Understanding the Brexit bedlam

January 31, 2019

The British political system has been thrown into crisis since the summer of 2016 when voters narrowly supported a referendum in favor of Britain leaving the European Union (EU). The Conservative Party government headed by Prime Minister Theresa May has been negotiating with the EU over the terms of “Brexit” for the last two-and-a-half years.

May’s plan for Brexit came up for a vote in parliament recently, and it was roundly defeated with 432 against and only 202 in favor. May then narrowly survived a no confidence vote proposed by the Labour Party’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, but she did say she would stand down as Conservative Party leader — and therefore prime minister — before the next scheduled general election in 2022. If May is unable to get a Brexit bill passed by March 29, the UK will leave the EU without a deal in place, with the promise of even greater chaos. She is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie prime minister at the head of a crisis-ridden and paralyzed state.

Neil Davidson is a member of revolutionary socialism in the 21st century across the UK and RISE within Scotland, and the author of numerous books, including How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? and We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolutions. He talked to Ashley Smith about the latest developments in the Brexit crisis and how the left can respond. The situation is so volatile that Neil suggested SW include the following proviso: The interview reflects how things stood early morning on Wednesday, January 30, but further developments may well have taken place as the interview was being prepared for publication, so be forewarned!

HERE IN the U.S., it’s difficult to follow the wild twists and turns of the Brexit crisis. What are the latest developments?

WELL, MAY finally proposed a deal before parliament, but two weeks ago it was voted down in what is the worst defeat that any government has ever suffered in British history. All sides united against the deal from different points of view, some for remain and others for a harder break with the EU.

Normally in such a situation, the prime minister would immediately resign. But these are not normal times. May promised to stay on and meet with leaders of the other parties. Jeremy Corbyn rejected that without a promise from her to rule out a “hard Brexit” — that is, exiting without some agreement in place with the EU. Corbyn then moved a motion of no confidence in her government.

British Prime Minister Theresa May
British Prime Minister Theresa May (Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 | flickr)

As expected, it lost because the Tories rallied behind May. Even so, she only won by the 19 votes provided by Northern Ireland’s Protestant sectarian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and some independents. Thus, despite all the divisions within the Tory and DUP government, May survived based on a party line vote.

This predictable result shows how silly it was for people to attack Corbyn for not bringing a no confidence votes earlier. In reality, there was never a way that such a motion could win. The Tories and DUP were going to put party and the survival of their government against Labour before everything else.

There was a further attempt on Tuesday [January 29] to break the impasse with a series of cross-party amendments to the government’s latest statement of the position. Two were passed.

One expressed opposition to a no-deal Brexit, although it is not binding on the government; however, on this basis Corbyn has now said he will enter discussions with May.

The other gave May authority to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the deal which was defeated two weeks ago, specifically over the “backstop” designed to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which the hard Brexiteers insist be time-limited. She’s in Brussels now, but the EU Commission has already said that they won’t renegotiate.

So what’s going on? I think there are two possible interpretations.

One is that May and the hard-liners genuinely think that the EU will blink first because a no-deal Brexit would also cause problems for its members. That’s possible, but I think the odds are against it. For the EU, breaching the terms of the European Single Market over Ireland would be a bigger problem than no deal, if only because of the possibility of other member states demanding exemptions and the whole thing then breaking down.

The other is that she knows perfectly well the EU won’t budge, and this is an attempt to shift the blame for economic disaster that would follow a no-deal Brexit from the Tory hard-liners onto the EU — that is, “we tried to negotiate but they were intransigent,” and so on.

It is still possible that there will be an attempt to extend article 50 so that there is more time, instead of crashing out of the EU on March 29.

If that appeal is made to the EU, all 27 countries would have to agree to it, something that might happen. If it does, that would give the government time to negotiate a new deal, but I don’t think May will be able to come up with a new solution with a majority behind it in parliament. It will thus not resolve the impasse, but just extend the agony.

WHAT POSITIONS will the Tories, Labour and the EU adopt in this situation?

THE EU is not divided about Brexit at all. They are very united. The Tories and Labour are both deeply divided.

The Tories obviously want to remain in office. They are terrified about an election. But they are so divided that it’s very difficult to see how they can unite around any position.

On one extreme, they have fanatical Brexiteers who think no deal would be okay and seem content with crashing out of the EU. On the other extreme, some Tories want to remain in the EU on terms like those of Norway. There is no meeting of minds between these two poles.

The division in the party is so bad that some are even talking about a potential split. I think that’s unlikely because of their desire for self-preservation. But there will not be unity.

May is trying to ride it out between the different factions and try to get a deal that will stop freedom of movement for migrants, but otherwise allow most of the economic arrangements it currently has within the EU. But she’s not going to get that.

