Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May is caught between the needs of British capitalism for a trade deal with Europe when Britain departs the European Union (EU) next March, and the xenophobic nationalism of the Tory right-wing. This hard right faction is happy to crash out of the EU with no deal — despite its likely disastrous economic effects.
The 2016 “Brexit” referendum was correctly described by Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon as an attempted power grab by this faction, led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Overwhelmingly, the victorious “Leave” campaign focused on the issue of immigration under the transparent slogan of “take back control”. But since the referendum, British politics has been sinking into a quagmire of governmental confusion and growing extreme right-wing pressure as the dire consequences become clear of Britain crashing out of the EU with no agreement.
Through its membership of the EU, Britain has hundreds of regulatory and economic links with Europe that affect trade and finance, scientific research, the medical profession, agriculture and many other areas of life. Much of this concerns banking and big business. It also affects the recruitment of skilled workers needed by many sectors of the economy.
May has a wafer-thin parliamentary majority and is not just confronted by her own right-ring MPs, but also by the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour opposition. In Corbyn, Labour has its most left-wing leader ever.
However, Corbyn and his supporters are themselves under huge right-wing attack from the Conservative-dominated media and Labour’s own right-wing “Blairite” MPs. These sectors are jointly running an extraordinary smear campaign accusing the Corbynistas of tolerating anti-Semitism.
Right and left mobilise
In this febrile atmosphere, there is a worrying growth of the fascist and semi-fascist right. On June 9, it staged its biggest-ever demonstration in Britain in support of English Defence League co-founder Tommy Robinson, who was jailed for contempt of court.
British politics is displaying many of the morbid symptoms suffered by other European countries also witnessing the rise of the anti-immigrant hard right. But there is also a deep attachment to multiculturalism in big sections of the population and a mass left-wing opposition.
The scale of these factors was displayed on July 13 and 14 when hundreds of thousands demonstrated all over Britain against a visit by US President Donald Trump.
People outside the British hothouse find aspects of the political crisis baffling. Why would the right-wing of the Tories demand that Britain break from an economic union so evidently in the interest of British capitalists? And why are all the trade unions for staying in the European Single Market, which many of them regard as a bosses’ club?
The answer to the first question is simple: like Trump in the US and many far-right movements in history, the Tory right wing has broken from automatic adherence to the immediate interests of the capitalist class.
For them, a total break from the EU is a banner to rally reactionary forces — and much more important than a temporary pat on the back from City of London bankers. Moreover, they want to take control of the Conservative Party and make a bonfire of EU legal standards on labour and the environment. This will help with their long-term project of destroying what’s left of the welfare state.
The Tory Brexiteers want to shift British politics permanently to the right.
The position of the unions and much of — though not all — the British left is the reverse. Although they are sceptical of the EU as a pro-business club, staying close to the EU through a single economic market defends jobs and environmental standards. It also implies acceptance of free movement of labour — anathema to the Brexiteer right.
On July 6, May held a special Cabinet meeting to secure agreement on a negotiating position with the EU. Despite apparent agreement, within three days the Brexit minister David Davies and foreign secretary Boris Johnson had resigned. Although May survived a series of parliamentary votes in the following days, her long-term future is severely compromised.
Moreover, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier made it clear the EU would not accept May’s proposals.
The difference boils down to this: Britain wants access to the single market as if it were a full EU member, but unlike full EU members it wants to be able to negotiate its own separate trade deals with third party states, such as the US, China, Japan and Australia.
The EU will never accept this. If states could leave the EU but still enjoy the benefits of membership without the obligations, it would collapse.
The border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland also remains an intractable problem. Everyone in both parts of the island wants to remain in the EU. But with Brexit, the Republic would remain in the EU while Northern Ireland, as part of Britain, would leave.
This means, with no hard border, Ireland would become a back door into Britain for EU goods. But the reconstruction of a border between the North and the Republic also means dangerously reigniting conflict over the national question. It would involve tearing up the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that formally ended the armed conflict between Irish republicans and the British state and pro-British loyalists.
May is caught in a trap of neither being able to please her own right wing or EU negotiators.
By resigning from the government, Johnson has also initiated a likely bid to oust May as leader. To this end, Johnson is seeking to become the most prominent voice on the Tory right, a position he ceded to reactionary Catholic financier William Rees-Mogg while in cabinet.
Tory infighting has been accompanied by a hysterical campaign against pro-EU Conservative MPs by Britain’s top selling tabloid newspapers, The Mail and The Sun, as well as by the ultra-Tory Telegraph. These papers accuse pro-EU Tories and Labour of “treachery” and undermining the democratic referendum vote.
Endlessly interviewed on radio and television, Tory Brexiters are poisoning the political atmosphere with extraordinary anti-democratic proposals. Right-wing MPs have called for the re-introduction of the Treason Act, ostensibly for use against domestic terrorists but with frightening implications.
Conservative member of the European Parliament David Bannerman has called for conviction for treason to be punished with the death penalty. He also wants the definition of treason to include “extreme loyalty to the EU”.
