The Brexit crisis

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The depth of the crisis revealed by the EU referendum decision to leave the European Union is now clear. Nine days after the result, aftershocks are still rocking political and economic life. Sharp divisions have emerged in every aspect of public life. The Conservative and Labour Parties are fracturing under the pressure; the global stockmarkets are still registering shock; the ‘United Kingdom’ is breaking apart; ‘Remain’ supporters are demonstrating their horror at the result and calling for a second referendum; racist attacks on anyone perceived to be ‘foreign’ have escalated. Britain is split.

The roots of this crisis lie in irreparable divisions in the ruling class about the future direction for British imperialism. How best can they defend their future profits in the middle of a global crisis? The section of the ruling class representing the main arm of British imperialism, the City of London, is reeling from losing the Referendum vote; its careful plans for continuing its profitmaking at the expense of the working class lie in ruins. While the British ruling class has turned to infighting and British Chancellor Osborne has abandoned his aim of achieving a surplus in public finances by 2020, European governments are taking steps to protect their own interests and insulate themselves from the Brexit chaos. Any negotiations before the formal Brexit procedure (Article 50) is begun have been ruled out. Britain is unlikely to find a sympathetic reception for an EU-lite solution which includes single market privileges and the end of free movement. France is working on ways to make Paris a more attractive financial centre to rival the City of London. ‘We know that groups based in the City are planning to leave for Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris. We are working on measures that could help strengthen our attractiveness. I think notably about taxation or the status of expatriates’, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls on 2 July in an interview in Le Parisien daily.

The first post-Brexit week saw the British middle classes aghast at what was happening. The lynchpins of their security – property prices, share prices, foreign travel, ‘the economy’ – were all said to be under threat. The self-dubbed ‘48%’ took to the streets wearing safety-pins against racism and circulated emails and letters to MPs calling for a second referendum which they hoped would result in a reversal of the Brexit decision. Something more, however, will be required if the concerns of the 52% majority are to be met. Nothing that the rump of the Remain movement is proposing even addresses the poverty that has devastated the lives of millions of working class people who justifiably feel their interests have been abandoned. Racism must be challenged, a movement must be built, but it cannot be done under the leadership of a political elite that is racist to the core.

Back in Westminster, fighting has broken out on all fronts. In the wake of the murder of MP Jo Cox on 16 June, which called a temporary halt to the frenzy of the Referendum campaign, Harriet Harman MP, former Labour leader, spoke up like many other MPs: ‘Let us aspire to leave behind the venom and the toxicity and the division’. The outbreak of ‘love and unity’ lasted less than two weeks. Two days after the referendum result was announced, the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party had turned on leader Jeremy Corbyn in a fresh attempt to force his resignation. All they had to do was keep quiet for a week and let the Tories take the blame for Brexit chaos, but their greed was too great and Labour’s ongoing internecine war hogged the headlines. Devising a programme to win the next general election was the priority: harsher immigration controls and a revamped version of the austerity programme under a new leader are their solutions to the crisis.

For the Conservatives as the ruling party, things were bound to get nasty. What appeared to be a temporary hesitation among the Brexit winners on 24 June following David Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister, soon descended into another round of bloodletting in a hopelessly divided Conservative Party: all that was solid melted into air. First of all the Brexit camp fell apart. It turned out there had been no plan for what to do next in the event of victory. On 30 June, in the wake of a (deliberately?) leaked email from Mrs Gove to her husband, casting doubt on Boris Johnson’s trustworthiness, Michael Gove announced his intention to stand in the Tory leadership contest. Hours later, at a meeting intended to launch his own bid as favourite to succeed Cameron, Johnson suddenly announced that he would not be standing. The ‘unassuming’ Justice Secretary Gove had knifed him in the back.

Even in the context of the Tory Party, this was a low blow. In a 5,000-word launch statement, Gove offered the explanation that Johnson ‘lacked the qualities and character to lead’. There has been no explanation of why, at such a late stage, having fully backed Johnson’s ambitions despite his reputation as an inveterate liar, Gove came to this realisation. Pledging his commitment to change and sounding like Charles Dickens’s obsequious villain the humble Uriah Heep, Gove offered: ‘Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it; whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it.’ This being a Westminster contest, whatever any candidate says, don’t believe it.