Labour is also divided. The party’s official position is to respect the result of the referendum, but remain within the EU Customs Union. However, a majority of the members of parliament are committed to remaining in the EU.

There are some from the traditional left who are for leave. But Corbyn, who is for leaving off the record, is trying to balance between those factions. It’s worth noting that even some remain supporters are arguing that the party should not support a so-called “People’s Vote” — that is, a referendum rerun.

Labour’s base is also divided. A majority of young people is in favor of remaining and also in favor of having a new vote on Brexit. But on the other hand, a lot of Labour’s voters in deindustrialized areas are for leaving.

So Corbyn, too, has real problems. He can’t carry on doing what he is doing right now, which is not committing to anything and hoping everything will collapse, thus triggering a general election. That will only create new problems for him, because in the event that an election is held and Labour wins, he is promising to stand by the original vote and leave — a position that will sharpen divisions within his parliamentary party and his base.

WHAT IS the negotiating position of the EU?

THEY ARE just going to sit back and wait for Britain to come to them. They’re saying: “Well, you wanted to leave. Why are we expected to come up with something? You have to tell us what you want. It’s clear that you don’t want the deal, but no one is telling us what you do want.”

From their point of view, that’s perfectly reasonable. Some of the leaders of different European countries are trying to pressure Britain to change its mind and remain. France’s Emmanuel Macron argues that Britain should reconsider leaving, and various German leaders sent an open letter begging Britain to reconsider.

THE BREXIT crisis raises the question of the EU itself. Why was it set up and what is its nature?

THERE ARE four reasons why the institutions that would become the EU were set up in the postwar period. (For convenience, I’ll also use the acronym EU when talking about the predecessor organizations.)

The first was geopolitical. It was an attempt to stop the rivalry between Germany and France from escalating into war, as it had in 1870, 1914 and 1939. The French were, for obvious reasons, particularly keen on this, and West Germany, which was under occupation after the war by the British, French, and the U.S., had little choice but to agree.

There’s thus a small element of element of truth in the argument that the EU preserved peace in Europe since 1945 by making conflict between German and France purely economic.

The second reason was also geopolitical: the Cold War, and this is the real reason for the absence of war in Western Europe. The Americans wanted to unify it against the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. So they supported the EU as the economic institution to accompany the NATO military alliance against the Soviet bloc.

Thus, the idea that the EU is opposed to U.S. interests is not true. Washington was, in fact, eager for it as part of America’s overall geopolitical strategy. It was willing to tolerate first the European Economic Community (the “Common Market”) from 1958, and then the EU from 1986, as an economic competitor, as long as it was politically subordinate to it in the Cold War.

The third reason was economic. The postwar boom saw a massive expansion of capitalism, and the European states, which were in the process of losing their empires through decolonization, needed new sites for capital investment. The EU provided them a mechanism to invest in other European economies.

The fourth reason was to prevent protectionism, which was seen as one of the reasons why the crisis of the 1930s lasted as long as it did. The U.S. and the European states agreed to set up what would eventually become single market to enshrine rules of free trade for the benefit of capital.

Ironically, the patron saint of neoliberalism, Friedrich Von Hayek, predicted the formation of the EU (“interstate federalism”) in an article written in the 1940s. He said such an economic union would be beneficial to capitalism if it had two characteristics: one, if it was run by bureaucrats who were not accountable to any popular vote; and two, if it was bound to rules that weren’t subject to negotiation by member states.

That is exactly what happened. The most powerful elements of the EU are the least democratic, and the most democratic ones are the least powerful. The European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and European Commission, where power is actually concentrated, are utterly undemocratic.

These bureaucratic institutions are so tightly tied to the capitalist class that the EU has tended to display exactly the same characteristics that capitalism has generally at the time. Thus, when the capitalist class turned to neoliberalism in the 1980s so did the EU, and when it did so, it was enthusiastically supported by Margaret Thatcher.

HOW HAS the EU changed since then?

IT’S BECOME a key vehicle for the neoliberalization of Europe. The EU adopted neoliberalism between the establishment of the Single Market 1986 — which was enthusiastically supported by Margaret Thatcher, by the way — and the signing of Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Between those dates, the Stalinist regimes fell, leading to the dramatic transformation of Europe and the EU.

Most importantly, Germany reunited, dramatically increasing its power as the dominant state in the union. On top of that, we saw all the accession treaties with several former Stalinist states joining the EU. This is important because up until the 1980s, the states that had belonged to the EU were all of comparable levels of development, if not size.

Now you had a lot of smaller states and economies joining, which means that the whole structure and balance is tilted even further to those states with the most power — Germany in particular.

Germany has achieved this position by savage attacks on worker’s wages and conditions for over 20 years. And it has done this all within the EU rules. So how exactly has the EU “protected” these workers?

