January 9, 2020 | 34 minutes read

Brexit: the death rattle of British imperialism

Seen in its proper historical context, Brexit was a farcical outcome of long-standing divisions within the British ruling-class. As the sun begins to set for good on the British empire, we must investigate how this has occurred, and what the outlook is for the labouring masses.

Brexit: the death rattle of British imperialism

The British ruling class stands at a precipice. It has now been over 3 years since the 2016 EU referendum, in which the British people are alleged to have democratically decided the country’s future. The last few months in particular have seen the British ruling class plunged into near insurmountable crisis, and exposed the superficiality of capitalist “democracy” itself. Meanwhile, the working classes, who have suffered decades of austerity under successive Tory and Labour governments, are set to face ever-worsening conditions in the context of generalised economic crisis, against a backdrop of increased police presence and a strengthening of the racist border regime.

Seen in its proper historical context, Brexit was a farcical outcome of long-standing divisions within the British ruling-class, related to broader contradictions between the global imperialist powers. Britain is among the oldest of the imperialist powers. Once the dominant imperialist force in the world, able to call almost a third of the world’s resources to its aid, it has long since found itself pushed closer and closer to the precipice of destruction. The precipice, catalysed by a new era of inter-imperialist rivalries, particularly rising contradictions between Britain and the US and EU imperialist blocs, has now taken a concrete form: Brexit. As the sun begins to set for good on the British empire, we must investigate how this has occurred, and what the outlook is for the labouring masses.

We recently published a rigorous rebuttal of Corbyn and the Labour Party’s ‘radical’ credentials, which we recommend reading first. In this article, we summarise the causes of Brexit, and demonstrate why solutions offered by both Brexiters and Remainers, and Tories and Corbynites, are fundamentally anti-working class. While the EU is an inherently imperialist and anti-working-class institution, and we recognise that membership thereof and socialism are incompatible, a “working-class Brexit” was never on the table. Many ‘socialists’, including the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain (which retains some influence in the trade union movement), think that Brexit would provide conditions for a national path of socialist development in Britain, by undermining the strength of international finance capital, mediated through the City of London. Putting aside the fact that global economic conditions couldn’t be more distant from the post-war economic boom, ‘Lexiters’ evade the fundamental question of working-class control and ownership of the state and economy, and narrowly focus on ‘the City’ as the source of Britain’s woes, while relying on misleading and euphemistic rhetoric about the “traditional” working class “left behind”.

Even before the dominance of the financial sector, the social-democratic Labour Party always took the side of capital, consistently setting the police and even troops against workers’ movements, implementing ruthless cuts at times of economic difficulty, and perpetuating bloody imperialism abroad. Many Lexiters present a dangerous myth of a pre-Thatcher ‘golden era’ to justify their total opportunistic subservience to Corbyn’s old-school Labour Party. Left Remainers too, like the Another Europe is Possible campaign, draw on a romanticised and irrelevant vision of social democracy or “democratic socialism”.

Red Fightback recognises that the only acceptable and viable solution to Britain’s political crisis is a united, revolutionary working-class movement against austerity, racism and the capitalist system of exploitation.


Britain in the post-war world order: the parasitism of British imperialism

Political cartoon of imperialists dividing up the world on a dinner table

It is important, first of all, to place Brexit in its proper historical context. Both left-wing Remainers and Brexiters draw on a misleading myth of a benevolent post-war social democracy in Britain; a golden age the country must ‘return’ to; at the same time, many see Brexit as a historical aberration that suddenly threw the country into chaos. No historical events happen outside of the inescapable interconnection they have with each other, and neither can Brexit be understood without looking back at the path British imperialism has taken in the last few decades.

What we have been able to refer to as the world order up until 2016 was brewed up in meeting rooms across the US and Europe, from 1945 onwards, as the imperialist West mapped out its journey beyond the shadows of the Second World War. The situation in Europe was dire, and the outcome of the war called for a radical rebalancing of the scales of world dominance and power. US capital forged a new dominant position for itself, as European powers battled the challenge of post-war recovery and lost their formal colonial empires. British hegemony faded as well, and the position of the world's foremost imperialist power passed onto the US, evidenced in phenomena such as the rise of the dollar as the world's primary currency.

Beyond post-war reconstruction and its war debt, the position of British imperialism was most markedly affected by the loss of its physical empire, as the long-oppressed colonised peoples of the empire fought for independence. Politically, its image as a dominating power truly began to shatter after the so-called Suez Crisis in 1956, when Britain and France engineered an Israeli invasion of Egypt, in response to Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez canal (used for oil transport). However, the transition had begun as early as 1947, with the formal independence of India. Decolonisation must also be viewed in the context of US-Soviet antagonism; as the latter supported national liberation on anti-imperialist grounds, the former encouraged a superficial decolonisation where imperialism functioned indirectly through western-aligned local elites (‘neocolonialism’). British capital navigated this period in a number of ways: it anticipated the loss of its colonial empire and strove primarily to avoid the rise of communism and place heavy neocolonial shackles on the newly-independent nations; it installed the welfare state partly as a concession after decades of intense working-class struggle, and partly as a pacification measure funded by colonial exploitation; and it set the foundation for the establishment of the City of London as the world's leading financial centre to preserve British relevance and the survival of British imperialism. As shown by political economists P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, the priority of British imperialism in the period immediately following the war was to resume the construction and development of the Sterling Area, which had begun with its formalisation in 1940 and continued with the restoration of full convertibility in 1958. After the war, Britain’s capacity to manipulate sterling balances created extremely favourable (extortionate) terms of trade with its raw material-producing colonies and neo-colonies.

