Brexit: a world historic turn
Britain’s vote on 23 June to leave the EU is an event of major geopolitical significance. 1 It will have a disorganising effect on the nexus of alliances through which the Western imperialist powers, led by the United States, manage global capitalism. It is a very serious blow to the European Union. EU leaders are trying to put a brave face on the Brexit vote, but it is no joke to lose the second biggest country in the EU, Europe’s largest financial and military power. Leave’s victory also continues the succession of referendums in which EU initiatives and institutions have been rejected by popular vote – Greece (2015), Ireland (2001 and 2008), the Netherlands (2005, 2016), France (2005), Sweden (2003), Denmark (1992). Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Münchau speculates that a defeat of prime minister Matteo Renzi in October’s constitutional referendum could start pushing Italy to the exit (Münchau, 2016).
The British vote rocked global markets whose fragility was underlined by the decision in June by the US Federal Reserve Board to postpone its plan to “normalise” the US economy after the crisis by raising interest rates (Roberts, 2016). The headline in the Washington Post on Saturday 25 June provided a succinct summary of the situation: “BREXIT VOTE ROILS GLOBE.”
In Britain itself, the Brexit vote has thrown both the main parties into turmoil. Prime minister David Cameron thought it was a clever wheeze to offer a referendum to appease the Tory right. The Financial Times has this telling anecdote about his state of mind when he made the referendum pledge in 2013:
“In 2014, when Herman Van Rompuy, a respected former head of the European Council, asked Cameron at Chequers how the British prime minister had allowed himself to get into this precarious position, Cameron replied by making a parallel with the Scottish referendum on independence. ‘I will win that easily and put to bed the Scottish question for 20 years,’ he told his Belgian guest. ‘The same goes for Europe’.” (Parker and Barker, 2016).
Cameron’s hubris over the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 nearly lost the Union. He only managed a narrow victory and that thanks to heavy lifting by Labour that cost it much of its electoral base in Scotland. From the perspective of the ruling class, the Brexit vote is much more damaging (and may precipitate a Scottish secession anyway). And Cameron has shattered his party and his government, and ended his premiership a year after winning an unexpected general election victory. His successor Theresa May cleared the government of Cameron’s upper-class “Notting Hill set”, headed by his close ally, the chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister) and architect of austerity George Osborne.
The Tories went into the referendum saying that they had learned the lessons of the 1990s, when divisions over Europe wrecked John Major’s Conservative government. But, by the final weeks of the campaign, that had been forgotten as the two sides laid into other ferociously. The escalating abuse is well summarised by the Observer’sAndrew Rawnsley:
“All the poisons that have suppurated within the Tory party for so many decades are boiling to the surface. In February, when the starting gun was fired, both sides made pious declarations that they wouldn’t let it get personal. I treasure a quote from [the pro-Leave] Iain Duncan Smith urging the Tory party to conduct a good, clean fight. ‘Do not play the person, play the ball,’ intoned this choirboy. A few weeks on, the same Iain Duncan Smith calls Mr Cameron ‘Pinocchio’”. (Rawnsley, 2016)
Pre-existing tensions within the government, manoeuvring over the succession to Cameron, who had already promised to retire before the next scheduled general election in 2020, the referendum struggle itself, which rekinded the hatreds of the 1990s – now these poisons will be infused into the battle to re-stabilise the government and British capitalism.
The crisis inside the Tory party poses two questions. First, why have such intense antagonisms developed? Secondly, can they be easily overcome now that the government has been reconstituted under May? Three left-wing Remain supporters, Green MP Caroline Lucas, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, have an easy answer to the first question: “If we leave the EU, who stands to benefit most? The political and financial elites of this country.” (Lucas, McDonnell, and Varoufakis, 2016)
If this is mean as a statement about the interests of British capitalism, then it is utter nonsense. The relentless bombardment of statements from business interests attacking Brexit before the vote may have been orchestrated from the prime minister’s office in 10 Downing Street but they were for all that genuine. Major investment banks and transnational corporations, the CBI, the Bank of England, Lloyds, the European Round Table of Industrialists, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD … these are the go-to institutions if one wants to know where leading sections of capital stand, and they all denounced Brexit. The major exception is provided by the hedge funds, a sector that has struggled since the 2008 crash, many of whose notoriously venal and short-termist bosses don’t like EU threats to regulate them more. Compared, say, to the debates in the 1980s and 1990s over whether or not to join first the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) of the European Monetary System and then the euro, big business is less divided now over Europe (for discussion of these earlier divisions in the British ruling class and the Tory party, see Callinicos, 1997). If anyone had any doubts about capital’s desires, the huge falls in financial markets all round the world the day after the referendum should have removed them.
