It has been just over two years since Great Britain voted to leave the EU. With the final leave date set for March 29, 2019 Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU have revealed deep divisions within the Tory party and the broader ruling class.
In the runup to and shortly after the Breixt vote in the summer of 2016 many on the left sounded the alarm about the dangerous potential of Brexit for the UK, Europe, and even global politics.
Brexit was going to usher in a revanchist carnival of reaction. For the last two years people have linked Brexit and the rise of Trump, using them as a sort of shorthand to describe the dangerous rise of rightwing populism across Europe and North America. Is this linkage warranted? Two years on what has been has been the actual effect of Brexit?
Many predicted Brexit would see the far-right’s electoral fortune improve. UKIP’s Nigel Farage was one of the most prominent Brexiters and it was assumed UKIP’s stunning growth in the lead up to 2016 referendum would balloon as result of the vote. The result has been quite the opposite, UKIP’s support has withered away. Farage has stepped down as leader and UKIP’s vote went from 12 percent in 2015 election 1.8 percent in the 2017 election.
It was also feared that Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, the hard rightwing of the Tory party, would be elevated to leadership in the wake of the vote. Theresa May, a Remain supporter in fact won the leadership. Johnson became foreign secretary and recently resigned this post, while Gove was initially sacked from cabinet after May won and brought back later as environment secretary.
It was also assumed that the Brexit vote would make it impossible for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn to win. The Liberal-Democrats, who vigorously supported Remain, was set to eat into Labour’s vote. Some Remain supporters, especially those on the right-wing of the Labour Party, saw Corbyn’s Brexit campaign for Remain as ineffectual, with 37 percent of Labour Party members voting for Leave. Some feared that Corbyn’s subsequent acceptance of the Brexit result would cut him off from Remain voters and hurt Labour’s election chances.
The 2017 general election election we were told was going to be all about Brexit. While the media, the Blairite wing of the Labour Party and the Tories all acted upon this premise, Corbyn effectively made the election about public services and inequality. Brexit it turned out was not the ballot question.
The result of the election was a stunning near victory for Labour. Corbyn’s Labour Party won 40 percent of the vote, drastically increased their seat count and took away the Tory majority. The Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP which all backed Remain lost votes. This was not because the election was about Brexit, rather because Corbyn had made the election about healthcare, education, housing and public services.
The contradictions of Brexit
The Brexit vote was far from straightforward. Large segments of the official Leave campaign were motivated by reactionary politics, intent on stoking anti-immigrant and racist fears. But for Leave voters it was more complicated than a simple referendum on immigration. Leave voters were motivated by many different issues: economic inequality, sovereignty, healthcare and public services and yes immigration. What was clear was that working class voters, especially those outside of London were much more likely to vote for Leave. Leave voters, were far-more likely to see the economy as not working for them and heading in the wrong direction.
The Remain side was backed by the vast majority of the ruling class. Financial institutions in the City and large corporations were overwhelmingly pro-remain as was the then Prime Minister David Cameron and most of the Tory cabinet. In fact a majority Tory MPs joined nearly all other politicians in supporting Remain. The establishment was clearly for Remain, with only a minority section of the rightwing supporting Brexit. For many voters, living in forgotten communities, where jobs and hope have long disappeared Brexit was seen as a way to reject the establishment. Diane Abbott, a Labour Shadow Cabinet and Remain voter, summed up the referendum results like this:
“For decades now, there has been disquiet among most Britons that our economic system is designed for the benefit of the few over the many. And in the referendum on Britain’s membership with the European Union, the many – and some of the few – voted in favour of Brexit to try to change that.”
The bosses club
The EU has always been a project of the ruling class. It was rooted in the post World War Two European Coal and Steel Community, which aimed to regulate industrial production and markets in the interests of European capitalists. The EU was from the very beginning a bosses club. It served only the interests of the ruling class in Europe and was never a bulwark against reaction. Today the EU is synonymous with Fortress Europe, its militarized border has sent thousands of migrants from North Africa to their death in the Mediterranean. The economic policies of the EU have served to hamstring left alternative inside the Eurozone, instituting brutal austerity in countries like Greece, and imposing budgetary constraints and curbing the rules around nationalization. EU countries have been a breeding ground for the far-right, in Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy, Greece, France and Hungary the far-right has either entered in government or has seen its influence grow significantly.
There was an attempt by some forces on the far-left to advocate for a left exit or ‘Lexit’ position. While this position was marginal in the lead up to the Brexit vote, it drew on a long tradition on the Left, from the Bennite wing of the Labour Party to revolutionary socialists, of opposing the EU. The Lexit position was clear, there were no prospects for the working class inside the EU. It was argued that a Brexit vote would cause a crisis in the ruling class in the UK and in Europe and create better conditions in which to battle both the bosses and the far-right.
After the Brexit vote
The fear that Brexit would automatically lead to a major rise in racism and xenophobia was not unfounded. There was a rise in xenophobia and racism in the years leading up to and immediately after the Brexit vote. Just this past month there was a large pro Tommy Robinson march in London organized by a number of different elements on the far-right. However, it is important to note these trends in the UK existed long before the Brexit vote and were the product of years of austerity and pro-EU policies. Recent polling in the UK on the issue of immigration has seen attitudes since the Brexit vote swing sharply to the left. As reported in the Financial Times July 9th:
The British Social Attitudes survey, seen as the country’s most rigorous polling exercise, found that just 17 per cent of Britons thought that immigrants had a negative impact on the economy. Just 23 per cent thought immigrants undermined Britain’s cultural life. Both counts are markedly lower than when the questions were last asked in 2015, before the Brexit referendum campaign. In 2011, when the questions were first asked, about 40 per cent of people thought immigrants were bad for the economy or British cultural life. “There is little sign here that the EU referendum campaign served to make Britain less tolerant towards migrants; rather they have apparently come to be valued to a degree that was not in evidence before the referendum campaign,” the survey said.
It is not that the Brexit vote was destined to automatically lead to a decrease in anti-immigrant sentiment, rather that the Brexit vote opened up a political space in which those ideas could be shifted via political struggle.
Two years on it is clear that if Remain there would more barriers than openings for the Left. David Cameron would still be the Prime Minister in a Majority government, the Tories would not be racked by political crisis, UKIP would be much more popular and able to harness frustration with the establishment more easily, British and EU capitalists would not be staring down a political crisis, Corbyn would not have had an election that would have put his internal critics on their back foot and shifted the political debate in the country.
Politics means political struggle
But none of that happened. Instead the ruling class is facing a major crisis. The Tories top Brexit negotiator, David Davis resigned last week and was followed by other leading Tories. The Tories are divided over how to carry out Brexit – either a ‘ soft brexit’ formally leaving the EU but remain closely aligned as to effectively be subjected to EU rules and regulations or ‘hard brexit’ which would mean a divisive exit. The Tories not aligned with a hard Brexit and the rightwing of the Labour Party want a second referendum, to forestall this crisis and weaken Jeremy Corbyn. When faced with business fears about Brexit Tory MP Boris Johnson stated fuck business. Clearly all is not well in the ruling class.
Brexit from the outset was full of contradictions. Political struggle is and will always determine which side of the contradiction emerges from a political event. Too many on the Left forgot this basic outlook and retreated to moralism and fear. The Left should not dread shake-ups in ruling class institutions. It is messy, but that is the nature of political struggle – a shifting political terrain create openings, but it is also fraught with new dangers. The role of the Left is not to shirk from this struggle, to pine for institutional and political stability of capitalism, but to work to understand the potential, and actively shape the outcomes, of a political crisis. Two years on that is the lesson Brexit.