A dangerous game
David Cameron’s appeasement of the Eurosceptic right could backfire dramatically, warns Paul Demarty
Not for the first time, we find ourselves wondering what the hell David Cameron thinks he’s up to.
This time, it is the much-trailed and yet maddeningly vague ‘plans’ of his to impose a cap on European Union migrants coming into Britain. Such ‘plans’ are promised in the run-up to Christmas - after all, nothing spells festive cheer like a bit of empty chauvinistic posturing. Just what will these plans entail? Unilaterally breaking treaty obligations? Putting ‘flexibility’ over free movement, modestly, on the Brussels negotiating table in the run up to his 2017 in-out referendum? Let us wait to see what Santa brings.
In truth, placing Cameron’s name in the same sentence as the word ‘plan’ is an abuse of the English language. Cameron has forgotten entirely how to plan. He could not plan a piss-up in a pissoir. This is merely the latest in an ever more desperate series of political lurches on his part, this way and that, apparently motivated by nothing more historically significant than the news cycle. They say a week is a long time in politics; it is certainly long enough for Cameron to get a good bit of ducking and weaving in.
This latest wheeze shows all the signs of being a scrambled response to the UK Independence Party’s successes in the recent by-elections in Clacton and in Heywood and Middleton. The Clacton result was widely expected; but Ukip’s solid showing in the Greater Manchester seat is more ominous for Cameron. Heywood is potentially a swing seat at a general election, but the Tories and Liberal Democrats have historically split the anti-Labour vote. Between the collapse of the Lib Dems and Ukip’s inroads into the Tory and (to a lesser extent) Labour votes, not to mention a dismal turnout, the far-right party was able to run Labour far closer than anyone has in the short history of the seat. In other words, Ukip could prevent the Tories taking marginals from Labour.
Cameron’s priority, then, is to shore up enough of his core vote to scrape home next May. We say ‘shore up’ advisedly; many of those who have transferred their allegiance to Ukip already will be hard to win back. What is at issue is a deep process of disillusionment - ‘traditional’ Tory voters have had much to hate in this government, which - despite the assault on public services, benefits claimants and so on - has been committed to socially liberal measures, such as equal marriage rights, and has been unforgivably ambiguous on the EU.
Hence the latest tough talk on migration - and the mood in the corridors of Brussels may be gauged by the remarks of the outgoing EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, to the effect that the European Union will “never accept” an “arbitrary cap” on numbers of migrants: it would be “against a fundamental principle of the treaties”. Barroso, being on the way out, is permitted more latitude to speak plainly than the average Eurocrat; but, as this is a matter of treaties, if any government in the EU objects - or its people should do so in a referendum - then Cameron’s ‘plan’ is toast.
Hence also the scheme to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights; and, indeed, the bizarre aftermath of the Scottish referendum. Having thrown concessions to the nationalists in those desperate final days before the vote, Cameron found himself the target of a new wave of rightwing Tory and Ukip criticism - for giving the Scots ‘extra rights’ over and above the English. So he immediately tacked in that direction, threatening to tie further devolution to the ‘solution’ of the West Lothian question, thus wrecking the fragile Westminster consensus.
Though they do not seem to factor at all into Cameron’s grubby electoral manoeuvres, the longer-term consequences of this for British capitalism are hardly insignificant. We have just had the release of details of the Bank of England’s contingency plans for a Scottish ‘yes’ vote: immediately taking on the obligation to back Scottish currency for the duration of the transition, and printing hundreds of millions of pounds to shore up the financial sector north and south of the border. Mark Carney had to fly back from the G20 summit in Cairns to oversee these plans; George Osborne had to cancel his trip altogether. It is fair to say that severe turbulence was expected.
A mere breeze, surely, compared to the enormous uncertainty that would follow the withdrawal of Britain from the EU. Europe is by far the largest export market for UK goods; in order to keep this up, a post-EU Britain would have to maintain the hated ‘Brussels red tape’ in order to keep that market open.