In his casual opportunist way Cameron had secured a deal from the EU in February that broadly fitted the interests of capital in Britain (I put it like this because the highly internationalised nature of British capitalism makes it hard to distinguish between the interests of British-controlled firms and of foreign firms – for example, US, Japanese, and European banks and car producers – with significant investments in Britain). The Financial Times explains that in the lead up to the renegotiations with the rest of the EU,
“Cameron and Osborne … took a big strategic decision. While previous British leaders had claimed unconvincingly to be ‘at the heart of Europe’, the Tory leadership now made a virtue of the fact that Britain was on the margins: it was neither in the euro, nor in the Schengen borderless travel zone and, therefore, at arm’s length from the economic and refugee crises gripping the continent. If the rest of Europe wanted to integrate further, fine. But Britain needed some guarantees.” (Parker and Barker, 2016)
The eventual deal – whose most important provisions offered greater guarantees of the City’s status as the eurozone’s offshore financial centre and allowed EU migrants initially to be denied welfare benefits – corresponded to Britain’s peculiar in-out position in Europe. The historian Brendan Simms argues in a new book that the security of the British (earlier English) state has always depended partly on controlling these islands (hence the incorporation of Scotland and the subjugation of Wales and Ireland) and partly on building alliances in Europe to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic rival. (Simms, 2016)
But what gave the British state the edge in its competition with other European powers was its becoming the launching pad of industrial capitalism and the closely related development of a global empire. India was in many ways the key, providing British firms with markets and the British state with revenues and soldiers. The 19th century Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury called India “an English barrack in the Oriental Seas from which we may draw any number of troops without paying for them” (quoted in Arrighi, 2007:136). Thanks to its Indian army, Britain deployed twice as many troops in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War as did the United States, which led the Allied campaign against Japan. (Hastings, 2008:8-9. See the summary of India’s economic importance to British imperialism in Callinicos, 2009:153-6)
Even where forced in 1947 by imperial overstretch and colonial revolt to abandon India, Britain refused to embrace European integration. Both before and after the Second World War, Winston Churchill advocated a United States of Europe – but excluding Britain. “We are with Europe but not of it,” he wrote in 1930. “We are linked but not comprised.” (quoted in Young, 1998:13) The postwar Labour government took the same line, standing aloof from the first step towards integration, the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951. Like its Tory successor, it imagined that British imperialism had a future as the “third world power” after the US and the Soviet Union, using the rest of its empire to stay at the top table as Washington’s loyal European partner. (Darwin, 2009, chs 12 and 13)
Two events in 1956 brutally destroyed this fantasy. First, the US forced Britain and France to abandon their attempt to overthrow the Egyptian nationalist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser. This debacle was followed by the rapid liquidation of most of the surviving European colonial empires. Secondly, the six members of the ECSC agreed the terms on which the European Economic Community (or Common Market) was established under the Treaty of Rome of March 1957. This provided the framework in which the continental economies leaped ahead of a British capitalism struggling with chronic problems of competitiveness. The moves to join the EEC by successive Labour and Tory governments during the 1960s were a product of a sense of failure and even desperation well expressed by a 1966 Foreign Office paper for the Cabinet:
“For the last twenty years, this country has been adrift. On the whole, it has been a period of decline in our international standing and power. This has helped to produce a national mood of frustration and uncertainty. We do not know where we are going and have begun to lose confidence in ourselves. Perhaps a point has now been reached when the acceptance of a new goal and a new commitment could give the country as a whole a focus around which to crystallise its hopes and energies. Entry into Europe might provide the stimulus and the target we require.” (quoted in Young, 1998:190)
A similar attitude pervaded the Treasury (as the finance ministry is known in Britain), which, according to Hugo Young, “remained officially against British entry” into the EEC in 1973 (Young, 1998:225), and which still has a reputation for Euroscepticism. Sir Alan Budd, the Treasury’s chief economic adviser in the 1990s, told the Financial Times recently that “such was the despair in managing the economy in the early 1970s that officials thought that joining the Common Market was merely pointless. Britain’s prosperity could not be saved and EEC membership was just the sort of ‘futile gesture’ that was called for.” (Giles, 2016)
In the event, the EEC and then the EU offered a platform which British capitalism was able to reconstruct itself with a considerable degree of success. European integration has always had a double imperialist determination – first, it was promoted by the US in order to provide it with a stable and prosperous junior partner in western Eurasia, and, second, it has served as a framework for the European imperialist powers, despite their geopolitical subordination to Washington, to pursue their interests globally. (Callinicos, 2015b) Britain too has used the EU in the latter way, but more ambiguously than France or Germany because it has simultaneously sought to preserve its status as the most important partner of the US in the management of global capitalism.
