After the Brexit vote
Mike Macnair argues that very little has become clearer since late June
The effects of the referendum are still unclear, beyond the impact on the Tory and Labour leaderships. It is not at all certain that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, as we argued before the referendum, ‘Lexit’ - a left exit campaign - was a complete illusion. ‘Left remain’ was less catastrophic, but also illusory. One of the particular aspects of this last is that it is very likely that Theresa May will succeed in doing to Labour in England what David Cameron did to it in Scotland - conning the Labour leadership into acting ‘statesmanlike’ in the interests of British and US capital, then knifing them with an appeal to rightwing populist nationalism to wreck the relation between the party and its electoral base.
The immediate results of the June 23 Brexit vote were Cameron’s resignation on June 24 and the launch of the parliamentary Labour party’s coup against Jeremy Corbyn on June 25-26. By July 11, the Conservative leadership election was done and dusted with the coronation of Theresa May, and by July 13 it was clear that the Labour right had not succeeded in forcing Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation or excluding him from any leadership ballot, and there would be a contest; May’s ministerial appointments were announced July 13 and 14. The primary immediate impact of the referendum were therefore on UK domestic politics, as CPGB comrades had argued throughout the campaign. Parliament closed on July 21, taking us into the news media “silly season”.
Unsurprisingly, the UK’s negotiating stance on ‘Brexit’ is still unknown, likewise that of the European countries. The economic impact is also unclear, except that the fall in the pound has to a limited extent materialised.
An early general election is likely after the party conference season, producing a large Tory majority whether or not Jeremy Corbyn is dislodged by the Labour right. Brexit proposals will remain tentative and ‘airy’ until after the election, to avoid anything that might cause financial panic. Beyond the UK too, uncertainty is likely to continue because of pending elections: the US presidential and congressional elections (November 8), the French presidential election (April 23 to May 8 2017), and German Bundestag elections (September-October 2017).
In the US, Clinton is anti-Brexit and Trump (verbally) pro-Brexit. And given the demagogic use of false ‘democracy’ and pseudo-anti-elitist claims in the referendum campaign, Clinton and Obama will have to tone down criticism of the Brexit vote, or any pressure on the UK government, until November.
Contradictory statements have come from European capitals, and we cannot expect clarity until the UK government comes forward with post-Brexit proposals. Brexiteers, moreover, are hoping Marine Le Pen wins the French presidency and triggers ‘Frexit’ and a general collapse of the EU, which would massively improve the UK’s negotiating position.1 Even if this can be avoided, German polls show rising trends for the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland and the Greens, and falling trends for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.2 If this persists, Angela Merkel will try to avoid adopting definite policy before the Bundestag elections.
Given this continued uncertainty, likely to continue, about outcomes beyond the very immediate, it is right to focus on the background to the actual vote and how to judge it.
The CPGB, collectively, did not expect a vote for Brexit. We still do not collectively expect there to be an actual exit; though, as I said in my June 30 article, there are some reasons why exit might, in the end, possibly materialise.
It is worth thinking a little bit further about why the referendum took place. It was, of course, David Cameron’s wizard wheeze to ‘see off’ UKIP and the Tory Party’s own Brexiteer backbenchers - a scheme which backfired because Rothermere, Murdoch, Desmond and the Barclay brothers systematically published enough fraudulent misrepresentations about the EU to swing a narrow vote and get rid of Cameron instead. But why did Ukip and the Tory Brexiteers have enough weight for Cameron’s scheme to look worthwhile?
The ‘European project’ has been generally undermined in favour of nationalism by the effects of the crash of 2008-09, the need for states to bail out capitals, and the resulting trend towards nationalism. I pointed out in 2008 that this dynamic would result - though, as is all too regrettably usual for leftists, I overstated the speed with which the dynamic would develop.3
In the UK, however, ‘Euroscepticism’ has a longer track record and more established political weight than elsewhere in Europe. Tory splits over Europe under the Major government helped the capitalists and their hired press turn to Blair in 1997; the Euroscepticism of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard helped keep Blair in office in 2001 and 2005. The old Labour left was traditionally Eurosceptic, for reasons of commitment to ‘Socialism in one country’ ideas which are still reflected in the ‘left Exit’ policy of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. The roots of Euroscepticism are in the geopolitics of the original ‘Brentry’: British entry in 1972 into what was then the ‘European Communities’.
