The Brexit referendum and its aftermath
The victory for a British exit from the European Union, Brexit, in the June 23 referendum has created shock waves not only in Europe but around the world. Stock exchanges have tumbled, recording losses greater than after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Although the initial panic may subside, it is a foretaste of what is to come when the economic effects of leaving the world's biggest trading bloc become apparent. Politically, while Europe’s leaders declare that the EU will survive and no other states will follow Britain’s path, populist politicians like Marine Le Pen have hailed a victory and called for a French referendum. In Britain itself, it has opened a Pandora’s box of racism and British chauvinism.
Polish cultural centres and mosques have been daubed with racist slogans, children thought to be migrants have been abused in school playgrounds and adults attacked in the streets. Police report an alarming increase in hate crime. Doubtless much of this is the work of as yet tiny fascist groups, but some is the direct, if unorganised, result of the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee hatred incited daily by four of the five most widely read tabloids.
Thanks to the billionaire-owned media, this poison has penetrated into sections of the working class who normally vote Labour as well as the xenophobic middle classes and the millions of non-class conscious workers who habitually vote Tory and won’t join a union. The presentation of Brexit as a rebellion by the “heart of England” against the privileged metropolitan elite plays directly into the hands of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, led by Nigel Farage. It also distracts attention from the real roots of the referendum issue; the split in the British capitalist class between those big enough to operate internationally and the smaller, nationally-oriented, layers who cannot.
That division is reflected in the Conservative Party, whose leaders and MPs generally express the interests of the most powerful, but numerically small, capitalists but whose rank and file members are the numerically much larger small capitalists and their dependents including, very often, their employees. In the referendum campaign, a minority of leading Conservatives, most importantly Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, sided with the “Brexiteers” in order to boost their chances of replacing David Cameron. Like virtually all analysts, they believed that the longstanding projection of a win for the Remain camp would hold true, Britain would remain in the EU – but with Johnson as prime minister.
Their miscalculation has created a genuinely profound crisis for the British capitalists; their whole economic strategy has been placed in jeopardy by their own political party. Worse, the Brexit policy now has a “democratic mandate”, even if a completely fraudulent one, and their party is likely to be led by precisely the light-minded adventurers who mobilised a majority to vote for it. To make matters worse, this unintended outcome not only threatens the fragile coherence of the EU but even the disintegration of the United Kingdom itself, since Scotland and Northern Ireland both returned majorities against Brexit.
This crisis in the ranks of the bourgeoisie makes it all the more disgraceful that the right wing of the Labour Party, who have retained a majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party since the days of Tony Blair, have chosen now to implement their long-planned coup against Jeremy Corbyn, the Leftist leader elected by a massive majority of Labour Party members and supporters less than a year ago.
Echoing UKIP and the tabloid press, they have presented the result as a rebellion by “the Labour heartlands” against a cosmopolitan, middle class Left in London and the big cities. This is a gross distortion of reality; some two-thirds of Labour voters supported party policy to remain in the EU, much higher than the 40 percent of Conservative voters who supported its official policy, also to remain.
Nonetheless, revolutionary socialists have to recognise that a significant number of working class voters did support the utterly reactionary policy of Brexit. This was given a “left” camouflage by the Communist Party of Britain, CPB, and its daily the Morning Star, the Socialist Workers Party, SWP, and the Socialist Party, SP, with their weeklies. They advocated a Left Exit, “Lexit”, arguing that a Leave vote would thwart the wishes of the ruling class and get rid of Cameron. Such a simple-minded approach to the class struggle brings to mind Trotsky's caustic remark that, if all that was necessary was to put a minus sign wherever the capitalists put a plus, then any idiot could be a master-strategist.
The CPB and the SP even toyed with the idea that immigration was indeed a problem, that competition from Polish workers really had driven down wages. The CPB favours some sort of control over immigration. The SP’s international organisation, the Committee for a Workers' International, CWI, even proclaimed June 23 a great victory of the working class, suggesting it could lead on to an electoral victory for Jeremy Corbyn. To its credit, the SWP supports the demand for Open Borders yet it has called on workers to vote for borders that were open to now be closed! In the aftermath, the SWP has at least recognised the need for a renewed antiracist campaign because of the manifest effects of their “victory”.
Many people voted Leave not because staying in the EU was against their real interests or because their fears of immigration were justified. The fears were real enough; but the causes for them were, and are, totally imaginary. So, what gave the memes of “regaining control of our country”, “sovereignty” and “independence”, the power to convince? In a word, the loss of agency, that is, their power to shape the world around them. Tony Benn once amended Lord Acton’s famous saying about the corrupting influence of power to read “all lack of power corrupts and absolute lack of power corrupts absolutely”. The degree of power over their own lives that many workers once had came from well-paid, secure jobs, plentiful social housing and expanding public services. It was not “Europe” that destroyed all that, it was the British capitalist class, who were in the forefront of neo-liberalism, privatisation, out-sourcing and offshoring.
The absence of a serious fight to defend jobs and working conditions by Labour and the trade unions, meant that many people, especially the old, the unemployed and those in the run down, former industrial towns and cities, were justifiably resentful of the whole of the “Establishment”; the Westminster politicians, the “experts” and the bureaucrats, all of whom they held responsible for their devastated communities.