The end of the gold standard and the rise of the US dollar in its place through the Bretton Woods system helped the Sterling Area survive a little longer; however, the late 1950s consolidated the awareness, among British financiers, that the Sterling Area provided less opportunity than the rest of the world. The devaluation crisis of 1967 was the final blow for sterling; by then, decolonisation was nearly complete across the former Empire. This was not a peaceful process: there was, for instance, the so-called Malaya emergency, in truth a bloody and brutal counterinsurgency operation (presided over by a Labour government) against the Malayan Communist Party, and the murderous colonial war against the Mau Mau in Kenya. Both of these, coincidentally, were later used by Britain to justify its obscene delusion that it had perfected its “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency technique, which it went on to export to occupied Ireland and lend to the US empire for use in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ‘humanitarianism’ of this technique is, of course, a lie, and the brutality of colonial violence in all of these regions proves it.

As history shows – and in direct contradiction to arguments of left-wing Brexiters that British imperialism dissolved into European imperialism – British capital continued to look out for itself as it moved through the post-1945 world order. Its relationship with the US, at times both competitive and cooperative, meant that it accepted the US dollar as the world currency, yet focused on building a solid foundation for itself as a key part of the imperialist system. The strategy, developed by the jointly operating capitalist class and political leadership – as is the habit in an imperialist state – was based on “the smooth dismantling of empire in which the City's interests were largely preserved” (White, 2000). This was both an opportunity and a response to a very real impasse. As the empire formally (but not truly!) decolonised and accepted US hegemony, it was no longer as easy for Britain to directly live off the colonial dividends of oppressed nations spread across continents. British domestic capital was unable to compete on the world market. Britain was faced with the same realisation it is facing now – what claim can a nation with diminished standing have on an honourable place among the imperialist powers? Within the geopolitical reality of the era, there arose a choice: become a junior partner to the US, or join the construction of a new imperialist bloc, led by French and German capital?

The winning move for British capital came in the form of its positioning as a bridge between Washington and Brussels – a middle-man of international capital, able to facilitate financial transactions between the world's most powerful capitalists. Using its relationship with US capital and its pre-existing influential position in the world financial market, British capital raised its crown jewel – the City of London – to the status of a global financial centre, and the lifeline of British imperialism. The City had been a central hub of international capital since the 18th century, replacing Amsterdam and becoming a crucial part in the development of industry as an irreplaceable provider of imperialist credit for British industrial capital. Its significance as a banking centre grew as the role of the banks in facilitating the movement of capital increased and their merger with industrial capital progressed. The City was soon enough an excrescence on the sickly body of the British mainland, whose manufacturing power began to vanish in favour of the unstoppable growth of London's financial sector. The turning point came in the 50s, when the Eurodollar market exploded, as Britain essentially tolerated a regulation loophole in order to reap the benefits of the competitive advantage this provided (Schenk, 1998). Contrary to the mythology invoked by left-wing Brexiters and Remainers – of a peaceful social democracy only disrupted by Thatcher’s neoliberal assault – it was “socialist” Labour that began an offensive against the working-class in response to global economic crisis. In 1975-6, Labour sought two IMF loans to reinforce the pound and save the City’s financial sector. This was accompanied with public spending cuts of £3 billion, along with wage controls during a time of price inflation. The final steps were the removal of foreign exchange controls in 1979 and the “Big Bang”, or the stock exchange deregulation seven years later in 1986, both enacted by the Thatcher government. Following the latter event, “the average daily turnover of the London Stock Exchange rose from 500 million pounds in 1986 to over $2 billion in 1995”.  This was a conscious decision to boost finance while abandoning the industrial sector, in order to build an economy based almost entirely on extracting and processing imperialist super-profits. This was accompanied by a militaristic assault on the industrial working class in the North and Midlands of Britain and Wales, firstly under Wilson’s and Callaghan’s Labour, and then Thatcher.

The UK essentially depends on its capacity to attract US and European imperialist finance, but it also still plays a directly imperialist role, predicated on financial extortion against the Global South: several years after the collapse of the USSR, ‘Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were together paying Britain £2,493m more annually than they got in official grants, voluntary aid, export credits, bank loans and direct investments from the UK.’[3] A 2016 report showed 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, mostly British, collectively control over one trillion dollars’ worth of Africa’s most valuable mineral resources.

In essence, the British ruling class carved a unique and valuable position amongst global capitalists as the broker of wealth between US and EU capital. This position allowed British imperialism to limp parasitically onwards, sustained by the favourable trade and currency deals between the two giants, able to rake in dividends from both the US and the EU imperialist bloc. This is only an extension of how British imperialism survives on wealth extracted through mechanisms of neocolonialism; to put it simply, “Britain uses the financial system to gain economic privileges by appropriating value from other countries while appearing to do them a service” (Norfield, 2016). British imperialism continues to earn “a net £30bn from financial services and even larger sums from its foreign investments”. Ironically enough, British media has been decrying the imminent death of the City ever since the referendum, as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Barclays, and Citigroup collectively moved over $500bn of balance-sheet assets from London to Frankfurt and Dublin. Other sources show that the British financial services sector has moved nearly £1 trillion to the EU since the 2016 vote.

