Britain's working class supports Brexit

By Frieda Park

In the referendum of 23rd June 2016 the British people voted to leave the European Union against the wishes and interests of the major part of its ruling class. Brexit was also opposed by the most of the representatives of the capitalist class in the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (US).

How did this happen and what is its significance?

Britain, Europe and the World

There are more recent causes, but the origins of the Brexit vote are rooted in the history of Europe, which was where capitalism was founded and competing nation states grew up to defend “their” capitalists’ interests. These nations extended their economic power across the globe seeking markets, raw materials and cheap labour. The biggest players in this were, and are, Britain, Germany and France. Conflicts between them resulted in two world wars and the bloody conquest and division of the world between them. The European Union both contains, but is also riven by, this rivalry. Understanding this is key to understanding the development of the EU and is one of the reasons why Britain voted to leave.

No doubt US and European capitalism – despite their rivalries – recognised the importance of unity and collaboration over in the founding of the EU as a strategic force against advancing socialism. Post the Second World War France saw the opportunity to contain Germany and had designs on its raw materials. This resulted in the foundation of the forerunner to the EU – the European Coal and Steel Community. This was no ordinary treaty, however, as it created a supra-national authority to run it. This was the seed which grew into the Triffid of the EU institutions that we know today.

France’s bid for dominance in Europe and its wish that Europe be more independent of US influence, was the reason why it was resistant to Britain, vetoing its early applications to join the European Economic Community.

The EU and its previous incarnations were vital to French and increasingly German interests but Britain was always more ambivalent. Britain had had the biggest Empire that the world had ever seen and even with that in decline it retained its ties to its former colonies through the Commonwealth. It also had a close “special” relationship with its former colony, the USA, which had replaced it as the world’s predominant imperial power. For France and Germany, the EU became central to the interests of their capitalist classes creating a large market, latterly cheap labour and international heft economically and politically. The EU was historically less vital to British interests and the surrender of some sovereignty to it was more problematic. Euroscepticism has its origins in this.

British membership of the EU, however, inevitably meant that its interests became increasingly tied up with it. In particular, the City of London’s pre-eminence as a financial centre benefited. Our increasingly parasitic economy, neo-liberal policies and decline in the rest of the world, however, only fed divisions within the British capitalism and disenchantment among the electorate. Although British interests increasingly lay with the EU membership, this did not lead to a greater pro-EU sentiment.

Arising out of the recent financial crisis, the most significant change in the EU was the rise of Germany to become unequivocally its dominant power. France was side-lined and Britain, with its half-in half-out relationship with the EU could not compete. What Angela Merkel says about Brexit, Greek debt or anything else is what matters, not what Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Central Bank or Francois Hollande might say.

The Tory Party and Euroscepticism.

Historical ideas about Britain’s place in the world, its continued decline and ambivalence about the EU, provided fertile ground for Euroscepticism in the party of the ruling class – the Tory Party. Unchallenged Euroscepticism became a calling card for the Tories to win support electorally – much better to blame Brussels than to admit the failings of British capitalism. Hostility to the EU became a deepening trend and caused major problems for post-Thatcher Tory leaders who found it increasingly difficult to manage. This eventually led David Cameron to make the fatal error of promising a referendum on British membership in an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass. It is significant that many Brexiteers and Remainers in the Tory leadership could just as easily have been on the other side of the argument. This was evident in Boris Johnson’s opportunistic support for Leave, a move prompted by his ambition to replace Cameron as Tory leader. This resulted from yet another of Cameron’s poor judgements, having declared that he would step down at the nest General Election. The referendum has exposed just how shallow the Tory leadership is in terms of political aptitude. It has cost Cameron his position as Prime Minister and dashed the ambitions of George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Politics in Britain

Neo-liberalism has dominated the policies of successive British governments since Margaret Thatcher came to power. New Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown failed to deliver enough for the working-class or to change the direction of the British economy. Swathes of working-class and middle-class voters lost confidence in Labour and stopped voting or switched their allegiance to alternatives, such as the Scottish National Party and the UK Independence Party. There was a decline also in the Trades Unions and in class struggle. People were disaffected, but the political establishment, wedded to the idea of spinning their policies rather than changing peoples’ material circumstances, failed to understand the significance of this. Not only were people less susceptible to being told what to think, the electorate was becoming more fragmented. The warning came at the General Election of 2014 when pre-polling failed to predict the Tory majority. It was a warning that was ignored. The political establishment, its pundits and pollsters did not understand how people might vote in the EU referendum and why they might do this.