This ambiguity has a material basis in the evolution of British capitalism itself. Tony Norfield in a very important new book highlights the re-emergence in recent decades of the City of London as the leading international financial centre (Wall Street may rival it in size but it is heavily involved in servicing the much bigger American economy). London dominates trading in foreign exchange, over-the-counter derivatives, and international bonds, as well as the market for international bank loans. Norfield traces the efforts since the 1950s of successive British governments, sometimes in conflict with US policies, to support the City, which he describes as “part of a mechanism through which British capitalists operate in and extract revenues from the rest of the world, something which defines Britain’s status as an imperialist power”. (Norfield, 2016, Kindle loc. 3374)
Norfield, however, relates London’s role in key financial markets to a broader hold on productive capital internationally as well:
“In 2013, Britain had the second largest stock of foreign direct investments, worth $1,885bn … While the UK figure represented only 30 percent of the total US investment stock of $6,350bn, it was larger as a share of the national economy. Data from the Financial Times table of the Top 500 global corporations in 2011 show a similar position. The UK was in second place behind the US, with thirty four companies having a total market value of $2,085bn. The US had 160 companies with a value of $9,602bn. Another survey shows that, of the world’s top 100 non-financial corporations in 2013, ranked by the value of their foreign assets, twenty three were US companies, sixteen were British and eleven were French, while Germany and Japan each had ten. The three biggest UK-based corporations held the second, sixth and seventh places: Royal Dutch/Shell Group plc, BP plc and Vodafone plc.” (Norfield, 2016, Kindle loc. 134)
British capitalism thus remains, as it has been since the Industrial Revolution, the most internationalised of the big economies. This gives it a global orientation, and helps to explain the efforts the British state has made to remain a major military power, albeit almost always operating in tandem with the US. Using five measures of power – nominal GDP, stock of outward FDI, international banking assets and liabilities, share of currency in foreign exchange trading, and military spending, Norfield places Britain “a distant second behind the US”, but ahead of China, Japan, Germany, and France. (Norfield, 2016, Kindle loc. 2055) From a liberal perspective Simms concurs, calling “the United Kingdom the last great European power”, behind only the US and China. (Simms, 2016, Kindle loc. 4339)
British capitalism’s global positioning made it an uneasy EU partner. Its semi-detached status was underlined by the opt-out it secured from the euro in the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992, which was rapidly followed by sterling’s ejection from the ERM on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992. Concerns about the City were a major reason why Gordon Brown as Labour chancellor of the exchequer blocked Britain joining the euro in the late 1990s. (Norfield, 2016, Kindle loc. 1229) Tony Blair tried to compensate for staying out by promoting greater European military cooperation under US leadership, a policy whose highpoint came in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. Blair’s strenuous participation in the invasion of Iraq, against French and German opposition, put paid to this. (Simms, 2016, ch 8)
The great irony is that Britain’s insistence on keeping sterling, and therefore staying out of the most important European project since the Treaty of Rome, has not stopped London becoming the financial capital of the eurozone. Not only does the City dominate euro-trading, but, the Financial Times reports, “three quarters of European capital markets and investment banking revenue is transacted in the UK, according to Oliver Wyman, the management consultancy.” (Agnew, 2015) The drive in the past few years further to integrate the eurozone in response to its near-terminal crisis threatened to upset this delicate balance – for example, by trying to force trading in the euro to take place within the eurozone. But what Cameron secured in Brussels were some concessions protecting the City’s status alongside recognition of Britain’s special status (for example, exemption from the Treaty of Rome’s pledge to “ever-closer union”). In the run-up to the referendum, the European Commission promised to make it easier to for City hedge funds to operate across the EU. (Brundsen, 2016) Now all bets are off. Investment banks based in London could find themselves shut out of the single market.
