During the preparation for the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) we made it entirely clear (in Revolutionary Perspectives 08) that the debate was one that class-conscious workers should not have been drawn into – on either side. Participating in the exercise could only line workers up behind one or other faction of the ruling class. The stories peddled by both sides – that somehow workers would benefit from the British state either maintaining or ditching their relationship with EU institutions – were full of lies and imagined, but non-existent, benefits.
The vote to leave the EU – the so-called “Brexit decision” – was not the preferred outcome for the majority of the ruling class. We are aware that such a statement needs a degree of explanation. In this article we comment on how the British bourgeoisie have found themselves in such a mess. We also examine how the British state and, in particular, its Government continue to be confronted with the need to “make the best of a bad job” – always from their own perspective and always acting in the interests of the minority who own and control the means of production.
1960s onwards: the bosses’ preferred strategy
The post-imperial British role is something that has vexed the British bourgeoisie at least since the Suez adventure1 which came just before the Treaty of Rome.2 Following the “winds of change”3 speeches and De Gaulle’s “Non” to the first British approaches to the Common Market, the British capitalist class has continued a balancing act between US imperialism and commitment to a counter-challenge from a regenerated Europe – i.e. within NATO but keeping links of loyalty (in fact relative subservience) to both USA and the Franco-German heart of the Common Market/EEC/EU.4
Linked to the above, within the EU, the British state has maintained a position “in the slow lane” of European integration. This was exemplified by its refusal to join the Schengen border-free zone or the Euro currency structure. Even in December 2017 the UK, along with Denmark and Malta, maintained that approach, refusing to commit to the new European “Defence Force” which is, incidentally, a further ratcheting up of preparations for war.
The Brexit vote has posed an existential challenge to the ability of the British bourgeoisie to maintain that strategic approach.
2015-16 – ruling class’s plans “go awry”
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley” (Robert Burns, To a Mouse) ... and for the current British ruling class, so can ill thought-through plans built on arrogant assumptions and self-delusion.
To summarise, abandoning the UK’s trading arrangements and political-economic positioning within the EU is not in the interests of the UK capitalist class as a whole.5 Yet, we have now arrived at a historic rupture where the Parliamentary “Executive” (i.e. Government) is in a position where it needs to be seen to deliver a package that breaks with at least 50 years of bourgeois strategy. Apart from the loss of the network of trading arrangements, and the various “mutually beneficial” EU institutions, the British state machine is confronted by a whole series of knotty problems – including the status of Gibraltar and the “Overseas Territories” in the Caribbean. Closer to home, there are huge conundrums to be addressed – notably around the movement of workers between EU and UK and the apparently insoluble issue around the status of Northern Ireland and its land and sea borders.
The present crisis was triggered by the foolish and arrogant decision by the Cameron clique to call a referendum, confident of a “Remain” vote – the desired result for both the British and EU bourgeoisies. One of their big errors was the underestimation about the large layer of voters, mainly working class or around its fringes and including layers often wary of the electoral charade, who saw the exercise as a rare opportunity to aim an effective blow against the “establishment”.
The liberal Joseph Rowntree Foundation summarised that phenomenon in sociological terms in the 4 points below (available 7 January, 2018 at jrf.org.uk):
"The poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000 per year, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest households, as were the unemployed, people in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who feel that their financial situation has worsened, and those with no qualifications.
Groups vulnerable to poverty were more likely to support Brexit. Age, income and education matter, though it is educational inequality that was the strongest driver. Other things being equal, support for leave was 30 percentage points higher among those with GCSE qualifications or below, than it was for people with a degree. In contrast, support for leave was just 10 points higher among those on less than £20,000 per year than it was among those with incomes of more than £60,000 per year, and 20 points higher among those aged 65 than those aged 25.
