Ever since the UK’s Referendum of June 2016 the British bourgeoisie has been in a turmoil of division and instability. For generations identified as an experienced and skilful manipulator of the social situation, the British bourgeoisie, in the form of the Cameron government, made a fundamental mistake when, in trying to take the steam out of increasing populism, it called a referendum which resulted in a vote to leave the EU.
This was followed by a further error in 2017 when Theresa May called an election to strengthen the government’s position which ended with the Tories in a weaker position, dependent on the loyalist DUP. Since then negotiations with the EU, in as much as it’s possible to read between the lines, have, unsurprisingly, not appeared to have favoured the UK. And when, in July 2018, the Cabinet agreed the Chequers statement on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it led to the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davies, and general acknowledgement that divisions continued throughout the Conservative Party.
While May’s version of Brexit is not acclaimed, with even her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, disagreeing on the implications of ‘no deal’ for the British economy, there is not any coherent ‘hard Brexit’ alternative being offered, except the perspective of crashing out of the EU without an agreed deal. Jacob Rees-Mogg says it might be 50 years for the benefits of Brexit to be felt. Nigel Farage insisted that “I never said it would be a beneficial thing to leave and everyone would be better off,” – which, of course, he did - “just that we would be self-governing.” Boris Johnson is reported to have said “Fuck business”, a rather nihilistic response for a leading figure in a major capitalist party. To be fair to Johnson and Davies, they have both, since before the Referendum, been advocates of establishing the same sort of relationship with the EU as Canada has. The EU/Canada negotiations took 7 years or more and produced a 1600-page text of agreement. Whatever its merits, it’s not an option that’s currently on the table. In reality the Brexiters can only offer ‘no deal’.
At a time when a government is in disarray you would normally expect the opposition to be profiting from the situation. This is far from the case as the Labour Party has little to offer on the question of leaving EU while it expends increasing energy on accusations of antisemitism in its ranks. These accusations, based on the real racism and antisemitism in the Labour Party (not unusual in what is after all a party of capital) might have first been used as a means of putting pressure on Jeremy Corbyn, but have escalated into a cycle of claim and counter-claim which show the intensity of the divisions in the Labour Party and make it look a lot less likely prospect for government.
The option offered by Tony Blair and other Remainers of a second referendum appears to be based on a hopeless desire to turn back the clock to the time before the last referendum. A 4-million-signature petition has already been rejected by parliament, and the campaign seems to be based mainly on alarm at all the varieties of Brexit on offer. Labour says it would prefer a general election, which is what opposition parties are supposed to say.
Different responses to the growth of populism
Populism is an international phenomenon. Across the globe, with the experience of the effects of the economic crisis and a sense of powerlessness in the face of the impersonal force of globalised capitalism, the expression of anger and despair takes many forms. Dissatisfied by what mainstream parties offer there is a turning against potential scapegoats. “It’s all the fault of a metropolitan elite”. “Blame the bankers”. “Things wouldn’t be the way they are if it wasn’t for immigrants/refugees/Muslims”. “It’s all down to the Brussels bureaucrats”. This is a product of the decomposition of capitalism. The major bourgeois parties have nothing to offer. On the other hand, with a historically low level of workers’ struggle, the proletarian alternative appears absent. This is the basis for the growth of populism.
There is not a specific policy or set of policies that characterises populism and in different countries the bourgeoisie’s established parties have responded in a number of ways to the development of populism. In the US, Trump was a candidate for a traditional party but with a populist agenda. He has criticised NATO and the CIA despite them being cornerstones of American imperialist policy, criticised the World Trade Organisation despite the role it plays for American capitalism, and flirts with Putin regardless of the machinations of Russian imperialism. Against this, his bourgeois opponents are finding that conventional politicking has little effect. They can call Trump a liar, investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 Presidential Election, look at the implications of hush money paid to various women, and speculate on the possibilities of an eventual impeachment. Trump is criticised by his bourgeois rivals for acting irresponsibly, but the introduction of trade tariffs, expulsion or barring of immigrants, and increased investment in US militarism, are all policies that have been pursued by others in defence of the interests of American national capital. They obey a definite logic in a world where “every man for himself” has been the dominant tendency since the break up of the blocs at the end of the 1980s.