This parasitism has characterised the British position in the world for the last 60 years, which also gives it an enormous incentive to join the US in interfering with other countries. The capitalist system must go on unbothered. So, as Marxist economist Tony Norfield puts it, what does Britain do? How does it make a living? In his words:

Britain is extremely dependent on the revenues from financial services trading and direct investment. The British state’s promotion of the financial sector, especially from the 1980s, built on its existing advantages in the world economy, and the City of London became the broker of the world. Its financial dealings draw in the money and investment funds of the whole planet, from which it derives dealing revenues, and they provide the funds for the outflow of British direct investment to exploit higher profits from overseas.

This is the foundation of British imperialism, and its continuation is the unifying cause of British politics. It is why, despite deindustrialisation, the ruling class in Britain manages to extract enormous profits – there are over 150 billionaires living in Britain – while millions upon millions are kept in poverty and perpetual employment insecurity.


Britain and EU imperialism

This repositioning of British imperialism took place as French and German capital moved to build their new imperialist tactical alliance, and Britain did not at all forget about the EU throughout this time. While the preservation of independence was a priority for at least a fraction of British capital, integration in a Europe persistent in its mission to build a new imperialist bloc to prevent another war, and create the capacity for Europe to rival the US and the Soviet Union, was very appealing. What we now know as the EU began as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) at the beginning of the 1950s. The ECSC was founded in direct opposition to the risk of imperialist competition leading to imperialist war. Another war of redivision would have remained a risk without the minimisation of competition in key markets such as coal and steel. At the same time, the US promoted Western European integration through its Marshall Plan as a means of isolating Warsaw Pact countries and containing Soviet influence; strengthening the imperialist NATO alliance, and securing petrodollar markets.

It is important to note that this uneasy relationship between Europe and the US, which had gained tutelage over Europe and was promoting its integration, yet would come to fear its rise as an imperialist rival, was managed in part through the establishment of NATO in 1949. The treaty established US military dominance in Europe and military dependence on US forces; later, after the end of the Cold War, it consolidated itself as a vehicle of imperialist brutality, evidenced through interventions such as in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Today, despite being “brain dead” by its’ leaders own admission, it continues to fulfil its role of “containing” Russia and ensuring that Eastern Europe is packed full of US troops, military equipment, “dark” interrogation sites, and so on.

The alliance of Franco-German capital that was to become the EU proceeded towards further cooperation in 1957, with the foundation of the European Economic Community. Britain remained reluctant with regard to European integration up until the success of Franco-German capital, powered by the EEC, convinced British capital that it would be advantageous to participate in the new European project. Ten years later, in 1967, when the Sterling Area was on its deathbed and decolonisation (or rather, recolonisation under new terms) was nearly complete, admission into the European Economic Community (EEC) and the common market was a shared goal among most British politicians. At the time, French President de Gaulle was saying no to Britain for a second time. Dissent had already made itself visible, but Labour leader Harold Wilson refused to legitimise the faction of anti-European campaigners who did oppose integration.

Britain finally joined the EEC in 1973 under the Conservative government of Edward Heath. Two years later, Labour lost a referendum aimed at overturning integration, and Britain was firmly on the path to merging with the European bloc. Labour though soon settled into Britain’ role as dual servicer of US and European finance. Also during this time, “socialist” Labour joined the EEC in propping up Portuguese fascism, as well as white supremacist rule throughout southern Africa, where Britain had extensive mining interests.

This does not mean, of course, that British capital was ever the vanguard of integration. Indeed, dissent persisted from very early on within the capitalist class, due to the inherent instability of a European project based on German leadership and French toleration. A key opponent to further integration was Margaret Thatcher herself, who famously returned a defiant “no, no, no” to President of the European Commission Jacques Delors in 1990, with regard to the latter's proposal to formalise European institutions such as the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers into the supranational decision-making bodies they are today. Aiming to preserve a level of independence, particularly with regard to currency and monetary policy, Britain always sought special terms and conditions.

A particularly devastating moment for Britain, and one that added fuel to the anti-EU fire was so-called Black Wednesday in 1992. Britain had entered the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1990. The City had unconditionally chosen the EU in order to destroy all remaining barriers on capital flow and accumulation. The ERM was in a way the precursor of the euro, and as such Britain was pushed by its financial sector into the scheme. However, the British economy was too weak to keep up with the European Currency Unit (ECU), and Britain was forced to withdraw from the ERM in September 1992. Black Wednesday triggered an ever-growing wave of anti-EU sentiment throughout the British capitalist class, and particularly in the Conservative party, which only added fuel to the fire started that same year by the Maastricht Treaty. The Treaty transformed the European Communities into the European Union, and set the stage for the creation of the euro, through clauses that sought to regulate members' fiscal policies. The so-called “Maastricht Rebels” opposed the Treaty, and they opposed John Major's government so heavily throughout the mid-90s that the split eventually cost them the 1997 election. UKIP was also born out of this schism, with the Anti-Federalist League as its predecessor. Nigel Farage also left the Tories in 1992 in disagreement with the Treaty. Another visible example of dissent was James Goldsmith's foundation of the Referendum Party in 1994 - indeed, most of its former candidates were recruited to UKIP by Farage.

