Politics in the round
Rex Dunn offers his view of what is now a full-blown crisis. Is Britain about to descend into civil war?
I will start by making two general points.
Firstly, given the extremely fluid situation, no-one can predict the outcome with any certainty. In a way, the events of a single day can provide a sort of snapshot of history - and what might happen next! Take April 1, for example. It was also the second day set aside by parliament in order to come up with its own consensus on the way forward for Brexit. But it failed to do so once again.
Secondly, we need to place Brexit in the context of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. It is symptomatic of the breakdown of the idea of a civilised international order, within which both the European Union and Britain are complicit. This is a huge problem for the whole of Europe, which shows no sign of ending. At the same time we have a similar crisis in Latin America, as refugees from poverty and gang violence flee towards the Mexican-US border. Therefore we have a world refugee crisis, which is just as important as capitalism’s failure to take decisive action over climate change.
Indeed, apart from the millions forced to flee as a result of imperialist-inspired wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, we have a ‘perfect storm’ in the case of Africa. Millions of people have been forced to flee from poverty and conflict, as a result of corrupt regimes (which are conduits for profits made by the city of London, etc), civil wars, the rise of jihadi movements - not forgetting desertification due to global warming, which means that people can no longer farm the land.
The refugee crisis, in turn, is a major contributing factor to the rise of anti-immigration sentiment within the EU, which is putting great strain on the latter. Britain, of course, is no exception. In March of this year, an article in the London Review of Books had this to say:
More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean during the refugee crisis of 2015, with about 850,000 landing in Greece and the remainder in Italy. By March 2016 the EU signed an agreement with Turkey: Ankara would do its best to ensure that the refugees (mostly Syrian) pushing up into Turkey would remain there. [As a result] in 2016, the number of migrants [coming to Europe via Turkey] dropped by two thirds. [But] the number arriving in Italy increased ...
Rome and Brussels reacted by seeking to negotiate a replica of the Turkish agreement with those countries south of the Mediterranean from which the refugees set out: Libya, Sudan and Niger were described as Europe’s ‘southern border’. But Sudan is much less safe for asylum-seekers, and Libya is extremely dangerous. Since the [overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi by British and French intervention] in 2011, there has been no functioning state with full control of the country. The [newly created] government of national accord (GNA) ... has no proper army and depends on [Islamist] militias to ensure its survival.
Sudan, meanwhile, is a failed state whose long civil wars have displaced nearly four million of its own citizens - increasingly they too are seeking asylum in Europe ... In mid-2017 the number of migrants [from Libya] began to drop significantly … around two thirds of the migrants who left from Libya were intercepted by the new coastguard; their boats were towed back.
But the success of these policies comes at a human cost. In Libya and Sudan, militias were already involved in human smuggling - and highly abusive forms of human trafficking … As well as perilous sea and desert routes, they face violence from armed groups, some of them in the pay of Brussels and Rome.1
For Britain, all this is a reflection of its further decline as a world power within a neoliberal, globalised world - here too immigration plays a key role. The problem for Marxists is that anti-immigration sentiment is also a reflection of a dearth of working class consciousness.
Working backwards, the immediate trigger for this anti-immigration sentiment goes back to early 2016. As a result of pressure from British prime minister David Cameron (along with the leaders of other EU countries), the EU introduced the emergency brake law. This allowed any member country to “limit access to in-work benefits for new EU immigrants”, providing they had the agreement of other governments. Obviously it was intended to stem - if not stop - the flow of ‘economic migrants’ from the poor countries within the EU (as well as the refugees from outside). Clearly, at this time, Brussels was prepared to yield to Britain’s demand, in order to keep its most important trading partner within the EU. But this policy was not helped by the fact that Cameron had to wait for another 18 months before his government could hit the emergency brake.
The background to the referendum itself goes back to a private member’s bill on Britain’s continued membership of the EU. This was introduced in 2015 and came into law at the beginning of 2016. Previously the Conservative Party had included a referendum in its manifesto, which enabled Cameron to win a slim majority in the general election of May 2015 (unlike Theresa May in 2017!). In order to staunch the haemorrhage of party members, as well as silence its rightwing Tory backbenchers, a referendum on withdrawal from the EU was inserted into the party’s election manifesto. But when the referendum was held in June 2016, to Cameron’s great surprise, the public voted to leave. As a supporter of British business, he had made a monumental blunder, because now the Brexit genie was out of the bottle.
