Photo: Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses Parliament
By Jennifer Kelly
On Friday, British Parliament voted in favor of the European Union (EU) “Withdrawal Agreement” Bill by a margin of 358 to 234, bringing the United Kingdom one step closer to leaving the EU in what has been commonly referred to as “Brexit.”
The vote comes on the heels of a general election called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who currently leads the Conservative Party, in an effort to break the deadlock over Brexit and shift the balance of power within Parliament.
Brexit has dominated bourgeois politics in the UK for the past three years since Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called for a referendum, a vote by the wide populace of the UK, on the issue of whether or not to leave the EU. Believing “Brexit” to be unpopular, Cameron hoped to use the referendum to defeat the calls within his party to exit the EU, but it backfired dramatically with the “leave” votes winning out.
Although it has now passed the vote in Parliament, the Brexit agenda still faces a longer, more difficult struggle in the murky trade negotiations that must be completed by the end of this year to meet the deadlines self-imposed by the Prime Minister. While the UK will still trade with the EU, Brexit will ultimately weaken those ties and bring it closer to US imperialism.
The Floundering of Social Democracy
The general election last week saw the worst defeat for the Labour Party since 1935, with a net loss of 59 seats in Parliament. This comes after a five-year-long campaign to transform Labour into a new social democratic party, exemplified by Jeremy Corbyn and the “Momentum” organization around him. The ultimate result of this campaign was the loss of northern, working class districts, disillusioned by the long decline of British industry, that had voted Labour for decades.
The Labour Party is now being splintered by debate about whether to “shift to the center” or retain its new social-democratic character, and whether the blame lies with Corbyn or Brexit. This superficial dispute obscures the real sources of the party’s downfall: the decline of British imperialism, deindustrialization, and the bankruptcy of their social-democratic and more classically liberal politics.
Labour had a muddy, unclear plan on how to handle Brexit, oscillating between promises to negotiate a better Brexit deal than the Conservatives, from proposing issuing another referendum vote to suggesting using parliamentary methods to throw the vote out altogether. Corbyn notably refused to take a solid position on the issue, finally saying that if a second referendum were called, he would not vote or lobby either way. The Conservatives on the other hand, simply promised to finish it and move on, under the campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done.”
Exit the EU, Enter the US
Rightwing populists in the UK have pushed the narrative that withdrawal from the EU will strengthen democracy and sovereignty. Johnson, however, has set them up for another deception. Rather than the UK being set to find its own course, as Johnson and the English nationalists have promised, upon its exit from the EU the UK, which has often been referred to as “America’s door to Europe,” stands to find itself linked even more closely to US imperialism.
Following Johnson’s victory in the general election, Trump tweeted congratulations and a promise that there would be major trade deals between the two countries following Brexit. In one example of how US imperialists plan to take advantage of the disjointed UK market following Brexit, leaked documents have shown that US drug companies have been pressuring Trump to use the favorable trade negotiations to open up the British National Health Service (NHS) to them.
These companies seek to implement rules in the UK which would open up the market to US drugs and restrict the market, pushing out cheaper drugs and creating favorable conditions for US companies. In the documents, it is predicted that the UK will be in a much weaker position following Brexit and the US will have more weight at the negotiating table. These measures would drastically drive up prices for those in the UK, who have already faced a crisis over the last decade within the NHS as austerity measures cut many of its programs, at the cost of thousands of disabled and sick people’s lives.
Electoral Disputes Cover for Imperialism’s Decay
Widespread debate has erupted within Labour on the future of the party, with some backing an all out return to center, others focusing on blaming Corbyn, a few seeking to continue his policies under a new leader, and others still on a unity between the “left and the center,” with either the centrists or social democrats in control. Lacking principles, the opportunist party is declining as accusations point everywhere, with no one in real agreement over why Labour lost, nor what its future should be.
Seeking leadership of the party, Keir Starmer has called on the party to end infighting and stay true to social-democracy. Starmer, whose position on remaining in the EU and his decision to be vocal about it were blamed by some to be part of the downfall of Labour, argued that they should have fought more on the issue of Brexit. Seeking to steer between centrists and social-democrats, he argued for Labour to be a “broad church,” whilst still holding that “the case for a bold and radical Labour government is as strong now as it was last Thursday.” While criticizing Corbyn, Starmer still opportunistically and falsely styles himself a “socialist.”
By centering the debate of why Labour lost around Brexit, the leadership of Corbyn, and other secondary factors (unfavorable press coverage, money flowing for US foundations into right wing think tanks, supposed Russian meddling in Brexit, etc) the centrists, social democrats, and the Conservative Party obfuscate the key issue at hand.
British imperialism is decaying and the masses are clamoring for change. The UK has failed to recover from the economic crash of 2008, even as another capitalist crisis looms closer on the horizon. It faced sweeping austerity cuts in the last decade, a continued trend of decline in industry, and its position among other imperialists is shaky. In the north of England this has been felt keenly as factories continue to close, and where the company British Steel is facing either failure or a buyout by the Jingye Group based in China.
