Brexit myths and realities

By Paul Atkin

Tom Wood’s recent article on Labour Hub Conceptualising Brexit argues that withdrawal from the EU makes socialism more possible in the UK, which raises a number of questions.

Why did a section of the ruling class want Brexit and what are they trying to do with it?

The ruling class in the UK was split over Brexit. Significant sections, especially in manufacturing, wanted to stay in. The largest donation to either campaign was to Remain from Sainsburys. The next four largest donations all went to Leave and all were from Hedge Funds.

The faction that wanted out was motivated by a desire to align the UK with the labour and environmental standards of the USA, as these are significantly lower than those operating in the EU – no paid maternity leave as a right; lower holiday entitlement; ‘cutting red tape’ and letting business ‘off the leash’ of tedious bureaucratic health and safety standards and overheads.

It was and is a class war initiative designed to shift resources from wages and social conditions to profits – an attempt to break out of the UK’s long steady decline and stagnation with a spectacular act of will that would mobilise and cement a section of the working class into a revived national project on deeply reactionary grounds. The notion that ‘with one mighty bound’ the UK would shrug off its European shackles and boom off into the distance has not come to pass. In fact, the already deadly slow pace of business investment has stalled even further.

As the projected economic benefits turn sour – with Richard Hughes of the Office for Budget Responsibility projecting that the long term economic impact of Brexit will reduce UK GDP by 4% – double the long term impact of the Covid pandemic – the ongoing dynamic of this is to try to keep this political bloc together by playing up the hostility to immigrants and refugees that was the dark soul of so much of the Leave vote.

A trade deal with the US, harmonising standards on their model, is still what they are after – perhaps to be consummated after the Second Coming of Trump (or one of his acolytes) after 2024. An acceleration of the creeping privatisation of the NHS, with US companies starting to take over consortia of GPs’ practices, is a precursor. Fire and rehire is the bracing new model of labour relations, or so they hope. Such a deal will be entirely on the USA’s terms. Negotiations with the Americans by weaker economies tend to be short. The Americans write the deal. The other country signs it.

This was all overlaid with the delusions of restored British buccaneering grandeur and imperial nostalgia, and it’s apparent that some of Tory right really believe in this if Daily Telegraph opinion pieces are to be taken at face value. But it was also instrumentally useful prole-feed, cutting with the grain of a deeply backward looking national culture, nostalgic for past imperial glories and fearful of the future that runs deep in older, whiter workers in ‘left behind’ areas, who look at shuttered factories and closed mines and see national decline, not the brutal indifference that characterises the care the ruling class takes of them, their communities and their lives.

But there was never any symmetry in the pro-Brexit faction in their desire to trade with the USA and China. ‘Glorious Global Britain’ could no more be a free agent in trade than it is in military and foreign policy. Trade with China is now freezing into a Cold War framework, with pressure from the USA channelled by the right, and mainstream Labour, for increasing scrutiny over, and barriers, to Chinese trade and investment – and even academic cooperation – on ‘national security’ grounds.

This is already doing damage to the UK economy in areas like 5G and nuclear energy. Keeping Huawei out of 5G infrastructure means using slower and more expensive Western substitutes. One indication of the consequences of this is that China’s very successful Zero Covid strategy relies partly on a workable contact-tracing App that actually works. None of those tried here works anything like as well. The decision to exclude Chinese investment leaves an investment and technology gap that will be hard to fill. It will mpose additional costs on what is already a prohibitively expensive energy technology as well as a reliance on US or French companies notorious for cost and construction overruns and technical breakdowns.

What are the consequences for the UK?

Both the EU and the UK are now struggling for advantage; but the asymmetry between the economies means that this is a game of chicken between a British bubble car and a European ten-ton truck.

The impact on the ‘home nations’ is centrifugal.

The stresses in Northern Ireland are a case in point. The North remaining in the EU single market means that it has been doing rather well economically. The problem with the Protocol is that British-based companies now face additional paperwork, which has hindered their ability to sell into the Six Counties. Attempts by the UK government to foment Loyalist mobilisations against this have foundered on three problems.

(i) The majority of both communities in the North voted to Remain.

(ii) Virtually no one in the North wants a land border between the Six Counties and the Republic.

(iii) The United States has made it plain that it will not support any course of action that threatens the Good Friday Agreement and is therefore backing the EU stance.

The political fall-out in the North is that the Democratic Unionist Party are in crisis, losing support to the centrist Alliance Party on one side and, more significantly, to harder-line Loyalists on their right. In the forthcoming Stormont elections, other things being equal, Sinn Fein are set to be the largest Party, and would therefore take the First Minister position.

