Parliament. Photo: Pixabay Parliament. Photo: Pixabay

Brexit is a crisis that cuts deep into the ruling class and Theresa May’s failures have brought to the fore the cracks in Britain’s political system, argues Sean Ledwith

The latest defeat for Theresa May’s benighted Brexit deal has only compounded the stark contrast between the political leaderships of London and Brussels since the 2016 referendum. Many observers of the current mess have drawn attention to the contrast between the apparent calm and sense of control emanating from EU bosses in Brussels and the bewildering chaos swirling around Westminster. The suave demeanours of Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier only serve to highlight the hapless and hopeless leadership skills of Theresa May and her dysfunctional government.

At virtually every stage of the negotiation process since the Brexit vote of 2016, British politicians have found themselves outmanoeuvred and overpowered by the collective will of the other EU states. Although this asymmetrical contest has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the historic ineptitude of May, it also reflects the contrast between a centuries-old capitalist state on a downward trajectory, and a new version that would like to think it represents the future.

May roasted

May is now on her third Brexit Secretary (the instantly forgettable Steve Barclay) with the first two having quit in the face of the EU’s hardball tactics. At the Salzburg summit last September, the EU swiftly blew the short-lived Chequers plan out of the water without any warning. Last week, May was almost openly mocked by Macron and Tusk as she made another pathetic plea for her current deal. The two men jokingly debated whether her chances of survival were 5% or less. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (supposedly sympathetic to the UK) lampooned  May as the political equivalent of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail who tries to dismiss his accelerating loss of limbs as mere scratches. This humiliation of the chief executive of the British state suitably reflects the power relationship between the two sides


While May has even struggled to keep her own cabinet on the same page, the other 27 members of the EU have operated as a unanimous bloc with barely a hint of disagreement between them on how to handle the process. The political system of the UK seems to be in a state of almost irreversible disintegration, while the EU juggernaut looks set to emerge from the mess with renewed momentum. Brexit has triggered a fracture within the British ruling class between the majority of corporations and financiers that are emphatically pro-EU and the minority that cling onto the chimaera of an offshore Singapore-style free market haven. What we are also witnessing is partly a clash between two models of capitalist democracy, both of which are offering modified versions of neoliberalism, and which are ultimately antithetical to the interests of workers in the UK and Europe. The UK’s cobweb-ridden constitution has been exposed as no match for the technocratic systems developed in Brussels. The ability of the EU to grind down the British state into submitting to some form of soft Brexit – as now looks likely – is a grim portent of the hollowed out democracy that threatens to dominate the 21st century.

Mysticism and modernity

The arcane and opaque nature of the British constitution has been subjected to the glare of publicity over recent weeks, perhaps more than at any point in its history. For centuries, the British ruling class has relied on evading fundamental discussions on the nature of political power and managed to package its famously non-codified constitution as the product of the incremental and organic development of a largely peaceful transition to democracy.

Feudal relics such as the monarchy and the House of Lords have been preserved alongside the processes of universal suffrage to concoct a framework that supposedly integrates mysticism and modernity. The other essential ingredient has been to keep the bulk of the population in ignorance as far as possible regarding constitutional matters. This has come to be prerogative of a largely private school and Oxbridge educated elite. Theresa May’s cabinet which has so appallingly bungled Brexit is typical of the British establishment in this respect.

May v May

Speaker John Bercow’s recent invocation of the parliamentary rulebook devised by Erskine May in the nineteenth century will have left most British people scratching their heads in bafflement. Bercow referred to this authority in an attempt to prevent Theresa May bringing her ill-fated deal back to the Commons for a third time. The other May in this farcical episode was a Clerk of the Commons whose tome on the procedures of the House is regarded as the definitive guide to parliamentary legitimacy. The ridiculously anachronistic nature of the British constitution is symbolised not just by the fact that most people have never heard of this person but also that if you wanted to purchase a copy it is exclusively available from the Parliament shop for the tidy sum of £499! While other capitalist states carve the faces of their constitutional creators into mountains or erect statues to them, the British elite keep their antecedents firmly under wraps.

Bercow referred to Erskine May to draw attention to a parliamentary precedent from 1604 that invalidates repeated attempts to push the same bill through the legislature. Any sane person would ask why a 21st democracy allows crucial decisions about its economic future to be affected by laws from an age when the divine right of kings was virtually unquestioned. Similarly, in 2017 May was considering using so-called Henry VIII powers to drive through her version of Brexit without scrutiny by Parliament. Our delusional elite never question the fact that the legislative tools of a feudal megalomaniac are still an option for a British Prime Minister.

PM for a day

Last week, another pillar of the British constitution was chipped away because of the Brexit mess when Parliament took over the ability of the executive to control the agenda of the House of Commons. The apologists of the status quo have long pointed to the fusion of legislative and executive powers in Parliament as one of the ingredients of the longevity of the system. This system is supposed to ensure fluidity of communication between the two branches of state and avoid gridlock. The depth of the Brexit crisis for the state is such that this arrangement has collapsed, leading the tabloids to dub Oliver Letwin (the Tory backbencher behind the temporary takeover) as unofficial Prime Minister for the day!

