This document simply denies the fact that, according to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Irish Sea will become the EU’s external border, since, post-Brexit, Northern Ireland would continue following European customs rules.
Negotiations with the EU look doomed to fail and as the end of the year approaches the no-deal option becomes even more likely. Frost “is ‘in complete lockstep’ with Mr Johnson’s view that the UK doesn’t have something to worry from no-deal”. But the failure to reach an agreement with the EU will certainly provoke heightened tensions in the UK, disruptions to the closely integrated all-Ireland economy, and an increase in tensions between the UK and the Irish Republic. A no-deal Brexit will lead to a hard border between the South and Northern Ireland, creating an extremely complex and explosive situation.
Increasing disputes and clashes between England and Scotland
Despite an initially shared approach, in the course of the lockdown Scottish policy began to differ from England, leading to great internal differences in a way not seen before. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, increased the fissure between Edinburgh and London by refusing to ease lockdown measures, when Boris Johnson first announced his plan for a gradual ‘return to normality’. From that moment on the different parts of the UK followed four separate ‘roadmaps’ out of the lockdown, with different rules for everything from working to schooling to shopping. Crossing the UK’s internal borders has become a constant cause of confusion…
At the end of June, a petition signed by several thousand people in Scotland called on Edinburgh to close the border as a precaution. Sturgeon replied that there was “no plan” for such a measure, but was prepared to “consider all possible options”. Her declaration that she did not rule out quarantine measures on other British citizens coming to Scotland provoked huge protests.
Johnson rejected the idea of quarantine for visitors to Scotland coming from other parts of the UK. He said it was “deeply irresponsible, damaging and divisive talk” and that there was no such a thing as “a border between Scotland and England” as he dismissed any move towards an independent Scotland or a new Scottish referendum.
When Johnson visited Scotland in July, he said that the “sheer might of our Union” had helped to protect Scotland and saved 900,000 jobs in Scotland during the pandemic. Since he did not meet with Sturgeon, she replied to him in a tweet saying that “one of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen.”
Another cause of tension is the intention of the UK government to refuse any say to the other parts of the UK in industrial subsidies and to deny any jurisdiction over state aid policy once the Brexit transition period expires, as laid down in the UK Internal Market Bill. As Scotland is keen to remain aligned with EU rules, it puts the country on another collision course with the government in London. Sturgeon called the idea of the UK government a “direct assault on devolution” and that “if the Tories want to further boost support for independence, this is the way to do it”.
Both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated the longstanding tensions within the UK and seriously put the Union under threat. As John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, put it “While Brexit has degraded the British governments reputation for competency and sound judgement, managing coronavirus has built up the Scottish government’s.” All recent polls since early June have shown a majority of people in Scotland backing independence. If this trend continues it will further contribute to the growing chaos in the whole Union.
U-turns and Tory splits
The Johnson government is heading for the Guinness Book of Records for the number of U-turns it has made since May of this year. One of the most remarkable U-turns concerned the A-level grades for students which took place in August. At first Johnson said that the algorithm statistical model, used to determine the exam results, was “robust” and “dependable”. But a few days after the exams the government had to withdraw its decision and grant students the A-level grades that teachers had predicted for them.
The government’s increasing loss of control of the political game means that it has no choice other than to impose a greater centralisation and to tighten political control of various state institutions. At the same time Cummings’ wants to ‘shake up the civil service’. When Frost was named as chief Brexit negotiator, this turned the civil service post into a political appointment. When he was subsequently chosen as National Security Adviser this took it a step further.
Both nominations were met with resistance from within the Tory Party and beyond. The most open dissatisfaction was expressed by Theresa May. She made no attempt to hide her anger. The decision of the government to replace a civil servant with a political appointment made her furious. The Johnson government had chosen “a political appointee with no proven expertise in national security”.
A more recent example was the election of the chairmanship of the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee where Julian Lewis won out over the government’s preferred candidate. After his election he was thrown out of the Tory parliamentary party for ‘colluding’ with Labour and the SNP to get the job. Almost immediately the same Intelligence Committee decided to release a report on Russian interference in the Referendum and the general British election of 2016, a release that Johnson’s government had desperately tried to prevent for months.
Social dislocation in Global Britain
The perspective for the situation in the coming months was sketched out in the Independent (13/7/20): “Four years on from the referendum with endless debates about customs arrangements and at least three campaigns to ‘Get Ready for Brexit’, Britain still isn’t prepared… for the changes soon to come from Brexit. (….) The cumulative economic dislocations of Covid-19 and Brexit will be unprecedented, and will test the fabric of society and the Union to the very limit.”
What does all this mean for the working class? Workers must be prepared for increasing chaos, in which the fabric of society is tested to the very limit while the Johnson government loses its grip. At the same time we can expect an avalanche of measures varying from bankruptcies, to job losses, to an onslaught of attacks on salaries and benefits. As the second wave is underway, workers must be prepared for a further spreading of the virus because of the lack of precautionary measures and the growing pressure by the state to return to the workplace - alternating with temporary and partial lockdowns
Such a situation will be a real test of solidarity in the working class. In the past months the class has expressed its solidarity with the ‘heroes’ of the NHS, but in the coming period that will not be enough. For the struggle in the defence of its living conditions to be effective and not to get drowned in growing social dislocation, it has to unify its forces
. See: Report on the National Situation: January 2019; on our website