Behind the petulant spats in the Tory leadership contest, lies a deeply profound and historic crisis for the British ruling class. John Molyneux takes a look at the background to this decaying of a once mighty empire.
Brexit has thrown the British political system into a crisis that has no parallel in the last 150 years. It has involved the Tory Party, historically the main party of the British capitalist class, being unable to present either to parliament or to the country any sort of coherent policy on an issue of crucial importance to the future of British capitalism.
Commentary on this crisis, including much commentary on the left, has focused overwhelmingly on the immediate questions: how will the House of Commons vote next week and the week after? Can Theresa May survive? How will Farage and the Brexit Party do in the Euro elections? Who will replace Theresa May? Why isn’t Labour doing better? Is it Corbyn’s fault? Would Labour do better if they came out as unequivocally pro-remain or unequivocally pro-leave? Should there be a second referendum? Should Labour call for a second referendum? And so on ad infinitum. In this article I want to take a step back from these immediate issues, important as they are, and look at the situation in some historical perspective, particularly with regards to the Tory Party.
Long Term Decline
If we compare Britain to other major European Countries—France, Germany, Italy, Spain and so on—its political system has been characterised by remarkable stability; there has been no actual, as opposed to potential, civil war; no revolution since the seventeenth century; no period of fascist government or military rule; and no foreign occupation. Central to this relative stability has been the role played by the British Conservative and Unionist Party, otherwise known as the Tories. In the 19th century when Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’ and ‘Britannia ruled the waves’ over an empire on which ‘the sun never set’, British politics was completely dominated by two capitalist parties—the Tories/Conservatives and the Whigs/Liberals. The former mainly represented the rural aristocracy and landed gentry, the latter mainly the rising industrial bourgeoisie. In the latter part of the century when some working class men started to get the vote, as a result of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts, most workers voted Liberal.
Even though the Labour Party was founded in 1900, this basic arrangement persisted until the First World War. Then, following the granting of universal suffrage—which granted the vote to men and the vote to women over 30 in 1918—and the huge wave of revolutionary struggle across Europe inspired by the Russian Revolution, it fell apart. In the space of a few years the British working class abandoned the Liberal Party and, in its majority, shifted decisively to voting Labour. At the same time the bourgeoisie, landed and industrial, rallied even more decisively to the Tories, while the Liberals, suffering a catastrophe from which they have not fully recovered even to this day, fell between the two. Thus was set in place the two party system which completely dominated British politics for the next sixty years. The extent of this dominance can be seen in the result of the 1951 General Election; Labour polled 48.78%, the Tories 47.97%, the Liberals 2.55%. The Communist Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Independent Labour Party each got less than 0.1%(!). And within this it was very much the Tories who were the senior partner; out of the 22 Prime Ministers since 1918, 15 have been Tories, 6 Labour and only 1 Liberal (Lloyd George, 1918-22).
The roots of this political domination were social. The Tory Party represented, above all, the interests of big capital, both financial and industrial, and big capital in turn, was able to hegemonise the two main sectors of the middle class—small business (the classic petty bourgeoisie) and the upper ranks of management. To this should be added that the ruling class (and thus also the Tory Party) was able, through imperialist and nationalist rhetoric reinforced by deference, royalism and soft racism, to influence and incorporate a not insignificant layer of the working class. As a consequence when the British ruling class faced moments of serious difficulty and had to regroup and realign itself—as in the shift from appeasement of Nazi Germany to war in the thirties, or in accepting its subservience to America after Suez in 1956—it was able to carry out the reorientation in relatively good order with a high degree of unity. Politically these turns were reflected in a shift from one Tory Leader to another; Neville Chamberlain by Winston Churchill in May 1940, who then led Britain to victory in the War, and the replacement of Churchill’s successor Anthony Eden by Harold MacMillan in January 1957, who then led the Tories to a landslide victory in 1959.
Now contrast this history with the recent debacle over Brexit. Between 15 January and 29 March Theresa May submitted her Brexit Deal three times to a so-called ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons and was defeated on each occasion by 230, 149 and 58 votes respectively. In between the second and third of these votes, the House of Commons held a series of indicative votes on propositions such as a no deal Brexit, leaving the EU while remaining in the Customs Union, and a Second Referendum. Not a single proposition won a majority in the House. In other words the inability—not only of Theresa May as Prime Minister but also of the Tory Party as a whole—to offer any coherent leadership, or strategy to the country (on behalf of their class) was glaring.
Following these parliamentary defeats, Britain was required to partake in the EU parliamentary elections on 23 May. The results were as follows; top of the poll came Nigel Farage’s newly created Brexit Party with 30.5%; in second place were the Liberal Democrats with 19.5%; third came Labour with 13.6%; fourth the Greens with 11.8%; and in fifth place (!) the Tories with 8.8% (!!). This is by any standards extraordinary—the worst showing by the Tories in any sort of national election since modern voting began in 1832. The scale of the collapse is reinforced by the fact that there was only a 37% turnout. This means that of the total possible electorate of 46.5 million only 1.5 million (3.1%) voted Tory. Of course this would not be repeated if there were a general election—with Westminster’s first past the post system likely leading to a recovery of the Tory vote, as was seen in the Peterborough by-election of 6 June—but this is still an astonishing loss of hegemony for the principle party of British capitalism.