May has now been trounced three times in the Commons over her deal. Absurdly, losing more parliamentary votes in less than three years as PM than Blair did in ten years. She has been shedding ministers at a rate of one every 66 days. Yet the British constitution has no mechanism for removing a transparently inept figurehead. Normally, no PM would survive three crushing defeats of her flagship policy but such is the paralysis of the political elite that they have been unable to dislodge her barnacle-like grip on power.

Umbilical cord of reaction

The British side of negotiations has been most critically hamstrung by one more relic of the ideology of the ruling class – their attachment to the Loyalist minority in Northern Ireland. The refusal of the DUP to contemplate the backstop plan for the Irish border has proved to be the insoluble conundrum for the May deal. The most antediluvian faction of the British elite – personified by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG – have synchronised their approach to the crisis almost totally in line with the thinking of Arlene Foster and the DUP. Absurdly, the British state finds itself being held constitutionally hostage by the most backward and bigoted section of its political factions. As England’s first colony, the umbilical cord between the ruling class and their claim to Ireland (at least some part of it) has proved an insurmountable obstacle to finding a manageable Brexit. To add insult to injury, Foster currently has no political mandate anyway as the Stormont Assembly is suspended, primarily due to deadlock caused by allegations of corruption against her.

The EU hybrid

The dysfunctional nature of the UK capitalist state has led misguided voices on the left to argue the institutions of the European Union are a better source of protection for social and political rights. The ability of Tusk, Barnier, Juncker and the rest to run rings around May, however, should be little cause for celebration on the left. The democratic credentials of the EU are, if anything, even more tenuous than Britain’s antiquated constitution. The evolution of the project coordinated from Brussels has been to create a political system that is increasingly remote from the populations that it putatively represents. The European Commission, headed by Juncker, acts as the unelected executive with the European Parliament ultimately reduced to a rubber stamp that can only veto legislation, not propose it.

Transcending both is the European Council made up of the chief executives of the member states, such as Macron and Merkel most notably. This body presides as the ultimate authority of the Union, and was the scene of Macron and Tusk’s online taunting of May recently. As such, the EU represents a hybrid model of a capitalist state for the 21st century; one in which the window-dressing of democracy is on display but where the real power lies in decisions made at levels that are remote from popular control. The persistent ability of the EU to wriggle out of awkward referenda in its member states over the last two decades is testament to the essential subversion of democracy that lies at the core of this new model of capitalist politics. The failure of the British state to deliver Brexit by the original deadline of March 29th represents the latest addition to this roll call of compliance to the rule of the neoliberal European order.

Rising imperialist power

The EU has deliberately downplayed the military dimension of its rationale, but it has become increasingly apparent that its leading figures foresee the emergence of Europe as a counterweight to the other superpowers on the global stage. Earlier this year Macron and Merkel agreed a commitment to work towards a European army under the aegis of the EU. The latter stated:

I would rather look our Europe in the face and strengthen it to protect our peoples. That is what we are doing. We are committed to developing a common military culture, a common defence industry and a common line on arms exports.

Up to this point, the quasi-military operations of the EU have been mainly dedicated to keeping thousands of desperate refugees out of Fortress Europe. The growing influence of racist leaders such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz and Italy’s Matteo Salvini in the decision-making bodies of the EU prompted an Amnesty spokesperson last year to comment:

EU leaders have signed off a raft of dangerous and self-serving policies which could expose men, women and children to serious abuse…EU leaders have chosen to pander to xenophobic governments who are hellbent on keeping Europe closed, and to push even more responsibility onto countries outside the EU.

Siren song of Remain

The dilapidated state of the British constitution and the political tradition it encapsulates has motivated many on the left to see the EU version of capitalism as preferable and to join the siren song of Remainers. To exchange the quasi-feudal constitution of the UK for the streamlined democracy-lite model version of the EU, however, represents a chronic failure of vision. The election of a Corbyn government in the near future is the best option to forge a third model of political participation that sows the seeds for a rejuvenated democracy. The contortions of the British class in the current mess are ultimately motivated by fear of a left-wing government more than anything else. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s blatant hypocrisy in voting for a deal that he had previously denounced for reducing the UK to the situation of a vassal state is only the most egregious example of this desperation.

This fear of Corbyn is the one thing that unites the elites of London and Brussels. Last year EU officials expressed their apprehension at the prospect of the Labour Leader being elected on a platform of extensive nationalisation and public spending. The enactment of such commitments would put Corbyn on a collision course with the neoliberal framework that is hardwired into the ideology of the EU. The goal of unifying leftists on either side of the Leave-Remain debate would become a lot more straightforward in this scenario. A Corbyn government could be the springboard for a vision of socialist democracy that goes beyond the two unappetising versions of neoliberalism and imperialism currently on offer by the elites in Westminster and Brussels.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters