|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 224 Dec-Jan 2018/19
Brexit as a window on our times
Faced with the blow against them", wrote Socialism Today in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, "the task now as far as the majority of the ruling class is concerned is to try and ‘walk back’ the result", quoting the phrase of the then US president Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry.
The major forces of British capitalism had campaigned furiously to remain within the EU bosses’ club, the biggest common-regulatory bloc in the world economy in GDP terms. But now, rebuffed by what was at bottom a mass working-class vote of rage against the capitalist establishment, they had to regroup to deal with the new situation.
"At worst they hope for a ‘Bino’, a Brexit-in-name-only", we wrote, keeping the UK within the EU customs union and single market, with its pro-big business, neoliberal rules. "But if it can be accomplished, after a suitable delay and the ground prepared, the goal would be to reverse the result, through a general election or a second referendum". (Socialism Today, No.201, September 2016)
After all, the reversal referendum manoeuvre was a well-established tactic for dealing with EU referendums where the vote had gone ‘the wrong way’ from the capitalists’ point of view, but which was then subsequently reversed in a second vote. Two referendums were held in Denmark in 1992 and 1993 to agree the Maastricht treaty establishing the Economic and Monetary Union. Ireland only approved both the Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) treaties after a second vote.
The EU constitution treaty was resuscitated by other means. Derailed by referendum defeats in France and Netherlands in 2005 it was repackaged as the Lisbon treaty and won parliamentary approval in those countries in 2008, after new elections. The different ‘walking back’ templates were there. The situation could surely be retrieved.
Yet these are different times to then, before the great recession which followed the financial crash of 2007-08. The last pro-EU vote in a referendum was Denmark’s approval in 2014 of the Agreement on a Unified Patent Court, although that agreement, signed five years ago in 2013, is still to come into force due to ratification problems elsewhere!
Notwithstanding some polling showing a small majority now for remain, a re-run referendum – the ruling class telling working-class leave voters they were wrong – would not guarantee to result in a Brexit reversal. And Theresa May’s election gamble last year produced not a ‘strong and stable’ majority from which she could push through a Bino deal, but the biggest surge to Labour between elections since 1945 in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s radical manifesto. The age of austerity has ushered in a crisis of capitalist political representation, with all the old patterns and methods of rule profoundly shaken.
At the time of writing May remains as prime minister. Her proposed deal – the draft EU withdrawal agreement treaty and accompanying future framework political declaration – still survives. But beyond that nothing is certain.
May’s gambit: me or chaos
May’s deal is unquestionably a Brexit-in-name-only agreement, drawn up to defend capitalist interests. While the draft treaty is in many ways a so-called ‘blindfold Brexit’, leaving the details of the future relationship with the remaining EU27 member states to negotiations during the transition period after March 2019, it clearly keeps the UK within the EU’s pro-big business regulatory orbit. Britain would be committed, for example, to maintaining a ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU on state aid rules and other liberalisation directives, cutting and pasting them into UK law.
The chief executive of the UK Food and Drink Federation described it as "the softest of Brexits". It has been endorsed unanimously by the policy-making committee of the strongly remain-supporting Confederation of British Industry (CBI), having canvassed the views of 900 business executives, as the best deal available and the only alternative to a chaotic no deal breakdown.
The majority of MPs – the Tories, the Blairite majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Scottish National Party and the Lib Dems – are committed representatives of capitalism. And yet parliamentary approval of the deal can only be secured by May, if at all, by her bulldozing it through.
Arcane House of Commons procedures are being dusted down to ensure the executive – the government – cannot be bound to alternative action by the legislature in the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal. Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act a defeat would not be a confidence issue – May would be able to return within three weeks for a second vote. Even cabinet ministers have reportedly been "shouted down" by unelected officials. And then there’s the financial and currency markets.
An analyst at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has spoken of ‘a new Tarp moment’, referring to how the US Troubled Asset Relief Program bailing out the banks in 2008 was initially voted down in Congress – but passed a few days later with minor tweaks after the markets had crashed. Already a number of Blairites, and Tory remainers who had previously rebelled against May, are signalling they could reluctantly approve the deal ‘however imperfect it may be’.
Forcing the withdrawal agreement treaty through on this basis – foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt warned of "appalling chaos" if it is not approved – would not be a sign of strength however. The whole situation, in fact, reflects rather the underlying social isolation and weakness of the ruling class, buffeted by the economic, social and political contradictions of declining British capitalism.
Filling the vacuum
Musing on why the UK’s 1975 EU referendum produced a yes vote for membership, the then Labour foreign secretary Roy Jenkins, who went on to be a founding member of the split-away Social Democratic Party in 1981, argued that "the people followed the advice of those they were used to following".
But that deference to established authority – the social reserve of capitalism nurtured by the long post-war boom which had only just come to an end – had turned into its opposite in 2016. With confidence in the traditional workers’ parties already eroded as they transformed into capitalist formations in the 1990s post-Stalinist era, the authority of ‘those the people were used to following’ has been blown away by the age of austerity.
Indeed all the institutions and instruments which capitalism has relied on historically, and the divisive ideologies that have been used to sustain them, have been deeply undermined – fuelling, for example, as Christine Thomas explains, the new movements of women against oppression that are taking shape globally. But in the absence of a clear lead by the working-class movement other, reactionary, forces can also temporarily slip into the vacuum.
Jeremy Corbyn made a major mistake in 2015 when he pledged to campaign for a remain vote ‘regardless’, in order to keep the Blairites in his first shadow cabinet. Imagine the impact TV referendum debates between Corbyn and David Cameron would have had on future events – in contrast to the Dave vs Boris circus – if Jeremy had stuck to his previous position of, correctly, denouncing the neoliberal character of the EU bosses’ club and its policies. The disarray of the political representatives of capitalism can still be utilised by the working class to put its stamp on events but the first requirement is a firm commitment to a socialist and internationalist alternative.
Even if May’s withdrawal agreement gets through parliament in the weeks ahead, the schisms in the Tory party will only intensify as the transition phase negotiations with the EU begin. Her government could well stumble on, sustained only by an insufficiently organised working-class opposition with a clear socialist programme. In this sense the Brexit drama really is a broader window on our times.