But I need to say more about the material basis for this outburst of anti-immigration sentiment across the developed areas of the capitalist world. Apart from the external problem - ie, the world refugee crisis - this is also a domestic one. As Yanis Varoufakis said on a recent TV programme, Britain’s “business model” has come to rely on “low wages, zero-hours contracts and little regulation”. Hence we see the rise of the working poor and record levels of child poverty (over four million). Therefore Britain’s economy is based on an “ideology of cheapness”.2 In reality, human life is cheap, even in Britain. At the same time, the Eurosceptics within the Tory Party - ie, the European Research Group - have morphed into old-fashioned English chauvinists. They are prone to emotive outbursts, such as the claim that Britain has become the “slave state” of Europe. Hence Britain needs to “take back control” over our borders, as well as make our own laws. Churchill’s Dunkirk spirit is also being raised.
As for the fantasy that Britain can make its own way in the world, even if it has to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, the ERG group believes that ‘we can do it on our own’, even if it means a lot of belt-tightening for a few years, or however long it takes (bugger the working class!). Yet a hard Brexit would lead to the further decline of British capitalism: ie, it would no longer have a manufacturing base to speak of - whether this is British-owned or multinational in character - which would mean the loss of thousands of jobs. It would mean that British-based companies would no longer be able to enjoy frictionless trade within the world’s largest trading bloc. No wonder the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed an alliance in favour of a soft Brexit (or even ‘remain’), because both understand that a hard Brexit would be a disaster for the British economy.
On the other hand, the ERG is prepared to block May’s deeply flawed deal, even if this means no deal. Clearly the ERG has forsaken economic reality for atavistic, ideological reasons. In reality, rightwing Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, want post-industrial Britain to take a further step and become a “European version of the Cayman islands” (as Labour MP Steven Kinnock says): ie, a low-tax economy, wherein the rich get richer, because they are also able to rely on their overseas tax havens. Meanwhile Britain would impose strict controls over immigration, favouring rich investors, either in the City of London (which is happy to launder their ill-gotten gains) or in London real estate (eg, Russian and Saudi oligarchs).
Today, of course, after nearly three years of negotiations, the British political system is unable to agree on Brexit. As a result, we are now faced with a constitutional as well as a deepening political crisis. On the one hand, parliament is trying to wrest back control from a divided and impotent executive, but it is unable to reach a consensus in order to take Brexit forward. On the other, we have a deepening disconnect between the public and the ‘political class’ (which is reflected across the capitalist world). In other countries, we are seeing the emergence of rightwing populist parties, some of which have achieved electoral success and are even in government (eg, Italy and Austria). But this is creating problems for the leadership of the EU. It is undermining the latter’s claim to be the upholders of liberal values, such as ‘freedom of expression’, ‘respect for others’, etc.
However, a rightwing populist government is not likely to be elected in Britain. This is because we have a ‘majoritarian’ political system, which favours the two main parties. Whenever there is a general election, at least up to now, the two mainstream parties are able to ‘mop up’ any populist movement, both of the left and the right (Ukip), leaving the far right as a small fringe minority. (I shall leave the far left out of this, which is pitifully small and has no strategy to build a Marxist party fit to lead the working class in the struggle for socialism.) As for the far-right groups, they are still dangerous, because they are the breeding ground for anti-immigration sentiment, linked to Islamophobia and white-supremacist ideas, as well as genuine anti-Semitism.
But I am getting ahead of myself. To return to reality, the 2016 referendum and its outcome has to be seen somewhat differently. After all, it was supposed to be an example of ‘direct democracy’. But the public were asked to vote for ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ in a vacuum: ie, before any negotiations had taken place. However, the 2016 referendum gave the masses the opportunity to kick back at the establishment, which they rightly see as out of touch with ordinary people. They were also left to rely on their own gut instincts: eg, there are ‘too many immigrants, who don’t speak English’; they have come here to ‘take our jobs’, etc. Millions of people voted to leave on the basis of such crude reasoning.
But for the majority, including those who are not racist, of course, the question of whether Britain should remain in the EU or leave, was far too complex to be answered by means of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. Therefore people voted without knowing what the real consequences would be if Britain decided to leave. Such is the nature of Bonapartist referenda: ie, direct democracy does not work in a modern societies (which are not like the demos in ancient Athens!). Rather referenda are undemocratic - more suited to the needs of an authoritarian ruler.
