The recent hardening of Tory rhetoric over Brexit and the status of migrant workers in Britain has shocked many, prompting some on the left to wonder if we too should advocate immigration controls and others, such as Owen Jones, to fall into a spirit of impotent despair. But aside from being a return to form for Britain’s traditional “Nasty Party”, May’s hard talk reflects a deepening divide within her own party and, if anything, a position of weakness rather than strength.
Britain currently finds itself in an awkward state of ‘Schrödinger’s Brexit’ - simultaneously both in and out of the EU. The majority of voters opted to leave the EU on 23 June but the UK will not legally leave the EU until the end of the 2 year negotiation period stipulated under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which has yet to be invoked.
The reason given by May for delayed Article 50 negotiations is that the government first needed to review and develop its strategy before embarking on negotiations. She has also declared there will be no “running commentary” from MPs over the specific details of the government’s position. The is not simply a canny bargaining technique as some in the press seem to think. The fact is that after almost 4 months since the Brexit vote the government still has no idea what it is going to do, because whatever it does will likely cause immense damage to British capitalism, the government, or both.
It is no secret that the overwhelming majority of British (and foreign) business interests do not want any form of Brexit, and in any event would not support moves to abandon the Single Market, which not only provides a large market for British goods and services but also positions Britain as an important gateway into Europe for foreign capital. The warning of the Japanese government, published in a letter last month, that the UK must neither leave the Single Market nor restrict freedom of movement, is a clear and concise summary of the demands of capitalists in London as well as Tokyo.
Theresa May, as the leader of both the country and Britain’s traditional party of property and privilege, will be acutely aware of these demands, so it may appear baffling when she issues statements in favour of the so-called “Hard Brexit” option, under which the UK would lose Single Market access in order to restrict freedom of movement. However, to take these statements purely at face value would neglect the very real political pressure bearing down on her from another direction.
The majority of the Tory Party’s active base wants a hard Brexit. Thanks to the complete absence of a progressive leadership for the Leave campaign during the referendum, many of those who voted to leave on 23 June also see controls on immigration as a key demand. Therefore, any indication from May that the government may give in on freedom of movement would likely have catastrophic consequences for the stability, and continued existence, of her government.
Theresa May’s primary function at this point is therefore to keep a lid on the situation, but this cannot go on forever. At some point, most likely during Article 50 negotiations, the government’s real position, or lack of one, will enrage one or both of the mutually hostile sides in this debate. No wonder then that May has spent the last 3 months preaching unity!
This explains the government’s confusing and contradictory behaviour on this question over the last couple of months. In order to maintain any sort of balance May has tried to allay the suspicions of triumphant Brexiteers with sound bites such as “Brexit means Brexit” but then has been forced to feint the other way, for example on the question of whether parliament will get a vote on either the beginning of Article 50 negotiations or the subsequent Brexit deal.
This has had a yo-yo effect on the value of the pound, which slumped to its lowest level in 168 years this month but more recently show rallying signs after the government suggested that a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal is “very likely”. All this shadowboxing has done nothing for the nerves of the British capitalists and their mouthpieces in the press. Martin Wolf has written several articles chastising May for her “unwise words”. One investment manager, Gina Miller, has even taken the government to court, arguing that the government has no constitutional right in invoke Article 50 without a parliamentary vote.
To see a section of the ruling class move into open opposition to a Tory government is striking, but what is doubly significant is that the alternative could be even worse for the British Establishment. Anyone with even a casual acquaintance with British politics over the last few months will know that if the government states categorically that Britain will stay in the Single Market, or that parliament will ultimately decide on Brexit (which would in all likelihood result in the UK remaining in the EU despite the referendum result), this would provoke all out rebellion in the ranks of the Tory Party, its MPs and many of the millions of Leave voters whom May had hoped to woo to the Tories. Such a scenario would make the “pitchfork rebellion” of the referendum look like a vicar’s tea party.
In this context, May can only hope that either she will be able fudge some kind of deal with her EU counterparts - the idea of paying billions to secure market access for the City of London has already been floated - or that events in the short-to-medium term can cause a shift in public opinion and thereby an opportunity to backtrack. The argument that “the British people did not vote to make themselves poorer” has been wheeled out more than once since the pound began its post-Brexit bungee jump. We are likely to hear this again and again in the coming months. For now, May will just have to keep up the balancing act.
