The government’s handling of Brexit continually threatens to engulf it, as indeed it does the opposition Labour Party. For some 30 years the Tories have squabbled over the European issue. Even with a March 2019 EU departure point on the horizon, the issue is eating up the main bourgeois electoral parties. The divisions within and between the parties are a reflexion of the divisions within the bourgeoisie itself: the more powerful imperialist section by and large favours of the EU which offers the best opportunities for their further growth, while the more numerous nationally-dependent section, struggling to remain viable amidst imperialist competition, is more inclined towards Brexit.
Neither the Remainer or the Brexiteer bourgeoisie has anything to offer the working class, whose interest in Brexit lies mainly in the weakening of the exploitative power of its class enemy and the ability to carry out military aggression that it entails. We agree with the Remainers that Brexit will weaken British imperialism, and that is why we side with the Brexiteers in this debate that is tearing the main bourgeois political parties apart.
Because the most influential section of the bourgeoisie does not want Brexit, any prime minister charged with implementing it is going to be, in its view, the worst prime minister that Britain has ever had, endlessly mocked in the bourgeois media, simply by virtue of having failed effectively to wriggle out of Brexit as a result of the Brexiteers making this impossible.
May, who was a Remainer, has made sterling efforts to secure a Brexit that was a Brexit in name only. Her Chequers deal, the framework for negotiating Britain’s EU exit, is the kind of halfway house compromise one would expect. But her Brexiteer opponents within the Tory Party are not fools, as a result of which in her attempt to appease all of the people, May has pleased none.
First of all, the key points of the Chequers deal were listed by the BBC as follows:
“The UK will ‘maintain a common rulebook for all goods’ with the EU, including agricultural products, after Brexit.
“A treaty will be signed committing the UK to ‘continued harmonisation’ with EU rules – avoiding friction at the UK-EU border, including Northern Ireland.
“Parliament will oversee the UK’s trade policy and have the ability to ‘choose’ to diverge from the EU rules, ‘recognising that this would have consequences’.
“’Co-operative arrangements’ will be established between EU and UK competition regulators.
“’Different arrangements’ will be organised for services ‘where it is in our interests to have regulatory flexibility’…
“The borders between the UK and EU will be treated as a ‘combined customs territory’.
“The UK would apply domestic tariffs and trade policies for goods intended for the UK, but charge EU tariffs and their equivalents for goods which will end up heading into the EU.
“A post-Brexit UK would be able to ‘control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world’ without causing border disruption.
“This avoids a hard Irish border, and removes the need for ‘backstop’ arrangements to be put in place before the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the government says.
“The agreement says it will end free movement of people ‘giving the UK back control over how many people enter the country’.
“A ‘mobility framework’ will be set up to allow UK and EU citizens to travel to each other’s territories, and apply for study and work” (BBC News, 7 July 2018)
Corbyn, exploiting May’s lack of support within her own Party and hoping to promote the downfall of the Tory government to be followed by a general election that will return a Labour government, has threatened to vote down such an agreement. Around 40 Tory MPs, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, are vitriolic in opposition, and the Irish border issue could see the government lose the backing of the DUP on which it is dependent for its survival. The Democratic Unionist Party is appalled over the Irish border issue – to the point that it is now openly threatening to vote against the government’s next budget, something historically seen as a vote of no confidence in the government. This would therefore, were it to happen, almost certainly bring down the government.
The Chequers agreement is rather vague – but certainly not vague enough for the Brexiteers – regarding the Irish border. Remember, the BBC describes it as “A treaty [that] will be signed committing the UK to ‘continued harmonisation’ with EU rules – avoiding friction at the UK-EU border, including Northern Ireland.” The specifics of what this actually entails still need to be thrashed out.
In the meantime, the European Union has put forth its own position:
“EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier … said there would have to be new checks on goods travelling between the EU and the UK because of the UK’s decision to leave the EU’s single market and customs union.
“The EU and UK have agreed that these checks ‘cannot be performed at the border’ and the EU proposes to carry them out ‘in the least intrusive way possible’, he said.
“’Both the EU and UK exclude having a physical border on the island of Ireland,’ he said.
“’Therefore, what will arrive into Northern Ireland will also be arriving in our single market.
“’There will be administrative procedures that do not exist today for goods travelling to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. Our challenge is to make sure those procedures are as easy as possible and not too burdensome, in particular for smaller businesses.
“’I understand why such procedures are politically sensitive but… Brexit was not our choice, it is the choice of the UK. Our proposal tries to help the UK in managing the negative fallout of Brexit in Northern Ireland in a way that respects the territorial integrity of the UK.’
“He said that under the EU’s proposed ‘backstop’ to prevent a hard border, companies in the rest of the UK sending goods to Northern Ireland would fill out customs declarations online in advance…
“Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has called for such checks to avoid creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This would be achieved by aligning Northern Ireland with the rules of the single market” (BBC News, 10 October 2018).
Although this would seem to be fair enough, given the circumstances of Brexit, it is a source of DUP anger, in this case at least, for the DUP is always angry. It is because of this that DUP MP Sammy Wilson has publicly threatened the government that the DUP is willing to withdraw its support and vote down the budget:
“If the prime minister were to cave in to the demands that we know Michel Barnier is making… that’s serious enough, for the UK, for us to take the kind of action that we’re going to take, and that we have threatened to take.”
He said Mr Barnier’s demands included “that we would stay as part of the single market, our laws in NI would be made in Brussels, not London, that we would not be able to be part of future UK trade deals, that the ECJ would make decisions about the rules and regulations in Northern Ireland”. Given that a large majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain, the DUP ought really not to have objected to that – but then, as has been said, the DUP is always angry.
