By Bruce Wallace
This article is also featured in Kindle Magazine.
Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon
On the 23 June 2016 Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union after forty-three years of membership. 17,410,742 voted to Leave (51.89%) and 16,141,241 to Remain (48.11%) on a 72% turnout.
I’m of an age that has allowed me to experience Britain both joining the EU and now leaving it. As a Marxist and political activist I have been involved, in one way or another, in the unfolding of Britain’s European story.
Full disclosure: I voted for Brexit, so I make no apology for my partisan musings, but I’ve never believed in the idea of the detached objectivity of the commentariat when it comes to the clash of opposing social forces.
A lot of people woke up on Friday 24 June to a new political landscape. I didn’t because I hadn’t been to bed. I watched the referendum drama live on TV as Facebook messages arrived from around the world asking me: “what is happening?”
When the result came in from Newcastle at about 2am that Remain had achieved a narrow win when they were expecting a crushing victory, establishment elites knew the game was up. A friend from Sweden sent me a graph showing the plummeting value of the pound. It fell six percent in five minutes.
Leon Trotsky long ago pointed out that the confidence of the ruling class could best be measured by studying the movements of the stock exchange. The FTSE was plunging along with sterling. Only a complete pedant could argue that a victory for Brexit wasn’t a major blow to capitalism and a bloody nose for the elites.
No more was necessary than to look at the faces of the commentariat as they tried to mentally adjust to the unthinkable, unable to conceal their outrage and shock. The day before, every newspaper had front pages announcing a narrow win for Remain. Better still were the ashen faces of the Remain politicians who thought parliamentary cretinism would resume as usual once the EU question had been put to bed for a generation.
One Labour MP, Keith Vaz, was interviewed in the early hours of the morning almost in tears, saying it was a “terrible … terrible decision for our country.” The ex-Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown tweeted “God help our country!”
The unexpected result reminded me of words in a Jack London essay attributed to “some Frenchman” who said: “The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending.”
The first polished boot to descend was that of the Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, who announced his resignation before breakfast.
This was quickly followed by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announcing that £250 billion would be made available to stabilise the pound and the markets. A tidy sum. Equivalent in fact to Scotland’s entire government budget for six years and made available by the same government that told us there was no money left for jobs or services.
David and Goliath
One must reflect on the scale of this result in terms of the opposing forces. All of official society was for Remain. Every major political party campaigned for Remain. The Tories and their government, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Greens all backed a Remain vote. Behind them stood most of big business and the representatives of big capital including the IMF and Confederation of British Industry. Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton had called on the British people to vote Remain along with every major politician in Europe.
The Labour Party led their own campaign for a Remain vote and, to his credit, its leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to share platforms with any Tories campaigning for Remain because of their toxicity to working class voters. Corbyn was also critical of the EU, which has probably saved his party from oblivion in working class areas in the next election. Corbyn was practically a prisoner of his pro-EU Parliamentary party and had little room to manoeuvre, but he was much closer to his electorate than Cameron and the Tories were to theirs .
On the day before the poll every surviving former Prime Minister (John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) came together with Cameron and other political leaders to plea for a Remain vote. The Trade Union Congress and most of the big unions also supported a Remain vote.
I received a letter from Dave Prentis, the general secretary of my trade union, Unison, the week before the referendum. The letter urged me to vote Remain allegedly to save jobs and protect workers’ rights. I threw it away. Prentis, who is supposed to be a trade unionist, was a non-executive director of the Bank of England till 2015, for which he received a total remuneration of £165,458. Ample proof that the capitalist elites penetrate even into the tops of the trade union movement.
The media machine, with some notable exceptions, pumped out Remain propaganda for months before the poll, issuing portents of doom in the most cataclysmic and lurid terms. David Cameron suggested a Brexit vote would trigger World War Three (Mirror, May 9). Britain would go into recession, shed hundreds of thousands of jobs and end up marooned as an isolated island off the coast of the continent with zero influence.
We would be denied entry into the single market. A Brexit vote would practically mean the end of Western civilisation as we know it. I’d heard this sort of stuff before: when I voted for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.
The hated Tory Chancellor George Osborne (also for the chop) announced the need for an emergency “punishment budget” with massive spending cuts and tax rises of £30 billion should Britain vote Brexit. 65 Tory MPs immediately announced they would vote against it. That plan was discretely buried when the Remain camp realised it was a spectacular own goal. Remain’s “project fear” (a term also used to describe the establishment’s campaign against Scottish independence) was clearly failing to scare people.