So, if the interests of British capitalism placed it firmly in the Remain camp, why all the fuss in the Tory party? The answer can probably summed up in two words – Thatcher and UKIP. Thatcher pledged to reverse British decline. She achieved significant successes – launching a full-scale neoliberal offensive, inflicting major defeats on the organised working class, and reinforcing the economic shift to the City with the Big Bang deregulation of 1986. But restoring Britain’s imperial glories was beyond her powers (or indeed intentions). There have been humiliations aplenty – Black Wednesday, military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 crash –highlighting British capitalism’s vulnerability in a fast-changing global system where the distribution of power is shifting.
For the Thatcherite wing of the Tory party, in near-rebellion under Major’s government and (unlike Cameron and Osborne) hostile to Blair’s attempt to fuse neoliberalism and social democracy, the EU became the symbolic enemy, into which all their frustrations were concentrated. Tearing loose from the EU has become a Great Escape that would allow Britain to recover the reality of sovereignty to an extent that probably even the US doesn’t enjoy. For some Tories on the Leave side, for example, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, who strut as British versions of the American neocons, this ideological fantasy is joined to another, that Britain could have a radiant future in a free-market “Anglosphere” together with the US and ex-white Dominions such as Canada and Australia.
The slight embarrassment about this option is that it is strongly rejected by the putative partners. Barack Obama’s very vigorous intervention in the Brexit debate during his visit to Britain in April was in essence a restatement of the traditional US policy of promoting European integration and of supporting Britain’s membership precisely to ensure that Washington has a powerful and sympathetic ally when decisions are taken in Brussels. Just as with Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican Party on a platform that breaks with the US imperialism’s strategy since the early 1940s of constructing a global liberal capitalist order underpinned by American military power, we have the paradox of the main party of big business pulling away from the interests of capital.
Marx famously wrote: “The specific form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude, as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant.” (Marx, 1981:797) Truly the antagonisms in the political superstructure have in this case reacted back onto the economic base of British capitalism with a vengeance.
Brexit, then, isn’t the basis of an alternative strategy for British capitalism. What has given it legs is a process of generational recomposition of the Tory activist base that has made Euroscepticism the norm and reduced the pro-EU wing of the party to an ageing rump represented by figures from the past such as Heseltine and Ken Clarke. This transformation has then been reinforced by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Its leader Nigel Farage’s achievement has been to make what have traditionally been the preoccupations of a relatively small minority with the threat that a European “superstate” poses to British sovereignty into a popular cause by reframing the question of Europe in terms of immigration, and exploiting the arrival of migrants from Central and Eastern Europe since the EU expanded eastwards in 2004. The inroads that UKIP has made into the electoral bases of both major parties have pulled the debate on immigration rightwards, but they also galvanised the Tories into trying to recapture control of the European agenda.
How did this play out in the referendum campaign itself? Under constant barrage from capital’s heavy artillery about the economically damaging effects of Brexit, the Tory leaders of the Leave campaign moved more and more onto the terrain of UKIP, promising that leaving the EU would allow Britain to “regain control of its borders”. This is another ideological fantasy: it is the dependence of contemporary capitalism on immigrant workers that is driving demographic change in Britain, as elsewhere, not the EU principle of the free movement of labour. But racism is probably not the most powerful factor driving people into the Leave camp.