GIVEN THIS history, can socialists support the EU?

NO, AND there are three key reasons why.

First, the EU simply reproduces the structures of inequality and power within the state system itself. Thus, because Germany is powerful economically, it sets the terms of the EU and enforces the neoliberal rules that have benefitted it.

Second, in economic terms, the EU functions as an imperialist power in its relationships to the Third World — above all through the Common Agricultural Policy.

Third, it is structurally racist. Just look at what it does to those trying to cross the Mediterranean to find refuge in Fortress Europe. It turns people back and refuses to come to the aid of those stranded and drowning, leading to thousands of people dying at sea, particularly since 2011.

Of course, there are some bits of legislation that defend environmental rights and workers’ rights. But they are minimum rights and often weaker than similar measures passed by member countries.

The real irony for me is that the turn of people to thinking that the EU is a positive institution really took place at the same time as it was making a shift to hard-core neoliberalism in the 1980s. In the UK in particular, people were so desperate in the Thatcherite 1980s that they were prepared to believe the EU was some kind of alternative.

WHAT HAS been the relationship of British capital to the EU. And why and how did it get itself into this mess?

WE HAVE to distinguish between the actual British capitalist class and the political parties which seek to represent it. Generally, British capitalists have always been keen on the EU, particularly after the end of empire, because they needed new markets. In general, that remains true today.

Those capitalists who want to leave are either small capitalists who are more affected by the EU regulations or because they are not big enough to see Europe as a market. Those few large capitalists who are for leave tend to be heavily invested in the U.S. or Asia — China in particular — and therefore aren’t interested in the EU. Not coincidentally, many of these people are major financial donors to the Tory Party.

However, this isn’t true of British capital’s political party leadership, and that’s what precipitated the crisis. The capitalist class, its parties and the state aren’t identical.

The capitalist state is supposed to function in a way that looks after the overall interests of capital, and not just particular groups. Every serious thinker from Adam Smith onward recognizes this, including Marx himself. The relative autonomy of the state is therefore not some exceptional condition. It is always necessary in order to look after the longer-term and broader interests of national capitals, not short-term or sectional ones.

For that reason, the various politicians and bureaucrats who actually run the state have to have some kind of overall view. From a capitalist perspective, bourgeois democracy is a very convenient way of changing who’s in political power without a civil war, especially when you need a reorientation of policy — like, for example, from state capitalism to neoliberalism in the 1970s.

That’s why you have a party system. It’s not because they want us to have a democratic choice. What has happened increasingly under neoliberalism was that there was a dramatic convergence between the Tory Party and Tony Blair’s Labour Party on economic policy.

So debates tended to be over social and cultural issues like gay marriage and migration. These are obviously very important issues. But there was very little debate about economic questions because it was assumed that the free market would solve all problems.

What that meant was that there was no actual conflict about overall capitalist strategy. Moreover, this consensus developed in a period of overall class peace. The politicians leading the Tory Party have never had to face anything like a major class struggle or even — until very recently — a Labour Party that really had a different strategy.

As a result, the Tory leadership lack any strategic vision and are utterly untested. They’re mostly former journalists, political advisers and lawyers. Few have even run corporations. Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister and one of May’s chief rivals, has never done a serious day’s work in his life. So for someone like him, everything is a tactical game about juggling to stay in power.

These types have run for office without any strategic aim for British capital, because that was assumed to be neoliberalism, a position shared with Labour. Therefore, they have run on anti-immigrant sentiment and similar right-wing social positions, which they see have some degree of popular support.

But now neoliberalism isn’t working, and they have no idea what to do about it. As a result, the Tory Party, which has led the British state for the capitalist class for over 300 years, has increasingly become trapped by right-wing demagogy and economic nationalism that is manifestly not in the interests of the bulk of British capital.

British capital can’t entirely rely on the Labour Party in its current form led by Corbyn — unlike New Labour. But the crisis precipitated by the Tory Party is so bad that some in the Financial Times and elsewhere have argued that their interests might actually be better served by a Labour government.

They argue this for two reasons. One is because Corbyn and McDonnell have a relatively coherent social-democratic program — which is slightly less radical than Harold Wilson’s in 1964 — that they find preferable to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fantasies or Johnson’s opportunism.

The other is because, even if aspects of that program did infringe on their interests, they think they can force Corbyn — or, preferably, a replacement if they can manage it — to do their bidding. He has, after all, already conceded to implementing the softest Brexit possible, including restrictions on freedom of movement.

HOW HAVE these political dynamics impacted the British petty bourgeoisie and working class?

