Gift that keeps on giving
The Tories can neither abandon Brexit nor make it work. That means we can only expect more chaos, argues Paul Demarty
Brexit is in the news again - of course. The flashpoint over the weekend was the apocalyptic tailbacks on the approach to the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel.
We had perhaps already gotten used, in previous such episodes, to the stories of perishable goods - well - perishing in the backs of lorries, as haulage firms got to grips with the vast new cat’s cradle of red tape involved in getting things over a hard customs border that never used to exist between Britain and France. Such was the near-immediate result of the conclusion of Boris Johnson’s deal in 2019 and 2020. In 2020 and 2021, however, there was at least the pandemic to worry about, which had the effect of radically cutting down travel plans, so there was no equivalent hue and cry about ruined holidays. On the first weekend of the summer holiday of 2021, 2,000 vehicles attempted to board ferries to the continent in Dover. This weekend, the number was 11,000. The system buckled and broke.
True to form, and showing the maturity and acute realism we have come to expect from her, foreign secretary (and, to all appearances, prime minister-elect) Liz Truss chose to publicly blame the French. The latter - rather used to this sort of idiocy by now - responded with the usual eye rolls. The concrete problem is that we now need our passports - our beloved, beautiful blue passports - to be stamped as we enter the Schengen area, and that increases the time of the average passport check from 50 to 90 seconds. The effects of this are utterly predictable to anyone familiar with a branch of discrete mathematics called ‘queuing theory’ (little known outside of the software business today, but something you start to see at work everywhere, once you know about it). Common sense dictates that a longer processing time per car means fewer cars getting through per hour (say). If you are now processing fewer cars than are arriving, the queue is going to get longer. And the sting in the tail of queuing theory is that queues get a lot longer much more quickly than you might expect.
The one way to fix it is to process more cars at once, for which purposes we need more French border police, and more stations to sit them in. Since this was an utterly predictable problem, where are our Frenchmen, and where are their booths? It turns out that the French interior ministry proposed such an increase in December 2020, but the port of Dover turned them down, when it became clear that the port would have to foot the bill for changes in the facilities. Plainly the weekend’s chaos was a preferable outcome from the point of view of HM government and its placemen on the board of trustees. Instead of ranting about the French, Truss ought to have a few choice words for Grant Shapps.
Small chance of that, however. Brexit is totemic for all Tories within a mile of the leadership contest, and even more so for the membership, described acutely by the London Review of Books’s James Butler as “200,000 wealthy geriatrics and small-town Poujadistes”.1 There is almost a comical level of unrealism about the actual consequences of Brexit from the Tory front bench. Queues at Dover are not the half of it. The UK is predicted to have the lowest economic growth in the G20 excepting Russia - currently the target of global economic war. Estimates for the hit on gross domestic product incurred in the name of Brexit bounce around the 4%-5% range. There is a constitutional crisis smouldering away in Ireland, and maybe another one to come in Scotland. So it goes on.
The calculation of the Brexiteers was not as insane as hindsight makes it look. The assessment was that the European Union was basically unworkable politically in the long term. Brexit would be the spark for an international revolution: it would bring to a boil the legitimacy crisis that had been nibbling at the EU periphery for decades, and especially since the financial crisis. If that had panned out, there would no longer be an 800-pound-gorilla trading partner to deal with, but a series of more or less friendly or hostile neighbours, and thus the opportunity to complete the transformation of Britain into a low-tax, low-spend offshore centre.
However, the spark did not ignite the prairie fire. The result instead was several years of political crisis domestically and, with no other EU country prepared immediately to follow the UK’s lead, the damage was eminently containable on the European side, however exasperated the likes of Michel Barnier got in the process. The political result on the continent was that far-right parties which had previously taken a ‘leave’ line, like France’s Rassemblement National, quietly retreated from that stance. In short, there was every reason to believe that the expectation of those beautiful sunlit uplands - at least, from the ideological standpoint of the Tory Brexiteer - had been invalidated by the course of events. It was a dramatic roll of the dice, all right; and it came up snake eyes.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. It seemed at least for a while that the US state department was losing its interest in Europe, thus making more likely the quiet death of the EU - not able to cohere itself enough to defend itself militarily or challenge for hegemony. But Russia invaded Ukraine, and thus the US has aggressively reasserted its hegemony in Europe; the Europeans can take the worst hit for the sake of breaking up Russia, giving the US more of a free hand in east Asia. At this point, Brexit Britain starts to look like a liability, and rightwing Tories now openly gripe about Joe Biden’s disrespect for Britain, muttering darkly that it must be a matter of his latent Irish nationalism.
