For British populists and Brexiteers, the nostalgic dreams of an Empire that covered a quarter of the land surface of the globe and where the sun never set, are turning into nightmares. The campaign for “Global Britain” will not be able to prevent this.
In 2021 the geopolitical landscape for the UK has fundamentally changed. Britain has lost much of its power. Its relations with the Continent, its position in NATO and its links with the Commonwealth, are all being challenged.
The relationship with the US at least gave the UK an influential role as an intermediary between Washington and Brussels. In cutting itself off from Europe the UK has shot itself in the foot. “We are no longer an irreplaceable bridge between Europe and America. We are now less relevant to them both.” (John Major)
In the Brexit negotiations the UK acted on the assumption that it shared an equal place on the world stage with other international powers. But Brexit has confirmed that the British bourgeoisie is deluded. With the conclusion of the negotiations with the EU it is now operating in a world dominated by the US, China and the EU, where it has isolated itself.
Under the present changed geopolitical conditions the UK will have to re-establish its political relations with the key countries in the world. It will have to fight its way to the diplomatic table, especially now the US administration is starting to re-energise its relationship with NATO, the UN and other multilateral organisations.
In March the British government initiated its strategy for “Global Britain in a Competitive Age”. This project sets out British ambitions for new commercial opportunities and pathways to global influence. But this refurbished version of the “Integrated Review of Security, Defence and Foreign Policy” from 2015 is not going to solve the UK's fundamental problems after leaving the EU.
Internal tensions and fractures in the U.K.
The decline of its position on the international arena has also led to growing conflicts within the UK itself, for instance with the devolved governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Brexit referendum of 2016 “gave a huge impulse to Scottish nationalism.” ("Populism leads to growing instability and fragmentation"). Since then the calls for Scottish independence have become stronger by the year. At the beginning of 2021, 54 per cent of Scots supported an independent Scotland, which was 8 per cent more than in 2014. Recent opinion polls in key EU member states show that support is increasing for an independent Scotland becoming a member state of the EU.
Over the last decade the forces in Northern Ireland looking to break away from the UK have become stronger. The Northern Ireland Protocol only added fuel to the fire, by further isolating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The growing tensions in the Six Counties are actually “pulling at the integrity of the British State itself” (ibid) and threaten to make the national fragmentation a reality. In the meantime, the US administration has warned Johnson not to violate the Protocol and to respect the Good Friday Agreement: the open border between the North and the South has to be protected.
In the political establishment in London tensions are also rising to the extent that competing ministers, political advisers and even family members are engaged in a sordid turf war. In the last two months, in an atmosphere of doubt, jealousy and suspicion, accusations between Johnson, Hancock and Cummings have flown back and forth. The last expression was “the heavy artillery against the government” brought about by Dominic Cummings in “a massive campaign on social media”. ("Bourgeois vendettas and the distortion of science")
Class against class
These growing tensions and fractures within the UK and the ensuing struggles between bourgeois factions present great dangers for the working class. It presents “workers with a disorientating perspective” ("Populism leads to growing instability and fragmentation", ibid). But they must resist the pressure to support any of the bourgeois cliques. The ability of workers to resist these pressures can only be realised when they fight “as a class antagonistic to capital” (ibid). The only prospect is to struggle on a class terrain.
In the past months, workers in the UK and elsewhere have demonstrated that they still possess this ability, as was shown for instance by a recent wildcat strike by 30-40 workers at the Gateshead Amazon warehouse construction site. Workers there protested for two days against their sudden dismissal. Persistence and working class solidarity bore fruit, as all sacked workers were reinstated on the third day of the strike.
The same capacity was shown on 3 July when dozens of marches took place across Britain in protest against the government’s proposed 1% pay rise for NHS workers, which has been widely condemned by health workers.
Such small struggles may not be spectacular, but they are the seeds for the future autonomy of the working class against capital.