Populism accelerates instability and fragmentation

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After 15 months of the countries of the G7 trying to push the impact of the pandemic onto each other and their weaker rivals, after millions of deaths from coronavirus, after unprecedented political chaos in the US culminating in the invasion of the Capitol, along with the accelerating climate crisis, worsening international tensions, and the further lurches in the world economy, the G7 Summit, held in Cornwall in June, gave a façade of unity and resolve among imperialist rivals. Behind this charade the G7 is still a thieves' kitchen. The fact that China, the world's second largest economy, was not invited to the Summit, speaks volumes about the depth of tensions between the competing powers. The G7 countries are locked in a life-and-death struggle to carve-up and ravage the planet in a desperate attempt to find and control the vital raw materials for the ‘green economy’. The only thing that's changed for the G7 is that the replacement of Trump with Biden means the US has rejoined the united campaign of feigned concern for nature and humanity in an attempt to pull the wool over workers’ eyes.

One thing that undermined this pretend unity was the UK government's continuation of the war with the EU over sausages, nuggets and other chilled meats crossing the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland. The row over the Brexit Agreement threatened to expose the hollow nature of all the G7 bonhomie. Boris Johnson chose to ignore Biden's explicit warnings issued before the meeting with the UK's attempt to use the Summit to threaten to rip up of the Northern Ireland Protocol if a petulant British government did not get its own way. That this recalled Trump’s antics was no accident. Britain has become the eye of the populist storm amongst the major powers.

Growing tensions with the devolved governments

In the United States the more intelligent factions of the bourgeoisie have, for the moment, managed to remove Trump from power. In Britain similar factions have proved unable to impose a similar measure of control over its political apparatus. Instead of the 2016 Referendum stemming the populist tide it opened the floodgates. The whole political apparatus was paralysed in the struggle over Brexit. This crisis gave birth to the Johnson government, led by a politician hated by much of his own party for his lying, irresponsibility and ready inclination to treachery. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer has spiralled into a cycle of electoral defeats and internecine warfare, leaving the ruling class with no real alternative party, at this stage, to replace or act as a constraint on Johnson.

The cost of this government was clear with its initial incompetent response to Covid. At a much deeper and profound level, the British bourgeoisie's loss of control of its own political game is threatening to accelerate the tensions pulling at the integrity of the British state itself. This is shown in the increasing weight of the Scottish National Party and its calls for independence, and the growing threats of Northern Ireland breaking away or being thrown into violent turmoil due to Brexit.

Before the May local elections, one of the main mouthpieces of the anti-populist factions of the bourgeoisie, The Economist, issued this ominous warning:

Breaking up a country should never be done lightly, because it is a painful process politically, economically and emotionally. Ask the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis or the Serbs, and other former citizens of Yugoslavia. Few splits happen as peacefully and easily as that of the Czechs and Slovaks. Though it seems inconceivable that the citizens of today’s UK would start murdering each other, that is exactly what they did during the Northern Ireland Troubles that ended less than a quarter of a century ago” (The Economist, 17-23 April 2021).

Civil war is not on the agenda, but the dynamic of fragmentation is very real. This is clear in Scotland. The disastrous effort to stem populism with the Brexit referendum not only opened the gates to populism and its infection of the Tory Party but gave a huge impulse to Scottish nationalism. The nationalist fire has been further fuelled by the Johnson government's provocative statements opposing independence, and by its handling of the pandemic. The prospect of no imminent change of the ruling team in London provides more ammunition to the SNP. Johnson is so toxic in Scotland that his own party banned him from electioneering there because his presence would have increased support for the SNP.

Brexit also exposed a profound problem for the British state in relation to Northern Ireland: its lack of full control over one of its own regions. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, imposed on British imperialism by US imperialism, was based on the understanding that the UK would continue being part of the EU. It gave British capitalism’s rivals in the EU an influence within its own territory: they supplied money and were the final arbiter in disputes between the British state and the various forces of Irish nationalism. Among them, Sinn Fein, and, above all, its armed wing, the IRA, welcomed the Agreement because it gave them a share of political power in the North, and left its control of nationalist areas untouched. The unionist bourgeoisie (and its paramilitaries) was forced to share power, and the British state was faced with its rivals, the US, Germany, France and the Irish Republic encroaching on its control of part of its own territory.