Although the next General Election in the Republic does not have to be held until 2025, Sinn Fein are also currently well ahead in the polls there. There is a long way to go between here and there, and the UK and Irish ruling classes will move heaven and Earth to stop it, but either or both of these developments could put a border poll on the agenda – which could take the Six Counties out of the UK altogether..

To suggest that “Scottish nationalism has been undermined” by Brexit and that there will be a Labour revival north of the Border – with Labour offering Scotland a “socialist future” is taking wishful thinking a little far. A General Election tomorrow would see the SNP increasing its support. Support for full independence hovers around 50%, mostly just below – not enough to successfully force the issue, but more than enough to stop it going away. The majority Remain vote in Scotland gives the prospect of independence in the EU a big market over the water to aspire to belong to as a pull to add to the push given by the sense that successive Conservative governments treat the UK as little more than Greater Little England. Even in Wales, which marginally voted Leave, support for independence is growing.

The impact of the pandemic has raised the profile and standing of the Scottish and Welsh First Minsters, who have each taken a marginally better line on keeping it under control, but have both struck a tone that has been more humane and competent than Johnson – whose standing has correspondingly shrunk. The dynamic of politics in each component of the UK is diverging and becoming more unique. The sudden ubiquity of Union Jacks – behind ministerial podiums and on a flagpole near you – has a slightly desperate air about it, as if they fear that if they weren’t there, we’d forget where we are. The tectonic plates are moving, slowly, under their feet.

What are the consequences for Tory Party and ruling class politics?

Boris Johnson’s New Model Tory Party, with Remainers purged and the Brexit Party vote incorporated, is more libertarian for the rights of business, and more draconian and repressive on civil liberties. Every time you see someone from the Covid Recovery Group banging on about the precious liberty to not wear a mask or turn down a vaccine, check out how their view on the Police Bill or the Nationality and Borders Bill. Their concern for the right to go unvaccinated or maskless is the bravado of those who believe that it is good for the soul to take risks with your life so you can go to work. The liberties they champion are all those that smooth the path to unrestrained consumption. Block a highway to try to save the planet, on the other hand, and your feet won’t touch the ground. Ever unoriginal and derivative, they are adopting themes, slogans and attack lines off the peg from the US Republican Party which sets them up for an ever more delirious politics.

Crucially, contrary to delusions held in sections of the trade union movement, they have not and do not intend to abandon austerity. Spending vast amounts to keep private companies afloat in the face of the pandemic is what you might call ‘socialism for bankers’. And every time Rishi Sunak has the delusion that the pandemic is all over, he starts talking about the need to get the public finances in order, reduce the debt and reduce taxes on the rich. Same old tune.

Despite labour shortages in some sectors giving some workers a bit of leverage, overall wage settlements are running at 2%, while CPI inflation is 5.1% and RPI (which includes housing costs) 7.1%, and there is a public sector wage freeze. This is not a nativist high wage economy in the making. Quite the reverse.

The sum total of ‘levelling up’ is a bit of pork barrel spending on small scale cosmetic developments in Tory-held seats – the not so subtle message being ‘vote for us and get a bypass, don’t vote for us and we leave you to rot’. The adjustments to the Social Care Bill – which primarily hit poorer home owners in the North and benefited wealthier people in the South – and the pruning back of rail investment in the North – showed that they just can’t help themselves.

The extent to which the Tories are coming unstuck at the moment is that after almost two years of one of the worst per capita death rates in the world and no end in sight, the penny is dropping that we are not all in it together.

What are the consequences for Labour?

The self-comforting myth that the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn was solely a side effect of Labour’s 2019 Brexit policy has some traction on the Labour Left, because it allows us to maintain the delusion that the forces we are up against are nothing like as powerful as they actually are, so no deep rethink of strategy is needed.

The defeat was actually the result of every single pro-ruling class political faction making it their priority to stop him over and above their position on Brexit or anything else. So, not just the Brexit and Tory Parties, but the Lib Dems and SNP too. Had the Lib Dems and SNP actually been concerned primarily with stopping a hard Brexit in 2019, they’d have supported a temporary Corbyn-led government to get that done. They chose instead to precipitate a General Election that they knew Johnson was likely to win.

This was also a concern of the US State Department, who were quite overt that they were making Corbyn “run the gauntlet” (as Mike Pompeo put it).