It should not at all be imagined that this development has only been caused by Brexit or by Theresa May’s handling of it. Rather the Brexit crisis has been the occasion, the tipping point, for tendencies and contradictions that have been maturing for decades to break into the open. Historically, the root of the problem lies in the slow but nevertheless inexorable relative decline of British capitalism. As we have noted, Britain in the 19th century was the world’s leading economic and military power. After the First World War it lost that position to the United States but it remained top dog in Europe. And at the end of the Second World War it was still the third military power in the world and probably the second economically. By the end of the sixties, however, it was visibly overtaken by Japan and Germany and since then, not only has it been spectacularly out distanced by China, but it now stands, in terms of overall size of its economy, barely ahead of its former colony India. In the fifties and sixties the decline in power, evident in the Suez Crisis, was masked by Britain’s participation in the general post war economic boom which delivered serious increases in living standards for the majority of the population. MacMillan’s landslide victory in 1959 (referred to above) was won on the arrogant slogan ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ But that sense of relative wellbeing evaporated in the recessions and mass unemployment of the seventies.
Crisis of the British State
Since then there have been various attempts by the ruling class to restore the fortunes of British capitalism and chart a way forward. One of these, spearheaded by Edward Heath in 1973, was to join the EU and become part of a big market and trading block. Another was Thatcherism; that set out to smash the unions, redistribute wealth upwards, abandon manufacturing and focus on the City on London. A third was Tony Blair’s bid to be US imperialism’s number two via unflinching support for the Iraq War. But despite some short term successes, such as the Lawson boom of the mid-eighties, none of these strategies really worked in the wider scheme of things and recent years have been marked by a serious fall in living standards and major exacerbation of poverty. Today, in terms of per capita GDP Britain stands in 26th place in the world; considerably behind its other historic colony Ireland and behind such unlikely countries as Iceland, Oman and Taiwan.
This decline has had a variety of political effects; a gradual shrinkage in the size of the Tory vote; a rise in nationalism in various forms including Scottish nationalism (which threatens to reduce the once mighty empire to a rump of England and Wales); and crucially, a widening split within the establishment on the question of the EU and an erosion of big capital’s ability to lead and discipline its middle class base. These latter phenomena are closely connected. There was always a certain split in the British upper and middle classes on the question of the EU. But in the seventies and through the eighties the balance of power was such that the big bourgeoisie, which then was solidly pro-EU, was able to easily overcome the element of old fashioned jingoistic euroscepticism that existed in the petty bourgeoisie. It is worth remembering that in the 1975 Referendum on membership of the European Community the Yes side—supported by all the Tory leadership and the majority of Harold Wilson’s Labour Government—won by the big margin of 67.23% to 32.77%, and that the main opposition came from Tony Benn, the Labour Left and the trade unions.
But as the position of British capitalism has deteriorated, so too has frustration mounted in the lower middle classes—increasingly focused on the idea that the solution might lie in escaping from the confines of the EU and ‘Making Britain Great Again’. This in turn gave rise to the UKIP phenomenon which was chipping away at the Tory vote from the right, and which David Cameron believed he could lay to rest by calling and winning a referendum.
If it had been business as usual, played according to the traditional rules, the 2016 Referendum should have been an easy win for Cameron and the YES side but Cameron had miscalculated and it was not business as usual. On the one hand a substantial section of the Tory base rebelled against their traditional superiors and voted Leave, and in the process dragged the majority of Tory MPs with them. On the other hand this dovetailed with mass alienation and disenchantment among a wide layer of working class people, especially in the most deprived areas of the North of England and Wales, who felt abandoned and left behind by ‘the Metropolitan elite’. As a result, against all expectations, and against what the majority (if not all) big corporations saw as their interest, the Leave side won.
This threw the upper echelons of the Tory Party and British establishment into disarray. Theresa May, as the incoming Prime Minister, found herself on the horns of a dilemma. To deliver Brexit she had to go against the interests of big capital but not to deliver Brexit would be to provoke a split in the Tory Party that might wreck it for the foreseeable future. Try as she might, she could not escape from this contradiction, especially as the EU leaders were determined to make the Brexit process painful, in order to deter contagion. Hence the omni-shambolic spectacle which we have all witnessed over the last six months and which reduced the Tories to 8.8% in the European elections.
I said earlier that in a general election the Tory vote would recover, as was the case in the the Peterborough by-election where Labour won with 30.91%, Brexit Party came second with 28.89% and the Tories third with 21.35% ahead of the Lib Dems on 12.26% and the Green Party on 3.05%. Given that the Brexit Party is essentially a single issue party which, even if it continues, could be expected to do much less well in a general election that was about more than just Brexit, this might seem relatively hopeful for the Tories. But here it is important to stress that what the Tory Party has lost in this debacle is more than just a lot of votes, it has lost authority and leadership—hegemony in the Gramscian sense—and that is much more difficult to recover.
Millions of people have broken with the habits of deference and obedience built up over generations. Many of them may return to voting for Boris Johnson or someone else but that is not the same as the unquestioning loyalty that previously existed. Moreover, the fracturing and break down of discipline are not confined to the lower ranks, politically or socially. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg are from pretty close to the heart of the establishment. These are not plebeian upstarts, and yet neither the Tory Party, the establishment, nor the mainstream media have been able to unite behind ANY consistent strategy to deal with this crisis. That is not a problem that will be forgotten or overcome in a day and it is one which may come back to haunt them in a future economic, social and political crisis.
Of course, the other side of this story is the crisis on our side—the near paralysis and division that has gripped the Labour Party and the Labour movement, that has squandered the immense enthusiasm that surrounded the election of Jeremy Corbyn. If it were not for that, which will have to be the subject of another article, these words could be written in a spirit of unconfined joy. But even allowing for this weakness on our side, there is hope to be derived from the discomfort and underlying historic decay of one of the great bastions of global capitalism—great enemies of working people and the oppressed the world over—the British imperialist ruling class and its chief political party.