It is important to be clear that the EU always was, and still is, an anti-working class and imperialist endeavour. With the capitalist counterrevolution in the former USSR, the EU imposed economic ‘shock therapy’ on Eastern Europe, slashing public jobs and gutting social security; thereby creating the conditions that have led to the rise of fascism in the region. Left Remainers rightly point out that xenophobia dominated the Brexit campaign, but hypocritically they ignore the racist reality of the EU. The ‘Fortress Europe’ policy in Western Europe has dehumanised and caused systemic violence against non-EU migrants. Western Europe refuses to take responsibility for the millions of refugees displaced by decades of imperialist interventions in the Middle East and North Africa. Recent EU bailouts have served to prop up especially German and French banks which had taken on government debt in floundering southern European countries. The bailouts were accompanied with sweeping privatizations and cuts in the debtor countries. After the Troika’s intervention, Greece’s economy collapsed by 30% while pensions and wages fell catastrophically by 40%. The rapid capitulation of Greece’s “democratic socialist” party, Syriza, to international finance should be a clear warning for those placing all their hopes in social democracy.

The two factions, pro- and anti-EU, only grew further apart during the Blair era. It is this antagonism that brewed up for almost two decades, and finally, 3 years ago, managed to overturn decades of integration (which fuelled the most shameless parasitic exploitation) and throw British imperialism into crisis. Throughout the previous 50 years, Britain had been able to fully take advantage of the favourable position it had manoeuvred itself into. With a foot in Brussels and one in Washington, but its head firmly in the City of London, the British capitalist class facilitated the movement of capital between continents and lived almost exclusively off the interest, dividends, finder's-fees, and other kickbacks it received from this arrangement. However, this favourable position for the British ruling class was always going to run out of borrowed time. For one, a country so embedded in international finance, with no solid domestic economic foundation to fall back on, will be much more vulnerable to looming future crises. Indeed, Britain is yet to recover from the 2008 financial crisis.

Secondly, with inter-imperialist rivalry once again on the horizon, the unsustainability of British parasitic imperialism is exposed for all to see. As capitalism falls deeper into crisis and the world is entirely divided between great powers, the expansion of the EU imperialist bloc has necessarily forced it into competition against the US and its dominance. Since the 2008/9 global financial crisis, contradictions within the imperialist power bloc (USA, Britain, West Europe and Japan) have been spilling over. The limits of US dominance were recently displayed by its inability to topple the Russian-backed Assad government in Syria. France and Germany are looking to increase their independence from the US, notably via the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. The situation is one of geopolitical volatility, seen most recently with the flagrant assassination by the US of the leading military figure in Iran, an oil-rich country which deals with Russia, China and the EU. Britain is now forced to decide upon its favoured ally. That is to say, the contradiction in the British position has forced the hand of the British ruling class by seeing them hold a referendum that would decide, supposedly, if Britain would favour involvement in the EU bloc, or if Britain would favour greater involvement in US imperialism, as has happened with the Brexit referendum.

In reality then, far from being a new battleground in British politics (as some would claim), Brexit is a symptom of a long-standing ruling class disagreement between which would be of more benefit; greater ties with the EU, or greater ties to the US. It is not in itself the principal political battleground, which is between the capitalist class and the increasingly-squeezed working class.


The referendum: democracy for whom?

This antagonism came to a head in the few years leading up to 2016. In 2013, David Cameron, a Europhile, called a referendum on EU membership, in an opportunistic bluff calculated to win over UKIP voters and stabilise Conservative power by shattering the Eurosceptic wing of the party. As we strive to make sense of Brexit, the myths centred on a supposed democratic referendum, where the voice of the people broke through the manoeuvres of the “political elites”, must be denounced and debunked. In reality, the true character of the referendum - a factional war within the British capitalist class - shone through from the beginning, both in how the choice was presented, and in the real outcomes it presented for the working class.

While immediately, the referendum on EU membership was an expression of inter-imperialist rivalries at a time of global economic downturn, the political campaigns were largely centred on the ‘issue’ of immigration. As journalist Paul Foot observed in 1976: “Race hate and race violence does not rise and fall according to the numbers of immigrants coming to Britain. It rises and falls to the extent to which people’s prejudices are inflamed and made respectable by politicians and newspapers”.

An especially graphic moment came when Leave.EU – a UKIP-led organisation, co-founded by capitalist Arron Banks – produced a racist poster showing Middle Eastern refugees queuing at Europe’s borders. A day after this ‘Breaking Point’ billboard went up, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist connected to Britain First. In this context, the argument that Brexit lacked racist implications because much of the immigration in question is European is facile. The most striking characteristic of Brexit-related racial violence (which includes some 6,000 reported racist hate crimes in the four weeks following the referendum) was ‘the way its perpetrators made little attempt to distinguish between black and brown citizens and white European migrants – in their eyes, they were all outsiders.’[5]

Restricting the number of immigrant workers in the British economy is one of the primary objectives of Brexit; nationalistic and racist sentiments, particularly prevalent in rural and deprived areas with few immigrants, but also among the metropolitan middle classes, see foreigners as the reason for their low wages and lack of job opportunities.

Racist conspiracy theories about immigrants who “take advantage” of the British welfare system by going on benefits and not contributing to society also fuelled the Leave vote. These same conspiracy theories have been used as justification to decimate what little welfare state still remains. However, according to most research (including the government’s own reports), immigration does not push down local wages or increase unemployment. Nevertheless, this rhetoric was used by both right-wing groups and Labour. Should Brexit take place, immigrant workers will face the brunt of the effects. The deaths of 39 young Vietnamese people found in a lorry in Essex were only one especially shocking instance of the systemic violence migrants are subjected to. The “hostile environment” will undoubtedly worsen as the government further strengthens its border controls, increases deportations and places more and more restrictions on who can enter the country. Restrictive Visa requirements will lead to migrant workers accepting more and more exploitative working conditions, as a refusal to do so would mean unemployment and thus deportation. The strengthening of the border will mean increased government surveillance on migrant communities in an attempt to catch “illegal” immigrants.