UKIP already benefitted from ordinary voters’ revulsion against the entire political and economic elite. Here the referendum campaign has sent out contradictory signals. On the one hand, the mainstream debate came down to Tory posh boys in suits shouting at each other – hardly a recipe for overcoming voter alienation. On the other hand, the very unanimity of establishment opposition to Brexit is likely to have goaded many people into the Leave camp simply as an act of defiance. A YouGov poll lists as the three main beneficiaries of the EU big business (36 percent), bankers and politicians (both 32 percent), while the losers were small business (26 percent), people on low incomes (25 percent), and pensioners (14 percent). (Moore, 2016)
There is another very important thing about popular attitudes. All the polls show that the poorer you are the more likely you were to vote Leave (see, eg, Parker and Cocco, 2016, and Ashcroft, 2016). This means that millions of working-class voters have gone un-represented by the mainstream of the labour movement. As in the case of the vote on bombing Syria last December, the Labour front bench has in this shown their profound commitment to the neoliberal and imperialist legacy of Tony Blair, prime minister 1997-2007 and architect of “New Labour”. Disgracefully, the trade union leaders, after cutting a deal with the government that mildly watered down the anti-union bill, threw themselves vigorously into the Remain camp (though three smaller left-led unions, ASLEF, BFAWU, and the RMT constitute an honourable exception : https://www.rmt.org.uk/news/aslef-bfawu-rmt/). Like the marginally more left-wing “Another Europe is Possible” campaign, union officials concentrated on telling fairy stories about the EU as initiator and guarantor of progressive social reforms. Not only did this whitewash an EU currently mounting a massive neoliberal assault on the European social model, but it effectively dismissed the role of social movements in winning reforms through struggles from below.
At worst, this has involved replicating in the Remain camp the kind of popular front politics that, at the start of the campaign, saw George Galloway speaking alongside Farage. Thus Sadiq Khan, newly elected Labour mayor of London, shared a platform with Cameron, while Green MP Caroline Lucas sat on the board of the Tory-dominated Britain Stronger in Europe campaign and cheered on Major – who as prime minister shut down the mines, privatised the railways and started the marketisation of the National Health Service – when he laid into Leave leader Boris Johnson.
By comparison with this farrago of pro-EU apologetics and class collaboration, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn played a cleverer game. Forced by the Blairites in the shadow cabinet to come out in favour of continuing EU membership at the start of his leadership, he was a remarkably unenthusiastic Remain campaigner. Like McDonnell, Corbyn refused to share platforms with Tories, and in what was meant to be a pro-EU speech in early June he concentrated his fire on the Tory Remain campaign and the EU itself. As the New Statesman grudgingly acknowledged,
“he made enough pro-EU noises to make grumbling from Labour’s more committed pro-Europeans look insurrectionist rather than constructive. He chucked a bit of red meat at his core supporters, bashing TTIP – a treaty that is now looks to be dead on arrival in any case – and re-announcing that a Labour government would renationalise the railways. And, crucially, he did just enough to hint to those few Labour MPs and activists who are anti-European that he might just possibly remain on their side, really.” (Bush, 2016)
Corbyn probably calculated that the referendum was the Tories’ problem, and that Labour could benefit from letting them tear themselves apart. The problem with boxing clever like this is that it may have sent coded signals to the millions of traditional Labour voters backing Leave, but it didn’t offer them a clear political lead. If Corbyn had come out linking rejection of the EU and opposition to austerity he could have consolidated the broader coalition that emerged in his election as Labour leader last September. As Freddie Sayer of YouGov puts it,
“Corbynmania was a youth movement and a social media movement, but it was also a working-class movement. As a group, the Labour ‘selectorate’ that voted in the leadership election were more educated and well-to-do than the population at large, but within that the most ‘normal’ group were actually Corbyn supporters. Only 26 percent of Corbyn supporters had a household income of more than £40,000, slightly less than the national figure of 27 percent. (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall supporters were progressively better off at 29 percent, 32 percent and 44 percent respectively.) So Corbyn got the cool kids and the working-class left-wing.” (Sayer, 2016)
But Corbyn’s equivocation effectively pushed working-class people who wanted to vote Leave towards Farage and Johnson. It’s important nevertheless carefully to analyse the different elements of the situation. Large numbers of the radical and liberal left convinced themselves during the referendum campaign that the Leave vote was powered by racist and anti-migrant sentiment whose victory would entrench the Thatcherites in power. This was summed up by the singer Billy Bragg’s tweet: “Not every Leave voter is a racist, but every racist will vote Leave.” (https://twitter.com/billybragg/status/743408035167633408?lang=en-gb). The logic of this argument was fairly obviously flawed – Cameron and Osborne in their six years in office had already driven neoliberalism much further than Thatcher had dared to go. And the attack by the odious Alan Sugar, a Remain supporter, on Gisela Stuart, the pro-Leave Labour MP, as “a 1974 immigrant … telling us British what we should do” hardly suggested the racists were all on one side. (https://twitter.com/Lord_Sugar/status/745351864762392576?lang=en-gb)
But the diagnosis seemed to be supported by the vile murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by an open fascist during the referendum campaign. The killing threw the Leave leaders into disarray, and encouraged their opponents on the Remain side to present the referendum as a plebiscite against racism. This ploy was started by the Labour leadership, but then taken up by Cameron and Britain Stronger in Europe. Simultaneously Labour figures such as deputy leader Tom Watson, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite (the largest union), expressed their support for restricting the free movement of labour within the EU.
