The UK government seems hell-bent on crashing out of the European Union without a deal on 31 October. What does this say about the politics of the ruling class?
The leap into the unknown that is a "no deal" Brexit carries the threat of economic hardship and disruption, constitutional crisis and the reconfiguration, or even break-up, of the UK.
The political uncertainty since the 2016 Brexit vote, on top of a decade of austerity, is causing most Brits anything from stress to nervous exhaustion. And the next ten weeks are unlikely to be any less worrying.
Can the manic “no deal” crusade be stopped? The short answer seems to be: it’s difficult, but may be possible, provided parliament gets its act together. Suggestions about how that might happen are being made daily by “left” and not-so-left writers who know more about parliamentary procedure than I do.
This article focuses, instead, on what this frenzy tells us about the crisis of the Tory party and the property-owning class it represents. Because, to develop radical politics in the face of this insanity, we need to understand more clearly what generated it.
Our enemies are divided
It’s not the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is driving the “no deal” process, as far as I can see. Rather, he is the enabler of zealots: Dominic Cummings, chief of staff at no. 10 Downing Street, who made brilliant use of lies (“Turkey is joining the EU”, “£350 million a week”, etc) and social media to help win the Brexit vote; the European Research Group of right-wing Tories who are ideologically committed to “no deal”; Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, who fancies “proroguing” (i.e. disbanding) parliament if it gets in the way; and others.
However, dozens of Tory MPs have publicly opposed a “no deal” Brexit. So have representatives of industrial capital (the Confederation of British Industry) and financial capital (the City of London corporation), editorials in the Financial Times, and leading business figures.
It’s fair to say that most of the British ruling class hates and fears the zealots. So why are they setting the pace?
One obvious reason is that the ditherers – by which I mean the Tory parliamentary majority, which either opposed Brexit or wanted a managed version – have passed up repeated opportunities to stop them.
On 14 March, just before the Brexit deadline was switched from 29 March to 31 October, an amendment proposed in parliament by Labour MP Hilary Benn, which would have given the House of Commons greater power to control the Brexit process – and to block the “no deal” option – was voted down by 314 votes to 312.
Much of the “left” railed against those Labour MPs who opposed this amendment. But I thought it was more significant that only a handful of Tories supported it. If a few more of these ditherers had done so, the whole “no deal” train would have been derailed.
On 13 June, after the Tory leadership campaign had started, and with Johnson the clear favourite, they had another chance. The Labour party, supported by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, Greens and Liberal Democrats, put a procedural motion designed to block a “no deal” Brexit – which was lost by 11 votes. Again, the “left”’s ire was focused on eight Labour MPs who voted against and 13 who abstained. But the really remarkable thing is that no Tories broke ranks to block an outcome that could destroy their party.
A widely reported poll of Tory party members, taken around the same time, showed that a large majority of them want Brexit to happen, even if it means the Tory party being destroyed, Scotland leaving the UK and “significant damage” to the economy. The only thing most of them were prepared to sacrifice Brexit for was to avoid a government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
But I always thought that – unlike the extremist and English nationalist Tory membership – the parliamentary party mostly believed in the managing capitalism effectively. Historically this was reflected in Tory principles such as a strong UK, a state strong in support of business but not interfering in it or taxing it, and so on. (Of course almost all Tories always agreed on union-bashing, demonising migrants, etc.)
So what happened? The ditherers, in their desperation, have abandoned these traditional Tory principles to support Boris Johnson, who they see as capable of defeating Corbyn’s Labour in an election. Johnson, who never had any principles in the first place, has handed the initiative to the zealots.
This is a deep crisis in the Tory party without precedent in recent history.
Surely the roots of this are in the decline of British capital on the international stage, the changing character of the UK’s economy, and, most of all, the need for new methods of social control.
Ways of disciplining the population have to be found at a time when austerity policies have impoverished and alienated so many millions of working people, financial crisis has disillusioned so much of the middle class, social democracy is in decline, and other mediations between the state and society (the welfare state, local government, etc) have been undermined.
