Theresa May speaking outside Downing Street, November 2018. Photo: Number 10 / Flickr Theresa May speaking outside Downing Street, November 2018. Photo: Number 10 / Flickr

A number of contradictions are causing the Tories to lose grip; Reuben Bard-Rosenberg looks at why they have no clear way of holding on

Ever since the result of the 2016 referendum, Britain has been presented as the fly in the European ointment; the country that shot itself in the foot; the island nation whose insular peculiarity had put it out of step with an otherwise functioning Union.

This week it’s become clear that Britain’s very unstable Brexit is just one manifestation of a wider European crisis. Italy’s stand-off with the European Union over the government’s plans to ease up a little on austerity remains unresolved, and its popularity appears to have been boosted by its willingness to play hard-ball with Brussels, despite the usual warnings of economic purgatory. Angela Merkel, the real power behind a continental settlement based upon free markets, austerity and the enforcement of international debts, has been forced to resign as leader of the Christian Democrats by internal political pressure amidst plummeting electoral results. In France, Emmanual Macron – the lifeboat into which the country’s establishment poured its hopes as support for the established parties crashed through the floor – has been forced to resort to quasi-military means to try to control the streets. After a decade of high unemployment and falling living standards, brought about by a succession of leaders who followed European dictats on austerity, and participated in the race to the bottom that is necessitated by monetary union and continental free trade, the population have revolted.

And then we turn to Britain. Here, the Tory government has found itself unable to resolve Britain’s relationship with Europe in a way that can simultaneously satisfy the class it serves, the European Union, and the party’s members and parliamentarians. To make sense of the Conservative Party’s predicament it is necessary to understand that class interests are never translated unaltered into the sphere of electoral politics, and that the Conservative Party is therefore always an imperfect vehicle for the priorities of its class. It must deploy particular intellectual and rhetorical strategies in order to win popular support for its underlying agenda, and the approaches that prove useful in one particular context may outlive the conditions that made them useful. Hence the ferocious speed with which the nationalist Tory right continue to navigate a cul-de-sac. They inherit a bumptious tradition of British imperialism, rooted in faded realities of British power, and – at closer historical proximity – a particularly spiky form of British nationalism that was useful for hammering “the enemy within” during the 1980s and assembling a racialised coalition against the “loony left”. Despite the success they have had in making trouble for Theresa May, they have no viable project in relation to Britain’s relationship with Europe.

They aim to treat the negotiations like a game of rugby, to sock it to Verhofstadt, in the hope that they can get all of the concessions they want without any diminution in the ability of British capitalism to profit from the European market. This is simply not in line with the reality of a country that accounts for just 2% of global output negotiating with the biggest trading bloc in human history.

It is also not aligned with the dominant forces of British capitalism. In the run-up to the referendum, business was overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in a trading bloc that guaranteed free movement of capital and commerce across a huge market, which used its diplomatic and commercial clout to open up poorer countries to European profiteers on very favourable terms, and who rendered illegal any serious attempt by government to re-engineer the economy in an egalitarian direction.

Theresa May has done her very best to maintain all of that despite the vote to leave. Hence, she has agreed, as of March next year, to keep Britain in the customs union and subject to the vast bulk of Europe’s neoliberal economic rules. Actually leaving the customs union will depend upon on a further agreement in two years time, the details of which remain decidedly hazy. In other circumstances, it might have been possible to find an acceptable balance between the politics of much of her party and the interests of her class. Yet the third pressure that makes all of this impossible is the European Union.

We have reached a point where the most valuable political asset of the European Union is its immovability. This is an economic union that has experienced a decade of high unemployment and falling living standards, caused by synchronised austerity and huge trade imbalances. Across the continent the established parties that support it are in electoral freefall. It relies more heavily than ever on the sense that there is no alternative. It needs more than ever to assert that no country can substantially alter its relationship with the European system without sustaining serious injury. Hence, May was unable to come away with a deal that could come close to satisfying the Brexit wing of her party.

Europe also managed to tread on her Achilles heel – namely Britain’s occupation of the north of Ireland. May’s vulnerability here is partly a matter of parliamentary arithmetic – her majority depends on DUP votes. Yet this is also another instance of anachronism tying the 21st century Conservative Party up in knots. Belfast is no longer a key profit centre in Britain’s industrial architecture. Times have also very much changed since Bonar-Law was able to very effectively play the Orange card against his home-rule supporting liberal opponents: in England at least, the cause of the Falkland Islanders probably stirs greater nationalist passions than any feeling of kinship with the Apprentice Boys of Derry. And yet orange obsession continues to run very deep with the British Conservative Party.

The upshot of all of this is that May is now staring a humungous parliamentary defeat in the face – and has opted for a delay. She is banking on the logic that in a straight fight between the impossible and improbable the latter emerges victorious. It is nigh-on impossible that a party and a state that is committed to the task of sustaining British capitalism could preside over a no-deal Brexit – a point that May hopes will be brutally emphasised by the bondholders and the currency speculators over the coming days. The thinking, then, is that in the absence of an alternative and with March drawing near, Parliament will acquiesce in May’s deal for want of an alternative. Right now, however, the arithmetic is not making the success of this strategy look particularly likely.

There is, of course, another approach to Britain’s relationship with Europe – which is to negotiate with completely different aims to those which characterised the efforts of the May government. This would involve abandoning attempts to stop people from other European countries from settling here. It would involve deprioritising frictionless free trade with a Eurozone whose long-term dynamic is towards austerity and labour market liberalisation. It would involve deprioritising the interests of the City of London. It would involve placing a priority on freeing Britain from European state aid laws, that are an impediment to the serious economic intervention that is needed to address inequality within British society. The only way to do all that is to get May out. And that means demanding a general election now.  

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.