With the unexpected result of Britain’s referendum on Brexit on 23 June, the dominant sections of the British and international imperialist bourgeoisies were thrown into turmoil. Multi-billionaire George Soros spoke for all that fraternity when he exclaimed following the Brexit vote:
“The catastrophic scenario that many feared has materialised, making the disintegration of the EU practically irreversible,” which he rightly considers threatens “the very survival of the European project“. (EU disintegration ‘practically irreversible’ – RT, 26 June 2016).
As LALKAR has consistently been pointing out, the European Union is an imperialist project designed on the one hand to merge Europe into one large, economically efficient, market, and, on the other hand, to form a bloc that that is strong both financially and militarily facilitating both imperialist domination over weaker capitalist countries as well as avoiding losing out to more powerful economic rivals. It is designed to enable European countries to maintain themselves as imperialist powers. Its break-up is bound to weaken the individual imperialist countries of Europe both economically and militarily. Hence Soros’ dismay, and that of his fellow bloodsuckers.
It follows then that just as the working class and oppressed countries of the world can only welcome the weakening of imperialism, the most powerful sections of the ruling class have a very strong incentive to try to wriggle out of the consequences of the Brexit vote. Yet Theresa May, the new prime minister who replaced David Cameron after he so disastrously (for the bourgeoisie) gambled on the Remain camp being able to carry the day in the referendum, despite herself having been on the Remain side, has declared that “Brexit means Brexit”. But does she really mean it?
Whether she does or not, the fact is that the premiership did not fall into the hands of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove who had campaigned for Brexit since they turned against each other in their competition for the top job. Instead the job of leading Britain towards the implementation of Brexit is entrusted to what from the point of view of the bourgeoisie is a ‘safe pair of hands’. It can be expected that, whatever she says to the contrary, May will enthusiastically implement any damage limitation exercise designed to enable the bourgeoisie to retain as much as possible of the advantages that EU membership gives them even if, in the event, Brexit is in fact implemented.
What is suspicious is that Theresa May’s government is in no hurry to invoke Article 50 to start the 2-year period of exit negotiations with the rest of the EU, but instead appears to be delaying doing so on one excuse or another. According to The Independent:
” Ministers are reportedly in discussions over a delay in triggering Article 50, the formal process of leaving the European Union, which could see Britain remain a member of the bloc until late 2019.
“Theresa May, who is expected by many to trigger the two-year process of leaving the EU in early 2017, could push back the timetable because her new Brexit and international trade departments will not be ready, sources in the City of London have told The Sunday Times. Elections on the continent, including those in France and Germany, could also delay Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty being triggered.
“‘Ministers are now thinking the trigger could be delayed to autumn 2017,’ a source who has reportedly had discussions with two senior ministers told the newspaper. ‘They don’t have the infrastructure for the people they need to hire,’ the source added, in reference to the new Whitehall departments being set up from scratch to handle the Brexit negotiations .” (Ashley Cowburn, ‘Brexit “could be delayed until late 2019” with Whitehall departments not yet ready to trigger Article 50’, 14 August 2016).
In addition, legal challenges are being mounted (by persons wholly unconnected to the government, of course) to try to establish that Article 50 cannot be invoked without parliamentary authority, which of course would never be forthcoming since both the parliamentary Tory Party and the parliamentary Labour Party, unlike the general membership of both parties, are actually opposed to Brexit.
And furthermore there is the canny way Theresa May has set up the preparations for Brexit, as explained by Rachel Sylvester, a passionate Brexiteer, writing a most entertaining article for The Times:
“ There is not one Whitehall department but three responsible for managing departure from the EU. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been boosted by the new Departments for Exiting the European Union and International Trade, setting out to negotiate the terms of the UK’s relationships around the world.
“Already a vicious turf war is under way. In Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, Theresa May has appointed three of the biggest egos in politics to work together on one of the most contentious issues Whitehall has ever known. The consequences are already being felt. …
“For now, though, there are only clouds on the horizon.
“… the Brexit secretary has never got on with the international trade secretary, while the foreign secretary trusts neither of his two fellow cabinet Brexiteers. … The prime minister has said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ but Mr Johnson, Mr Davis and Dr Fox all disagree about what this means for access to the single market and controls on free movement.” (‘Brexit bureaucracy will infuriate Out voters’, 16 August 2016).
Meanwhile the three Brexiteers are reportedly mainly engaged in squabbling over who is to have the best office and the largest budget.
Ms Sylvester merely bemoans the surplus of expensive bureaucracy, but of course as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned the expense will all have been worth it if these Brexiteers make such a pig’s ear of brexiteering that they are never in a position to invoke Article 50 and in the meantime the British electorate, it is no doubt hoped, might lose interest in Brexit being implemented, giving leeway for calling yet another referendum which might overturn the Brexit decision without invoking the political turmoil that would undoubtedly ensue if the government were seen to be backtracking on Brexit now in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.
However, if in the end Brexit cannot be avoided, the negotiations with the EU will all be about how to keep all the advantages for imperialism of the European Union despite the fact that Britain is no longer technically a member. This is a question that interests not only the British bourgeoisie but the bourgeoisies of the other European countries also. They need to keep exporting to Britain just as much as Britain needs to keep exporting to Europe, for example. The knee jerk reaction that the remaining EU members would in some way punish Britain for leaving, for example by imposing heavy duties on its exports to the EU, has now become somewhat muted, and it is also possible that the original EU push to get the Brexit negotiations over and done with as soon as possible will also start to fade, as the wealthiest and most influential sections of the bourgeoisie in all the imperialist EU countries realise that their best bet is to stand together against the disenchanted British and European masses.
