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  • Published in Opinion
Theresa May speaking to press

Prime Minister Theresa May met EU leaders including PM Rutte, PM Michel, President Grybauskaite, Chancellor Kurz and PM Bettel at EU Council. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

With the establishment ruthlessly weaponising the issue of Europe against Corbyn, we must focus on the need for a general election, argues Chris Nineham

The Brexit fiasco has been so spectacular and damaging for the establishment because it isn't just about Europe. The deadlock is in fact an expression of a wider crisis of the British state. The EU and its forerunner the EEC have been controversial in Britain since they were founded. The British ruling class has historically been divided on its approach to the European Union, one wing backing a trade policy focussed on the former imperial territories of the so-called commonwealth and a close relationship with the US, the other pushing for deeper integration in Europe. Britain’s international decline and the growing importance of finance have meant that the overwhelming majority of British banking and big business now support EU membership. Post-referendum, this has created an extraordinary situation in which a Tory government has to try to implement a policy that is directly opposed to the strategy of big finance and the dominant corporations.

That was always going to be an unstable situation. It has created such deep turmoil because it has finally blown open the faultlines in the modern Tory Party. Thatcherism was based on an ideological lash up between free market fundamentalism and 'traditional' British values. The key sections of British capital's support for globalisation and financialisation is often accompanied by a superficial social liberalism and support for some immigration. This is a package that doesn't go down well in the Tory shires for whom imperial nostalgia, family values and racist attitudes were essential to Thatcher's renovation of Toryism in the 1970s and 1980s.

If David Cameron’s attempt to ‘modernise’ Toryism was controversial, the decision to call the Brexit referendum in 2015 made it explosive. The referendum gave the Tory right an opportunity to rally the members around them and to fight back. But crucially it also gave the wider population a way of expressing their growing sense of alienation from Westminster politics, the impact of globalisation and foreign wars and a sense of sovereignty slipping away. The depth of the Brexit crisis can only be understood as an intersection between elite division and popular discontent. 

The Brexit vote, however, was far from being a reactionary bloc, and it was all the more threatening for it. What make matters even worse for the elites, their usual escape route in times of difficulty, bringing in a Labour government, is closed off for them by the fact of Corbyn’s leadership, another reaction against the neoliberal establishment. The Financial Times and City AM have regularly reported that though the City would prefer to remain in Europe, it is more worried by a Corbyn government than it is by Brexit. They are worried in particular by the prospect of a radical reforming government coming to office at a  time when there is a mood of insubordination around the country.

It is this that explains the fact that the normal means of resolving a political impasse, a general election, has barely been countenanced in mainstream political discussion. It is also one of the reasons why the ruling class has been prepared to put up for so long with the most incompetent Prime Minister anyone can remember. The main ruling class party is deadlocked and the social democratic second best has an insurgent and unusually radical leadership that cannot be trusted to respect the status quo.

This is why important sections of the establishment have been promoting calls for a second referendum and taking the extraordinary step of organising mass demonstrations to try and impose their view on society. For them it is a way out of the impasse that avoids the danger of a Corbyn government. The People's Vote campaign provides a platform from which to attack Corbyn, who has in general taken the democratic position of respecting the outcome of the referendum. A second vote would of course have the advantage of opening up the possibility of keeping the UK in Europe, big business's preferred outcome.

Suggestions of a cross party 'parliamentary' solution to the crisis also has big dangers for the left. What is at stake here is who is going to lead Britain out of a deepening crisis. A left-led Brexit would open up the possibility of a resolution that involved turning away from austerity, privatisation and the financialisation that has helped to spread debt and keep wages down. In 2017, to most people's shock and some people's horror, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters showed that by being radical and confident and appealing to the wider movement, the left could connect with millions and show a way forward. The left needs to have the confidence that we can do it again and this time to win. But to do so we have to understand that the issue of Europe is being weaponised against Corbyn to restore the status quo and that a general election is still the option the ruling class fear most. 

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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