Restriction of immigrant labour will not solve the problem of poverty and exploitation within Britain, as this is the nature of the capitalist economic system; therefore, as conditions continue to worsen (and the burden of this will primarily be on immigrant communities), it is likely that anti-immigrant sentiment will continue to increase. This, coupled with the government's increasing emphasis on creating hostile conditions for immigrants and the tighter restrictions on immigrant labour, will mean that the living conditions of immigrants (both from the EU and from the rest of the world) will only continue to get worse. The government will remain bound by World Trade Organization rules and free trade agreements, which all call for a reduction in barriers to trade (i.e. labour protections and rights), so the situation will remain bad for all workers in this case. No one wins; neither the ‘British’ workers, nor the immigrant workers.

Of course, it is not surprising that the ruling classes were able to use the issue of immigration to craft the Brexit narrative. Centuries of imperialist plunder have generated a certain structural white privilege, which has led some white workers to incorrectly, and short-sightedly, respond to their own hardships by seeking to narrowly defend their relative privileges – in employment, housing allocation, social security provision etc. – instead of joining with workers of colour in combating the overarching conditions of capitalist exploitation. Anti-immigrant sentiments have, however, been overwhelmingly manufactured by political elites. Bourgeois politicians have particularly sought to distract from the neoliberal assault on the entire working class, by appealing to a uniform ‘white working class’ identity – and in the process, erasing histories of multiracial proletarian solidarity, such as at the anti-fascist Battle of Cable Street, or the Grunwick film processing plant dispute led by Asian women.

Indeed, many Lexiters have responded to Corbyn’s recent election defeat by parroting euphemistic right-wing rhetoric about the “traditional” (i.e. white) working class “left behind” in the North and Midlands, whose “authentic” demands were supposedly betrayed by Labour’s call for a second referendum. This narrative has manifold problems, including the reality that the working-class poor in the metropole are equally left behind. The Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) has for instance adopted the slogan ‘British workers demand Brexit’. This is disingenuous: the Brexit vote was disproportionately delivered by the ‘propertied, pensioned, well-off, white middle class based in southern England’; and the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes (the so-called precariat) was just 24%[6]. It is certainly true that many workers saw the referendum as a means to register their class-based anger towards the political establishment. For decades the working-class in former manufacturing regions have been attacked by successive Tory and Labour governments, but crucially it is the duty of socialists to foreground the pivotal issue of working-class control of the state and economy, rather than pandering to vague chauvinist sentiments, or promoting conspiratorial notions of ‘cosmopolitanism’/‘multiculturalism’. Given their lack of any strong internationalist or revolutionary perspectives, Lexiters, who often themselves adopt reactionary nationalist rhetoric, have played directly into the hands of the Right.

The notion Brexit was a working-class victory is farcical. More than half the donations made during the referendum campaign came from just ten wealthy donors. The Brexit camp, including Leave.EU and the official Vote Leave campaign led by Tory elites like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (and a sprinkling of Labour MPs), enjoyed the greater share of elite funding. The Leavers received £17.5 million of the donations – ‘almost exactly one vote for every pound given towards the Brexit campaign’ – compared to Remain’s £14.2 million. Brexit was secured by targeted advertising campaigns, stolen data, fake social media accounts and overrun spending limits. If we were to also consider those who were won over by loosely defined promises of “taking back control”, or of £350 million a week for the NHS, and compare these tall tales with the real causes of Brexit, the idea of a democratic referendum loses any kind of connection with reality.

The left-wing Remainers, however – foremost among them, the Corbynite and ex-Trotskyist Paul Mason – are no better. They believe in a “progressive” Europe; a notion based on the myth that reformist social democracy can ‘tame’ capitalism. Left Remainers point to the relative stability of the post-war economic boom period, but the conditions for this model no longer exist. Even if they did, social democracy, including “socialist” Labour, has never had any no qualms about turning on the working class at the first sign of trouble. We stand in solidarity with EU workers facing the erosion of their rights, but we cannot do so without maintaining a correct assessment of the EU as an anti-worker organisation - in fact, EU labour migration happens predominantly from its southern and eastern ‘periphery’ to its western ‘core’, being only a reflection of the wider global value extraction from South to North. This cannot be ignored, and any response by EU workers to the prospect of a hard Brexit must take into account the hostile environment faced by non-EU migrant workers for years, and forge true internationalist solidarity out of this struggle.

Neither were Left-wing Brexiters (‘Lexiters’), like the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party leader Alex Callinicos, and the Communist Party of Britain, correct in their optimistic assessment that the referendum was a working-class victory because of its supposed effect on EU imperialism. They correctly identify the imperialist and anti-working-class character of the EU, but they wrongly view imperialism as a unified bloc, and thus portray Brexit as a tactical anti-imperialist decision. The most extreme example of this line comes from the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), which argued that ‘the votes of the xenophobes will be what is needed to pull Britain out of the EU come the referendum on 23 June this year – which will in all probability prove disastrous for British imperialism.’ Lexiters ignore the existence of inter-imperialist divisions. Post-Brexit Britain, whether led by Johnson or a Labour government, expects to retain close relations with the US, the world’s most militaristic power. The UK is the world’s second largest arms exporter, and UK capitalists have reaped enormous profits from Middle Eastern wars, most recently in Syria and Yemen. The inability of social democracy to break with imperialism was demonstrated by the fact that Corbyn’s "democratic-socialist" Labour supported NATO and committed to increasing military spending.