Nevertheless, prime minister Theresa May responded to the narrow ‘leave’ vote of June 23 2016 by switching her own position to the winning side: instead of trying to be inclusive, since such a large minority had voted to remain, she lurched to the right, along the lines of ‘Brexit means Brexit’. She was more interested in preserving the unity of the Tory Party: ie, appeasing the right wing, especially the ERG - aka an ‘English national party within the Conservative Party’. As if that was not bad enough, following her disastrous decision to hold another election in 2017, May found herself at the head of a minority government. Therefore she has to rely on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party in parliament. The DUP is just as reactionary as the ERG, if not more so (it still believes in the defence the union - historically, the basis of the Protestant ascendency, which it still hankers after: ie, ‘Croppy, lie down’; opposition to abortion rights, etc).
Like May, Jeremy Corbyn is also caught between the left and right of his own party. Yet he is perhaps the most leftwing leader in the history of the Labour Party (eg, he comes from an anti-Trident, pro-Palestine position, etc.). He had the opportunity to do so much more in order to ‘transform’ Labour. After all, he started out with a huge following on the left at the grassroots level, if not within the parliamentary party, in the shape of the Corbynistas, most of whom joined the party online, whereby they boosted Labour’s membership to over half a million (making it the largest political party in Europe). But unlike May, Corbyn tried to appease both the Brexiteers and the remainers within Labour - although, as a Eurosceptic himself, he errs towards the former. (As the ERG say, Corbyn is a ‘remainer’ in the south and a ‘leaver’ in the north!)
As for its own two wings, although a minority in the parliamentary party, Labour’s Brexit MPs represent a huge swathe of working class/lower-middle class voters in the north of England (including former mining areas): ie, Labour’s traditional core vote; but they now see themselves as ‘the left-behinds’. Unfortunately, given the atomisation of the working class and the inability of reformism to offer meaningful improvements (as in the past, such as in 1945), in this part of the country, ‘the many’ see immigrants as the root of the problem (instead of neoliberalism and austerity, which kicked in following the 2008 crash). By contrast the party’s ‘remain’ MPs - mainly neoliberal Blairites - represent the better-offs (eg, liberal, metropolitan elites, as well as idealistic, Europhile young people). Along with their counterparts in the Tory Party, the Blairites want to preserve the status quo ante: they represent the interests of British and foreign capital, based on frictionless trade within the EU trading bloc, along with the free movement of capital and labour.
Therefore for Corbyn - for all the above reasons - Labour’s manifesto, For the many, not the few, makes a concession towards British chauvinism: ie, the demand to “take back control” over the economy and trade (as if that were possible), which also includes immigration, whilst it seeks to retain the closest possible links with the EU (despite the fact that the latter is committed to free movement, etc). In other words the manifesto calls for a ‘bespoke’ relationship between Britain and the EU. Therefore Corbyn is trying to drive a square peg into a round hole, which cannot be done.
(Rather like May’s hard-won deal with the EU: it is unable to reconcile British withdrawal from the single market and the customs union with the need for a frictionless Irish border; hence the inclusion of the ‘Irish backstop’ - a last resort in order to preserve an open border between the north and south. That would mean, of course, that the border between the EU and Britain would then become the Irish Sea. No wonder the DUP is so vehemently opposed to the May deal!)
Corbyn is also a weak leader. Ever since he came to power, despite his strong position, he has relied on the strategy of appeasing his enemies; in particular those responsible for the bogus argument that anti-Semitism is rife within the party, which is being organised by the Zionist lobby (such as the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Friends of Israel, etc.) Therefore Corbyn has to fight a war on two fronts.
On the one hand, the left is being accused of anti-Semitism, leading to a large number of suspensions (including that of Chris Williamson, who is one of his closest colleagues). Of course, the real aim of the ‘stainless’ Blairites is to overthrow Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party - preferably long before he has the chance to become Britain’s most leftwing prime minister. On the other hand, he is supposed to be leading Labour to victory in the face of May’s monumental Brexit cock-up. No wonder he is unable to seize the initiative.