Yet the tensions caused within the EU by the need to punish Britain severely in order to deter other disgruntled EU countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and even France also seeking to exit, existing side by side with the contradictory need to maintain business as usual, are likely to exacerbate the centrifugal forces currently wracking the EU.
Throughout the EU the working-class masses, including those who in the past have been privileged and enthusiastic supporters of capitalism – the labour aristocracy and the intelligentsia – have been seeing their living standards become insecure, with high unemployment and diminishing social welfare provision. Those who have suffered most are those from the industrial heartlands whose jobs have effectively been exported by the bourgeoisie to low cost countries. The capital that the bourgeoisie was able to accumulate thanks to the sweated labour of the British working class and the masses in the oppressed and super-exploited countries has been whisked abroad in pursuit of maximum profit, leaving behind an industrial wasteland and a handful of theme parks celebrating Britain’s industrial very much past.
When the factories, mills, mines, steelworks and yards closed down, not only did British workers lose their jobs. They also lost the community activities that centred round their workplaces – the brass bands, the choirs, the social clubs, the sporting events. In addition family members who for generations had all lived in close proximity to each other were forced apart in search of work. This de-industrialisation caused by the export of capital has been going on for decades, and was well advanced long before the current crisis of capitalism erupted in 2007-8, but until the crisis it was still possible for a large number of people to feel that their living standards were rising with a credit boom that enabled them to live far more luxuriously than had their parents, as owner-occupiers, with indoor toilets and bathrooms, designer kitchens, central heating, wall-to-wall carpeting, colour televisions, etc., all of which to some extent softened the blow of what had been lost. However, with the eruption of the financial crisis, all this is under threat. The economic crisis left millions of British families in desperate straits. Nowadays, the TUC has found, more than 1.6 million families are living in ‘extreme debt’, i.e., having to pay 40% or more of their income to creditors (not counting what has to be paid to mortgagees for the cost of one’s home). A further 1.6 million families live with ‘problem debt’, i.e., which consumes over a quarter of their income, and ” the problem is growing fastest among the working poor – people with jobs but whose pay is not enough to keep them afloat”. Real wages in Britain, according to the OECD, declined by 10.4% between 2007 and 2015 (see Patrick Collison, ‘More than a million households facing “extreme debt”, says TUC’, The Guardian, 23 August 2016).
Even if the older generation are able to hang on to what they have got, their children can’t afford to buy their own homes and find there are is no council housing available, have difficulty finding work, have to pay a fortune for higher education without any guarantee of employment at the end, etc. At the same time, the big bourgeoisie and its handmaidens are getting exponentially richer. All in all, there is every reason for the proletariat to feel extremely angry.
Of course, if the ruling section of the bourgeoisie constitutes a mere 0.1% of the population, it has to find ways of deflecting the anger of the masses away from the capitalist system that has produced their misery. The current surefire ways of doing that in most of Britain are: (1) to blame immigrants, and (2) to blame the Brussels bureaucrats. In Scotland the bourgeois ideologues have had stunning success in diverting the anger of the masses away from their moribund capitalist system by blaming the English. And it is these popular prejudices cultivated by imperialism, combined with increasing poverty and the imposition of draconian austerity packages, that explain the results of the Brexit referendum. Many of the angry proletarians in England and Wales, in particular in the most de-industrialised areas, voted to leave the EU because they believed the propaganda that unlimited immigration from the EU was responsible wholly or partly for unemployment and deteriorating public services and/or that the Brussels bureaucracy was somehow preventing the UK escaping from the economic doldrums. In Scotland, however, where all the blame is heaped on the English, the Brussels bureaucracy is seen as a benign alternative and source of subvention, therefore nearly two-thirds of Scots (on a turnout quite a bit lower than in England and Wales) voted to Remain. Northern Ireland of course voted for Remain because it does not want to see the border between north and south resurrected, which voters feared might happen if Britain left the EU. Following these carefully cultivated prejudices, the English and Welsh workers in their majority favoured the Leave campaign, while the Scottish favoured the Remain.
Because the Scottish vote favoured Remain, the reactionary Scottish separatists are now demanding a second referendum on Scottish independence with a view to somehow enabling Scotland to remain in the EU after Britain leaves. It’s unlikely to happen. For a country to be admitted into the EU all other EU members have to agree to its admission. Countries like Spain, which has its own problems with separatists, will almost certainly not agree to ‘reward’ Scotland in this way as it would not want to give encouragement to its own secessionists. Northern Ireland, however, is in a different situation because if under the terms of the Good Friday agreement it were to hold a referendum on whether it should become part of the Irish Republic, there is a good chance that this would be upheld by a majority: it could be the one thing that persuades the Protestant community, that has hitherto strongly favoured ‘loyalty’ to the British state as the guarantor of its privileges, to abandon that allegiance so as not to lose EU subsidies. Time will tell.
What the referendum has clearly done, however, is to act as a disclosing agent exposing the dangerous delusions prevalent in the working-class movement in Britain. While the result of the referendum was progressive, and working class defiance of the ruling class was heartening, a proletariat that is susceptible to being divided against itself on xenophobic or nationalist lines, as appears to be the case with the British proletariat at present, will never be able to put an end to the rule of the bourgeoisie. It is of utmost importance that every effort should be made to imbue the proletarian masses with the understanding that it is capitalism not immigrants that is responsible for the present parlous economic situation. Xenophobia must be replaced by kefalophobia – i.e., the hatred of capital.