The arguments by both sides in the UK’s Referendum on membership of the European Unions are limited. They make outlandish claims on the benefits of Leaving or Remaining while warning of the dangers of their opponent’s policy in a perpetual pantomime of “Oh no it isn’t! Oh, yes it is!”
Yet it’s clear from the start that there can only be one winner, and that’s the British ruling capitalist class. We have been asked to examine every issue with one thought uppermost in our minds: “What is best for Britain?” To look at the effect on jobs, prices, benefits, pensions, family income, the prospects for businesses big and small, security, immigration, sovereignty, terrorism, anything you can think of is supposed to be looked at in terms of the UK’s membership of the EU. And ‘what is best for British capitalism’, as soon as it is considered in an international context, means ‘what is best for British imperialism’.
The fact that workers are exploited by the capitalist class means that their interests are not the same. Many groups and parties pretending to speak on behalf of the working class have recommendations on how to vote. The Labour Party says that Remaining provides jobs, investment and ‘social protection’. Many leftists are campaigning against EU membership on the grounds that the ‘bosses’ EU’ is against nationalisation, demands austerity, and attacks workers’ rights. In reality one of the main attacks on the working class in Britain today lies in the propaganda around the referendum and all the illusions in the democratic process and the EU that all the lying campaigners of the bourgeoisie are trying to foment.
Divisions in the British bourgeoisie
So, what is agreed by the Leave and Remain campaigns – what will benefit British business, what is good for the British capitalist state – is the shared basis of an ideological campaign which could have a disorienting effect on a working class that is already confused about where its interests lie and what capacity it has to change society. However, the differences between the In and Out campaigns are not all just theatre (although there is a lot of that) as there are, and have been for decades, real divergences in the ruling class on membership of the EU.
The dominant faction of the British bourgeoisie sees the benefits of the UK’s membership of the European Union at the economic, imperialist and social level. Big businesses from the FTSE 100, the vast majority of manufacturing industry, big banks and other financial institutions, multinational corporations, much of local government, organisations representing lawyers and scientists, all recognise the importance of access to an EU market of 500 million people, the deals that the EU is capable of doing, the fact EU trade with the rest of the world is about 20% of global exports and imports, the investment that EU countries attract, and the necessity for the UK to be part of the EU as part of its imperialist strategy. Outside of Britain the main factions of a number of major capitalist countries also see the importance of the UK’s continuing EU membership. In Europe itself, leading figures in Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, and Sweden have expressed themselves in favour of Britain remaining.
Outside Europe it is significant that US President Obama is among those who support the UK continuing in Europe. The question of Britain’s relationship with the US is not simple. During the period of the two big imperialist blocs led by the US and the USSR Britain was an integral member of the western bloc, a loyal ally to the US. It was during this period that the EU’s predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community, and its successor, the European Economic Community were founded, also, effectively, part of the US-led imperialist bloc. But, with the collapse of the eastern bloc, and the corresponding breakdown of the western bloc, British capitalism’s imperialist and economic interests implied different emphases in policy. At the imperialist level Britain has tried to pursue an independent orientation, while, at the same time, sustaining alliances with other powers when the situation has demanded it. At the economic level almost half of British trade is with the EU, while 20% of UK exports go to the US. In an article we published in WR 353 in 2012 (“Why British capitalism needs the EU”) we said that “examination of Britain’s international trade shows that its economic interests have their main focal points in Europe and US. This helps to explain the actions of the British ruling class in recent years […] While it would be an error to see a mechanical relationship between Britain’s economic and imperialist interests it would also be a mistake to deny any such link. Analysis of the economic dimension reveals some of the foundations of Britain’s strategy of maintaining a position between Europe and the US.” For the US, the UK is still a Trojan horse in the EU, a potential means to undermine the possibility of Germany strengthening itself as a rival to the US. For the UK, Germany is part of an important trading partnership, but also a potential imperialist antagonist.
But what about those campaigning for Britain to leave the EU? Who are they? What do they represent? Economically we have heard the managers of hedge funds favouring Brexit, along with, typically, smaller businesses and individual entrepreneurs. If there were nothing else to consider then this would be easy to explain. The law as it stands benefits hedge funds, but they are understandably inclined to rail against any form of regulation that might obstruct their pursuit of profit. With smaller businesses, their size might just be the result of a lack of competivity, but that doesn’t stop them blaming the EU, or the UK government, or the local council, or the practices of bigger businesses. Anything could be the target of their frustration, when quite possibly what they suffer mostly from are plain ‘market forces’.
However, politically, the factions of the bourgeoisie that support Brexit are notable by their variety, and are not obviously tied to any particular social group or strata. There are the extreme right parties from UKIP to the BNP, the eurosceptics of the Conservative Party, and, from the left, an array of Stalinists and Trotskyists. Here are a strange set of bedfellows with a wide range of rhetoric and hypocrisy. That the likes of Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, who’ve been at the heart of government since 2010, part of a party that’s been in power for more than 60 of the last 100 years, can stand behind banners saying “Let’s Take Back Control” is a fine example of Doublespeak from these longstanding functionaries of a long-established part of capitalism’s political apparatus. However, there is something else that the Leave factions have in common, and that is their attachment to the rhetoric of populism, the pose of standing against the ‘establishment’, a hankering after a mythical past, and battlers against an exterior threat . In a period of growing social decomposition, populism is an increasing phenomenon. In the US there is the Tea Party and Donald Trump, in Germany there is AfD and Pegida, in France there is the Front National, and, from the left, there is Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Closer to home, in the 2015 UK General Election, the Scottish National Party’s populist campaign was at the root of the removal of nearly all Labour’s Scottish MPs.
The classic example of the marriage of two career populists was at an Anti-EU meeting where Nigel Farage of UKIP introduced a speech from George Galloway from the Respect party (“one of the greatest orators in the country” and “a towering figure on the left of British politics”). Galloway explained that “We are not pals. We are allies in one cause. Like Churchill and Stalin…” The comparison was telling. Galloway sees the link up of left and right as being like an imperialist alliance in a war involving death and destruction on a massive scale. He is not wrong. Farage and Galloway do represent forces for imperialist war and destruction, but then so do all other factions of the ruling class. The more immediate problem posed by the rise of populism is this: while it is evidently a phenomenon that can be used by the bourgeoisie, there is the danger that it can escape the control of the main political parties and cause problems for the usual political manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie.
Working class interests
We don’t intend to speculate on the result of the coming Referendum. It is hard to see which factions of the bourgeoisie would benefit from a Leave victory which would seem to pose difficulties for British capitalism. But the British bourgeoisie is the most experienced in the world and would seem likely to be able to ensure a Remain victory, or at least be able adapt to any other result.
What’s important for the working class is to see that the campaign around the EU Referendum is completely on the terrain of the ruling class. There is nothing to choose from the alternatives on offer as they both start and finish with the continuation of British capitalism and the demands of its imperialist drive.
For the working class the possibilities for social change do not lie in capitalism’s democratic process. For the struggle of the working class to be effective it needs to be conscious. At this stage, when workers have little sense of class identity, they need to be able to withstand the propaganda campaigns of all the different factions of the bourgeoisie. Forty years ago, in 1975, there was an earlier referendum on EU membership. Like today there was agreement between the main factions of the main parties, but also, in the No camp you could see the shared approach of right-winger Enoch Powell and left-winger Tony Benn. At that time the campaign was one aspect of the work of the Labour Party in power, trying to convince workers that they should abandon their struggles and put their faith in a party of the left. Today the working class is not struggling at all on the same scale as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but, with a perspective for a world based on relations of solidarity rather than exploitation, it still has the potential to transform society.