Support for Brexit varied not only between individuals but also between areas. People with all levels of qualifications were more likely to vote leave in low-skill areas compared with high-skill areas. However, this effect was stronger for the more highly qualified. In low-skilled communities the difference in support for leave between graduates and those with GCSEs was 20 points. In high-skilled communities it was over 40 points. In low-skill areas the proportion of A-level holders voting leave was closer to that of people with low-skills. In high-skill areas their vote was much more similar to graduates.
Groups in Britain who have been ‘left behind’ by rapid economic change and feel cut adrift from the mainstream consensus were the most likely to support Brexit. These voters face a ‘double whammy’. While their lack of qualifications put them at a significant disadvantage in the modern economy, they are also being further marginalised in society by the lack of opportunities that faced in their low-skilled communities. This will make it extremely difficult for the left behind to adapt and prosper in future."
The fact is that the analysis showed that many of the most ‘disadvantaged’ showed their dissatisfaction in a referendum which could deliver no benefits to them either way. For anyone who wants to eradicate the system that breeds hardship and alienation this only highlights how far away we are from a class-based analysis or resistance.
Bourgeois dictatorship and periodic political anomalies
In the imperialist epoch, elections and other voting sleights of hand such as referendums are part of an elaborate facade. Their purpose is to obscure the reality of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The legislative and executive machine can never effectively challenge the power of capitalism even if it so wished.
That material analysis has nothing in common with the conspiracy theories about “hidden hands” controlling every detailed product of each voting exercise. Just taking into account British General elections, it is clear that the bourgeoisie are not able to “micro manage” every ballot. Immediately after the First World War the British bourgeoisie were confronted by the Irish Nationalist Sinn Fein “sweeping the board” in Ireland in the 1919 General Election. In 1974 the electoral system produced two unstable results, just as the UK had taken its place in the EU. An election in February produced a hung parliament. A repeat exercise in October created a fragile Labour majority.
In the run up to the present political mess the electoral circus produced a confused arithmetic in 2010 resulting in the “ConDem” coalition. In 2017, with the “challenges” of Brexit already plain to see, the far from strong and stable initial May premiership was replaced with the squabbling “ship of fools” that passes for the second version. The icing on that particular cake is the disproportionate influence granted, at a considerable financial price, to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The particular irony of the DUP achieving their position of glory, is their obsessive concern for Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom. To add to the bosses’ Brexit night terrors, the DUP’s vision is in absolute contradiction with the UK and EU’s supposed commitment to not reintroducing a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Beyond General Elections it is also clear that there are occasional “unexpected consequences”. We have commented previously on Jeremy Corbyn’s emergence as Labour Party leader. Certainly this was not the wish of the Labour Party establishment – a crucial part of the bourgeois order. It was however, facilitated by the imposition of “One Member One Vote” which was aimed at destroying the visible power of the Trade Union “barons”/”baronesses”.
Splits within the bourgeoisie
Marxists have often observed that the government is, in fact, a committee for managing the collective affairs of the bourgeoisie. The corollary of that statement is that the role of conciliating differences is necessary because of sectional differences – the state is unable to eliminate those fractures.
The capitalist class is, in its very essence, divided within itself. The competition that started between enterprises owned by individuals and later elevated to corporations, joint stock companies, trusts, cartels, multi-national corporations, etc. is at the very core of capitalism’s rapaciously destructive dynamic. However, their system could not have survived without the sort of compromises that were originally identified by the likes of Hobbes and Locke6 in the very early days of bourgeois political power in England. The competing capitals quickly learnt how to play the ideological game of “national unity” while revelling in being part of a socio-economic construct where the “devil took the hindmost”, both from amongst the bourgeoisie and from other classes.
