Britain: The Ruling Class Divided

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In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May had called early elections for June 2017, with the goal of winning a larger majority for her Conservative Party before entering negotiations about the conditions under which the country would leave the European Union. Instead, she lost the majority she had, making herself dependent on the support of the Ulster (North of Ireland) protestant Unionists from the DUP. The only success of the Prime Minister at these elections was that the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP, the hard liner Brexiteers to the right of the Conservative Party) are no longer represented in the House of Commons. Despite this, , the latest electoral debacle for the Conservatives made it clear that the fundamental problem remains unresolved –the problem which, a year ago, made it possible that the referendum about British membership of the European Union produced a result –the “Brexit”- which a majority of the political elites had not wanted. This problem is the deep division within the Conservatives –one of the two main state parties in Britain. Already when Britain joined what was then the “European Community” in the early 1970s, the Tories were divided over this issue. A strong resentment against “Europe” was never overcome within the Tory ranks. In recent years, these inner party tensions developed into open power struggles, which have increasingly hampered the capacity of the party to govern. In 2014, the Tory Prime Minister David Cameron managed to checkmate the Scottish Nationalists by calling a referendum about Scottish independence, and winning a majority for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Emboldened by this success, Cameron attempted to silence the opponents of British membership of the European Union in a similar manner. But this time, he had seriously miscalculated the risks. The referendum resulted in a narrow majority to leave, whereas Cameron had campaigned to stay in. A year later, the Tories are as divided on this question as ever. Only that today, the conflict is no longer about membership or not in the EU, but about whether the government should adopt a “hard” or a “soft” attitude in negotiating the conditions under which Britain will leave. Of course, these divisions within the political parties are emanations of deeper lying tendencies within capitalist society, the weakening of its national unity and cohesion in the phase of its decomposition.

To understand why the ruling class in Britain is so divided on such issues, it is important to recall that, not so long ago, London was the proud ruler of the largest and most far flung Empire in human history. It is thanks to this golden past that the British high society is still today the richest ruling class in western Europe.[1] And whereas an average German bourgeois engages himself or herself traditionally in an industrial company, an average British counterpart is likely to own a mine in Africa, a farm in New Zealand, a ranch in Australia, and/or a forest in Canada (not to mention real estate and shareholding in the United States) as part of a family inheritance. Although the British Empire, and even the British Commonwealth, are things of the past, they enjoy a very tangible “life after death”. The “White Dominions” (no longer so-called) Canada, Australia and New Zealand, still share with Britain the same monarch as formal head of state. They also share, for instance (along with the former crown colony: the USA) a privileged cooperation of their secret services. Many among the ruling class of these countries feel as if they still belong, if not to the same nation, than to the same family. Indeed they are often interconnected by marriage, by shares in the same property and by business interests. When Britain, in 1973, under the Tory Prime Minister Heath, joined what was then the European “Common Market”, it was a shock and even a humiliation for parts of the British ruling class that their country was obliged to reduce or even sever its privileged relations with its former “crown colonies”. All the resentment accumulated over decades about the loss of the British Empire began, from this time on, to vent itself against “Brussels”. A resentment which was soon to be augmented by the neo-liberal current (very important in Britain from the Thatcher days onwards) to whom the monstrous “Brussels bureaucracy” was anathema. A resentment shared by the ruling classes in the former dominions such as Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media billionaire, today one of the most fanatical Brexiteers. But  quite apart from the weight of these old links, it was humiliating enough that a Britain which once “ruled the waves” had the same voting rights in Europe as Luxemburg, or that the tradition of Roman law held sway in the continental European institutions rather than the old Saxon one.

But all of this does not mean that the “Brexiteers” have or ever had a coherent programme for leaving the European Union. The resurrection of the Empire, or even of the Commonwealth in its original form, is clearly impossible. The motive of many of the leading Brexiteers, apart from resentment and even a certain loss of reality, is careerism. Boris Johnson, for instance, the leader of the “Leave” fraction of the Tories last year, seemed even more amazed and dismayed than his opponent, the party leader Cameron, when he heard the result of the referendum. His goal did not seem to be Brexit, in fact, but replacing Cameron at the head of the party.

The fact that it is the Conservatives, more than the Labour Party, which are so divided over this issue is equally a product of history. Capitalism in Britain triumphed, not through the elimination, but through the bourgeoisification of the aristocracy: the big land owners themselves became capitalists. But their traditions directed their interest in capitalism more towards the ownership of land, real estate and raw materials than towards industry. Since they already owned more or less the whole of their own country, their appetite for capitalist profits became one of the main motors of British overseas expansion. The larger the Empire became, the more this land- and real estate owning- layer could get the upper hand over the industrial bourgeoisie (that part which had originally pioneered the first capitalist “industrial revolution” in history). And whereas the Labour Party, through its intimate links to the trade unions, is traditionally closer to industrial capital, the big land and real estate owners tend to assemble within the ranks of the Tories. Of course, under modern capitalism, the old distinctions between industrial, land owning, merchant and finance capital tend to become dissipated by the concentration of capital and the domination of the state over the economy. Nonetheless, the different traditions, as well as the different interests they partly still express, still lead a life of their own.

Today there is a risk of a partial paralysis of the government. Both wings of the Conservative Party (who at the moment present themselves as the proponents of a “hard” versus a “soft” Brexit), are more or less poised to topple Prime Minister May. But at least at present, neither side seems to dare to strike the first blow, so great is the fear of widening the rift within the party. Should the party prove unable to resolve this problem soon, important fractions of the British bourgeoisie may start to think about the alternative of a Labour government. Immediately after the Brexit referendum, Labour presented itself, if anything, in an even worse state than the Conservatives. The “moderate” parliamentary fraction was disgruntled about the left rhetoric of its party leader Jeremy Corbyn, which they felt was putting off voters, and about his refusal to engage himself in favour of Britain remaining in the EU. They also seemed poised to topple their leader. In the meantime, Corbyn has impressed them with his capacity to mobilise young voters at the recent elections. Indeed, if the tragic Grenfell Tower fire (for which the population holds the Conservative government responsible) had taken place before instead of just after the elections, it is not unthinkable that Corbyn would now be Prime Minister instead of May. As it is, Corbyn has already begun to prepare himself for government by ditching some of his more “extreme” demands such as the abolition of the Trident nuclear armed submarines presently being modernised.

[1] Magazines such as Fortune publish annual figures about the world’s wealthiest banks, companies, families and individuals.