Brexit: Britain's populist surge

February 28, 2019
Hundreds of thousands of people march in London calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal in October last year.

In a June 2016 referendum, British voters chose, by 17.5 million (51.9%) to just over 16 million (48.1%), to leave the European Union (EU).

Since then British politics has been dominated by the subject as politicians and voters come to terms with what is actually involved. It has even led to splits in the Conservative and Labour Parties with threats of more to come.  What is it all about?

Until March 29 citizens of any of the EU’s 28 member states are free to live, work or travel in any other member state. This means that the nearly quarter of a million British nationals, many of them retirees, living in Spain have almost exactly the same rights as a Spanish citizen. Conversely much of Britain’s economy is very reliant on large numbers of predominantly young Europeans working in the service, health, food harvesting and processing sectors, doing jobs that many British people are reluctant to do.

Even though March 29 is less than a month away, no one has any idea what rights new arrivals will have and how trade will be conducted between Britain and the EU states. It is rare to see a political class look so hapless and ill-prepared for a major national and international event.

From a socialist point of view the fact that more than half a billion people have this freedom of movement across the continent from Greece to Ireland and from Sicily to Sweden is progressive and a gain to be defended.

Hostility to this freedom of movement galvanised the pro-Brexit vote. One of the most effective series of adverts run by the Brexiteers, the loose coalition in favour of leaving, harped on about the imminent arrival of the entire population of Turkey when that country joined the EU. It was a straightforward appeal to racism. The fact that it was an obvious lie was irrelevant. The intention was to draw on the deep reservoir of anti-migrant feeling in British society.

Aging racists

The main Brexiteer slogan was “take back control”. When pressed, its supporters would say they wanted control of finance, laws and borders, but the heart of the message was the borders. People who supported Brexit overwhelmingly voted to restrict immigration.

The older and more right wing a voter was, the more likely they were to want out of the EU. About 64% of voters over the age of 65 supported Brexit while 71% of 18-24 year olds were against it. Supporters of the far right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) were 95% for Brexit, as were 61% of Conservatives (Tories). By contrast 80% of Green and 65% of Labour supporters were against it. At its crudest, the referendum result was a victory for aging racists.

However, that is only part of the story. The pro-Brexit campaign made ground-breaking use of social media in British politics. Funded by Robert Mercer, a billionaire who also donated US$25 million to US President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Vote Leave campaign used social media data to identify leave supporting voters. In particular those who were most disengaged from mainstream politics and these included the most demoralised, reactionary and racist sections of the English working class. They live in communities brutally affected by a decade of Tory austerity, many of which had not recovered from the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years in the 1980s. These are the areas that once had coalmines and factories and now have call centres with zero hours contracts. The referendum offered them a one-off howl of rage.

Britain joined the EU (then called the Common Market) in 1973 under a Tory government. At the time most of the far left and a substantial section of the Labour Party wanted to stay outside.  They said, quite correctly, that it was a bosses’ club. In 1975 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson faced down the left by calling a referendum that ratified the decision to stay in the Common Market.

The EU is still a bosses’ club. It imposed an unprecedented reign of austerity on the people of Greece, insisting on deep cuts to pensions, public sector jobs and salaries. After 19 general strikes and with constant mass demonstrations a Greek departure from the EU could have marked the beginning of a Europe wide movement against austerity. However, as we know, Syriza capitulated and rewarded its supporters with years of poverty.

The British situation is entirely different. With the exception of a small number of Labour MPs, the Communist Party and some marginal far-left organisations who argued for Lexit (a left version of Brexit), the demand for Brexit came exclusively from the right and far-right of British politics. Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who says he never changed a nappy for any of his six children because their nanny would disapprove, formed a practical alliance with the explicitly racist right such as UKIP. The only possible Brexit that could be delivered by that coalition was a reactionary one.

David Cameron, the Tory prime minister at the time, ceded to their demand for a referendum as a tactical manoeuvre to silence his right-wing opponents and it is clear he did not expect they would win. He was wrong.

Labour and Brexit

Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, campaigned to remain. When the result was announced the party said it would respect the outcome and aim for the best possible Brexit. This is rather like aiming for the best possible hangover, but it made tactical sense. Party opinion is now more firmly against Brexit than ever before and at the September 2018 conference delegates voted to keep all options open, including a second referendum. The argument is that people did not know what sort of Brexit they would get and now they do they should be allowed to decide if it is the one they actually want.