With these more sophisticated levers weakened, the crude stuff comes out: anti-“foreign”, anti-elite and racist demagogy. The tone is set neither by traditional Toryism nor by the “modernisation” attempted by David Cameron (remember him, the bloke who called the referendum?), but by Nigel Farage and the populist extreme right.
I think it’s helpful to think about the Brexit madness in a half-century time frame. Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s, the Conservative party had substantially adapted to the social-democratic-shaped state that emerged from the second world war. The party of capital and empire largely accepted the progress in education, health and other gains made by working class people after the war.
Things changed with Margaret Thatcher’s accession as Tory leader and her election victory in 1979. There was some significant continuity, in terms of both personnel and ideas, with what had gone before: monetarist economic policy, which Thatcher turned into a dogma, had first been put in place in 1977 by James Callaghan’s Labour government under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.
But there was a break, too. Thatcher’s great achievement, from the Tory point of view, was her readiness to take on and defeat the unions, thus breaking up the politics of compromise and managed conflict between labour and capital that had lasted since the 1940s. She initiated many of the policies that have become known as “neo-liberalism”, such as privatisation, deregulation of financial markets, and so on, although these were implemented much more thoroughly by the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
But now Tory ideology is in crisis. After financial crisis and a decade of austerity, old assumptions have died away. Attempts to modernise the UK via devolution left many problems unsolved. Before the referendum, racism and English nationalism combined in UKIP; afterwards, the populist right outflanked, and then colonised, the Tories’ anti-Europe wing.
The result is the Johnson government: far more extreme and far more ideologically homogenous than any of Thatcher’s governments. Thatcher persisted by uniting the anti-European and pro-European Tories (and was dropped when she couldn’t do that any longer (in 1990, after a row about how to align the pound with other European currencies)); Johnson has started by throwing out the pro-Europeans. Thatcher married her rhetoric with pragmatism; the zealots’ rhetoric has become completely detached from the economic interests of the ruling class as its own representatives perceive them. Thatcher’s dogma (monetarism) aligned to some extent with British capital’s class interests; the “no deal” dogma subordinates those interests to nationalist rabble-rousing. Thatcher acknowledged the threat of global warming long before many right-wing politicians; Johnson’s government, forty years on, has a strong complement of climate science deniers.
And this ideological meltdown reflects a fundamental crisis of the British ruling class on deeper levels. Its manufacturing base has dwindled; what is left is being shredded by Brexit-related political instability; its economic model is based on a bloated financial services sector and property market in south-east England. Its empire has gone, and its post-imperial grandstanding cuts little ice. (Look how much influence it’s having in Hong Kong right now.) The UK state, one of the oldest imperial states, is being shaken up. It sought to manage the legacy of its colonialism in Ireland with the Good Friday agreement, but the government is now ready to chuck that compromise away in search of Union-Jack-draped chimeras.
What happens next
Here are two sets of alternatives (which probably seem obvious – for which, my apologies).
1. The zealots go ahead with a no-deal Brexit. If this happens, it will be because the ditherers allowed it to, and neither they, nor the other parties in parliament, could get their act together to stop it. I can’t make any meaningful guesses about the consequences, but these could be dire, for people’s lives and for the economy. The damage to the UK state, and to the Tory party, is also unpredictable.
2. The other parties in parliament, with support from some ditherers, block the no-deal Brexit. The methods have been discussed in the press: a no-confidence motion in the government, followed by the formation of an alternative coalition; a legislative manoeuvre; whatever. I hope this happens, although it would surely trigger a campaign of “the people against a parliament of traitors” by the zealots, which could turn into something still nastier.
I don’t think Boris Johnson himself wants “no deal” any more than the ditherers do, but it’s not clear that he can get out of the hole he has dug himself into by committing to it. While the UK government and the EU could come up with some other compromise – a rehashed negotiated exit, an extension of the deadline, whatever – that’s not looking likely right now. One factor that could force change is a further trashing of the pound and the UK economy by international financial markets.