Back to the present. To paraphrase the famous expression, ‘Nero fiddled, while Rome burned’, the British political class is playing some kind of grotesque game, while the country is about to drive off the cliff by means of a no deal (if not burst into flames!).
Parliament is still unable to pass a meaningful vote on Brexit; therefore the country is now in a deeper constitutional and political crisis. As a result, technically Britain’s default position is that it will leave the EU without a deal, unless May gets a modified deal ‘over the line’. On the other hand, May shows no sign of stepping down; she is also unlikely to call a general election. Therefore Britain is in a ‘state of paralysis’.
Hence there has been a record stockpiling of products by British companies, compared to that of any other G7 country. But this is not because of demand: they are doing it out of fear that there will be no deal, which would mean that Britain’s trade with the rest of Europe could grind to a halt. The British economy is already suffering from a hit, to the tune of £600 million a week, compared to pre-referendum figures. The public is also fearful. Summer holiday bookings for Easyjet are only a third of what they were this time last year.
At the same time, it seems clear that May’s government is unable to deliver Brexit (although a sudden volte face is still a possibility!) Many people on the right of the political spectrum see this as a ‘betrayal’. Hatred and intolerance is on the rise. This is the ‘ugly face of Brexit’, as the pro-Brexit demonstration on March 29 clearly showed. There were plenty of anti-Islamic and white-supremacist placards on display at the Ukip meeting, which was addressed by Tommy Robinson - just yards away from Nigel Farage, who was attempting to gather support for his Brexit Party.
If there is to be a general election - or another referendum - there could well be fighting in the streets. If that happens, of course, this would not be the first time that there would be civil violence in Britain. Previously, however, this took the form of a class struggle against the state, even if this was somewhat refracted: eg, both the anti-Vietnam protestors and the miners fought the police during the 1970s. But today, if fighting does break out in the coming period, it will be between pro-‘remain’ and pro-Brexit supporters: ie, a civil war without the class struggle, because it crosses class lines. The police would be caught in the middle. Then what happens? What do those who want to defend the bourgeois state do? Establish a more authoritarian one?
In another Guardian article, Rachel Shabi noted that Labour’s abandonment of
freedom of movement [will inevitably lead to] hostile border policies. In January the party sparked a backlash when it tried to abstain on the horrendous Tory immigration bill [severe restrictions on immigration, which are weighted against unskilled workers, whilst being weighted towards higher paid, skilled workers] Then there is the Lexit caucus, a component which is currently echoing an anti-Semitic conspiracy beloved by the far right, while claiming that liberals are in cahoots with ethnic minorities to thwart the wishes of the (always implicitly white) working class.3
Although the Lexit caucus within Labour may be small in number, it is a safe bet that they will not be suspended for bringing the party into disrepute, let alone expelled for being racist.
If Labour really were “an internationalist and European party” (as Labour MP Jess Phillips says), which claims to represent the working class, given the fact that Corbyn is the most leftwing Labour leader in the history of the party, he should have come up with a real socialist alternative to the EU of ‘the ‘bosses’. Of course, the problem is that he is a reformist, rather than a socialist. He is presiding a Labour manifesto which does not even call for a full Keynesian programme. Therefore if Corbyn were to come to power, on the basis of his own manifesto, Labour would not be in a position, for example, to introduce a ‘Green New Deal’. For the many, not the few is the antithesis of the necessary campaign for a United Socialist States of Europe, which would make clear to the masses that capitalism is the problem, not immigration. At the same time, the socialist left is unable to force Corbyn towards such a position, given that it is too small, as well as weak and divided by sectarian squabbles.
Hence as the Financial Times says, if May carries on as prime minister (despite her offer to step down), and then is forced to call an early election, she might even win it, despite the fact that the Tories are divided; moreover, they do not care about the lives of ‘ordinary, hard-working people’: ie, the working poor, who are forced to rely on food banks, whilst their children fall below the official poverty line. On the other hand, it is also possible that Boris Johnson could become the new leader of the Conservatives (accompanied by more defections from the centre-right of the party). Thus we could end up with a hard-line, anti-immigration Brexit after all.
Once again, the problem is that working class consciousness is at an all-time low and it does not have a socialist party to lead it.
J Tubiana and C Warin, ‘Diary’ London Review of Books March 21.
Question time BBC 1, March 28.
‘Jeremy Corbyn needs to get behind the people’s vote to fight the far right’ The Guardian April 1.