The function of Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party is primarily to reassure the ruling class that Labour is a safe alternative government – the B team for when the Tories fall apart – and poses no threat to their interests. Much energy has been put into being ‘statesmanlike’ and giving the government support ‘in the national interest’ during the pandemic. Union Jacks have been as common behind Shadow as government Ministers.

A relentless purge of the left of the Party, at every level, from the removal of the whip for Corbyn, to panels for local council candidates that keep left candidates off, to the growing number of auto exclusions for ordinary party members send the message that Labour is safe for business, the international order and the Atlantic Alliance.

The new Unionism even extends to Ireland, where Keir Starmer has said he would make the case for the Union in the event of a Border Poll. Louise Haigh was reshuffled out of her role as Shadow Northern Ireland spokeswoman within a week of arguing that Labour should stay neutral.

Is Brexit a step on the road to socialism?

Tom’s central arguments are that the constitutional arrangements of the EU are an obstacle to socialism and that therefore “while Brexit Britain may be at risk of being led down a blind alley by the uber-globalists, it is also, in equal measure, able to pursue Socialism. In a post-Brexit Britain, socialists would not be restricted as they had been since Britain joined the EU”.

Constitutional arrangements are, in themselves, not an insuperable obstacle to the expression of forces in class struggle. When the contradictions get too great, they crack. Making any kind of advance in current circumstances, or even taking effective defensive measures, requires the working class in every country to be both internationalist and seek international alliances and organisation, irrespective of whether we are part of the same trade bloc or not.

A struggle for socialism also means seriously engaging with countries that see themselves as socialist and connecting with the recomposition of the left globally that is currently taking place, rather than presuming that we can build social democracy in one country, while paying no attention to the actual domestic relation of class forces – not least in the Labour Party.

The balance of class forces in the Leave campaign and Brexit strategy is a bit of a clue to the direction Brexit has taken, and was always going to take. It was, and is, completely dominated by the most reactionary fraction of UK capital, which controls the Tory Party and therefore the government.

There is a world of difference between struggling against restrictions on state ownership and investment from a position of strength and mobilisation – possibly in government – and looking for international allies in that fight; and taking part as a subordinate element in a movement aiming to remove restrictions on attacks on the working class driven by revanchist nationalism.

All politico-trade agreements between different nations and states are subject to stresses and none of them are eternal. The UK itself is a case in point on a smaller scale than the EU. It has held together because it was very successful as an imperial power for a quarter of a millennium. Its decline is putting its cohesion under strain.

The same applied to Yugoslavia, as a socialist federation broken apart by an economic impasse that allowed more powerful outside forces to put unbearable pressure on its national/political fault lines, with horrific consequences.

The EU is a kind of Hayekian Holy Roman Empire, with Germany big enough to call most of the shots, but not big enough to subordinate and absorb the other big economies. Its future depends partly on internal stresses, but most crucially on the centrifugal pressures put on it by the USA on the one side and China’s Belt and Road initiative on the other. This overlaps with the eastward military drive of NATO and consequent increasingly fraught relations with Russia. It is hard to imagine that the refragmentation of the EU would follow the scenario of a grateful continental workers movement looking to the shining example of socialism being developed in Britain – hardly an immediate prospect in any case – and breaking away to follow our example. Two, three, many Brexits could be more like Yugoslavia on a much bigger scale.

The policy of the US towards the EU under Trump was to break it up, balkanise it, the better to dominate its fragments. Biden is back to the more established position of incorporating it as a subordinate bloc. But it is looking increasingly likely that an “America First” President will be elected in 2024, with catastrophic consequences for the prospects for peace and averting climate breakdown.

The UK capitalist faction that drove Brexit and is – for now – in charge are not globalists but dyed in the wool Atlanticists. And so, for now, are the leadership of the Labour Party. That means being signed up for a US trade deal and complete fealty to the US alliance and the New Cold War. The dynamic of that anchors the Labour leadership in collusion with the Tory government – seen most recently in Starmer giving them credit for putting health first on Covid when they have presided over one of the worst per capita death rates in the world – and will drive them ever further rightwards. Their “gentleman’s agreement” on by elections with the Lib Dems is a precursor of the least progressive coalition option possible for an alternative government, and possibly a centre recomposition on US Democrat party lines, dumping the organic connection with organised labour, as long hankered after by Blair.

The decisive task for the labour movement, Party members and trade unions, is to resist this.

Paul Atkin blogs at Urban Ramblings https://urbanramblings19687496.city/ 

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/69057297@N04/33661354141/. Author: ChiralJon, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.