The only remaining use for Brexit is in low politics - fidelity to the cause becomes a token of culture war side-taking, interchangeable with anti-trans scaremongering, horror at the defacement of statues, and any number of other reactionary, petty bourgeois bugaboos.
Truss’s Brexit policy, at least so far as the 200,000 small-town Poujadistes are concerned, is perhaps illustrative. She proposes to “review” all legislation that keeps rough parity with the relevant EU regimes and scrap anything that supposedly harms UK growth by the end of 2023. This is either an empty posture or a catastrophically stupid idea - guaranteed to make worse all the problems discussed above. So we may surmise that it is … an empty posture after all. It will bowl over the Tory membership, and get Truss into the hot seat, at which point she can break any of the ‘promises’ that are likely to impact UK economic growth (that is, all of them). Indeed, one could almost imagine her - on the ‘only Nixon could go to China’ principle - simply lifting Kier Starmer’s weak-tea Brexit amelioration programme wholesale (but then we can imagine an increasingly restive and deluded Tory parliamentary party offloading her for the crime of doing so; so perhaps the result will be more of the chaos we have now).
Mention of the Ukraine war perhaps brings us to the most ironic of conclusions: Brexit really was, in a certain sense, going with the grain of world history, but was the wrong gambit in the wrong place at just the wrong time. The 2008 crash kicked off eight years of stagnating living conditions, sharpening inequality and increasingly obvious political corruption - in Britain, as in many other countries. It also coincided with the nadir of the organised left, which disintegrated into forms of identity politics trivially appropriated by the bourgeoisie and somehow even more fissile than what Trotskyism and Maoism left behind. The result was that rightist reaction to intolerable conditions prevailed: with the cementation of the ‘problem regimes’ of Fidesz and Law and Justice in Hungary and Poland, with Brexit, and above all with the election of Donald Trump.
That ‘rules-based international order’ we hear so much about today was always secretly a matter of the strong exploiting the weak - Trump made a virtue out of not concealing the fact. This was more than a cosmetic change, however: when the imperialist elite cannot even bother to be hypocritical, the shift towards a negative-sum, beggar-thy-number international regime - with its attendant risks of great-power war (already underway for all practical purposes in Ukraine) - is likely to accelerate.
The left’s response to Brexit was utterly myopic and hopeless. On the one side, the Lexiteers, who held to the historic cold war policy of opposing the ‘Brussels bosses’ club’ in the name of global strategic neutrality; on the other, left remainers, so frit at the sight of reaction on the march that they were gobbled up whole by bourgeois liberalism. (It was common enough to find ‘left’ remainer outfits, like Another Europe is Possible, happily living on the dime of George Soros, indistinguishable from any other tediously earnest, liberal NGO.)
The Lexiteers cannot confront the fact that their great ‘victory’ has visibly shoved British society sharply to the right; left remainers, meanwhile, are abandoned by Labour rightists and others, who have the required indomitable cowardice to simply abandon the issue they thought so existentially important a mere three years ago. Thus Martin Thomas of the Alliance for Warmongering Liberalism plaintively objected to Starmer’s recent retreat on the question, with arguments sweetly redolent of the summer of 2019: “a narrow majority in one vote (taken without allowing 16-17-year-olds, or EU-27 citizens settled here, their say) cannot bind a population six years later which now knows what Brexit really means”.2
That would be a perfectly viable argument, had the AWL denounced the referendum in principle, on those grounds or others, back in 2016. In failing to do so, it implicitly accepted the rules of the game - which are, of course, that such a vote is binding. (Suppose the vote had gone 51%-49% the other way, with the same electorate, would Thomas object that it was undemocratic? No - because he does not care about democracy: only about the success of the liberal bourgeoisie over the conservative bourgeoisie.) In the event, almost no contingent at all of the left (apart from the CPGB and Weekly Worker) took a boycottist line, with the result that the Lexiteers were utterly drowned out by the right, and therefore the left was easily associated with remainer ‘sabotage’. Only an independent working class policy might have shown this whole initiative up for the manipulative sham it was.
Perhaps we might learn the lesson in time for the next false choice we are offered by our utterly incoherent ruling class.