The creation of the European Communities in the 1950s represented a compromise between US interests and those of the original ‘Six’ continental European participants (Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg).
The US was primarily interested in a free-trade zone, though during the Cold War which had begun in 1948, the US also had an interest in promoting social-democratic concessions to the working class and to the petty-bourgeoisie in western European countries, and the EEC institutions provided a vehicle for this approach.
The founders of the ‘European project’, particularly in France and Germany, began in 1950 with a coal and steel cartel, the European Coal and Steel Community. Underlying this small step, they were concerned about the risks of a new European war and about the problem of subordination to the US (though also afraid of the USSR) and aimed to create a defence community and political community, ie a federal state. These projects were both contrary to US interests and defeated by Gaullist opposition in France. The 1957 European Economic Community was from this perspective a step back - to economic cooperation - with a view to moving forward - through creating judicial, administrative and political institutions around which defence and political cooperation could later be built.
After the Suez adventure in 1956-57, the US insisted that the UK must join the European Communities (it had not been involved in the 1950-57 negotiations). But ‘Brentry’ was delayed for more than a decade, because of the opposition of French president Charles de Gaulle, who soon after his 1958 accession to power blocked EEC participation in the British-constructed European Free Trade Area, and thereafter vetoed British entry in the EU. His reason for doing so was plainly that Britain as an EU member would serve the specific interests of the US, as opposed to those of the European founders.
In 1968, the French événements brought down de Gaulle - after a delay, and not without the Nato high command refusing him the right to use French troops stationed in Germany to suppress the strikes. The new Gaullist government under Georges Pompidou retracted the veto, and the UK duly joined the Communities. Since then, UK policy in the Communities, renamed as the ‘European Union’ by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, has been consistently to promote a ‘wide shallow’ Community/Union, pushing in the direction of a free-trade zone without regulatory capabilities and hence a regulatory race to the bottom. It has used EC-EU expansion to reduce the ability to agree regulation and - since the fall of the USSR - to make the EU into a lever for the eastward expansion of Nato.
This UK role in the geopolitics of the EC-EU is in the interest of the City and of the US, but against the objective interest of large parts of the UK electorate. The race to the bottom agenda is pretty obviously against the interests of the working class. But it is also against the objective interests of the Tory petty-bourgeois base, some of whom benefit from EU regulations and subsidies (especially farmers) while others would benefit from extended continental-style schemes to promote the middle classes if the UK became more ‘European-style’ in economic regulation.
To provide UK governments with the political backing to allow them to push the ‘wide shallow’ line therefore involved the media sedulously promoting British nationalism and a continuing trickle of lies about the EU (straight bananas, anyone?), to create the impression that a powerful Eurosceptic force was breathing down the necks of governments. But promoting that impression naturally in turn promoted actual Euroscepticism.
This, moreover, fitted with the historical natural inclinations of the Tory Party, which has engaged in foreigner-baiting French refugees in the 1680s and 1790s, Jews in the 1750s and 1900s-1920s, and so on and on ... The possibilities were accentuated when the Blair administration, as usual sedulously following US policy, backed allowing in east European migrants from the ‘new EU’ countries beyond what was required by the accession agreements.
Combining these effects, and more especially after the 2008-09 crash, the result was to create the conditions for Ukip to cease to be marginal; a fortiori when, instead of a Tory-majority government, in 2010 we got a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Hence, in turn, Cameron’s wizard wheeze.
Analysing the vote
CPGB got the immediate outcome of the referendum wrong. This is not unique; Nigel Farage, on the day of the vote, was expecting a ‘Yes’ vote.
