What direction out the Brexit?

March 27, 2017

Amy Gilligan, editor of the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website in Britain, explains the political currents contributing to big protests against Donald Trump.

LATER THIS week, Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May will send official notification that Britain intends to leave the European Union (EU)--the long-awaited triggering of Article 50 that will lead to "Brexit."

The outcome of the referendum last June on leaving the EU has permeated most political considerations in Britain ever since, and it's hard to imagine that it won't continue to do so for the next two years and beyond.

May's desire to look for new allies outside of Europe undoubtedly played a part in her rush to fawn over Donald Trump, with a visit to Washington soon after his inauguration. But millions in Britain aren't so keen for a renewal of what was traditionally called "the special relationship" between the U.S. and the UK.

Over 2 million people have signed a petition against Trump's proposed state visit. In towns and cities across the UK, hundreds of thousands have taken part in the Women's Marches and in protests against Trump's Muslim ban.

London saw the biggest numbers for these protests, but in some smaller places, the demonstrations were the largest in decades--at least since the protests against the Iraq War. Many people protested for the first time in their lives, bringing homemade placards that denounced both Trump and the UK government, while welcoming refugees and other migrants.

British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May

Last week's attack outside the parliament building in London is now the top of the news. The far right in Britain and elsewhere is already attempting to use it to further demonize Muslims and immigrants. A crucial task in the immediate future is, therefore, to ensure that this cannot be an opportunity to intensify the Islamophobia that people already face, either from racists in the streets or through government policies.

It is too early yet to know what medium- and long-term response this will generate from the government, but it will certainly have added to the many challenges it is already trying to grapple with at the moment.

THE ISSUE of Brexit hasn't featured prominently on the anti-Trump demonstrations so far, although it is likely that most of those taking part in them would have voted to remain in the EU in a vote last year that went very closely the other way. Polling statistics show areas with greater support for the petition against Trump's state visit are also those with strong remain votes.

A sense of anger and frustration following the Brexit vote--albeit in some cases deriving from an idealized vision of the EU that doesn't match reality--among those who would consider themselves progressives has likely contributed to the size of the anti-Trump protests.

But what exactly Brexit will entail still remains very uncertain--and hopefully contested. Thus, for many in the UK, Trump provides an easier target: A figurehead representing everything that is going wrong in the world.

May and the Tory government are still insisting they will press ahead with the state visit, but the scale of the rapidly mobilized protests has clearly had an impact on their plans.

Citing "security concerns," they first decided the visit should be moved from London to Birmingham, in the Midlands north of London, and now it looks like the trip will be pushed back from June to October, when, they hope, the heat will have died down.

There was a hope that scheduling the visit for when the Queen is at her summer residence in Balmoral, Scotland, would deter protesters. This seems to miss the fact that Balmoral is just down the road from Aberdeen, where people have been battling Trump and his posh golf course resort for many years, including on an excursion during the presidential campaign. It is also within easy reach for lots of the rest of the Scottish population.

Regardless of where or when the state visit is held, Trump is not going to be able to escape protest.

UNDERESTIMATING SCOTLAND seems to be a common theme for the UK government at the moment.

Earlier this month, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, announced she was planning to bring a motion on a new independence referendum to the Scottish Parliament. It is likely to pass with Green Party members of the Scottish Parliament supporting Sturgeon's ruling Scottish National Party.

Independence was narrowly defeated in a referendum vote in Scotland in 2014, but Sturgeon's argument is that Brexit represents a sufficient material change to warrant another ballot, particularly given that people in Scotland were overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the EU. She hopes a vote could take place in late 2018 or early 2019.

Most socialists to the left of the Labour Party supported a "yes" vote on independence last time, and another referendum would certainly be welcome. Part of the challenge this time around will be trying to ensure that support for independence isn't dominated by a desire to keep Scotland in the EU--Sturgeon's position--as Britain leaves it. This needs to be an opportunity to put forward a radical vision of how an independent Scotland would be an alternative to austerity and militarism.

For her part, Theresa May has said she won't allow Scotland to hold another independence referendum, at least until after the Brexit negotiations have been completed in March 2019. This provoked anger from even those opposed to independence, as it undermines the democratic mandate of the Scottish Parliament, entrenching feelings that the Westminster government is detached from what is happening north of the border.

Part of May's opposition to a referendum on Scottish independence is that she and the Tory government would have a hard time campaigning to hold the UK together at the same time as trying to negotiate leaving the EU.

The Tories' plans for Brexit are, at best, vague. At the moment, they have decided it is more important to restrict immigration and freedom of movement--with the aim of reducing net migration from 357,000 per year to 100,000 per year--than to remain in the European Common Market.

This has put the Conservative leadership at odds with some members of its own party, who worry about business interests under this version of a "hard Brexit." Indeed, the bill to trigger Brexit was defeated in the House of Lords on two occasions, in part because of the failure of guarantee rights for the 3 million EU nationals currently living in the UK.

Divisions in the Tory Party are, of course, to be welcomed. But the notion that the Tories who might oppose some aspects of Brexit could be an allies--as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee seems to think of former Chancellor George Osborne--is deeply mistaken.