It is time to call things by their name: the working class was not featured on the referendum ballot. As we will continue to make clear not only throughout this article, but through our theory and practice as applied to the tasks we face as a party, the working class will find its liberation outside of the parliamentary circus the ruling class puts on to distract us from the absence of bread.


2016-2019: the dissolution of bourgeois unity

The shock that the Leave victory sent throughout the ranks of all classes in Britain was monumental, most notably through the numerous political crises it kickstarted within the British parliamentary parties. From the moment Britain narrowly voted to leave in June 2016, up to the Tory victory in the 2019 general election, the Tory party had been riven with splits and rivalries. In 2017, prime minister Theresa May called a snap general election, aiming to strengthen her party’s hand in Brexit negotiations. But the result was a hung parliament, with the Tories losing 13 seats. A minority coalition government was negotiated, with the Conservatives gifting £1 billion to the right-wing, homophobic Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This was also the closest Jeremy Corbyn got to power. It could be argued that the ruling class consensus regarding the amount of concessions they can still offer to the working class - in essence, barely any - regained its role as the negotiations lurched towards a conclusion.

The amount of time spent on factional conflict before a deal was even being drafted, let alone after the first Withdrawal Agreement was presented to Parliament, tells a very rich story about the scale of conflict within the ruling class. For hard-line Tory Brexiters, even the extremely limited provisions for workers’ rights presented in May’s leave deals were too much. Meanwhile, measures to keep the six occupied Irish counties within EU structures, in order to prevent a hard British border in Ireland, were rejected by the DUP. Theresa May resigned in June 2019, after a third failed attempt at getting a Brexit deal through parliament.

The Tories’ salvation came in the form of Boris Johnson  - elected leader of the Conservative Party, and thus prime minister, in July 2019. In his victory speech, he pledged to “deliver Brexit, unite the country, and defeat Jeremy Corbyn”. He faced mounting opposition from Parliament due to his primary focus on delivering a “no-deal” Brexit, which deepened the divisions within the Conservative Party. The decision of the 21 rebel Tory MPs on the 2nd of September to vote against the party whip and back the motion that lead to a law forcing a delay to Britain’s exit date - otherwise known as the Benn act - was another key event that exacerbated these divisions. The 21 MPs were consequently expelled from the party, leading to former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, resigning in protest of their expulsion. She detailed in her letter that she no longer believed “leaving with a deal is the Government’s main objective” and stated “The government is expending a lot of energy to prepare for ‘no deal’ but I have not seen the same level of intensity go into our talks with the European Union”.  

Johnson’s government swiftly set about exposing the farce of bourgeois “democracy” in Britain, with the prorogation scandal. The short-lived outrage over what was shamelessly called a ‘coup’ exposes a deeper truth about the historical moment we live in: the crisis had intensified until the point where bourgeois democracy itself became an obstacle. This democracy - restricted and insufficient, being no more than a chance of the oppressed classes to elect their exploiters for the next five years - was proven to be disposable should the factional conflict within the ruling class demand it. On the 28th of August 2019, Johnson’s government was granted permission by the Queen to prorogue parliament for a five-week period, ending a few weeks before the 31st of October, when Britain was previously due to leave the European Union. This move has caused controversy in the upper echelons of bourgeois politics, as well as a backlash of outrage from citizens around the country, thousands of whom took to the streets in protest. On the 24th of September, after a much-publicised trial, the British Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s prorogation was unlawful.

What is the political significance of Johnson’s prorogation? The significance lies in Johnson’s Brexiter stance, which consequently informed his insistence on delivering Brexit on the 31st of October, whether that be with a deal or no deal. The mounting pressure this saga had placed upon Johnson lead us to his attempt to prorogue Parliament up until a few weeks shy of what was then the Brexit deadline. Practically, this would have decreased the amount of time for Parliament to discuss a Brexit deal to less than 3 weeks, thus undermining the ability of MPs to debate and ultimately stop a no-deal.

Johnson subsequently moved to expel his own MPs over their allegiance to the Benn Act, a law passed by the opposing faction of parliamentary democracy that was intended to avert a no-deal Brexit. This move laid bare the farce of "democracy" that the bourgeois class present - in his zeal to achieve Brexit, even bourgeois democracy was too much of an obstacle for him, so he lashed out at his own 'team' in anger. Johnson was always perfectly aware of the economic shockwave that Brexit would bring, and knew that it would only truly impact the working class. He, and his compatriots in the bourgeois class have only one priority: their avarice. The difference between him and the 'opposition' is merely the expression of that avarice.

Deal or no deal: the facade dissolves

Brexit has been the story of false choices. As the ‘choice’ between Leave or Remain was settled swiftly in 2016, ‘deal or no deal’ occupied much more of Britain’s political life in the past three years. And yet it remained equally false. For the working classes in Britain, the difference between Johnson’s deal and a no-deal is a matter of degrees of severity. Brexit will undoubtedly compound the existing economic crisis. Since the 2007/2008 financial crash, global trade growth has slowed massively compared to the average of 10% a year in 1949-2008: the World Trade Organisation has forecasted a 1.2% expansion for 2019. The pound reached historic lows in September 2019, and has lost 20% of its value since the 2016 EU referendum. The government has already spent billions on preparing for a no-deal outcome ahead of the first aborted Brexit deadline of March 29 and the second of October 31. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimate that Johnson’s present deal would cost the UK economy £70 billion over the next decade. Johnson’s new negotiated Brexit deal (yet to be ratified by parliament at the time of writing) is similar to May’s, but even more antagonistic to workers’ and environmental rights. It also contains a twist in a novel solution to the ‘Irish question’.

