A woman harasses Brazilian skateboarders on a London street, demanding they stop speaking “Brazilian.” The confrontation, emblematic in its stupidity, goes viral on Twitter on January 29. The chief executives of major supermarkets, plus McDonalds and KFC, warn of significant supply disruptions if there is a No Deal Brexit. The government admits on January 27 that it has contingency plans to introduce martial law to avoid “death in the event of food and medical shortages.” On the night of January 29, Britain’s Parliament votes for something it cannot enact: Conservatives, Ulster Unionists, and a few opposed to immigration from the right of the Labour Party combine to demand that the EU make changes to a deal the British government had agreed to last November. EU leaders immediately emphasize that no 11th-hour renegotiation is possible.
If a hostile power had scripted Brexit, this is how they would have written its final act. Unfortunately, the British people have scripted it for themselves.
How did we get to this pinnacle of unreality? Because the UK’s political class has fragmented over issues that are too fundamental to be contained by the party system, and because much of the ideological glue that held British civil society together for two generations no longer sticks.
For the Conservative Party, the relationship with Europe has been a chronic psychosis. It split Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in the 1980s, destabilized John Major’s government in the 1990s, then kept the party out of office for 13 years, crashed David Cameron’s premiership, and has now destroyed the credibility of almost every politician associated with the May administration.
The sources of Euroskepticism have changed over time. In the early 1970s, there was still nostalgia for the days of empire. By the time of Thatcher’s Bruges speech in September 1988, it had become a project to restrain the Franco-German impulse towards political union, while maintaining the then–European Economic Community (EEC) as a liberalized market in which the British business class could lead a low-wage “race to the bottom.”
Thirty years on, the business class has itself changed shape. The globalization of manufacturing, with the financialization of the world, has produced separate business elites in Britain: a managerial class overseeing the locally based plants of stock market–listed companies such as Nissan, Honda, Airbus, and BAE Systems; and a class of money managers, commercial lawyers, and property developers who represent the interests of global finance and (unofficially) of corrupt oligarchic power.
During the crisis of neoliberalism, the second group called the shots, not just within the Conservative party but through, and across, the media. The relationship was symbolized by the £250,000 annual salary once paid by the owners of the anti-EU Telegraph newspaper to Boris Johnson, before he became May’s foreign secretary, for writing one column a week. After 2008, the money men began to conceive of Britain’s future as primarily a supplier of business, technology, and financial services to emerging markets such as China and India, and as the financial manager of the world. A project of ever-closer European union wasn’t necessary for that future.
The doctrine of “global reach”
However, British conservatism is never simply the sum of the intentions of the elite. It has also to incorporate ideas formed in the bars of suburban golf clubs and in the tearooms of seaside resorts full of retirees. From the mid-2000s, sentiment here became hostile to the restraint Europe-wide regulations imposed on a low-wage, low-regulation capitalism, and intensely hostile to migration.
Only one underlying myth could hold together the golfers, the small-town van drivers, and the British hedge-fund guys domiciled in Dubai: the myth of empire. After the Conservatives took power in 2010, the place to study the evolution of this myth was defense policy.
Out of nowhere, and almost without scrutiny, the Conservatives introduced the doctrine of “global reach” that same year: In addition to all its NATO commitments, Britain would build a “war-fighting division optimized for high intensity combat operations.” Military planners became obsessed with the idea that, as Britain is a major importing country, its defense must begin with a naval presence in the Singapore Strait.
Since austerity had depleted the armed forces, commentators assumed global reach was a political conceit. Its true meaning was revealed once the political program of the Conservative right emerged in the Brexit referendum, with the European Research Group led by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The section of the elite oriented to global finance—including managing the money of oligarchs via a network of offshore institutions—intends metaphorically to abandon Britain’s real economy, together with its ties to Europe, and to erase the institutional muscle memory generated through decades of operation as an EU member. It wants Britain’s armed forces to police the world, but not in order to impose favorable trade terms on poor countries, as in the 19th century. In this vision, Britain would become the guarantor of globalization in the abstract and its embodiment.
One form of the fantasy is CANZUK—a revival of a white, Christian, trading empire including Britain’s former settler colonies in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. In another form, Britain becomes an enlarged version of Singapore. For a Trump-supporting faction on the right, Britain would be a glorified airstrip for the United States in a larger game of great-power rivalry. None of it makes sense, but all of it can be pushed to the public, via right-wing media, as a new imperialist ideology.
As a result, neo-imperialist fantasies have filled the imagination of conservative-minded voters. In a poll in January, 31 percent favored a No Deal Brexit if May’s deal were to fail in Parliament; among Conservative voters this rose to 57 percent. Only around 17 of the 317 Conservative MPs were prepared to vote in Parliament for a motion delaying Article 50 to rule out a catastrophic exit.
If there were already a serious liberal centrist party, capable of limiting the damage, those engaged in British-based business would switch to it en masse. Instead, the only alternative is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Opposition to membership in the European Union has a long history inside Labour. The alternative economic strategy of the Labour left in the 1980s involved capital controls, tariffs, and leaving the EEC. But that is not primarily what is behind Corbyn’s lukewarm opposition to Brexit. Instead, it is the moral authority of the referendum’s Leave vote in the working-class areas Labour needs to win to gain power. Labour campaigners, including me, tried internationalist arguments on the doorstep during the 2016 campaign and found them ineffective. What persuaded large numbers of Leave supporters to vote Labour in 2017’s general election was the assurance that Corbyn would honor the referendum result.
This strategy of satisfying Brexit voters and trying to move on ran into a big problem in November 2018, when it became clear no possible form of Brexit was acceptable to all Brexiteers. If the Conservatives could not make Brexit happen, any deal that passed through Parliament would have to rely on the votes of rebel Labour MPs.
Suddenly, a section of English Labour MPs were in stark opposition to the desires of their membership and voting base; this opened a crisis of direction within Corbynism itself. This was never a single ideology but an alliance of the old, statist left and the younger generation oriented to social-justice movements.
A polling analysis seen by this author shows that, overall, the electorate has swung against Brexit, with 55 percent now saying they want to remain in the EU. The analysis claims that if Labour were to go into a snap election promising to enact Brexit, it would lose, not gain, seats, and it needs at least 31 additional seats even to form a minority government.
According to this poll, it would lose five out of seven seats in Scotland, where the working class is strongly pro-EU, and up to 14 seats in London and the southeast, where educated, young, globally focused, Labour voters might desert Corbyn for the Lib Dems or Greens. By contrast, even if Labour supported Brexit, it would gain no seats at all in Brexit-supporting areas, where the politics of English nationalism and xenophobia are out-shouting traditional concerns over jobs, wages, and public services.
The problem for Labour is that in England and Wales, Brexit had been (to borrow an economic term) “priced in” to politics. It was assumed that Prime Minister Theresa May would deliver Brexit, Labour would vote against her proposal, and two-party politics as usual would be resumed. As this began to look impossible, Corbyn faced competing demands.
Among Labour’s members, according to this same poll, 87 percent are pro-Remain, while 65 percent of those who voted Labour in the last election want Remain. In September 2018, the membership committed the party to opposing May’s Brexit deal, fighting instead for a customs union plus alignment with the single market, triggering a general election and, if that failed, supporting a second referendum. But by late December, in the face of the party’s official position and despite the polling evidence, both left and center Labour MPs had begun to rebel against this strategy.
Individual members of the Corbyn parliamentary team, including education spokeswoman Angela Rayner and party chair Ian Lavery, expressed concerns about a second referendum, claiming it could be seen as a betrayal of the first. This emboldened those on the traditionalist right of the party to contemplate voting for a version of May’s deal.
As the crisis intensified in December, divisions over the second referendum question became so strong within Corbyn’s inner circle that shadow ministers on both sides of the argument threatened resignation. Corbyn should have been riding high on the disarray of Theresa May, but instead his popularity plummeted. Just before Christmas, his approval rating fell to an all-time low of 19 percent.