The official campaign on the Brexit side could hardly be described as a team of heavy hitters. Its front men were the ex-mayor of London and Tory MP, Boris Johnson, and the Tory Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. Behind them were a number of cabinet members and Tory Eurosceptic MPs.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), led by the indefatigable ex-stockbroker and populist windbag Nigel Farage MEP, complemented the official Vote Leave campaign. There was also a small group of MPs from Labour Leave, led by Kate Hoey.
Ignored by the media was a campaign for a left leave or Lexit from the EU, which was supported by the small revolutionary groupings of the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party and the Rail Maritime and Transport union.
The only metaphor that comes to mind is of a David and Goliath struggle. Bookmakers favoured a Remain vote as the favourites until the Newcastle result came in. The victory for Brexit was truly one of shock and awe!
A Working Class Revolt
Peter Hitchens, the eccentric right wing ex-Marxist journalist and anti-EU campaigner, explained the day after that he wasn’t shocked by the result. He recognised that the old working-class Labour vote was gathering behind Leave and combining with the old guard of the Tories. That would swing it.
Hitchens was right. The decisive force in the result of the referendum was the working class and all the electoral data supports it. A map of the referendum results in Britain testifies to the solid Leave vote in traditional working-class areas. We witnessed the reappearance, Hitchens explained, of something we hadn’t seen for some time. The traditional Labour vote, having been ignored by the Blairite leadership of the Labour Party for many years, had reasserted itself and, unlike in a general election, had found a way of expressing itself. A way to give the people it didn’t like a kicking.
The result revealed a yawning class divide. The highest results for Remain were in the prosperous cosmopolitan cities of London and Edinburgh. In Scotland, for specific national reasons, the majority voted for Remain. The north of England, the midlands and Wales were overwhelmingly for Leave.
This was no surprise. Years of austerity, neglect and political detachment have left a legacy of simmering resentment that burst out in a wave of anti-government feeling and protest through the referendum ballot box. 75% of British Parliament members calling for a Remain vote didn’t succeed in winning more than 50% of the electorate to support them. If ever proof of the gaping disconnect between the electorate and their political representatives was needed, this is it.
The result was a profound shock for the Blairite consensus in parliament that had existed for twenty years. The only difference between the Tories and the Labour Party in Parliament was that of austerity or ‘austerity-lite.’ Both parties cling to a failing neoliberal policy and they only represent themselves. Working class voters have nobody to represent their class interest. As one pundit put it, “Labour and the Tories are like a pair of corpses, stiff with rigor mortis, propping each other up.”
A Tsunami of Reaction?
Much has been made of the hysteria around the issue of immigration. Some on the left branded the Leave campaign as xenophobic and racist. Undoubtedly the issue of immigration was a prominent feature during the campaign on both sides, although I would question whether either was overtly racist (with the exception of some of the antics of UKIP’s Nigel Farage, such as the use of racist imagery in a poster). It would be disingenuous to say that racist themes did not emerge, but it’s also necessary to retain a sense of proportion.
The small left forces campaigning for leave with a clear anti-racist programme were largely ignored by the media. With the Labour Party officially backing Remain, this handed leadership of the Brexit campaign over to the radical, populist right with its nationalist message and appeal to nativism. Had Labour been for Brexit the campaign would have been entirely different. Small right wing forces would’ve been marginalised.
The Tory press has encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment for years and both sides in the campaign stated that immigration had to be controlled. In this context, it was inevitable that that there would be some anti-immigrant and racist outbursts after the result. This would have been the case whatever the outcome.
One aspect was the continuous dismissal of working class concerns over immigration. Workers were derided in the media as racist and xenophobic throughout the campaign. Enthusiastic news teams scoured working class areas for prime examples of atavistic Neanderthals spouting racist abuse. It was all carefully choreographed to induce disgust in middle class viewers schooled in intersectionality. The working class was depicted as ignorant, ill-informed, primitive nativists. But the media coverage rebounded on itself: hardening attitudes and the resolve to vote Brexit in solid working class areas.
In reality, the attitudes towards immigration was a catchall for concerns over austerity cuts, pressure on jobs, living standards, housing, the NHS and services. Kate Hoey of the Labour Leave campaign summed it up when she said that Leave voters used immigration as a symbolic register for a whole range of grievances using the EU as a kind of proxy for opposition to the establishment.