“The ball isn’t really in our court,” he added. “The government has to contemplate the consequences of giving in to the demands which are being made from Brussels at the minute” (BBC News, 10 October 2018).
Writing in the Telegraph, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attacked Theresa May’s Chequers agreement, outlining his own Brexit vision in the process. Johnson, who has not given up on his hopes of becoming Prime Minister, exclaimed it was time to “chuck Chequers” in favour of a “Super Canada” free trade deal. The deal would be based on Canada’s trade arrangements with the EU, but supposedly more extensive or “super”. This so-called plan does not require great attention. Firstly, he is so far removed from power as to have no chance of implementing it. Secondly, if he were in such a position, his party remains split on the issue and, should a Brexiteer take the top job, the Remainers in the Party, with strong backing from the bourgeois media, would give them at least as much of a hard time as Theresa May is facing. Finally, he would require EU approval of such an agreement or face no deal. The main points are zero tariffs on imports and exports, and zero regulations on goods. It is far from an inspiring or widely divergent vision from the government’s.
Nonetheless, speaking to the Conservative Party Conference, he went further on the attack against the government. He told delegates:
“If we cheat the electorate – and Chequers is a cheat – we will escalate the sense of mistrust.
“We will give credence to those who cry betrayal, and I am afraid we will make it more likely that the ultimate beneficiary of the Chequers deal will be the far right in the form of UKIP.”
In one respect Johnson is correct. Chequers is a cheat. When voting to leave the EU, people voted to leave, not have one leg in, one leg out, with Theresa May shaking all about. But so too will any ‘Super Canada’ deal. At the heart of the EU, is an anti-worker, anti-union, anti-socialist ideology which permeates outwards manifesting itself in this cult of trade liberalisation. Trade liberalisation at all costs is what is driving May, Johnson and Labour alike. All are fighting to preserve this arrangement of things. This true essence of the EU is obviously in contradiction to the false narrative of the EU ‘protecting workers rights’, in which neither bourgeois Brexiteers nor Remainers have the slightest interest. Let us make it clear once more, the EU has not lifted one single finger to prevent or overturn any of the myriad of anti-worker, anti-union legislation in this country. The EU as ‘protector of workers’ myth is just that, a myth, created and advanced by the bourgeoisie, their media and political parties.
The disarray in the Tory party ought to be easily capitalised upon by Labour. But it too is presiding over a Brexit shambles, albeit from the relative comfort of the Opposition benches. Labour’s position remains ambiguous at best. The party has put forward six vague tests for any Brexit deal, included in policy at the insistence of shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, which amount to having one’s cake and eating it, creating the illusion that it is possible to have a Brexit that benefits everyone! These ‘tests’ are:
Fair migration system for UK business and communities
Retaining strong, collaborative relationship with EU
Protecting national security and tackling cross-border crime
Delivering for all nations and regions of the UK
Protecting workers’ rights and employment protections
Ensuring same benefits currently enjoyed within single market (see BBC News, 27 March 2017).
None of these tests is concrete or objectively quantifiable. The tests amount to nothing but posturing for the gallery. Moreover, in many aspects they mirror the Chequers deal in that they demand the best of both worlds. Both Labour and Conservative leaderships seemingly seek to leave the EU, whilst maintaining as much of the relationship with the EU as possible. In either party’s hands, Brexit will not reflect what people actually voted for, in the highly unlikely event that the EU were willing to let the British government have its own way.
Jeremy Corbyn has reaffirmed that Labour may yet vote against any Brexit deal: “We would vote it down if it didn’t meet our tests…We want to protect jobs and industry in this country. We want to ensure there is a good effective trade relationship with Europe in the future”.
Although Corbyn favours a Brexit, it is clear that if the Remainers in his party force the issue enough, and opinion polls show the electorate wavering, he may change track. This is made all the more evident given Starmer’s speech to the Labour Party Conference. Starmer, who insisted on the tests, said, to rapturous applause from delegates, “Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option”. In the light of Trump’s ‘America First’ policy and the growing contradictions between the US and Europe (from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal), the privileged (opportunist) sections of the labour movement are increasingly being pushed in the direction of either staying put in the EU or maintaining a close relationship with the EU imperialist bloc. This position was frankly and unambiguously made clear by journalist Paul Mason – a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Writing in The Guardian of 24 September 2018, Mr Mason said:
“If the superstructure of globalisation, Trump has aimed a wrecking ball at its foundations. As the world fragments into competing trade and finance blocs, it is imperative for both geographic and cultural reasons for Britain to attach itself as closely to Europe as possible.
“With Trump in power, being inside the single market has become the only logical option for a Labour government, even if that might make some of its plans for state ownership, state aid and workplace regulation more difficult to achieve” (‘I’m now backing a second referendum – Jeremy Corbyn should too’).
It was precisely this position that was endorsed by the Labour Party at its last Congress at the end of September 2018 through the composite motion that called for a close relationship with the EU, rejected the option of a no-deal Brexit, and came down in favour of a ‘people’s vote’ (a euphemism for a second referendum) unless Labour could force a general election.
Realising that British imperialism is incapable of maintaining itself as an independent imperialist power, the privileged section of the labour movement in Britain has come down on the side of remaining an integral part of the European imperialist bloc and thus defending its interests.
For all of the intrigue and infighting among the big two parties, they are not arguing over a great deal. The Tories are torn apart over nuances and Labour barely has a position so long as “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option”. This is one of the key features of successful bourgeois political systems: the parameters of debate look far greater than the actual parameters of debate. Politicians and the media present the appearance of strong disagreement between polar opposite camps. This helps create an illusion in bourgeois democracy. There appears to be wide ranging debate containing a variety of positions with all given fair attention. In actuality one could barely fit a cigarette paper between the camps.