In France the response to populism took a different form. Marine Le Pen’s Front National was a known force in French politics, but none of the established parties could produce a candidate who could have convincingly have taken her on. Investment banker Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche was created in 2016 in order to confront the populist forces represented by Le Pen. Macron’s victory in the May 2017 election for the French Presidency was a success for the French bourgeoisie. However, it is not clear how long-term this success will be sustained as the social situation that gives rise to populism still persists.
In Italy this year, after three months of negotiations following inconclusive elections, there emerged a coalition government of the League and 5-Star movement. Both of these populist parties, with very different policies, had made much of their opposition to the main established political parties. The League was for the expulsion of immigrants and more police on the streets. 5-Star, with more following in the poorer South of Italy, proposed reductions in the cost of living and a “minimum payment for the citizen”. In government they have followed up on their promises to attack migrants and immigration, but not so much on economic promises so far. With a certain scepticism towards the EU there is evidence that they will add further instability to the situation in Europe.
This is the global context for what’s happening with the British bourgeoisie. Specifically, the 2016 Referendum was an attempt to head off populism that failed. This failure has meant that Tories have had to pursue Brexit, which, along with anti-immigrant policies, is one of the centrepieces of populism, despite many of them having campaigned to stay in the EU. All the predictions of economic disaster remain in place, to which have been added talk of the need to stockpile food and medicines, warnings of the possibilities of social unrest, and forecasts of the implications for travel, trade, security and terrorism. If there have been some exaggerations in these prognostications – and predictions of doom have characterised the Remain camp –its aim has been to put pressure on the Brexiters to compromise. Two years after the Referendum the UK bourgeoisie is in a weaker position, more divided, and the possibility of a neat, orderly departure from the EU seems remote.
Divisions in the British bourgeoisie over Europe are nothing new. Back in the 1950s and 60s, before the UK joined the EEC in 1972, there were opponents of European integration in both Labour and Tory parties. The Referendum of 1975 strengthened the position of the pro-Europeans, but it did not mean that the divisions had gone away. The removal of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990, for example, despite her agreement to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the single European market, demonstrated that the dominant faction of the British bourgeoisie could tolerate only so many anti-European harangues. But, while the length and depth of divisions over Europe should not be underestimated, they have been exacerbated within decomposing capitalism by the rise of populism. This is an active factor in the situation that has contributed to the growing disarray in the British bourgeoisie. It’s a mess that doesn’t serve the interests of the British national capital.
At the Europe-wide level the threat of fragmentation is also growing. It’s not only in Italy that there are, to put it mildly, calls to re-assess national relations with the EU – there is also scepticism in Greece, Hungary and elsewhere in eastern Europe. For US capitalism there are economic advantages in a fragmented Europe: it’s a logical consequence of the end of imperialist blocs, and a part of the bourgeoisie around Trump is convinced that the US can make deals with countries separately. Russian imperialism is definitely in favour of undermining the unity of the EU, principally for military-strategic reasons. On the other hand, German economic interests are not served at all by the fragmentation of the European market, and as for Chinese capitalism, its globalisation policy requires a more open world market rather than a return to national protectionism.
So, the problems of the British bourgeoisie, whether the UK leaves with a deal that will satisfy no one, or, in the case of no deal, falls off a cliff into uncharted waters, have to be seen in the international context of decomposing capitalism. None of the capitalist options on offer, whether by traditional parties or populist parties, whether in or out of the EU, can benefit the working class in any way. For the international working class the path of conscious struggle is the only route out of the horrors and deprivations of capitalism. Car 8/9/18