By the next day other Tory MPs had entered the running: Theresa May (Home Secretary), Stephen Crabb (Work and Pensions Secretary); Liam Fox (former Defence Secretary); and Andrea Leadsom (Energy). The interesting point about this leadership election is that, regardless of a fairly decisive election victory for the Tories in 2015, the candidates are forced to treat the defeat of Cameron’s Remain campaign as a verdict by the electorate on his government. Consequently the main contenders have been keen to promote their own ‘ordinariness’ as against the ruling Old Etonian elite. Yes, they are not Old Etonians, but they are all representative, whatever they pretend, of the privileged upper middle classes who have benefited so well and for so long from inequality and the attack on Britain’s poorest people. Mr May is a banker; Leadsom’s family is connected to offshore banking and tax havens; Crabb is a right-wing Christian who voted against gay marriage; Fox is an ex-minister with a history of dodgy dealing for which he was sacked. ‘Ordinary’ they are not.

With a flash of enlightenment Gove opined:

‘The referendum showed in stark relief that there are two Britains: those who can reap the benefits of globalisation and those who are flotsam and jetsam in its powerful flows of global capital and free labour. For millions, the dream of home ownership is receding and wages are stagnating. For millions this is not a brave new world but an uncertain new world.’

You would not think that this hypocrite is a minister in the government that impoverished millions and a close bosom friend of Chancellor Osborne and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Similarly, Theresa May appeared at her launch meeting dressed head-to-foot in tartan and described the insecurities and injustices facing working class families:

‘If you’re from an ordinary, working-class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise. You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about mortgage rates going up. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school, because there’s no other choice for you.

Frankly, not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this. And some need to be told that what the Government does isn’t a game, it’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives. I will set out more detailed proposals in the coming weeks, but for today I want to be clear: under my leadership, the motives of the Conservative Party will never be in any doubt.’

That may be so. But while May promotes herself as a reforming Home Secretary, her record in office shows otherwise. She has successively tightened immigration controls and ridden roughshod over human rights. In October 2014, she argued at an EU summit that search and rescue missions for drowning refugees in Mediterranean waters should be abandoned as a way of discouraging further immigration. In April she stated ‘Britain should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights regardless of the Referendum result’, but by 1 July, when she announced her leadership intentions, she had changed her mind. Her failure to meet the government’s promise to reduce immigration, despite her cruellest efforts, and her support for the Remain campaign, are likely to be held against her. Leadsom, on the other hand, has impeccable right-wing connections, was a leading light in the Brexit campaign and is modeling herself on Margaret Thatcher. For the winner of the contest, faced with the task of rescuing the ruling class from the consequences of Brexit, concern for the fate of working class voters is likely to be transient.

Despite the fact that only Gove, Leadsom and Fox belonged to the Leave campaign, all the candidates have now committed to implement Brexit – as May’s campaign leader said ‘We are all Brexiteers now’. Both May and Gove promised more funding for the NHS should they become Prime Minister, if not quite at the level suggested during the campaign itself. Anything is now possible, and as we have seen, any promise is breakable. And of course, all of them have pledged to reduce immigration.

Today, a further turn of fortune has left Gove, ‘the repellent traitor’, struggling for support in the race to the top. Only five MPs attended his launch meeting. On 4 July, May is well ahead with 110 MPs in support; Leadsom 31; Gove 25; Crabb 21; and Fox 8. On this standing, and with the expectation that Leadsom will gain Johnson’s supporters, the final contest could be between two women: a Remain voter and a Brexiteer. The first ballot will take place on Tuesday 5 July, where the lowest scorer will be eliminated. The second round follows on Thursday 7 July and ballots should continue until there are only two candidates left. The final decision will be made by the wider Tory party membership unless there is an attempt to cut the election short by declaring an outright winner in the meantime.

At the end of this, the Conservative Party may hope to have ‘steadied its ship’ by electing a new leader. But in reality, this is the least of its problems. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is how Brexit can be implemented in the interests of British imperialism. This will require not only unlimited supplies of money and resources to negotiate deals, it will also require a renewed attack on the working class that they claim to be so concerned about. So far, no one has a plan and in any general election, whether it is this year, next year or 2020, UKIP, with or without Farage as leader, will be ready to take advantage of the turmoil engulfing the Westminster parties.

British imperialism’s difficulty is our opportunity. The necessity for building a strong anti-racist, anti-imperialist, working class movement could not be clearer. This movement must challenge the illusions of the young people who have tried to rally for Europe, destroy the illusions of working class communities that immigration is at the root of their problems and unify the working class in all parts of Britain in the fight against austerity. We need to be ready to defend ourselves against the attack that is coming. Let’s strike back.

Carol Brickley

Events since the referendum have proved the RCG’s position to be correct. In the next issue of FRFI we will be commenting further, from a communist standpoint, on the post-referendum crisis as it engulfs Britain and Europe.

See also on this website:

EU referendum – The position of communists', David Yaffe, FRFI 251 June/July 2016, with a new introduction following the referendum result.

Labour: ‘not racist enough’ , Robert Clough, FRFI 251 June/July 2016.