It must be pointed out that we can easily add 1921 to the list of years whose ghosts have been haunting Britain’s ruling class as they attempted to manoeuvre out of this crisis. The imperialist partition of Ireland, and Britain’s ongoing illegitimate occupation of the six Northern counties led to the issue of the so-called ‘Irish backstop’. This was an attempt to solve an impossible paradox: Britain must leave the customs union, Britain cannot imagine relinquishing control of the six counties, but there can be no border in Ireland. Theresa May’s proposed Irish ‘backstop’ amendment, negotiated in December 2017 and updated in November 2018, was an insurance measure to guarantee that, even if UK-EU negotiations failed, the so-called Irish border - in reality, the British border in Ireland - would remain free flowing post-Brexit. In Johnson’s new deal, Ireland’s six northern counties will remain aligned to some EU single market regulations on goods. The occupied North will also remain in the same customs area as the rest of Britain’s territory, so it will be included in future British trade deals. All necessary EU-related checks on goods will take place between Britain and the occupied six counties of Ireland. Significantly, the DUP will not be given a veto for this arrangement. Four years after Brexit, the elected representatives of the six counties would decide by simple majority whether to continue the arrangement (i.e., majorities from both nationalist and loyalist constituencies will not be required).

While, of course, we hold no sympathy for the hard-unionist homophobes in the DUP, their betrayal by the Tories could spell the possibility of a new line of struggle for Irish unity. Increased autonomy from Britain suggests a heightened possibility of future Irish reunification, and a final end to the North’s incorporation into British political structures as a subordinate entity. Demographic shifts – namely a growing Catholic population – will also play a role. In a recent poll, 51% of respondents in the north of Ireland said they would vote to join the Republic of Ireland if a referendum was held tomorrow – rising to 60% among those aged 18 to 24. Reunification would enable a much needed independent and unified path of class struggle in Ireland. In the six counties, although poverty among pensioners has fallen over the last decade, a staggering 25.12% of all children are living in poverty. There are, however, worrying rumblings from far-right loyalist groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, and British media’s obsession with the IRA has created a dangerous amnesia about the brutality of Ulster-Protestant extremist terrorism. It is also crucial to note at this stage that Irish unity is one side of the struggle: the other is the defeat of all British imperialist influence in Ireland and the final victory of the 32-county socialist republic proclaimed in 1916.

The EU is no paragon of workers’ rights. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) prevents any EU measures to enforce minimum pay or the right to strike. The EU has done nothing to prevent the passing of dozens of anti-trade union laws in Britain. But Johnson’s proposed deal would provide the groundwork for an unprecedented strengthening of capitalists’ capacity to exploit at the expense of workers; removing legal obligations to abide by EU standards on labour rights. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research: “This deal opens the door to a decade of deregulation. It puts workers’ rights, environmental protections, and consumer standards at risk. It places the whole British economy and the NHS on the table for trade negotiations with Donald Trump.” Food standards will also be lowered. Additionally, the government’s proposal for ten ‘free ports’ post-Brexit, allowing companies to import and re-export goods outside normal tax and customs rules, would complete the transformation of Britain into an offshore haven for parasitic finance.

According to a statement by Johnson’s ally Michael Gove, a no-deal exit is also still on the table, in light of Johnson's 11-month deadline for a new trade deal. The government’s leaked Operation Yellowhammer document, officially subtitled ‘Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions’, but originally described as ‘Base Case’ assumptions, outlined some likely disastrous impacts of a no-deal scenario, including widespread economic disruption due to an absence of predictability or planning; the stretching of resources at a time they are already stretched thin by winter conditions (e.g. flooding, already causing issues in swathes of northern England); medical shortages (some of which are predicted even with a negotiated deal) and fresh food shortages, as well as local fuel shortages. No wonder the document also points to the possibility of widespread rioting. None of this matters to hard Brexiters who, like many of Johnson’s friends, hope to reap enormous speculation dividends from a no-deal scenario.

As Lenin taught us to ask, who stands to gain? A deal has been the option much preferred by the predominantly EU-sympathising City; indeed, they are more likely to have switched from supporting the Tories to at least giving some consideration to the Lib Dems, who had been promising to throw Article 50 in the bin and reset the Brexit clock to before the referendum even happened. The ultimate futility of the finance sector’s wish for things to be just like they used to will no doubt become apparent with time, because, with the alliance between US and EU imperialists now starting to fall apart, London’s fence to sit on is also rapidly disintegrating. Indeed, this was the entire point of Brexit; moreover, the uncertainty around Brexit has already cost those sections of the City dependent on EU trade and investment dearly.

Meanwhile, the Brexit radicals in the Tory & Brexit parties and UKIP (at least while it still had a thin veneer of not being yet another fascistic party, which was promptly discarded in the Batten era) have been pushing the Brexit Overton window so far towards no-deal, 2016 seems almost unreal by comparison. Leaving the customs union completely was the ‘hard Brexit’ of days gone by - days we almost long for as we weigh up the choice between chlorinated chicken and no chicken at all, should food shortages become a generalised reality. However, outside of the national chauvinists earnestly hoping for British dominance to persist outside of the comfortable space between the two sides of the Atlantic, there are also those who would profit the most from a shockingly hard Brexit: financiers like Crispin Odey, also based in the City, who are hoping to gain profits from shorting the pound and betting against Britain. It is this faction that guides the political shift towards no-deal.