WELL, THE victory of the neoliberal consensus up and until now has produced among whole layers of workers and the petty bourgeois what Mark Fischer called “capitalist realism” — the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism. Large swathes of people accept that it cannot be replaced or even seriously reformed.

Once you take that position, you are vulnerable to demagogic scapegoating that blames others for your condition. You can believe you’re superior as a British or American patriot to those “illegal aliens.”

Such right-wing ideas provide workers with what W.E.B. Dubois called a “psychological wage” — a psychological compensation for real suffering. Something like that seems to have become generalized in the West, particularly in the U.S. and UK.

This is a toxic situation. The historic party of British capital is deploying anti-migrant racism to stay in office. And layers of the working class and petty bourgeoisie, who have lost a sense of meaning in their lives, are being played by such demagogy.

This situation can only be resolved by the left actually tackling the issues that are making people so desperate, and driving them to vote for Brexit and Trump and oppose the rights of migrants.

THIS RAISES the question of a debate that you and Charlie Hore have had in Socialist Worker about what position the left should adopt on Brexit. What do you think of his arguments?

IN A sense, there’s no point in rehashing arguments about the original position on the Brexit referendum. My view was that the left should have taken a position of supporting leave, but making socialist arguments for it and trying to form a bloc of forces around that position.

That would have meant there weren’t only right-wing arguments in favor of Brexit. It probably wasn’t possible to do what the left did in Scotland during the previous referendum on Scottish independence, when later in the campaign, we dominated the arguments in favor of independence. The British left was just too weak or unwilling to do that.

Agitating now to stay in the EU is a nonstarter. Except for a second referendum, I don’t know what the mechanism to accomplish that would even be. And a second referendum, I think, would cause catastrophic disillusionment in democracy.

Charlie is rightly worried about racism and hostility toward migrants in the UK. I share these concerns, obviously. But Brexit didn’t produce such bigotry, but brought it to the surface, so going back in wouldn’t end such racism and anti-migrant sentiment.

The EU already restricts freedom of movement at its borders, and in order to placate right-wing populists who are in office across the EU, it may begin allowing member states to put conditions on freedom of movement.

Where Charlie and I do agree is on the need to agitate in support of people’s freedom of movement. There can be no compromises by anyone on the left on that question, including in the Labour Party, where Corbyn and others have made concessions to restrictions on freedom of movement.

But at the most fundamental level, Charlie doesn’t discuss how we have to take advantage of the unprecedented extent of the crisis the British ruling class finds itself in — one which combines elements of 1846 (abolition of the Corn Laws), 1888 (Irish Home Rule) and 1956 (Suez).

This is a situation which could lead to the territorial breakup of a British state now so dysfunctional that it can’t even carry out basic capitalist tasks.

Moments of potential transformation — never mind revolution, just serious reform — always start with a crisis, often one we wish could have been avoided, like world wars. But once the crisis begins, socialists have to look for ways of turning it to the advantage of the working class, not seek to restore the pre-crisis status quo. It’s not our duty to help them get out of this mess.

Simply focusing on the issue of migrant rights, and based on that supporting staying in the EU, lets politicians off the hook without addressing the underlying problem. That makes little sense.

Instead, we have to start from their crisis and figure out how to unite the left around an alternative solution in the interests of workers and the oppressed, around anti-austerity and migrant rights. Surely the way to protect and extend freedom of movement is to elect a government — or governments, since the devolved nations should be able to set their own policy on this — committed to that position?

We cannot capitulate to one side or the other side of a bourgeois argument. We should not be for bourgeois leave or bourgeois remain. We have to start putting forward a socialist solution to this immediate crisis.

GIVEN THAT, what should the left do now?

I DON’T think there’s an instant magic program that can be plucked from the air. We’re in a mess partly because no one on the left would have chosen leaving the EU as a starting point. But once it became the issue, we should have moved much quicker. Some on the left did call for leave, but there was no real unified campaign, and it’s now too late for that.

Now we have to fight for unity based on bigger issues than leaving or remaining. That means focusing on the grievances that made people vote in the first place — and that is the very real crises in people’s lives that are the result of neoliberal austerity, racism and anti-migrant discrimination.

We need to focus on opposition to all those problems and present positive demands to redress them. The left must come together on a positive program and also unite with remain people in the Labour Party who agree with us on these big questions.

Beyond that, we need to demand a UK general election and take part in the demonstrations that are calling for that to happen. In Ireland and Scotland, we have to increase the crisis of the British state. In Ireland, we have to argue for a unification referendum. And in Scotland, we should start campaigning — not for a new independence referendum next week, but to persuade former “no” voters about the need for independence.

We have to start campaigning to extricate ourselves from the British state. That has to be part of the strategy of advancing socialism by breaking up the British state, ending austerity and establishing freedom of movement for everyone.

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