The role of the political superstructure in imposing necessary compromises has been repeated on a number of occasions. Sometimes the economic consequences have not panned out as predicted. The last time someone tried to put the “Great” back into Great Britain also ended in disaster. When Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, took Britain back on to the gold standard in 1925 he was resoundingly cheered by Parliament and praised in the press on both sides of the Atlantic. In trying to make Britain great again he was trying to restore its imperialist position as the world’s leading financial nation but Churchill (and most of the ruling class) did not realise that Britain had already lost its financial power and many of its markets somewhere between Sarajevo and Versailles. Making post war British exports 10% more expensive not only exacerbated its imperial decline but led to the General Strike of 1926 and worsened the Great Depression that followed the Wall St Crash. When Ramsey McDonald reluctantly, but finally, took the pound off the gold standard in 1931, the damage was done.
Now, however, the need to subsume their internal divisions takes place not only within the framework of nation states but also across regional trading regimes, military blocs and numerous transnational organisations such as the UN, WTO, World Bank, etc. Nonetheless, the ability of the various bourgeois fractions to maintain those structures does not in any way suggest that the capitalist order is able to overcome their intrinsic divisions and antagonisms.
The bourgeoisie was divided around the UK’s membership of the EU and a significant section supported a new relationship based on a qualitative break with the past. While the divisions in the bourgeoisie have become more marked with the advance of the economic crisis they are mainly divisions which have been festering for many years. This is shown by the fact that many of the leaders of today’s Brexit brigade were Maastricht rebels in the 90s. From what do these divisions spring?
With the acceleration of globalisation, capitalism within national territories becomes a complicated jigsaw of nationally based and focussed institutions increasingly interacting with multinational corporations and transnational capital. The present international supply chains of industrial capital cannot be equated with the international trade in certain sectors, as in the 19th century. The bourgeois state today needs to represent and defend not only the interests of indigenous capital of the country but also the sector of international capital which has located itself within the physical boundaries of the nation state. In Britain this is particularly evident in manufacturing where US, German, French, Japanese and now even Chinese and Indian capital dominate sectors such as car manufacture, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, power generation, steel manufacture etc. This is also the case in the service industries, particularly the financial sector, where many of the major institutions are foreign owned. The British ruling class therefore protects not only the interests of “indigenous” British capital but also elements of transnational capital, which it seeks to attract, and for which it aims to provide a “safe haven”.
The Remain faction of the ruling class understood that last point and understood in particular that the interests of transnational capital were best served by the UK remaining in the EU. If the UK state cannot protect the interests of transnational capital then this will certainly migrate. That switch has already become apparent, particularly from the “service sector” which has long-since displaced the traditional sectors for generating profit in the UK.
The core fact remains that the UK is not in the “big league” of imperialist powers – its economic presence is completely puny when compared to powers such as the USA or China. The only way in which it could exercise significant global economic influence today was within the “shared sovereignty” provided by the EU.
The bourgeoisie (minus the little Englanders amongst the Brexiteers) are pulling out all the stops to keep open the less disastrous options. The decision to hold another Parliamentary vote before a final withdrawal is an attempt to strengthen their hand. The main parties are “hoist on their own petard” of paying lip service to the will of the people expressed via the ill-thought out referendum. However, there are plenty of signs of possible fudges, notably the EEA/Norway option of maintaining the trade arrangements around the “single market” and “customs union”.
Unfortunately for the ruling class, the present party configuration in the House of Commons makes it difficult to see how a Tory government, supported by the DUP, could deliver such a “soft Brexit”. On the other hand, a push towards a “hard Brexit”, based on the UK becoming a second-rate pawn in the global economy, seems equally undeliverable given the presence of a rump of “soft Brexiters” amongst Tory MPs.
Marxists do not have mystical abilities to see the future but it is definitely possible that the bosses’ self-generated Brexit crisis could result in further appeals to the “popular vote” – the same population that have been the highly “un-consulted” victims of the economic crisis for many decades. As always, we appeal to the class-conscious minority to argue for an active rejection of any such further referendums or elections, “snap” or otherwise.
2018 – capitalist options offer us nothing
The material basis for the current deep division in the bourgeoisie is the cul de sac of the economic crisis. Successive governments have used all the instruments possible to manage the crisis and now preside over a relative stability based on yet more debt and even lower wages.