There was an increase in racist attacks after the result, but the vast majority consisted of verbal and online abuse. There were a few assaults reported to the police.
Certain elements on the left had warned of a tsunami of reaction following the Brexit vote. It failed to materialise. The rise in racism was met with revulsion by the majority of the population, including from Leave voters.
Dire warnings had been issued that a Brexit vote would mean a lurch to the right. We were told that Boris Johnson would become Prime Minister and Gove would be Chancellor with a far right programme. A new regime of ultra neo-liberalism would be inaugurated.
In fact, the opposite has occurred. Johnson announced that he would not be running for the leadership of the Tory party after his chum Gove told him he didn’t have enough credibility. Gove is standing but has been rapidly outdistanced by Theresa May, Home Secretary and part the Remain camp, who is now the hot favourite for Prime Minister. The Eurosceptics were always a minority in the Tory party and the idea that they would win the position of Prime Minister and take control of the cabinet wasn’t based on a serious analysis. To propose this was simply alarmist and akin to a conspiracy theory.
Warnings that the far right would be immeasurably strengthened by the result were also completely wide of the mark. Foreign commentators mistakenly refer to UKIP as the far right. This is a very dubious characterisation. UKIP is definitely a nationalist party but it certainly isn’t close to anything like a far right one. It does rely on jingoism and anti-immigration rhetoric but most of its policy agenda is well within the mainstream. Not that much of this matters now. On 4 July Nigel Farage resigned as UKIP leader, saying he wanted his life back, and it’s questionable how UKIP will fare now. After all, its entire raison d’etre was achieving British withdrawal from the EU.
On the economic front, the warnings of more brutal austerity proved to be false. On 1 July, Chancellor George Osborne announced that he had abandoned his target to restore government finances to a primary budget surplus by 2020. The country couldn’t afford it after Brexit, he said. This volte-face by Osborne was in stark contrast to his threatened punishment budget. Labour Shadow Chancellor, and Corbyn supporter, John McDonnell said “Sadly the vote last Thursday for Brexit has only brought forward what was inevitable”. So the tsunami of reaction includes a complete Tory retreat on their pro-austerity fiscal policy? It just doesn’t fit with the catastrophist perspective of the pro-Remain left.
And as if to mimic Osborne’s partial retreat from austerity, the youngest Tory contender for the leadership, Stephen Crabb, enthusiastically pledged to create a £100 billion “Growing Britain Fund” if he won: “The infrastructure investment fund could finance essential projects including flood defences, a national fibre-optic broadband network and Crossrail Two”, he said.
So instead of hardening its commitment to austerity, the Brexit vote has thrown the British ruling class into confusion and disarray. Policy positions held for a decade are being abandoned.
A very Bungled British Coup
Three days after the result, the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the official opposition, staged a coup against their leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is detested by the right as he has an anti-austerity position and he also voted against the Iraq war in 2003. Thanks to a change to Labour’s leadership election rules Corbyn, a long time left winger, was nominated for the leadership in September 2015 and was elected with an unprecedented 60% of members’ votes. Ever since his election the main preoccupation of the right wing Blairite majority of the PLP has been to undermine his position, isolate him and conspire against him.
News of a plot to remove him as leader was openly discussed in the press for weeks before the referendum. The Financial Times published a step-by-step guide of how the plotters should execute the coup. A vote of no confidence was required, the newspaper advised, which involved 70% of the PLP voting against him. Then they needed a candidate to challenge him. Somebody who “had the guts to do it.”
The coup leaders struck with their no confidence vote and it passed with 172 votes to 40. The normal practice in British politics is for the defeated leader to stand down, but Corbyn emerged defiant. He refused to accept the vote: he was elected by party members not MPs. Corbyn addressed a mass rally of 10,000 outside parliament saying he would continue to be party leader. Demonstrations in support of Corbyn took place throughout the country. 100,000 new members have flooded into the party.
Brexit was only a pretext for the coup. Alex Salmond, former leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party which now dominates Scottish politics, has claimed that its timing was dictated by the impending publication this week of the Chilcot Inquiry into the disastrous Iraq war. Earlier reports have suggested Tony Blair and his contemporaries will be savaged in an “absolutely brutal” verdict. Corbyn is prepared to brand Blair a war criminal and anti-Corbyn members of the PLP are deeply implicated in the decision to go to war: the vast majority voted for it. It’s possible, as Salmond suggests, that the coup was timed to remove Corbyn to stop him condemning the right wing of his own party.