Brexit has opened up this wound in the side of the British state, leaving it even more exposed to its rivals' interference. The British bourgeoisie was held over a barrel by the EU from the beginning of Brexit negotiations. Unless they agreed to Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union until a full trade deal could be agreed, a hard border would be imposed, which would have threatened to reignite the troubles. This was at the heart of Teresa May's famous Irish Backstop. Johnson and the hardline Brexiters torpedoed this, but were then faced with the same problem and were forced to sign an even worse deal.

In this Johnson had recklessly betrayed the Democratic Unionist Party and the rest of the unionist forces in Northern Ireland. When the DUP backed his leadership bid in 2018, he told them no Prime Minister could sign a deal to erect a sea border between Northern Ireland and the mainland. So, when Johnson signed the Protocol it sabotaged the DUP's political influence, undermined its credibility with the loyalist factions, including paramilitaries, and increased tensions within the DUP. This has led to the ousting of Arlene Foster as First Minister, the brief leadership of Edwin Poots, and his replacement by Jeffery Donaldson

This sense of being sold down the river by the British state has already led to riots by loyalists, and the loyalist marching season over the summer could give rise to flashpoints and the possibility of wider violence. Loyalist paramilitaries have issued warnings about attacking trade between the South and the North, because they see this year's increase in trade between the Irish Republic Ireland and Northern Ireland as a step towards unification.

In May, the Brexit minister and the Northern Ireland secretary had talks with loyalist paramilitaries and may have encouraged their threats of violence against EU customs officials at Northern Irish ports. But they are playing with fire. The paramilitaries do not trust the government and feel increasingly isolated.

The Irish nationalist bourgeoisie has been emboldened by the obvious weakness of the British state and the weakening of the unionist parties. The Good Friday Agreement contains the possibility of a referendum on unification with the South. The integration of a population of armed and very angry Loyalist paramilitaries into its territory would place the Irish state in the same situation as the British. However, the growing irrationality and chaos in society could lead nationalists in the North to demand a referendum and open up a whole new can of worms.

Dangerous developments for the working class

The ridiculous posturing of the Johnson government over the export of chilled meats from Britain to Northern Ireland sums up just how weakened and humiliated the British ruling class has been by Brexit. It has been reduced to threatening to tear up an international treaty in order to be allowed by rivals to move sausages in its own territory. Johnson may have been very inept in the way he tried at the G7 Summit to upstage Biden over this issue, but no matter which faction was in power they would be faced with the same dilemma: risk reigniting the Northern Ireland powder keg by breaking the Protocol, or accept the interference of imperialist rivals within national borders.

The irreconcilable contradictions of this situation will generate massive tensions. Given the political irresponsibility and short-termism that characterises the measures of the Johnson government, the possibility of this situation getting out of hand is very real. It could lead to the unification of Ireland. It could ignite a new cycle of sectarian terror and warfare in Northern Ireland, and this could overflow to the British mainland.

The proletariat in Britain is in a difficult situation. The accelerating centrifugal forces which express the depth of the economic crisis and the bourgeoisie’s increasing loss of control over its political life present workers with a disorientating perspective. Among the major nations, only the proletariat in Spain is confronted with similar pressures leading to national fragmentation. The ability of the working class to resist these pressures depends upon it putting forward its class interests, as a class antagonistic to capital: solidarity as a class across all divisions against the growing attacks of capitalism, understanding that the capitalist system is our enemy and not workers of other nationalities, recognising the need to spread strikes beyond boundaries of sector, industry or region are the only means to overcome these growing pressures. Only by understanding that it is an autonomous social force that contains the unique revolutionary alternative to capitalism can the proletariat eventually overthrow the system spewing forth all these divisions.

Phil 30/6/21


The UK’s Northern Ireland problem