A related factor is the decline of the trade unions, now half the size they were in the 1980s. This, together with their loss of militancy, meant that increasing numbers of people had no experience of effective collective action against job cuts, declining social services and housing shortages. This left them open to the arguments of the right wing populists of UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, who have been able to do what the elite Conservative Brexiteers, like Boris Johnson, could not; use left-sounding demagogy about the long waiting lists for social housing, the funding crisis in the NHS, the run down schools and low wages, pointing the finger of blame at immigrant workers.
The very obvious crises in the European Union; first its banking crisis, then the fiscal crises of its member states, the crisis of austerity imposed on the weaker members of the Eurozone, and finally last year’s refugee crisis, also contributed to popular distrust of “Europe”. Of course, the politicians on both sides, with the exception of Labour leaders Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, helped the electorate to “forget” that British capitalism generated its own grinding crisis in 2008. It was British bosses who held down wages, and British governments, Tory and Labour, who imposed austerity, entirely free of any pressure from Brussels.
Lastly, unlike parliamentary elections in which, under Britain's undemocratic “first past the post” electoral system, it is true that “most votes don't count”, in a referendum, every single vote counts and, whatever the different motivations of voters, all are aggregated and focused on a single issue. This was undoubtedly a powerful mobilising factor for millions who have become increasingly alienated from the two main parties, both of which were calling for a vote to remain in the EU.
The surge of anti-European chauvinism will, by September, bring a Tory right winger, probably Boris Johnson or Theresa May, to power. They will be obliged to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin bruising and economically disruptive negotiations with the EU. They will doubtless decide to impose a new austerity budget but the Bank of England has already promised to find £250 billions if that is necessary to stabilise the banks and the City of London, although not a penny can be found for the NHS or social housing.
The influence of Farage and UKIP will grow during the negotiations over Brexit. If, as seems certain, there is also an early general election, it is very likely that they will, for the first time, win a significant number of seats in parliament. This has been made far more likely by the attempt to remove Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. This act of open treachery will provide a real opportunity for UKIP, which is deliberately targeting Labour voters in the smaller cities and towns and suburbs. They hope to make huge inroads with their demagogic message of concern for social issues and the neglected “indigenous” (they mean white) working class communities, whilst blaming all this on migrant workers from Europe.
As the economic recession, which was already brewing before the referendum, hits Britain very hard, “sovereignty” will prove no match for the power of “the markets”, that is the laws of global capitalism. As the negotiations between Britain and the EU drag on, making matters worse economically, it will also become clear that there cannot be any agreement on a complete block on migration. The great danger is that this will fuel the rise of those who see direct action as the only way to “solve the problem”. In such an atmosphere, we can expect to see calls to expel foreign workers and refugees and an increase in physical attacks by fascist groups. Racism in all its forms will flourish if it is not combatted on the mass scale that only Labour and the trade unions possess.
Last, but far from least, will be the effect of Britain’s decision within Europe, where the rise of a Europhobic right was well under way before June 23. As well as the Front National in France, in Holland, Denmark and a series of states in eastern and central Europe, “Exiteers” are on the march, waving the banners of national sovereignty and hatred of foreign migrants, even where there are hardly any. This has prompted an opposite reaction amongst Europe’s rulers, even to some extent amongst voters, as we have seen in the Spanish elections; a rejection of populism, right and left, and a rush to the safety of traditional parties like the Popular Party of Mariano Rajoy who can guarantee stability (they think).
Angela Merkel’s milder than expected response to the British vote, in contrast to that of her own economics minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, shows an awareness that too much strong-arming from Germany and France against the weaker states, should they start toying with referendums or exit, could actually increase the centrifugal tendencies within the Union. The Brexit disease could spread like a malign gangrene. On the other hand, there will be many who see the need to shoot the UK “pour encourager les autres”.
Across Europe, as in Britain, a powerful factor allowing for the growth of reactionary nationalism has been the weakness of the national workers' movements in fighting to end austerity and resist anti-refugee racism. They have failed to show that “Another Europe is Possible” as the Euromarches and then the European Social Forums tried to do in the 1997-2007 period. What an irony that, when capitalism entered its most serious period of crises and stagnation since the Second World War, the movements of the European workers and the left retreated within their national borders.
Although there have been important exceptions to this weakness, especially in Greece, France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, it has been plain even there that they have been vitiated by national limitedness. What has been needed is not just expressions of solidarity but a concerted struggle by all Europe’s workers to stop their own governments imposing austerity and labour “reforms”. On this basis, the EU authorities; the Commission, the Central Bank, could have been hit, and hit hard. They are not the all powerful ogres the exiteers declare them to be, but fostering national divisions is absolutely the wrong way to fight them.
If the governments of Spain, Italy, France and, finally, Germany, can be stopped from imposing their policies of slashing social welfare, lowering wages, deregulating health, safety and working hours and running down health and education services, then a continent wide struggle can open up, not just for a “social”but for a socialist Europe.
Therefore, we need not only a counteroffensive to austerity and racism and all the effects of the Brexit process in Britain, but united action by workers across Europe. This cannot be motivated by either a defence of the existing EU, the EU that pulverised Greece and other Mediterranean states, or a walkout by its member states.
It needs to raise the banner of a united workers' Europe, a Socialist United States of Europe, with its gates flung wide open to refugees and all those who wish to work there to build it up. Such a Europe can help rapidly develop those regions in which lack of jobs, schools and hospitals drives young people to leave and risk their lives crossing the seas to Europe. Then the free movement of people will be a truly voluntary desire to meet and help one another build a better world.