It is important to emphasize, yet again, the point that this was a narrow vote: 51.9% Leave to 48.1% Remain. I said in my June 30 article that this was being over-hyped by the media as saying fundamental things about ‘the British’, and this has continued to be the case.
It is certainly true that what has been flagged as a victory of the Mail,Express and such-like has been seen by some people as legitimising their chauvinist abuse and violence. The chauvinism was there all along, it was an element in Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan and in the (understandable) appropriation of this idea by sections of workers facing closures and unemployment. But the abuse and violence lacked legitimacy, and more of it has come out of the woodwork. To draw general conclusions about ‘Britain’ or even about ‘England’ on the basis of such a narrow vote, or of the small-scale revival of old-fashioned migrant-baiting, is seriously problematic.
I commented in my June 30 article on the fraud element. It is proverbial that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. In UK elections, assuming first past the post, four year intervals, and six-week election campaigns, you usually only need to be able to fool 5% of the people 2.9% of the time to get a result. As far as the referendum was concerned, this was a four-month campaign thirty years (360 months) after the last referendum on the issue, or the need merely to fool 3.8% of the people 1.1% of the time. These are reasons against referenda (beside the points that in referenda the question always conceals important issues, and forces a bad choice of options) and reasons for frequent elections.
I also flagged in my June 30 article the regional differences in the results. There has been a good deal of chewing over this issue in the media; but in addition, a good deal of the initial excitement about it has died down. We can leave it on one side; but it is clear that there is some inconsistency between what May has said to the Scottish and the Six County devolved governments, and what the Brexiteer press is saying about the issue.
Another much over-hyped element turns out to have been the supposed abstention of the youth, and of Labour Party supporters. Contrary to the media lies about Corbyn ‘losing the referendum’, it turns out that these forces did turn out in large numbers - though a number of traditional working class constituencies voted for leave.
It is, however, also worth thinking a bit about the class composition of the vote. This is difficult because published ‘class’ statistics are produced on an anti-Marxist basis of analysis, while Marxist writers on the topic display a marked tendency to oversimplify the class structure by writing as though the real global tendency towards decline of the petty-bourgeoisie and pre-capitalist classes was a completed phenomenon.
The UK population is estimated for 2015 at 65.1 million.4 The ‘economically active’ population, meaning people working, self-employed, or unemployed and seeking work, is estimated as of January 2016 at 33.1m, with an additional 19m ‘economically inactive’ of which 8.9m of working age, and 10.1m pensioners, 65 or over. The remaining 13m are under-16s.5
There were 30.6m individual income tax payers in 2012-13 (this figure includes a good many pensioners) of whom 273,000 were liable to pay the ‘additional rate of tax’ on income above £150,000: 0.9% of taxpayers, or 0.42% of the population.6 This number is not, of course, a good proxy for actual capitalists: it includes, for example, as well as the great rentier landlords like the Duke of Westminster who recently died and others of his ilk, various celebs, overpaid journos, and so on. The tag “the 1%” is from this point of view an exaggeration of the numbers of the ruling class.
On the other hand, 4.63m people were self-employed - excluding the 97,000 people on government-supported programmes of one sort or another, including ‘small business’ programmes. Looking at the same issue from a different angle, as of December 2015 there were 5.34m small and medium sized businesses, defined as employing up to 150 people, of which 5.1m were ‘micro-businesses’ employing up to nine people. (The number of businesses is larger than the number of the self-employed, because a company director is technically an employee.)7
A good deal of this is artificial outsourcing of jobs actually dependent on a single ‘client’; but this does not alter the fact that people in this position are forced to think of themselves as ‘small businesses’. Roughly 5m, or 15% of the economically active population, is then a reasonable very rough proxy for the size of the traditional petty-bourgeoisie. This group predominantly backs the Tories, though it is also found among Labour, Lib Dem and Green local councillors and activists. It was similarly predominantly pro-Brexit.