There are larger historical dynamics at work. The UK is in a nice position for a declining imperialist power - close to the US, but inside Europe, it can act as a vehicle for American interests inside the camp of its most significant potential global rival (with apologies to modern Sinophiles). Privileged access to all these markets allows Britain to act as the most significant offshore financial centre in the US world order; and, hated though it may be by large parts of the population, the banks and financial services industry is crucial to what prosperity Britain actually has. This is a safe place to stash (or launder) your money - be it in stocks or savings, or simply prime London real estate. (Such has been the fate of former hegemon states throughout the capitalist era.)
Markets are twitchy beasts - the first sign of uncertainty can trigger a serious drop in share prices. Withdrawing from Europe will certainly raise alarm bells and put the financial elite into a blind panic. The pound would go through the floor as capital rushes off in search for a safer haven. With the City of London profoundly weakened the government tax take will shrink dramatically.
Thus we must call Cameron’s referendum plan, from the point of view of the British bourgeoisie, the stupidest idea he has ever had. In the name of appeasing carping rightwingers in his own party and in Ukip, and increasing his chances of limping to a second term as prime minister, he has opened up the door to disaster. And, of course, he does not look like succeeding in his grubby aim. Farage has said it many times, ‘We do not trust Cameron to play this referendum straight.’ Doubters - including the two recent Tory-to-Ukip defectors, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless - have expressed scepticism as to whether there are any circumstances in which Cameron would call for the British people to vote to leave Europe.
So Cameron has to make more concessions, which consist - as in the present case of a migration cap - of writing extravagant cheques against future negotiations for ‘reform’ with European powers. That does not work either; indeed, it rather begs the question: ‘So, David, if you do not get a migration cap, will you call for an EU exit?’ Whatever he gives the Eurosceptic right, they will want more.
He is not in this hole purely as a result of his shallow careerism, or the short-termism of his polling gurus and electioneers. For capitalism to maintain consent to its rule, an image of common interest between the subordinate and dominant classes must be constructed; that image, in the UK, is based on British national chauvinism. Such ideological constructions do not have a direct, mechanical relationship with the class relations they represent, however; contradictions develop inevitably.
Anti-Europeanism has served as a valuable ideological proxy for decades; the bosses’ hatred for health and safety can be externalised, in the pages of the Daily Mail, as ‘Brussels red tape’. Allegiance with the bloody blunders of US imperialist policy, and the consequent domestic authoritarianism of the state, can equally be presented as the battle of ‘British common sense’ against the EU’s naive commitment to ‘human rights’. Now that things are getting uncomfortably serious on the EU front, however, the ruling class is stuck with the government it has got, and the media it has got: peddling and pandering to an irrational hatred of Europe.
Indeed, you would have to say that for the City, Ed Miliband is at this point a far safer bet: he, after all, has not committed to any disastrous referenda over Europe. We cannot seriously believe that any competent capitalist actually believes that Miliband is a patsy for the trade unions, or that it matters how he eats a bacon sandwich. Yet changing horses at this point, for the majority of that disorganised collective that is the capitalist class, is simply impossible.
The main means of communicating bourgeois interests in official politics - the media - is for the most part simply incapable of plausibly switching from the Tories to Labour, least of all on the issue of Cameron’s irresponsible referendum, which has been demanded by all rightwing papers for years. The careerism that motivates Cameron’s dangerous games, meanwhile, is equally a prop for capitalist rule, and can hardly be jettisoned at the drop of a hat.
The fact that the bourgeoisie has landed itself in a right old mess should be an opportunity for the left; alas, the opportunity is unlikely to be taken. The left has more or less swallowed whole the anti-EU line of the Eurosceptic right - the only difference being that, where the right sees a bunch of insufferable bureaucrats holding back entrepreneurial spirit, the left sees a ‘capitalist club’. A lovely phrase - if only overthrowing capitalism was a matter of refusing membership of the right clubs ...
While withdrawal from the EU would be disastrous for British capitalism, that does not mean it would be advantageous for our side. Indeed, the economic dislocation that would result might make it harder to organise, as if it was not hard enough already. In this matter, as in many others, the left expects history to do us generous favours. But things do not work like that: without a positive vision of European revolution, we will forever cede ground on this decisive issue to the Ukips of this world.