Nearly every survey has shown that the main base for the “Leave” vote in the Brexit referendum was among older people in middle-class suburbs. However, its majority was achieved by adding some big “Leave” votes in a swath of poor, working class de-industrialised towns. These are mainly places where there are few immigrants and whose inhabitants feel abandoned by the major political parties.
Many of these areas, especially in the north of England and the Midlands, have suffered 30 years of economic depression with no end in sight. Often previous bastions of the labour movement, many of these areas registered strong votes for the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 election.
The surge in activity of the fascists and other right-wing ultras has taken place over the “Tommy Robinson” affair. Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is the former leader of the far-right Islamophobic EDL. In May, he was sentenced to 13 months jail for defying a court order to not post online video of several Pakistani men charged with child abuse offences.
Robinson’s jailing became a cause célèbre for the extreme right. Their 15,000-strong June 9 demonstration for Robinson’s release was mainly organised by the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a right-wing grouping based on several football hooligan gangs. Parts of the crowd picked a fight with the police and gave fascist salutes.
At a second “free Tommy” demonstration on July 14, two leading Rail, Maritime and Transport Union members were attacked and hospitalised by fascist thugs after attending a counter-demonstration.
The June 9 demonstration was also supported by UKIP, whose leader Gerard Batten made a viciously racist attack on Muslims. Far right leaders from across Europe spoke at the rally and messages of support were received from former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Republican Congressman Paul Gosar.
With the Tory right wing occupying its existing political space, UKIP is making a turn to the fascist and semi-fascist right.
No Conservative MP has openly backed Robinson, but the surge of anti-immigrant xenophobia that Brexit has propelled has created fertile ground for the whole of the far right. Recent opinion polls showed that up to 20% of the electorate would support a new party made up of UKIP and the Tory right.
Campaign against Corbyn
All forces of political reaction in Britain have one overwhelming ambition — to prevent a Labour election victory by any means possible.
Corbyn is the victim of a witch hunt of McCarthyite proportion in every major daily newspaper, including — indeed especially — the BBC and the left liberal Guardian, which carries daily attacks on him. Anyone can say anything about Corbyn and it will be repeated endlessly.
Conservative vice-chair Ben Bradley claimed in February that Corbyn had sold defence secrets to a Czech spy in the 1980s, a claim he later admitted in court was entirely fictitious. Home Secretary Sajid Javid claimed on Twitter that Corbyn was a Holocaust denier, something he later admitted was completely untrue.
It is clear that Labour’s Blairite right-wing would rather a Tory government than a radical Corbyn-led Labour government. A key weapon against Corbyn that the Labour right and many others have championed is the utterly false claim that the Labour Party is riven with anti-Semitism, and this is tolerated by Corbyn.
In a party with about 500,000 members and when anyone can post anything online, it is not surprising that a few real cases of anti-Semitism have been uncovered. But that is not the central target for Corbyn’s detractors. The real motive for the smear campaign is Corbyn’s support for the rights of the Palestinian people and his criticisms of Israel.
All the pro-Israel organisations in the Jewish community and the so-called Jewish Labour Movement, which includes Tories, have supported the accusations against Corbyn.
Labour’s national executive (NEC) have produced a detailed code of conduct on anti-Semitism based on the “working definition” produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, despite many reservations in left wing and liberal circles about the usefulness of that definition.
But the NEC insists on a clarification — that legitimate criticism of Israel cannot be called anti-Semitic. This is the real point at issue, because for the defenders of Israel calling Israel an apartheid state is by definition anti-Semitic.
For Israel and its supporters, the election of a Labour government committed to Palestinian rights would be a disaster. The well-worn trick of accusing every critic of the actions of the Israeli state of being anti-Semitic is being played over and over again.
As a result, there is no doubt that the majority of the Jewish community, though by no means all, genuinely believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic. The small, left-wing Jewish Voices for Labour has stood out courageously against the anti-Corbyn witch hunt.
The situation is gravely worsened however by the total inability of the Labour leadership to defend itself. Instead of denouncing the witch hunt, they have dissembled and apologised, agreeing the situation is bad but they are trying to deal. When Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s largest union Unite, denounced the witch hunt, the Labour leadership refused to back him up.
There is only one conceivable explanation for this, and that is that members of Labour’s parliamentary front bench have threatened to resign if Corbyn and his team summon their troops against the witch hunters.
This speaks volumes about the fragility of the Corbyn project. Corbyn still has a majority of Labour rank-and-file members on his side (although not local office holders) and a small, unstable majority on the party’s governing NEC. But out of 258 Labour MPs, only about 50 broadly sympathise with the Corbynistas and perhaps only 20 are hard core supporters.
In the event that a Labour government were elected, the political complexion of its MPs would create enormous problems.
Yet any move to jettison Corbyn as Labour leader is not likely to succeed in the short term. At the same time, a general election if May’s government falls is likely.
These are dangerous times for the British working class and immigrant minorities with the real possibility of an even more right-wing Tory government on the horizon. However, despite all the attacks, for the moment it appears that a Corbyn Labour government is equally possible.