The other purpose of the coup is to remove any voice from Parliament that challenges the Blairite consensus around a neoliberal economic programme which unites Labour and the Tories. For the capitalist class it is essential that a counter narrative to its free market dogma is expunged from Parliamentary politics.
The entire establishment and their propaganda machine is piling pressure on Corbyn to resign. Even David Cameron, having previously sneered that the Corbyn leadership is a gift to the Tories, has joined the call for Corbyn to go. Yet so far nobody has had the guts to enact the second part of the plan and actually launch a leadership challenge against Corbyn. This would trigger a leadership election which Corby would contest and probably win. So the coup had a fatal flaw: it never had a leader capable of beating him.
Corbyn stands firm as I write, with rallies up and down the country and all the major trade unions supporting him. Will it lead to a new political alignment on the left?
Brexit was a profound shock to the capitalist class and the elites. It also caused an acute schism amongst elements of the left and a growing split between the parliamentary right wing of the Labour Party and its traditional base of support. It is the beginning of a new political trajectory for the British Isles and will have repercussions within the EU which, for the moment, are an object of speculation.
The Tories, the oldest party of capitalist class, will not emerge unscathed from the Brexit result. In essence, the referendum was called to quell dissent within Tory ranks from its growing Eurosceptic wing. UKIP was also biting at the heels of the Tory government, often gaining up to 20% of the vote and eroding the traditional Tory electoral base. Cameron had taken a gamble in conceding the referendum. It was a miscalculation of epic proportions.
Theresa May, the front runner in the Tory leadership contest, has promised she will heal divisions and bring Leavers and Remainers together. However, as a partisan for Remain (although inconspicuous during the campaign) she will have a difficult task. She has to oversee the negotiations to leave the EU and decide when to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which begins the two-year process for EU withdrawal. She has already stated she doesn’t want to rush the process, whilst Brussels demands a speedy resolution.
There is already speculation that May will attempt to dilute the meaning of Brexit and undermine the decision of the referendum. This could prove a source of conflict within her own party as an emboldened Eurosceptic wing eyes her performance and she will need to bring Brexit leaders into her cabinet. Her government is also weak, holding a majority of only twelve.
The Labour Party, meanwhile, is on the verge of civil war. The right-wing Blairite majority have badly bungled their coup attempt and there is a position of stalemate. Attempts are being made to broker a peace deal by trade union leaders, but the situation cannot persist indefinitely and a split is possible.
The economic outlook for Britain and Europe was and is grim. The underlying crisis in capitalist profitability which has mired the world in a long term depression was about to take a nastier turn regardless of the Referendum’s outcome: only a mass destruction of capital, at a great cost in lives and jobs, is capable of restoring the capitalists’ profits. Uncertainties surrounding Brexit may well accelerate the slide into a new recession by puncturing the property bubbles on which Britain’s fragile, anaemic recovery was built.
There is also the renewed prospect of Scottish independence because of its vote to Remain. And the vote will intensify tensions within the wider European project. Workers’ parties across Europe celebrated Brexit as a victory over the repressive laws and austerity which the EU imposes. Now they are making their own calls for votes to leave.
In Britain, amidst the crisis of the Parliamentary Labour Party, we are experiencing a historical realignment of workers and young people in a new mass movement which is crystallising within the grassroots of the party. The traditional far left which remains outside of the Labour Party has been side-lined. It’s very difficult to say what will happen next. But if Corbyn survives as leader of the Labour Party, it cannot be ruled out that a new general election will sweep out the Blairites and bring a radical reformist government into power: a Syriza moment in the world’s fifth largest economy.
But like Syriza, Corbyn and his allies themselves have no solution to the crisis in capitalism they will face once in power. This is why it is imperative in England and Wales that revolutionary Marxists join the Labour Party, defend Corbyn, and put forward a genuinely revolutionary programme to the hundreds of thousands now entering this struggle. Across Europe, the unfolding political, economic and social crisis will create similar opportunities for new and existing parties of the left as well as new dangers from the right.
Contrary to its stated aims, the EU has intensified nationalist tensions. As its future hangs in the balance, workers must unite in international solidarity to defend migrants and refugees against racism and defend the streets from fascists who are emboldened by the Brexit result.
As Jack London’s Frenchman said, “The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending.” In Europe, the stairway is clattering with noise. Over the coming weeks and months, we shall see where it leads.