Another element of the middle class is small rentiers: those who, though not large rentiers like the Duke of Westminster, still actually live off investments. The traditional element of this group is successful authors, artists, and so on, who ‘make it big’ enough to be able to invest and live off the proceeds; also small-scale private landlords. But by far the largest element today is the holders of private occupational pensions, corresponding roughly to the 10.1m ‘economically inactive’ pensioners. Whatever these people did during their working lives, and even if they were then militant trade unionists, after some years living on a pension they are forced to think in terms of the performance of investments, inflation fears as affecting fixed incomes, and so on.
A final complication is differences between the urban and the rural (including small-town) populations. The rural areas are characterised by the presence of the large landlord class, and of farming, but also by a higher share of pensioners (18.1% as opposed to 12.8% in urban areas); and of the self-employed (13.8% as opposed to 8.8% in urban areas), and lower levels of unemployed and students.8 Wage-workers in these areas are significantly less likely to be organised. The English countryside and small towns are in the main strongly traditionally Tory.
How did these class issues play out in the Brexit vote? In the first place, it is clear and unsurprising that the rural classes voted heavily for leave. Secondly, pensioners, as predicted, voted by a very clear majority for leave. Lord Ashcroft’s post-vote poll on motivations suggests that British nationalism, disguised as pseudo-democracy, was the primary ‘acceptable’ reason given; but that leave voters were also motivated by hostility not only to immigration, but also to multiculturalism, social liberalism, feminism, and so on; they were much more likely to identify themselves as ‘English and not British’ than remain voters.9 This was the shape of the ‘core’ leave vote.
Thirdly, and critically, there was a significant swing of parts of ‘Social Grades DE’ - meaning unskilled and casualised workers and the long-term unemployed - towards leave; particularly in areas with relatively low immigration. Thus, for example, Blaenau Gwent voted 61% for leave; Barking and Dagenham (formerly the scene of large BNP votes, more recently of substantial Ukip votes) voted 62.3% leave. The West Midlands, an area commonly of constituencies which ‘swing’ in general elections, voted more narrowly leave. Yorkshire voted leave in the Labour conurbations (fairly narrowly) as well as the Tory rural seats (strongly). And so on.
In essence, therefore, the leave campaigners were able to build, in traditionally Labour voting areas, on a degree of increased support for Ukip and on Cameron’s legitimation of English nationalism after the Scots referendum, to pose a right-populistalternative to Labour.
CPGB predicted and continue collectively to predict that Brexit will not at the end of the day actually be implemented. This remains uncertain. Iain Duncan Smith, writing in the Sun, demands an early triggering of article 50 to ensure that the referendum is not turned into a ‘neverendum’ or treated as ‘a suggestion’,10 while Monday’s Telegraph headlines Norman Tebbit’s column as saying that “The vast forces of the anti-Brexit elite are already regrouping. Theresa May must resist them.”11
The mere fact that Guardianistas, metropolitan liberals, and so on, remain hostile to Brexit, would not prompt these interventions. Rather, they suggest that in spite of all the ‘Brexit is Brexit’ talk, there is also serious talk within the state core and the Tory party of finding a way out of the decision (or at least to defer it); and that Duncan Smith and Tebbit aim to pre-empt this talk.
I said at the end of my June 30 article, and again at the end of my Communist University introduction this year, that in spite of our collective view on this question, I personally see some limited reasons for supposing Brexit might end by going ahead. My grounds for supposing this were two.
The first was that European states might collectively take the view of ‘good riddance’. After all, the UK’s consistent pursuit of US interests (and of its own semi-detached role) in the EC-EU has been an obstacle to creating an EU capable of dealing with north-south divisions, the refugee crisis, and so on. Hence it might make sense to offer no concessions at all and force the UK out.
It is possible, and has been argued by a specialist in EU law, that Cameron already triggered article 50 and the 2-year negotiation period when he reported the result of the referendum to the Council of Ministers meeting on June 28.12 For the moment, this is not a widely accepted view. But if the British government came to be seen to be dragging its feet on a decision, while adopting policies prejudicial to other EU member states, it could become more widely popular.