The working class are waking up to the lies of the social democrats, even as social democracy sees a resurgence among the petit-bourgeois in both the US and England. Despite the protests of the social democrats to the increased burden on workers, their promises are smoke and mirrors. They lie to the masses that a better world is possible only if they support the electoral interests of social democracy.
By selling the masses on social welfare measures, the social democrats seek to tactically placate the masses with bigger scraps from the imperialist table, leaving the class antagonisms at the heart of oppression and exploitation unaltered. By funneling the dissatisfaction with business-as-usual into campaigns of elections and reforms, they turn the people away from their real interests in revolution and leave them open to the influence of fascists and rightwing populists.
The social democrats have lost credibility with the working class all over Europe, where their politics are on the decline and have been for the last decade, with many social democratic parties in Europe falling out of power and into the fringe.
The Growth of Nationalism within the UK
In Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England, and to a lesser extent Wales, nationalism is on the rise, like it is elsewhere in Europe and the world. Imperialism, which engenders increasingly fiercer competition among capitalists for markets and the earth’s remaining resources, has ravaged the oppressed nations and displaced millions. These exploits abroad inevitably blowback to the imperialist countries, fueling the fervor of nationalists.
Nationalism within the imperialist poles takes on a particularly reactionary character, leading towards fascism. Led by Prime Minister Johnson, English nationalists see the England as the foremost nation in the United Kingdom, and have played on the people’s frustration with the EU and promised them a resurgence of the British Empire.
Nationalists seek to deceive the masses, like the social democrats, into class collaboration; like the social democrats they promise that imperialism will see the nation prosper, that the success of the English bourgeois is the success of the broad masses of the English people, when in reality imperialism created the conditions by which the idea of Brexit arose.
In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) also saw a dramatic surge in popularity during the most recent election. Once considered a fringe nationalist party by most, it now controls 48 of the 59 Scottish seats in parliament. The SNP seeks to use the Scottish people’s growing dissatisfaction with the UK and especially the dominance of England to their own ends. Brexit was roundly rejected by Scottish voters, and the situation has made it clear for many in Scotland that their nation is unable to chart its own course and remains shackled to the English who conquered them centuries ago.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, has demanded that Johnson approve a new Scottish independence referendum, claiming that her party’s electoral victory and the difference in opinion on Brexit has given them a mandate to try for independence. Johnson quickly squashed the idea, as have others in the Conservative Party, saying they would not allow any such vote to come to pass. In their view the 2014 referendum, which resulted in a result of 45% to leave and 55% to remain in the UK, would suffice for a “generation.”
It is unclear what they will do next as the leader of the SNP has refused any “illegal” recourse, specifically citing the unauthorized vote in Catalan, Spain on the question of its national independence as something she would not pursue. Some in the SNP have speculated on taking the matter to the British courts in hopes of “embarrassing” the English-controlled parliament. This lack of a concrete plan shows that the calls for independence are nothing more than a convenient electoral tool, a way to ride the rising nationalist sentiments in Scotland.
Similarly in Ireland, the election and Brexit have seen a resurgence in support for national liberation. Brexit, soundly rejected in British-occupied Northern Ireland, has caused many to predict a return to the Troubles, the prolonged period of open armed struggle for the reunification of Ireland in the later half of the 20th century.
Although the British Parliament denied it, Brexit only leaves two real options for the UK: a hard border along the border between occupied Ireland and the Irish Republic, or a hard border in the Irish sea. The former would mean walls, custom checks, and tariffs cutting through many towns, and many see it as an inevitable precursor to a return to the Troubles. The latter means that those customs checks and tariffs now apply to any goods and travelers going between Ireland, occupied and otherwise, and the UK.
Opportunists, fearing a return to armed struggle and reading the growing support for reunification after those in North Ireland were snubbed by the Brexit border, have been quick to propose peaceful methods of reunification. Those within the reformist Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic Party of Labour, both claiming to be nationalist parties, have for the first time a majority of the Northern Irish seats in British Parliament, and are using this to both argue on the one hand for a referendum on the question of Irish independence and reunification, and for rebuilding the joint government with the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party that had previously collapsed.
While the opportunists in Ireland maneuver to quell rebellion, the masses have never given up on the struggle for national liberation. It is only due to a lack of a leading Communist Party that the struggle has floundered, not a lack of action on the part of the masses.
Brexit and the 2019 elections were another way by which the British ruling class has shifted their alignment between imperialist powers to more closely align with US imperialism. As the nationalists seek to subjugate the working class of the various nations of the UK to the leadership of their respective bourgeois, and as the social democrats flounder and rip themselves apart, it is up to Communists to organize the masses and present the only alternative that can truly liberate them, revolution and the destruction of British imperialism.