The section of capital that believed they could cut away from the global economy found powerful supporters amongst the media owners, including the corporations that publish the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph. To head off that lobby, the Cameron Government was happy to grant the referendum and end the possibilities of being electorally outflanked by UKIP. The questions that keep coming back are: 1. This was not an election decision but a referendum decision – referendums are not part of the constitution and parliament is not obliged to accept them. 2. There was no attempt to say that a change of status of this magnitude required a certain percentage of the population to vote for it (as has been done in the past). This almost frivolous lack of leadership cannot be simply put down to Cameron’s myopic strategy. The political class as a whole went along with it, and even the most hardened Brexiters did not really think that the vote would go against the core interests of the entire ruling class.
When the referendum was held more than a quarter of those entitled to vote refused to do so. However, it is clear that only a tiny fraction of those abstentions were based on a clear understanding of how the bosses’ voting spectacles are nothing more than a cover for the reality of domination by a minority class. Such low levels of consciousness and basic awareness of the nature of class struggle result from decades of the working class being pushed back during the ongoing crisis of profitability. As it was, many working class people who had never voted, who had never been given a simple “yes” or “no” option, and who had been marginalised and alienated by globalisation, now had a chance to give two fingers to the “Establishment”. The increased turnout in many working class areas was what tipped the vote and astonished the ruling class.
How can the British bourgeoisie get away with their share of this political idiocy and the havoc caused by factional divisions permeating their political structures? Precisely because, and only because, they currently face a proletariat whose class consciousness has been reduced to a minimum and where the ability to start even the most basic economic or social resistance is short-lived and atomised.
The lack of a working class response (for a long time now) gives the bourgeoisie the luxury time to have a squabble like this without it bringing the state down; one of the three criteria Trotsky defined in his History of the Russian Revolution as revolutionary was a split in the bourgeoisie (the others being an economic crisis and a combative alternative in the class). Regarding the options around the EU, of course a debate about a “national” and not a class issue is excellent for confusing the class.
Our conclusions remain plain – none of the various options for positioning the British state within the world imperialist order (including the Corbyn doctrine)7 offer any real gains for the working class. Its emancipation from capitalist exploitation will take longer. It requires an autonomous struggle outside all the reformist bodies and programmes that the system tries to use to keep us quiet. It requires a rediscovery of our class awareness and as part of that the creation of an international revolutionary party to coordinate and guide the struggle against a global system. This will not come soon but a start has already been made by ourselves and other revolutionaries like us. Its time for those who understand this, but so far only read and comment on social media or wherever, to join the living and breathing movement.
- 1An invasion carried out in 1956 by Israel, UK and France aimed at curtailing Egyptian nationalist resurgence (occasioned by Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal). It was called off in response to pressure from the USA. It was seen as a significant point in defining the UK’s declining imperial position in the post World War Two order.
- 2The Treaty of Rome (March 1957) was signed by France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg to establish the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union.
- 3“Winds of Change” – speeches delivered early in 1960 in Accra and Cape Town by the UK Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan. The speeches prepared the way for territories in the British Empire to become independent capitalist states.
- 4The UK joined the European Economic Community at the start of 1973 alongside Denmark and, significantly, Ireland.
- 5The UK bourgeoisie is not alone in allowing the political superstructure to develop serious faults. The election of Donald Trump is perhaps the most blatant example. In Germany, forming a coalition is proving to be a protracted interruption, or possibly an end, to Angela Merkel’s Chancellorship which is also affecting the EU’s ability to progress Brexit and other issues. The Spain/Catalonia impasse is also developing into an ongoing crisis for another significant EU member.
- 6Thomas Hobbes and John Locke – 17th century English political philosophers.
- 7Corbyn speech to the United Nations in Geneva, 8th December, 2017, calling for “Governments, civil society, social movements and international organisations” to create a more equitable world order. At 7th January 2018 available at labourlist.org. For our views on Corbynism see leftcom.org and all articles previous to that one.