Tories such as Osborne--who was recently appointed editor of the conservative London Evening Standard newspaper, and remains a member of parliament and consultant to the banking industry at over $800,000 a year--presided with zeal over years of cuts and austerity that continue to have a devastating impact on people's lives. They are not people we have common cause with.

Brexit isn't the only question where the Tories are facing problems.

The unveiling of the spring budget earlier in March saw deep cuts--a further 7 percent on top of cuts of 6.5 percent already--to proposed education funding.

These will affect children and teachers in the most deprived areas the hardest. Already there have been protests in some areas, with head teachers (the equivalent of principals in the U.S.) saying they will quit and even opposition from some Tory members of parliament from the "back benches."

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond was also forced into an embarrassing u-turn over proposals to increase contributions from the self-employed to National Insurance, a system of taxes primarily to fund state benefits. Tory MPs would have been in a difficult position trying to defend something that went against a party manifesto pledge not to increase National Insurance.

WHILE THE Tory government faces division within its ranks, the same is true of the opposition Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn--the left-winger who won an upset victory to become the official leader of the party in 2015, and who won re-election decisively last summer--continues to face sustained opposition from MPs within his own party, as well as the media. Those in the party establishment who plotted to bring him down last year are still at it.

On the question of Brexit, Corbyn has been criticized for supporting the government's bill triggering Article 50 when it came through the House of Commons, even when the amendments that Labour proposed around maintaining rights for EU citizens lost.

Corbyn was put in a difficult position. The 2016 EU referendum didn't split on party lines--Labour Party MPs represent some of the constituencies (voting districts, in U.S. terms) with both the largest remain and leave votes. If Corbyn had been perceived to be blocking Brexit, he would have been criticized for going against the will of the people.

Scottish independence is also a difficult question for Corbyn and Labour, which, at present, is a Unionist party, opposed to independence.

The Labour Party in Scotland was almost wiped out in the 2015 general election that brought the Tories back to power. There is now only one Labour MP from Scotland in the entire Westminster Parliament in London.

After Corbyn's selection as party leader following the general election, there was a surge in Labour's rank-and-file membership in England--but not in Scotland. Labour in Scotland continues to be led by the same people who contributed to the party's decimation in 2015.

Recent comments by leading Labour figures--such as London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who said that there was "no difference" between Scottish nationalists and people "who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion"--continue to lose the party support.

Labour in Scotland opposes another independence referendum, voting against it when Sturgeon proposed it in the Scottish Parliament. Corbyn has said he won't oppose the referendum in Westminster if the Scottish Parliament votes for it, but he remains opposed to independence.

THE TROUBLES within the Labour Party are also playing out in the election for general secretary of Unite, the UK's largest union representing over 1 million workers and one of the biggest donors to the Labour Party.

Incumbent General Secretary Len McCluskey called a snap leadership election that he hopes will allow him to extend his tenure as leader beyond retirement age.

With the support of some Labour MPs--notably Tom Watson, the official deputy leader of Labour, but an opponent of Corbyn--he is being challenged from the right by another Unite official Gerard Coyne. The Labour right's hope is that if McCluskey loses--something that looks increasingly unlikely--it would further destabilize Corbyn.

Recently, Watson was uncovering alleged "plots" by McCluskey and the pro-Corbyn organization Momentum to take over the party. This was a direct intervention in the Unite general secretary campaign.

McCluskey supported Corbyn's re-election last summer, contributing to his lopsided victory, but the union leader is very much a fair-weather friend. McCluskey has backslid on the issue of free movement in the EU, and he hasn't mounted an effective resistance to the challenges facing the union movement.

It is therefore welcome that he also faces a challenge from the left by a grassroots, socialist candidate, Ian Allinson, an experienced activist who is currently leading strike action in his workplace.

Despite the revival in membership following Corbyn's two leadership elections, the Labour Party continues to face deep problems, particularly in the electoral arena.

There were two by-elections last month to fill open seats in parliament. Labour retained its seat in Stoke-on-Trent, thankfully holding off a challenge from right-wing UK Independence Party in an area that some have described as "the Brexit capital of Britain." Things did not go so well in Copeland in northwestern England. There Labour lost a seat it had held since 1935--and the Tories made the first by-election gain for a governing party in 35 years.

But there are some areas where Labour could break through--most notably around the National Health Service (NHS).

The underfunding of both health and social care has pitched the NHS into crisis--part of a strategy of those who want to undermine the national health system so it can be opened up for privatization.

The fight to save the NHS has big mobilizing potential--over a quarter of a million people marched through London at the start of the month in a demonstration to defend it.

People know what a crucial resource a publicly funded, free-at-the-point-of-use health care system is. They also understand that migrant workers from the EU and elsewhere are fundamental to the functioning of the NHS, and that part of defending the NHS also means fighting for migrants and against racism.

Local Labour Party organizations mobilized for the London demonstration in a big way, and Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell both gave powerful speeches at the rally. This demonstrated that the Labour Party is capable, in some instances, in relating to and expressing the aspirations of broad numbers of politicized people.

Questions remain, however: Is Labour capable of harnessing this sentiment at the ballot box, and will it try to develop and support a movement outside of the electoral realm.

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