Secondly, as a matter of politics, ‘getting away’ with ignoring the referendum depends on a degree of ‘buyer’s remorse’ developing, ie that enough people who voted leave come to realise that doing so has made them worse off. However, the fragility of the world economy has meant that allowing the economic implications to become immediately manifest posed an unacceptable risk of triggering a new global financial crash.
Rather, the vote has triggered another round of ‘quantitative easing’ and interest rate cuts to avert a crash. Although the pound has certainly slid, there has been no real run on the pound. This, in turn, has implied a degree of boost to inward tourism to the UK - and, since vendors have held off from feeding through the slide in the pound in prices, it is reasonable to suppose that consumers may have decided to buy durables now in the expectation that prices will rise in the future. The result is that there is - so far - not much in the way of ‘buyer’s remorse’.
Indeed, a YouGov poll published on August 18 on the basis of July 31-Aug 1 fieldwork suggests that 24% of the sample voted remain but now think that the referendum should be treated as decisive, with only 22% wanting to overturn the decision. That said, the poll also showed clear majorities in favour of some sort of access to EU markets, and willing to trade immigration controls and compliance with EU regulations for that purpose; so that actual support for the Brexit policies of the Brexiteer press is a minority view.13
A number of criticisms of these arguments have been made in our debates and discussions. A strong point made by Moshé Machover was that the “remaining EU states” do not form a common bloc. Even the troika of Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi who issued a joint statement that ‘Brexit will not destroy the EU’ from an aircraft carrier on August 22, were unable to point to any substantive agreed policies.14 Hence, the ‘good riddance’ policy is unlikely to produce a real common front.
Paul Demarty has argued that my points were contradictory: an actual ‘good riddance’ policy would have the effect of crashing the markets, which would be inconsistent with the financial fragility point (and would create ‘buyer’s remorse’).
Several other comrades made the point that we have seen numbers of Euro referendums reversed or ignored, and the role of lies in this referendum implies that lies could easily enough be used to reverse it (provided that the press barons were persuaded of the necessity).
For the moment, decisions are postponed. The EU has been very good at postponing necessary hard decisions in the hope that they will become easier; this is what it has been doing in relation to the European banks, and in relation to Greece (and Portugal, Italy, Spain ...).
In relation to Brexit there is also a British interest in postponing the hard stuff. The Brexiteers may not be completely unreasonable in hoping for the EU to collapse on its own before it is necessary to trigger article 50. On the other hand, as comrades have said before in this paper, by giving Boris Johnson the foreign office, Liam Fox a new trade department and David Davis a Brexit department, Theresa May has handed them a poisoned chalice and set them up to fail; but they need enough rope (more time) to hang themselves ...
CPGB argued in the run-up to the referendum that there were serious political problems with backing either leave or remain.
On the one hand, ‘Lexit’ meant merely adding the left’s voice to those of Ukip, Boris Johnson, and co. The left in 1975 failed to achieve an ‘internationalist no’ campaign; there was no reason to suppose that the much weaker left of 2016 would be able to do so.
On the other, even if a ‘left no’ voice could reach the general public, it would merely be reasserting the old doctrine of ‘Socialism in one country’ which catastrophically failed in the old Soviet Union and its satellites. The uselessness of the policy is neatly illustrated, after the vote, by an article in the Morning Star by Rob Griffiths, general secretary of that paper’s Communist Party of Britain. Griffiths’ “positive vision for Britain outside the bosses’ bloc” is, in fact, anything but a ‘vision’.15
The concrete demands at the end of the article remain utterly vague: for example, “regulate the movement of capital, commodities and labour in the interests of working people” - but which working people? Or “Enact any progressive EU social and environmental policies into British law” Again, which, concretely? - perhaps the attempt to promote diesel, the softly, softly approach to VW and Renault?