This move was a response to the discovery by overwhelmingly pro-Remain Labour MPs and trade union officials that large numbers of working-class people were going to vote to Leave. It assumed that they were motivated by racism. And of course only a fool would deny that racism is a powerful and growing force in Britain and indeed throughout Europe. Despite the horror of Cox’s murder, the problem isn’t so much the open and organised fascist right – in Britain a cluster of fragmented warring groupuscules, though still a threat requiring constant vigilance and where necessary determined counter-mobilisation.
Undoubtedly in the referendum millions voted to Leave under the influence of a broader anti-migrant racism. But, as we have already suggested, at least as powerful a force is likely to be an alienation from the economic and political elite crystallising the experience of 40 years of neoliberalism and nearly 10 years of crisis expressed in stagnant or falling wages, unemployment, dwindling social housing, and a shrinking welfare state. The EU as the incarnation of neoliberalism and contempt for democracy is a perfect symbol of all these discontents. London, site of a global financial hub, may have voted to Remain, but every other English region and the whole of Wales voted to Leave. YouGov has suggested the unusually higher turnout in the North of England than in the South tipped the balance. (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/06/24/brexit-follows-close-run-campaign/) Will Davies shrewdly comments on the regions in the north, north-east, and Wales that went for Brexit:
“They are well-recognised as Labour’s historic heartlands, sitting on coalfields and/or around ship-building cities. Indeed, outside of London and Scotland, they were amongst the only blobs of Labour red on the 2015 electoral map. There is no reason to think that they would not stay red if an election were held in the autumn. But in the language of Marxist geographers, they have had no successful ‘spatial fix’ since the stagflation crisis of the 1970s. Thatcherism gutted them with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.
“Labour’s solution was to spread wealth in their direction using fiscal policy: public sector back-office jobs were strategically relocated to South Wales and the North East to alleviate deindustrialisation, while tax credits made low productivity service work more socially viable. This effectively created a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, and co-existed with a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency. [Architect of New Labour] Peter Mandelson’s infamous comment, that the Labour heartlands could be depended on to vote Labour no matter what, ‘because they’ve got nowhere else to go’ spoke of a dominant attitude. In Nancy Fraser’s terms, New Labour offered ‘redistribution’ but no ‘recognition’.
“This cultural contradiction wasn’t sustainable and nor was the geographic one. Not only was the ‘spatial fix’ a relatively short-term one, seeing as it depended on rising tax receipts from the South East and a centre left government willing to spread money quite lavishly (albeit, discretely), it also failed to deliver what many Brexit-voters perhaps crave the most: the dignity of being self-sufficient, not necessarily in a neoliberal sense, but certainly in a communal, familial and fraternal sense.” (Davies, 2016)
Lord Ashcroft’s referendum-day poll found that nearly 49 percent of Leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”, compared to 33 percent who gave the main reason for leaving that it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” And significant numbers of Black and Minority Ethnic people sided with them: “White voters voted to leave the EU by 53 percent to 47 percent. Two thirds (67 percent) of those describing themselves as Asian voted to remain, as did three quarters (73 percent) of black voters. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) of those describing themselves as Christian voted to leave; seven in ten Muslims voted to remain.” (Ashcroft, 2016)
But in a campaign dominated by two wings of the Tory party, with the constant pressure from UKIP, race and migration became the way in which the debate was framed. There was nothing inevitable about this. The leaders of the labour movement bear a very heavy responsibility for their failure to offer a critique of the EU from the left – not necessarily an internationalist and anticapitalist one: the left reformist critique developed by Tony Benn, the leader of the Labour left in the 1970s and 1980s, would serve quite well.
