Britain’s Brexit crisis deepens

September 21, 2019
An anti Brexit protest in London on August 31.

The news that a solid gold toilet has been stolen from Winston Churchill's former home of Blenheim Palace seems symptomatic of the present British condition. The British ruling class are not merely having their bathroom fittings taken but they seem assailed by chaos on every side.

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, the British constitution and the City of London, the country’s financial hub, are all under major stress.

There is evidence that both an independent Scotland and a united Ireland are on their way; with demands growing for Welsh autonomy, we Brits may just end up living in little England.

It would be tempting on the left to echo Mao Zedong and note “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos, the situation is excellent”. However, this might be complacent. There is a danger that the chaos will be used to reshape Britain in an even more right-wing and less democratic form.

Britain’s Brexit crisis is deepening. British voters narrowly voted, 52% to 48%, to leave the European Union in 2016. In 2019 the country remains deeply divided.

Parliament has not been able to agree on withdrawal terms, so Britain failed to leave the EU as planned in March. Polarisation has deepened and become more ideological; whatever the arguments for or against the European Union, one group angrily waves the European Union flag, while the other faces them with Union Jacks.

The crisis is a direct result of divisions in the Conservative Party, which have been generated by Britain’s troubled relationship to its imperial past.

Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister in July, having failed to win parliamentary support for the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU. The increasingly right-wing members of the Conservative Party replaced her with the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Johnson’s time as Prime Minister has already proved dramatic. He has been widely attacked — perhaps most fiercely by members of his own party and such capitalist-friendly publications as the Economist and the Financial Times.

In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson said that Britain would leave the EU on October 31 “with or without a deal”. He prorogued (closed down) parliament for five weeks, making it more difficult for opposition MPs to stop or scrutinise his actions.

Demonstrators took to the streets across Britain, accusing Johnson of mounting a self-coup.

The parliamentary shutdown united a range of otherwise diverse opponents in parliament, led by Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s left-wing Labour Party leader, but also including Scottish Nationalists, Liberal Democrats and more than 20 Conservative MPs.

In the brief time before the closure of parliament they passed a motion making No Deal illegal. No Deal is seen as problematic because it potentially disrupts the economy, food supplies and even medicine.

Johnson instantly sacked 21 of his Members of Parliament, including Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson. Not only had the Churchills lost their golden toilet but they had been thrown out of the party led by Britain’s most famous leader.

Reports by civil servants on the affects of a No Deal Brexit on October 31, codenamed “Operation Yellowhammer”, were suppressed by the government because they risked “alarming the public”. Parliament forced their release.

With the loss of 21 MPs, Johnson has a governing majority of minus 43.

While the parliament is presently prorogued, a Scottish court has ruled that this was illegal and the battle has gone to the Supreme Court.

Every day, humiliation and defeat is heaped upon Johnson, who is hated perhaps most of all by his own MPs. He seems to have no way of getting around the vote preventing No Deal; it would be illegal to ignore it and his Cabinet ministers have warned against doing so, pointing out that he could go to prison.

The pressure for No Deal is, despite the potential for damage, overwhelming. The Conservatives came fifth in May’s European Elections, which were won by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Johnson, whose own views are notoriously flexible, has to achieve withdrawal from the EU, or his party will be destroyed electorally by Farage.

According to the EU, Johnson is refusing to negotiate seriously, so a chaotic exit looks likely.

Ireland is a key sticking point. Johnson’s and May’s governments rely on support from the right-wing Democratic Unionists (DUP) party from the North of Ireland. Leaving the EU would create a possible hard border between the north and south of Ireland, with goods and people being subject to customs and control.

May hoped to overcome this via the so-called “backstop”, a temporary arrangement where all of Ireland would retain some EU rules.

The DUP and the Conservative Party’s hard-right European Research Group rejected this, making it impossible for May to gain parliamentary approval for her EU withdrawal plans.

Johnson caved in to the DUP and agreed to reject the backstop, but this risks border controls and the destruction of the Good Friday peace agreement.

Much could be written on the complexities of the situation, without even looking in detail at other questions, such as the Conservatives’ austerity program, which is bleeding Britain, or the political situation in Scotland.

The situation is changing day by day.

How does the current situation impact on the left and what are some possible ways forward?

One perspective held by the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party and smaller Leninist organisations such as the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) is Lexit, which is short-hand for a left-wing Brexit.

Historically this was the dominant position on the British left. Jeremy Corbyn was a strong opponent of the EU at one point, so too were many other prominent members of the Labour left such as Tony Benn.

The EU is seen, rightly, as a neoliberal institution. Its rules promote multinational investment and countries with the Euro as currency, such as Greece, have been subject to extreme austerity.

EU policies have also led to the deaths of many migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Outside of the EU, a socialist Britain, it is argued, would have the freedom to create its future.

Others, including the Green Party and Socialist Resistance, support calls for a new people’s vote on Britain’s EU membership and support Britain staying in the EU. This case is strengthened by the realisation that Johnson is preparing for a “Trexit”, an exit from the EU, engineered and to the advantage of United States President Donald Trump. Trump has hailed Johnson as Britain’s Trump, promised a US trade deal and works closely with Farage.

Despite the chaos, Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings argues that a General Election can be won by pitting the “people” against parliament. Many British voters are hazy about the ill effects of No Deal and simply want the Brexit question settled.

Johnson could win a landslide election victory and introduce a populist far right regime by absorbing the Brexit Party’s votes, or doing a deal with them and the DUP. This has occurred in Hungary and Poland, both EU members.

Slashing protection for workers and the environment, Johnson could be Britain’s Jair Bolsonaro. The implications for action on climate change are devasting, resistance to Boris is essential. This is essentially the Labour Party position.

Corbyn has argued that, while a new vote on EU membership is likely, the priority is to unite the population against a disastrous No Deal and alignment with Trump. While this is vital, the case remains that it does not answer all the questions posed by Brexit for the left and the British people.

A new generation of Marxists have been arguing for extra-parliamentary action, both in terms of the street protests but, more fundamentally, building working class capacity through community action. This has been presented most clearly by the Lever, a new anti-imperialist organisation that stresses the need to build working-class organisation.

At present, either remaining in or exiting from the EU is largely a factional dispute within the British ruling class, between an increasingly Trumpian right and a managerialist, EU-leaning right.

To create a future that advances equality, ecology and internationalism demands a stronger left and some rethinking of left strategies. A Britain where most of us work so a minority can afford gold toilets, whether Trumpian oligarchs or the traditional British ruling class, needs replacing!

[Derek Wall is a former International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.]

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