The tension inside Labour is that some of Corbyn’s closest advisors are from a Communist Party background and want Brexit to happen. This has resulted in a stalemate between leavers and remainers in the party, with Corbyn antagonising his mostly anti-Brexit membership who fret that he will be seen as enabling the Tory Brexit. This will turn off large numbers of young Labour voters and lose votes in every seat in Britain. At the moment there is only one real mass movement in Britain — the one which got 700,000 onto the streets of London in October last year calling for a new referendum. Labour should be leading it rather than be perceived as equivocating about it.

Over the past couple of weeks nine MPs quit the party with most citing the leadership’s indecision on Brexit as a reason. They should not be taken too seriously. They mainly left because they hate the idea of being accountable in a mass membership party and Corbyn’s leftish social democratic politics. These are Labour MPs such as Mike Gapes who goes on junkets to Saudi Arabia, Gavin Shuker who opposes equal marriage and Angela Smith who used a TV appearance on the day of her departure to talk about non-white people who have “a funny tinge” [sic]. Their real objective is to make Corbyn’s Labour Party unelectable and they have done it a favour by walking out.

At least with the Tories who have left their party, and those who are threatening to, there is some discernible political principle motivating them. They are worried that firms that export to the EU will be hit hard, an understandable concern as it is the destination for 44% of British exports. They cite worries about job losses, falling wages and labour shortages. The three who have quit so far to merge with the Labour defectors into the Panama-registered Independent Group, include one who had served as a Tory minister and insists she is proud of her government’s record on austerity. They might be creating trouble for prime minster Theresa May, but they are not friends of working people.

The British border in Ireland

Just when everyone thought Ireland’s British problem had been more or less resolved it is centre stage again. The six counties in the north are under British jurisdiction but voted to remain in the EU. At the moment the border between the northern and southern states is invisible and you only notice you have crossed it when the road signs change. It runs through fields, homes and villages, but after Brexit it becomes the external frontier of the European Union.

The EU wants to make sure that food, pharmaceuticals, cars and everything else entering its territory meets its regulatory standards. This is precisely the opposite of what the Brexiteers are promoting as the great advantage of Brexit. Extreme deregulation of environmental, safety and labour standards is just what they want.

The British government, which relies on the support of the hard-right Democratic Unionists from the north of Ireland, says it wants neither a border in the sea between Britain and Ireland nor the infrastructure of a hard frontier in Ireland. At the moment no one knows how that conundrum will be resolved at the end of March. The Dublin parliament is in the process of passing legislation to ensure that a hard Brexit — that is one without an agreed deal — does not completely disrupt relations between the two states in Ireland, Britain and the EU.

Concerns about a resumption of Republican violence are overstated. The small groups that favour it are heavily monitored by the security services and lack significant support. An armed campaign would be short and futile.

What next?

The worst possible outcome is a hard Brexit. The health secretary tried to reassure the public about the quality of planning in the National Health Service by revealing that it is now the world’s largest purchaser of refrigerators. This is to allow medicines to be stockpiled to mitigate against delays in deliveries from Europe. Manufacturers that rely on just-in-time logistics say they are worried how their companies will function.

A hard Brexit means the British economy will separate from the EU without any sort of agreement. There seems to be a majority in parliament against that and it might not happen. Then again, it might. May’s strategy is to run down the clock in the hope that the EU will make some of the compromises it has been shouting for months that it will not make.

May announced on February 26 that she is going to give MPs the opportunity to vote on March 13 to delay Brexit in the event of no deal. For how long and to what purpose is not clear.

The best possible outcome is the one favoured by the majority of Labour members and supporters as well as left campaigns like Another Europe Is Possible. They all breathed a sigh of relief when Corbyn announced on February 25 that Labour will not accept a Tory Brexit and will support the call for a new referendum, with the option of remaining in the EU on the ballot paper.

Two things should be different the second time around. The three million EU citizens who live in Britain must be allowed to vote just as they are in local government elections. They were denied the vote in the last referendum on something that affected their lives profoundly. That injustice needs to be put right. Young people whose lives are going to impacted by Brexit need to have their voices heard and the franchise has to be extended to 16 year olds, as happened in the Scottish referendum.

The Brexit referendum result was the British version of Trump, Salvini in Italy and Orban in Hungary, a racist populist surge. Labour can roll it back and a Corbyn led government inside the EU would decisively shift European politics to the left.

[Liam McQuade is a member of the Labour Party in London.]

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