This explains why seven Labour MPs voted with May’s Tories on January 29 for the fantasy renegotiation strategy, and 14 rebelled against the party line on delaying Article 50, helping to cancel the votes of 17 pro-EU rebels on the Tory side.
Brexit is now the only topic
To understand where Britain goes next, you have to understand how visceral is the plebeian passion that has been stirred up by parliament’s failure—in the pubs, at the school gates, and on increasingly emotion-driven talk radio.
Only in November 2018 did Brexit become the key issue for the electorate. The realization that May’s deal was doomed pushed the number of those naming the issue as their top concern from 30 percent to 65 percent and rising. In the week May lost the vote on her original deal in Parliament (January 15), that figure rocketed to 86 percent: Brits were talking about Brexit and almost nothing else. Simultaneously, the public became aware that, after years of discussion, Brexit might at last be about to happen, and the government might irremediably split while still in office; an anti-politics mood favoring neither party seemed to be growing.
In a working-class community, if Brexit is a minor issue, then the far right has very little leverage to set the agenda. If 86 percent consider it the number-one issue, and think mainstream politicians have messed it up, there is a big opening for right-wing populism. Fear of this has been a leading driver of compromise with Brexit among Labour MPs on the right and left.
Though the left is active and visible in working-class communities where pro-Brexit sentiment is high, it has neither the appetite nor the resources for a head-to-head fight with a far-right movement. As one activist in the English Midlands told me, “People come into the Labour Party to stop the closure of their local maternity ward, not to be chased down the street by fascists in MAGA hats claiming they are traitors.”
That is how the unstated fear of a far-right rebellion has begun subtly to shape the actions of both main parties, and is being talked up by some on the right as a threat, though it is not yet a reality and, with luck, may not happen.
The left is at a crossroads
By the end of February it is likely that May’s attempt to renegotiate Brexit will fail, stockpiling of food and medicines will increase, and sterling and growth will fall sharply. In an atmosphere of crisis, May’s bluff will be called. It is unlikely that all her cabinet members would remain in office if she were to set her sights toward the finishing line of a No Deal Brexit.
To prevent No Deal, the cabinet is going to have to pull the plug on Article 50 or on May herself. For either May or her replacement, the option then would be to embrace Labour’s proposal of a customs union plus single-market alignment, to get Brexit through with Labour votes. That would split British conservatism strategically, probably for decades.
Behind all the hashtags, anger, and parliamentary maneuvering is the existential crisis of a ruling class. Britain is ruled by a super-rich elite with scant material interest in operations in the UK. If necessary, it will form an alliance with people in poor, white, low-skilled communities to disrupt the multilateral order.
This “alliance of elite and mob,” which Hannah Arendt recognized as the material basis of fascism, does not need to become fascist. It only needs to defeat and demoralize the forces of globalism and social liberalism, imposing a decade of uncertainty. What this alliance wants is best described as “Thatcherism in one country,” a form of nationalist neoliberalism. If it succeeds, in the coming decade there will be an acrimonious breakup of the UK, with Scotland seeking a second independence referendum, while resurgent English nationalists fight rhetorical wars with the EU, from which it will take its rules.
The left is at a crossroads. Corbynism was always an alliance of two main social groups: urban, educated, networked youth, and the survivors of the class struggles of the 1980s. As one of those survivors, I know they include many who have fought to commit the party to a second referendum and to Remain. But their organic link to the communities in thrall to English nationalism has blinded them to the danger the Corbyn project faces. The danger is that a new centrist party will emerge, committed to rejoining the EU, and that a section of Labour voters will go with it. And that Corbyn will look like “just another politician” who has triangulated between his own principles and the prejudices of voters.
The tragedy is that Labour went into this with a clear strategy, endorsed unanimously by its membership through a conference vote. But on the crucial day of January 29, Labour’s parliamentary group included—not for the first time in history—too few with the courage to stand by what the membership wanted.
It is still possible that parliamentary deadlock will produce a government collapse and a second referendum; 60 percent of voters say they want it in that case, and 55 percent say they would vote Remain. That outcome would destroy the project of the neo-Thatcherites forever, which is why they are risking economic collapse to avoid it. Those are the stakes.