There is an important lesson here for the European radical left, which still subscribes to the policy of “remain and reform” advocated by Corbyn during the referendum campaign, despite the crushing of the Syriza government in Greece a year ago by the dominant states in the EU and the European Central Bank. Not only is this approach ineffective, but it concedes the terrain of opposition to the EU to the racist and fascist right. The loyalty of Die Linke, the German Left party, to the European project has led to it being outflanked by the Alternative für Deutschland, which has fused together opposition to the euro, anti-migrant racism, and Islamophobia.
But let’s return then to the second question: can Humpty Dumpty be put back together after the Brexit vote? Cameron’s government was already fragile. Virtually since the general election, it made retreat after retreat, often on policies pushed by Osborne – tax credits, disability benefits, Sunday trading, pension tax relief, forced transformation of state schools into autonomous “academies”, child refugees. Behind these U-turns has been a small group of Tory back-benchers, mostly from the extreme right of the party, hostile to Cameron and Osborne, who exploited the government’s small majority. Enthused by the Brexit vote, they will now press a weakened government for a rapid break with the EU.
The decapitated government faced three potentially incompatible things after the referendum. First, it had to find a new prime minister. In the end, this proved comparatively easily. Like the final scene of a Tarantino movie, the rival candidates of the Tory right – Johnson, Gove, and Andrea Leadsom – speedily eliminated themselves, allowing Theresa May, the home secretary, who had unostentatiously supported Cameron during the referendum campaign, to succeed. Secondly, it must reassure the markets – not an easy matter given the importance of the EU to capitalism in Britain. Black Wednesday was one day – but sterling and British securities may be in for a prolonged battering. May’s appointment as prime minister calmed the markets, allowing sterling to recover, but this may provide only temporary relief.
Thirdly, the government must engage in what all the experts predict will be difficult and protracted negotiations with Brussels over Britain’s departure from the EU, while trying to manage a House of Commons where the government has at the best of times a small majority and most MPs oppose Brexit, while the main echelons of the ruling class are redeploying to reverse or water down the referendum decision. May gave the main external ministerial responsibilities to Leave campaigners – Boris Johnson (foreign affairs), David Davis (Brexit), and Liam Fox (international trade). This was both an acknowledgement of the power of the Tory right to destroy her government, as it did those of Major and Cameron, and a trap for potential opponents, since negotiating Brexit will be a politically hazardous undertaking.
Hugo Young wrote of the 1975 referendum: “what settled it, by common agreement, was fear rather than exultation: the fear of the unknown, as represented by a world outside Europe which the No campaigners were unable convincingly to describe.” (Young, 1998:296) This time the accumulated resentments of the neoliberal era overwhelmed fear. But the void still exists, as the Leave leaders fumble in search of an alternative orientation for British capitalism.
Corbyn should be well-placed to offer an alternative to this shambles. The distance he kept from the EU during the referendum campaign allows him to reconnect with Labour voters who plumped for Leave. Unfortunately, his Blairite shadow cabinet, intent on seeking to remove him for failing to secure a victory for Remain, resigned en masse. This is an act of astonishing arrogance: since the connivers at the coup have been in the direction of the Labour Party for far longer than Corbyn, they bear a heavy responsibility for the decline in electoral support. Like Cameron, Remain was their cause, Brexit is their defeat. It is also an act of criminal folly to split Labour wide open when the Tories may be in forced in an early election, but the likes of Hilary Benn (the shadow foreign secretary who led the revolt against Corbyn) presumably believe scorched-earth tactics are the only way to save the tattered remnants of New Labour.