Indeed, while the withdrawal agreement has now passed, the Sisyphean task begins once more - the yet-to-be-negotiated trade deal looms large on the horizon, with merely months remaining to complete it. Johnson has written himself into a corner with recent law changes to prevent an extension of the transition period - given that settling merely the terms of departure took over three years, it is clear that something is amiss in Johnson’s expectation of an “epically likely” trade deal. Is this sheer bluster and bravado on the Tories’ part, or does it suggest that the choice has finally been taken, and that the British bourgeoisie are pivoting to the US sphere of influence?

What this tells us, above all else, is that there is no end to the crisis. We are rapidly heading towards the final crisis of capital, and there is no unity left to be found within any of the factions of the ruling class. It is a time for redivision and repositioning, and history teaches us that any such movements are indescribably violent for the working classes. Brexit is not in itself the real political division at play, and neither will its ‘conclusion’ spell the end of the generalised disarray experienced by the ruling classes of the world’s imperialist powers.


Conclusion: There is no working class solution to Brexit

As we have seen, both the Brexit and Remain camps proposed anti-working-class solutions to the crisis in British imperialism. What is true is that a sizeable number of Brexiters were those workers completely abandoned by the mainstream political parties: several million who don’t usually vote but used the referendum as a protest against deteriorating social conditions. A staggering 14 million people in the UK - a fifth of the population - live in poverty. The author of a United Nations report released earlier this year stated that long-term UK government policies, some initiated by Labour, have caused “systematic immiseration”.

Brexit, which promises further deregulation, is not a solution: the prime enemy of the British working class is not the Brussels bureaucracy (though they are an enemy), but rather successive Labour and Tory leaderships. Left critics of Corbyn’s Labour have rightly noted its anti-migrant stance, and further noteworthy is Labour’s failure to tackle austerity even at the council level. Corbyn’s reformism would, in the long-term, be helpless to stem the impact of economic crisis on the working class, or counter the rise of the far right. As we outlined thoroughly in our General Election analysis, Corbynites hopelessly seek to ‘tame’ capitalism, permanently deferring the issue of true working-class control and ownership of the economy and state. A hundred years’ experience of the British Labour Party teaches us that the traditional ‘two-step model’ advocated by most self-professed ‘revolutionaries’ in Britain--that is, of electing a Labour government, then allying with the Labour “left”, and exerting ‘pressure’ to magically achieve working-class control of the state--is totally bankrupt.

The declassing of even relatively privileged white-collar workers in the wake of the 2007/2008 global financial crisis, and the likelihood of a post-Brexit recession, points to the possibility – and necessity – of working-class convergence and unity. The working class, regardless of gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation/religion/disability etc., has a shared interest in ending the everyday precarity, exploitation and severe strain on mental wellbeing intrinsic to the capitalist wage-labour relation. This is not a zero-sum struggle, where a gain for one is a loss for others: battles along the way against racism, transphobia, misogyny and ableism will only temper the revolutionary edge of our movement. The working class must champion its differences, while uniting in struggle against the repressive tyranny of the racist hostile environment; the decades of income squeezes, and gutting of social security, associated with ‘austerity’; and the looming threat of environmental devastation.

*

Brexit has been many things for all classes in Britain.

The call for all communists in Britain should be clear: we must recognise Brexit as the expression of a division within the British ruling class (itself determined by wider inter-imperialist contradictions between the EU and USA); a division in which we should not be taking sides. We must expose EU imperialism, but simultaneously oppose the conspiratorial chauvinism that has characterised Lexiters’ arguments, and champion unconditional socialist internationalism at time of global far-right re-convergence. Crucially, socialists must cast aside all opportunist illusions in any reformist national path of social democracy which, as explained above, rely on dishonest and irrelevant appraisals of a post-war ‘golden era’; and acknowledge that Labour (even with Corbyn at the helm) is and always was the second capitalist party in Britain.

Analysis can and must be undertaken with a view to fully encompass all contradictions and antagonisms which drive forward the march of history, and to pick out of all the potential outcomes the one that will see the working class victorious on a world scale. For us, this means revolutionary opposition to all factions of the British bourgeoisie, be it big or small. It means preparing to defend the working class against rising imperialist rivalry which could spark a world war; participating in the formation of a new communist international against imperialism; a new united front against global fascism; and building an environmentally sound socialist revolutionary movement – for our demands, like those of James Connolly, are most moderate: we only want the Earth.

Resist imperialist war, resist the organised murder of the working class. Our day will come, but as any new world is born in agony, pushing against the dying body of the old one, it is our duty to help it emerge in the right form.

RFB Theoretical Development Committee

References

1. White, Nicholas J. “The Business and the Politics of Decolonization: The British Experience in the Twentieth Century.” The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 2000, pp. 544–564.
2. Catherine Schenk, The Origins of the Eurodollar Market in London: 1955-1963, Explorations in Economic History, 1998, vol. 35, issue 2, pp. 221-238
3. Arun Kundnani, The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain (Pluto Press, 2007), pp. 31.
4. Tony Norfield, The City: London and the Global Power of Finance (Verso Books, 2016)
5. Brendan McGeever and Satnam Virdee, ‘Racism, Crisis, Brexit’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:10 (2017), p. 1808.
6. Gurminder Bhambra, “Brexit, Trump, and ‘Methodological Whiteness’: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class”, British Journal of Sociology 68/S1 (2017), p. 215.