Brexit has unleashed contradictions building up behind the UK establishment for decades. Theresa May is in office but not in power, as she faces a divided cabinet and a divided party. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is facing renewed pressure to back a second referendum.
The pressure on Corbyn is coming from the AWL faction of Momentum, working in tandem with the soi-disant ‘soft left’ and the extreme centrists. All apparently to secure a plebiscite where party members would decide the future of Labour’s Brexit policy. This is a very strange situation, to say the least.
The repolarisation of politics has meant that the parliamentary class is being held to opposing sets of standards. What does this mean exactly? It means that not only is May too hard-line on Brexit for some, she’s too soft to land the exit deal for others.
What you think it still determined, at least partly, by how you voted on June 23rd 2016. The deadline of March 30th 2019 is less than a year away and many questions have yet to be answered about the UK’s transition to a post-EU future. The return of division in politics is unavoidable under these conditions.
The Remain-or-die crowd insist that Jeremy Corbyn is really Nigel Farage in disguise. He probably voted Leave and he whipped the vote on Article 50. Meanwhile, hard-left Eurosceptics like Arthur Scargill claim Corbyn has ‘sold out’ to Brussels. It’s almost as if Jeremy can’t catch a break. He’s guilty no matter what he does. The same is true about May.
Even still, it is likely that the Conservative government will bear the brunt of the reaction to Brexit and its fallout in the coming years. Labour could well profit from this situation. Corbyn could still be in No.10 in a matter of months. And this is what really scares the mainstream. The old order is coming apart and the left should rejoice. Chaos is a friend to every radical.
How Not to Win the Argument
Since the referendum, I’ve had numerous online encounters with leftish liberals who insist that Corbyn is no better than a fascist for whipping the vote to give Theresa May the power to approve Article 50. As if Corbyn had the power to stop it, if he could have just whipped the vote against it – he would have somehow had more votes than a crippled minority party.
It was a fantasy that Corbyn could have stopped Article 50 with the help of Conservative rebels. For starters, the Conservatives were even more unified behind May than Labour was at the time. Whipping the vote may have made strategic sense if the purpose was to get the amendments through to dilute the bill. But the amendments were knocked back, so the strategy fell apart.
Yet there is no room for a nuanced reading. Corbyn just chose not to stop Brexit (which he could stop in five minutes if he really wanted to). It’s hard to say how we should describe the kind of poxy liberal pro-European impossibilism, where nothing short of absolute fidelity to the European Union is acceptable. Indeed, it’s not even clear that these people understand politics at all.
This state of affairs is likely a product of the 25 years of depoliticisation that followed the end of the Cold War. Politics was a thing of the past, and history was over. There was nothing left, except managerialism. Ideology was dead, and everything had been done. These claims were never true, but they were widely believed. The result: a lot of intelligent, middle-class people simply cannot think politically.
As a result, it is increasingly difficult to hold a political debate without decoding every phrase and deconstructing every assumption first. The Conservatives held the referendum to resolve their own internal contradictions, and this effort backfired when Leave won. Secondly, Leave won because of the Conservative-UKIP vote combined with large swathes of the electorate that normally does not vote.
Although the ruling-class was thinking of its own interests, the middle-classes and the working poor were significant actors. The breakdown of the Leave vote in ABC terms of class, not necessarily the best analysis, it must be said, shows 10 million upper/middle-class votes and 7 million working-class votes cast for Brexit. By contrast, the Remain vote was made up of 12 million upper/middle-class votes with around four million working-class votes.
Similarly, the base of UKIP is often wrongly described as working-class and eating into the Labour vote. Actually, UKIP has primarily threatened the Conservative Party and often overtook it in Labour constituencies because so few locals would vote Tory. The UKIP base is petty-bourgeois with some elements of the poor and the rich backing them. Nigel Farage may be the first ultra-rightist to lead a party based on a cross-class alliance.
So we find the narrative of a working-class revolt is somewhat inaccurate. As in most votes, the working-class was present, but key roles were played by elite interests and middle-class votes. This is not to diminish the role of the votes cast by working-class people. Certainly, the grievances of the working-class were a significant factor. But the fact that the Leave vote was a convergence of different class forces should not surprise us.
Another Europe Was Possible
Putting my cards on the table, I was once a passionate Europhile and I never thought I would consider myself on the side of UK withdrawal. Yet the Greek debt crisis and the EU’s brutal response to it changed all of that.
Contrary to popular opinion, the EU forced the SYRIZA government to accept a bailout package for the benefit of French and German banks at the expense of Greek public services. It was a catastrophic defeat for the left and a humiliation for the Greek people. Greece got austerity, the banks got the money and the country kept the debt.
Suddenly, I found myself entertaining the so-called ‘Lexit’ arguments in the months leading up to the referendum. Ultimately, I came down on the side of Remain out of critical support for the European project. Paul Mason and Yanis Varoufakis made the case for remain and revolt, rather than remain and reform.
It’s clear to me that the prospects of a Remain victory in a second referendum would either fail or backfire. Either Remain would win and go down in history as having reversed a democratic vote it didn’t like (which is true), or it would lose to Leave and reaffirm Farage’s claim to represent the democratic will (which he doesn’t).
Even if Brexit was reversed by the ballot box, the British far-right would win the narrative and we would quickly be facing a new threat to our body politic. The story would be that the metropolitan liberal elite held a vote when the people voted the wrong way. It would be a new founding myth for the radical right.
The Labour right are happy to call for a ‘people’s vote’, and even more happy to split Momentum down the middle because the right knows there will be no such vote and the campaign for it harms the Labour leadership. The main focus is bringing down Corbyn, by any means necessary.
Is Brexit a disaster for the UK? Yes. But is it possible that this disaster might be necessary to destabilise the establishment and get a Corbyn government? Yes. Could the UK rebuild its industrial base if the pound is weak? Possibly, yes. Does that justify going through with Brexit? No. Can we stop it? I doubt it.
Do I think a second referendum is a bad idea right now? Yes. Do I think it’s a bad idea in principle? No. Do I think working with Blairites is the best way to get a second referendum? No. Is it likely the Blairites don’t really care about stopping Brexit but are just out to split the left and defeat Corbyn? Yes.
All of this puts me in an inconvenient category for the opposing camps in the culture war engulfing Britain. These may be interesting times, and hopefully, we will be all the better for it. But it will be a very bumpy ride.
Photograph courtesy of Megan Trace. Published under a Creative Commons license.