It’s clear that free movement of labour within the EU is going to be a dominant issue in British politics for the next months, if not years. This is true for the Tories: Johnson and Gove promised that Brexit would allow Britain to break with this principle. But May will come under huge pressure from big business to keep Britain in the single European market (which would allow the City to continue to export financial services to the EU), while Brussels insists that this comes with free movement. Corbyn used this EU requirement during the referendum campaign to resist pressures to set an upper limit to migration, but he will now face demands to give way in order to save his leadership. Astonishingly, even as prominent figure on the radical left as Paul Mason, who advocated voting Remain as a progressive and internationalist act, now advocates abandoning free movement of labour. (Mason, 2016)
The referendum has undoubtedly reinforced the waves of racism running through British society. But it can’t be emphasised enough that the Tories, UKIP, and the Nazis aren’t having it all their own way. The huge wave of solidarity with refugees that swept through Europe in the early autumn of 2015 has not dispersed. On the contrary, a dense network of local initiatives to offer material and spiritual support to refugees from Calais to Lesbos has crystallised across Britain. Already last September 31 percent of the British population were estimated to have given some form of support to refugees (Travis, 2015). The odd speech by Corbyn and his allies aside, this remarkable self-organised movement is without mainstream political representation. For all that it exists, and it is a powerful counterweight to the racists. The drubbing that the Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith’s dreadful Islamophobic campaign received in the London mayor elections revealed another barrier to the racist offensive – the habits of everyday tolerance that have grown up out of the diverse, interwoven lives of people in the big cities.
These deep antiracist currents need to be organised. This is beginning to happen on a broad basis with the formation of the coalition Stand Up to Racism, the driving force behind the anti-racist day of action on 19 March and co-sponsor of the solidarity convoy to the refugee camp in Calais on 18 June. But a harder socialist edge is needed as well to link to antiracism on a class basis to the broader struggle against austerity. The emergence of the Lexit Campaign, advocating a left, internationalist opposition to the EU, was one of the successes of the referendum. Not because it swung a massive number of votes, but because it brought together a significant spectrum of forces on the radical left to campaign for a Leave vote on an anticapitalist and antiracist basis that (unlike some earlier left anti-EU campaigns) had no truck with migrant-bashing.
Lexit offered a political voice, albeit a small one, to working-class people who wanted to reject the EU on a class basis. It therefore provided an alternative to the slide into class collaboration by some leaders of “Another Europe is Possible”. Moreover, given the dreadful fragmentation and involution of the British far left in recent years, the successful collaboration of different organisations and traditions was an important step forward. But Lexit was a minority within the broader left, most of whom convinced themselves that the EU is a bulwark against neoliberalism and racism. This envenomed debates, especially in the social media hothouse, in the lead-up to and after the vote.
In the turbulent and dangerous situation that the Brexit vote has opened up it’s essential to keep the disagreements on the British radical left over Europe in perspective. The truth is that we all faced a hard choice – between the neoliberal imperialist monstrosity that is the EU, strongly supported by the main echelons of British capital, and the xenophobic and racist Thatcherites that dominated the Leave campaigns. Inevitably in a referendum driven by Tory divisions where one has to plump for a binary question – in this case Remain or Leave? – we all were going to find ourselves ticking the same option on the voting paper as some Tories. (Unless we abstained, which meant opting out of the biggest debate in British politics for many years.) What distinguishes a left approach in such a situation is the reasons we give for the answer and how (and with whom) we campaign. These are the areas of legitimate disagreement. But these differences should not obscure what we have in common.
British and maybe world capitalism are entering very stormy waters. In seeking to navigate through them, the Tories are sure to mount yet more attacks – for example, forcing through more cuts to reassure the markets. At the same time, as I predicted a year ago, “constitutional issues will continue to act as the lightning conductor of British politics for the immediate future” (Callinicos, 2015a). On the one hand, there will the Brexit negotiations, where the detail of how the British state is disentangled from the EU will matter a lot. On the other hand, there may be referendums on the break-up of the United Kingdom, probably in Scotland, conceivably in the north of Ireland. And there is an immediate fight to be waged against the Bourbons of the Labour right. Unity against racism, austerity, and war, and to preserve the political opening that Corbyn’s election marked is urgently needed.
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