This balancing act can be seen in the recent shift, in words at least, back to the Tories’ traditional, bigoted roots. In addition to May’s talk of a hard Brexit, the conference speech of Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, provoked horror at her suggestion that companies must keep a register of foreign workers - an idea which drew justifiable comparison with Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
It is obviously a cause for concern when the Home Secretary starts to sound like a Nazi, but there are also other points to consider. The first thing which must always be remembered is this is not actually anything new for a party which, in many respects, has always based itself on racism and other reactionary ideas. This is the party which once fought an election on the slogan, “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour”, lest we forget. The Tories can always reach down into their grassroots and pull up some form of bigoted filth to spread around the country, but they tend to do it for a purpose. So why are they doing it now?
Having publicly acknowledged that Brexit was a vote for change and promised that it will no longer ignore the concerns of the British electorate, the government now has to show some sign that it actually plans to do something about them. So, as if by magic, the same party which revelled in attacking the poorest and most vulnerable now stands for “a country which works for everyone; not just the privileged few”. In a bizarre parody of Milibandism, May has also promised to tackle the big energy companies, enhance workers’ rights and put workers’ representatives on the boards of companies.
At the same time, on the question of controlling Britain’s borders (arguably the most pressing from the Tories’ perspective), the government cannot offer any meaningful reduction in immigration so gives the impression they are “listening” and dealing with the problem in other ways. The register of foreign workers mentioned above is part of this reactionary pantomime. Beyond the headlines however, this policy has already been quietly dropped, not for moral reasons, but because it would be completely unacceptable for most if not all of Britain’s largest employers - those who really call the Tories’ tune.
May’s ridiculous suggestion that hospital patients would have to show their passports in order to receive NHS care will likely share the same fate. In effect, they are all completely empty gestures, but gestures which intimidate foreign workers and satisfy the most vile elements in society. For this reason alone they should be condemned and resisted at every step.
But beyond the immediate task of opposing and exposing the government’s rhetoric, we must look beyond their statements, to the underlying situation. Theresa May’s government is sat on an ever widening fault line. Her claims to “work for everyone” is in effect an admission that in this situation May can appease no one. Instead, she preaches class collaboration against the spectre of a foreign bogeyman.
This is what May means when she speaks of “the social contract which makes capitalism work”. It is disgusting, reactionary nonsense and that certain Labour(!) MPs, such as Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves, appear to be indulging in similar talk is testament to the need to continue the transformation of the Labour Party begun in September 2015.
Since the crisis in 2008, every attempt to restore some form of economic stability has wrecked the political equilibrium. Years of austerity have contributed to an immense swell of anger and anti-establishment feeling both to the left and right. In turn, all attempts to maintain even the semblance of political stability have further destabilised the economy. Cameron’s gambling with the British economy over the unity of his party speak clearly to this fact. This infernal cycle is rooted in the global crisis of capitalism and no politician, however talented or sly, can get around it.
Labor’s shift to the left, and out of the control of the “moderates” has left the Tory Party as the sole party capable of governing reliably in the eyes of the British Establishment. But its majority is slender to say the least and its unity is a fiction. With a British recession likely and a new world slump looming, a political bust up over Brexit could leave the government without a majority in the midst of a crisis. Likewise, a new independence referendum in Scotland could result in the breakup of the UK.
In both of these scenarios the Labour right-wing could be coaxed into some form of unholy alliance with the “moderate” Tories for the sake of the so-called National Interest, meaning a new election and a realignment of British politics are perfectly possible. Anyone doubtful of such a realignment need only read Tim Farron’s appeals to the Labour right-wing on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, or the moves of Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn to grab themselves cushy positions on cross-party select committees. Those of us who want to see the end of Tory rule, not its reconfiguration, must be prepared for this eventuality.
An answer to the crisis and the reactionary populism of the right is urgently needed. Jeremy Corbyn now stands at the head of a party of over 500,000 people, the vast majority of whom are prepared to fight tooth and nail to defeat this government. However, our ability to win this fight is seriously hindered when sections of our parliamentary representative have, at best, a flexible relationship with our aims and principles.
The first step in the fight against the Tories must therefore be the defeat of their collaborators within our ranks - our party cannot defeat the Tories if we are as divided as they are. This struggle must include the democratic reselection of those MPs which are incapable of representing the party, its leadership and most importantly, its membership. Alongside this struggle for unity on a genuine basis, we must raise a socialist program of the nationalisation of the banks and monopolies which brought us into this crisis in the first place.
May and the rest of her ilk want to divert the rage expressed in the Brexit vote along the path of nationalism and xenophobia. The dangers of this are clear to see. If we reach out into every community devastated by capitalism and boldly present a concrete alternative to the status quo, we can cut across the confused anti-immigrant sentiment which is being deliberately stoked up by these charlatans. Only socialism can present that alternative.
This is no time for pessimism - it is time for revolution!