Underlying this vagueness is the fact that to think an alternative to capitalism means thinking outside the money arrangements of decision-making. To do so is certainly possible on a European scale. For Britain alone, it would immediately come up against the fact that Britain is not self-sufficient in food, runs a major deficit in ‘visible trade’, and therefore lives off the offshore earnings of the City of London. In the result, as soon as anything more than vagueness is offered, it must either become obvious nonsense - or become the neoliberal version of the Ukip and Tory Brexiteers’ story, under which Britain becomes more fully a pure offshore financial centre.
Backing remain, however, had its own problems. It amounted to identifying with the Cameron-Osborne side in the internal Tory dispute; and with the City and the ‘great and the good’. The EU that left-remainers such as the ‘Another Europe is possible’ had to defend - however critically - was the EU of the Maastricht and Nice treaties with their constitutional commitments to monetarism and public expenditure cuts; it was the EU of the Viking and Laval decisions, more serious attacks on trade union organisation and strikes than the British Tory anti-union laws, since they illegalised any action demanding more than legal minimum rights; and it was the EU of the bailout of European private bank lenders to Greece at the expense of imposing a massive crash on the Greek economy.
Both Corbyn (damned by the press for failing to defend remain vigorously enough, ie for doing so critically) and the campaign ‘Another Europe is possible’ recognised the problem. But they were on the horns of a dilemma. The EU constitution (and that of the Eurozone) urgently needs to be overthrown, because with the treaties requiring unanimity for change and the impossibility of overruling the Court of Justice short of treaty change, it cannot be reformed without overthrow. But to say so was, in the context of the referendum campaign, to undermine the case for Remain; and to deny it was also to undermine ‘remain’ by attempting to hide obvious truths which the Brexiteers had only to point out.
Behind this is the other side of Cameron’s wizard wheeze, one which May looks likely to cash in this autumn. The Scots independence referendum and 2015 general election showed that there is in the UK a significant and increasing working class constituency for right-nationalist populism, and that Labour could - if it was forced into backing the ‘establishment’ - be electorally wiped out, at least for a significant period. The Labour rightwing leadership in Scotland fell headlong into this trap and paid the price.
Corbyn and his cothinkers attempted to avoid the trap, but do not seem to have succeeded: the Brexiteers succeeded, as indicated above, in mobilising an important section of the working class vote behind right-populist English nationalism. May has moved, not only to hand a poisoned chalice to Johnson, Fox and Davis, but also to position the Tory Party to take advantage of right-populist ‘anti-elitism’. The result can be seen in mid-August polls: Ipsos Mori has Conservatives 45%, Labour 34%; ICM has Conservatives 40%, Labour 28%.
Left remainism sets up this trap, albeit less immediately obviously than the Atlanticist establishment ‘pro-Europeanism’ of the Labour right. What remains of it after the vote is a whinge: visible on the websites of ‘Another Europe is possible’, of Left Unity, and of Socialist Resistance.
It is absolutely true that the workers’ movement needs to organise for common action on a European scale. It is also true that Brexit - if, in the end, it actually happens - will reduce the possibilities for this by taking the UK out of the EU institutions. But this is rather marginal, since the European left has been pretty ineffective in using the EU parliament for real common political action. The immediate effect of clinging to left remainism as an orientation after the vote is in, is not to overcome this problem, but rather to facilitate the Tories using right-nationalist populism to wreck Labour in an early general election.
1. Among various other comments, Daily Express June 22; Spectator July 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/frexit-stranger-things-have-happened.
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_next_German_federal_election, consulted Aug 22 2016.
3. ‘From boom to war?’ Weekly Worker October 2 2008.
5. ONS, UK Labour Market March 2016.
6. Income Tax Liabilities Statistics February 2015.
8. Some useful material in ONS, 2011 Census Analysis - Comparing Rural and Urban Areas of England and Wales, November 2013.
10. Sun Aug 20.
11. Telegraph Aug 22. Most of the column is, in fact, not about the issue but about praising Theresa May as a good social-reactionary and damning Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters as Trot wreckers.
12. Also said by some unidentified EU officials on June 26: Independent of that date, ‘Brexit: EU says ‘no need’ for UK to send formal letter to trigger exit process’.
15. Morning Star Aug 6.