Why this matters to us
By us, I mean, people who hope, and work, for radical social change – which includes me and (I think) most of the people reading this. Here are some reasons why this matters:
1. Although it’s possible that the ditherers and the other parties in parliament will allow themselves to be walked all over by the zealots, it’s also possible that they will resist. In September or October that could lead to some kind of confrontation between government and parliament. Politics might move on to the streets and into communities. A movement e.g. against an unelected bunch of extremists with no mandate railroading through a no-deal Brexit would be something for us all to be involved in.
2. We all surely have a responsibility to lift discussion out of the impoverished binary leave/remain, the effect of which has been disastrous, so corrosive, so divisive, in the labour movement and social movements over the last three years. We must resist our conversations being forced into yes/no arguments about whether “we” (who’s “we”? the British state?) want to be in the EU or not. To the extent that the ditherers, and the other parties, accepted that narrative, they reinforced the zealots’ position. Of course we should discuss how we – working people, communities, migrants from Europe and further afield – can best face the challenges posed by the EU on one hand and the British state on the other, and how we can develop movements that are locally powerful but internationalist in principle. We need to have these discussions on our own terms, not on the terms that have dominated in parliament.
3. Whatever happens in parliament, the zealots will not go away. The Tory party in its old form is gone. Whether they are inside it or outside it, whether Brexit happens or not, the zealots will ramp up their rhetoric against their phantoms: the “parliament of traitors”, “experts”, the judicial system ... and then migrant workers, the unemployed, people of Islamic faith. If they stay in government, the zealots will soon supersede the distribution of electioneering cash with new attacks on working people’s living standards.
4. It is not surprising that this government, potentially the most reactionary for a long time on social issues, is also the worst ever on climate change. Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, has close links with the climate-science-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation, which in turn has multiple connections with the Leave Means Leave campaign. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, is a climate science denier. Other ministers have links to fossil fuel companies’ lobbyists, and patchy records, at best, in taking action on climate change. As in the US, these politicians see such action as a threat to the deregulation of business.
5. The drawn-out Brexit saga has exposed again the Labour Party’s inherent limitations. While Jeremy Corbyn and the “left” have made efforts to focus on austerity and its damaging effects, a section of the parliamentary Labour party has spent the last three years undermining Corbyn, apparently more concerned at the prospect of a government led by him than at the government we now have. But Corbyn and his supporters have made matters worse, from endorsing Theresa May’s idiotic decision to trigger Article 50, to waffling on about “respecting the result of the referendum”, as though that was the only issue. The zealots’ narrative has overshadowed the parliamentary Labour party as well as the Tories. And Corbyn’s post-Stalinist advisers, who supported Brexit because they see the EU as a greater enemy than the British state, have been hard at work. A Labour government, or a Labour-led coalition, is still a possible outcome of all this. But its willingness and ability to challenge capital will depend, more than anything, on the movement outside parliament.
6. The Brexit process has already claimed victims: communities such as Scunthorpe, which are suffering job losses and hardship due to Brexit-related industrial closures; migrant workers from EU countries who find their lives thrown into uncertainty and themselves and their families vilified. Their anger is more than justified. But, in addition to this, the Brexit process has produced a gloom, a feeling of powerlessness, of fear, of uncertainty, that is obviously affecting millions of people. I think this feeling is the product of an illusion that our enemies are powerful enough to decide our fate above our heads. It’s another version of the illusions of power that have engendered fear, obedience and subservience to elites for centuries. It’s an illusion, because they, too, are tormented by crisis. It makes them more ruthless, it throws up the zealots – but it doesn’t necessarily make them stronger. We – social movements, communities, workplace organisations, movements about climate change – can find, and are finding, ways to challenge these enemies. (The FcK Boris demonstration when the new government took office was a reminder of this.) This is not a plea for false hope. It’s a suggestion that we evaluate our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses carefully. And be prepared for surprises.
Photo of FcK Boris demonstration on 24 July by Steve Eason.