The lessons of the Scottish independence referendum were also largely ignored. Firstly, a referendum does not necessarily settle matters. Although they lost the referendum in Scotland, the SNP has grown in strength and influence since the result. Complex issues get conflated into a simple yes/no option and the debate can become highly polarised, negative and divisive. This can have lasting consequences. Labour in Scotland was damaged by standing shoulder to shoulder, campaigning with the Tories in “Better Together”. Though many in Labour made this mistake again over the EU, at least Jeremy Corbyn did not. In a referendum people see that they can actually get a clear outcome on something that matters and not a political fudge. Many people who are generally alienated from electoral politics will come out to vote and they are more likely to be an unknown quantity. None of this seemed to impact on the decision to press ahead with a referendum nor the conduct of the campaign.

So the stage was set for a Brexit vote.

What does the result mean? What will be the outcome?

Like the General Election the results were varied across the nations and regions. It seems that there was stronger support for Leave among those who had lost the most in recent years – the working-class. This was true even in areas with a strong Remain vote. Wrongly working-class Brexiteers were stereotyped in the campaign as being racist and xenophobic. If we are to defeat racism, then we must end the conditions in which it is fomented – the politics of divide and rule and the dismal circumstances of most peoples’ lives.

Because of their longstanding divisions over the EU, the Tory Party has found it difficult to effectively represent the interests of British capitalism on this issue. Can it be changed to do the job properly? Capitalism’s fall-back position of a relatively tame Labour Party is certainly not an option with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Can Corbyn be ousted and the New Labourites put back in control? If these options fail will there be a move to re-align the political parties?

The big question is: Will the result of the referendum be respected and will Britain actually leave the EU? There is a growing tradition of re-running ballots in member states until the “right” result is achieved. This is a possible option further down the line. It is less likely that the result, which has no legal status, will simply be ignored. Although Cameron said during the campaign that the Article 50 process of leaving the EU would be triggered immediately, this is now being put back further and further. Another impediment to efforts to salvage British membership is the rest of the EU. Whether other members want Britain in or out, in the current situation they have to play hard-ball to discourage similar bad behaviour. So far they have said that there will be no negotiation until Article 50 is invoked, making it harder to get a sellable deal which can be placed before the British people in a second referendum.

Further headaches arise from the strong Remain votes in Scotland and the North of Ireland. The only region of England to vote Remain was London but this does not pose the same constitutional problem. The Scottish National Party is in overdrive, proclaiming that the UK-wide vote violates the will of the Scottish people and Scotland’s interests. This has led to a great deal of grandstanding by Nicola Sturgeon, popping up in Brussels and meeting EU member states representatives in Scotland. All this is meaningless in real terms as Scotland is no position to negotiate with the EU while part of the UK, but it is designed to set the scene for a further referendum on Scottish independence. In Ireland the border between North and South, which hardly exists just now, could become a problem on Brexit. It will almost certainly require proper border controls disrupting peoples’ lives and economic activity. Sinn Fein have said that this could be grounds for a referendum on Irish re-unification.

We are faced with a great deal of uncertainty in the coming months and years, but in or out it is clear this crisis has exposed underlying weaknesses in British capitalism economically, in its world role and its ability to manage events politically. The vote to leave will make it weaker still. Capitalism is failing to learn the lesson that austerity and neo-liberalism offers nothing to the working-class leading to disaffection and volatile political outcomes.

Germany will be even more dominant in the EU and the United States will continue to re-assess the value of its “special relationship” with Britain and its ties to other European nations. Although remaining partners in NATO and other international alliances, a Britain outside the EU is less useful to the US.

Politics dominated by constitutional issues does nothing to promote working-class interests and class struggle. Labour needs to focus on the disaffected working-class who voted Leave and win them for a progressive agenda.

"Will the result of the referendum be respected and will Britain actually leave the European Union?"