As the deadline approaches for an agreement between the UK and the EU, the first of two articles by economist Brian O’Boyle looks at the roots of a Tory Brexit and assesses the current state of play.
Boris Johnson’s political career is inextricably tied to Brexit. When David Cameron announced a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, Johnson famously wrote two opinion pieces for the Daily Telegraph – one extolling the benefits of EU membership, the other a cry for English nationalism.
Having built his profile as Mayor of London, Johnson’s return to parliament in 2015 was generally viewed as part of his longer-term strategy to become Prime Minister. Cameron’s leadership would have been strengthened if Johnson had supported Remain, so he published the anti-Europe piece and positioned himself as leader of the No Campaign for the upcoming referendum.
Most commentators accept that Johnson’s ambitions dominated his decision to spearhead the Brexit Campaign, but that doesn’t diminish his role as figurehead for the right of the Conservative Party or do any injustice to his wider politics.
As an old Etonian, Johnson harbours all the racism and elitism his background creates. His political hero, Winston Churchill, once told the Royal Palestine Commission, “I do not admit…that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia…by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race… has come in and taken their place.”
Johnson himself has a long history of similarly racist statements. In 2002, he defended imperialism in Africa by stating that:
the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” He also wrote that “tribal warriors all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.
Thus, by class training and political disposition Johnson was a natural bedfellow for the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel in the European Research Group (ERG). Formed in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the ERG was established to harness the Euroscepticism of right-wing Conservatives who never accepted the decline of the British Empire after World War Two.
In their delusional world picture, Britain had diminished herself by becoming a member of the European Union when it had been the centre of the world’s greatest empire for two hundred years. The fact that Britain was humiliated over the Suez Crisis in 1956; that its companies had fallen behind their European rivals or that their colonies could no longer be ‘kept in check’, was quietly sidelined in this fantasy land of Tory nostalgia.
In their minds, Britain could quickly regain its former glory by breaking with the bureaucracy of the European Union and making Britain the most neoliberal society on the planet. They saw their chance in the EU vote of 2016.
The Tory Leave Campaign was built on a reactionary mix of English nationalism and free trade ideology.
Their master-narrative argued that by leaving the European Union, Britain would regain its political sovereignty, regain control of its borders and be in a position to sign free trade deals across the world. In other words, the Tories would be able to stop poorer Europeans getting into the country, side-line the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and provide new deals for British capital to increase its profits.
The Eurozone crisis added weight to the narrative that Europe was a spent force on the international stage, while the refugee crisis of 2015 allowed Tory strategists to reinforce Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU Campaign with a rhetoric of ‘taking back control of our country’. All of this featured in Johnson’s calculations when he subsequently became Prime Minister in July 2019.
In her three years as Prime Minister, Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had become mired in the contradictions of delivering Brexit at the same time as respecting the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.
Although it had hardly featured in the original debate, the implications for Ireland quickly became apparent in the wake of the result, as a hard Brexit would likely trigger a hard border in the tug of war between the EU and the UK. This was because the Tories insisted on leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, while the EU insisted on upholding the integrity of these institutions by putting up a border around them.
The Single Market is based on the right to move goods, services, capital and labour freely around the European Union. The Customs Union is a looser arrangement that includes free movement of goods and services, but also uniform tariffs among the countries signed up to it. Remaining in either was a complete non-runner for the ERG, as this would tie Britain back into common rules and regulations.
After all, their vision is based not only on breaking with the European Union, but on outcompeting it through lower business costs, lower environmental standards and lower labour standards. Once achieved, these neoliberal measures would facilitate free trade deals to revive the fortunes of British capitalism at the same time as the rise in British nationalism would keep the working class divided. This is the ultimate agenda of Johnson’s inner circle who have gladly used racism to sell their vision to sections of the British public.
In October 2020, Johnson confounded many of his detractors when he signed the first stage of the new arrangement with the European Union – the so-called Withdrawal Agreement. This allowed the Tories to fight a British General Election in December on the promise that, after more than three years of stalled negotiations and parliamentary manouvering, only the Conservatives would deliver Brexit.
To secure his deal, Johnson sold Northern Unionists down the river by accepting that Northern Ireland would remain inside the Customs Union and so outside any new trade deals with the rest of the world. He also had to rely on the right-wing instincts of his European counterparts who allowed Johnson to get a deal when May couldn’t, knowing that, without one, the British people might vote for Jeremy Corbyn on the most left wing platform in the history of the Labour Party.
This would have exposed the neoliberal nature of the EU itself, as workers’ rights and environmental standards would have improved in a country that had recently left the European Union.
Whether Johnson ever meant to keep his promise is hard to tell. Economically, the Northern economy is inconsequential to the Brexiters who would surely accept divergence from the North as collateral damage in pursuit of their neoliberal fantasy land. Politically, however, allowing the North to diverge from Britain would strengthen the hand of political forces who want to unify Ireland and, more importantly, of Scottish nationalists who need just five people in a hundred to switch their vote from the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014.
Without Scotland’s natural resources, the British ruling classes would be considerably weakened – partly explaining why, in August of this year, Johnson passed an Internal Markets Bill that allows him to override clauses in the Withdrawal Agreement to disregard his earlier promise to keep the North in the Customs Union.
With a successful election – and a sizable majority – in the bag, Johnson’s actions were designed to appease Unionists on both sides of the Irish Sea even as they infuriated the European negotiating team led by Michel Barnier. The threat of the Internal Markets Bill also gave Johnson’s chief negotiator, David Frost, an extra card in the long-running negotiations – but with 43% of UK Exports (£294 billion) and 52% of UK imports (£374 billion) linked to trade with the European Union, this is high stakes poker indeed.
Current State of Play
With just weeks to go to a No-Deal Brexit there are three outstanding issues in the negotiations. Namely;
- The rights of European fishing trawlers to access UK waters after Brexit.
- The question of a level playing field for companies once the UK leaves the EU
- The question of how disputes – most likely arising around the level playing field – will be resolved.
The fishing industry makes up just 0.2% of the British economy meaning that while there are politically sensitive issues for coastal communities – who generally voted for Brexit – the question of the level playing field is the more substantial, and very likely, the more difficult to resolve.
On 27 November the EU offered to return between 15-18% of all fish caught by EU trawlers in UK waters. This was quickly rejected as derisory, but it seems possible that the EU could come up a number that would be agreeable, given that the industry is worth £650 million versus the more than £600 billion of trade that is at stake overall (nearly a thousand times more).
On the other hand, the central reason for Tory Brexit is precisely to create an uneven playing field that allows UK firms access to European markets while the Tories reduce already weak standards on the environment, food safety and workers’ rights. Socialists have no illusions in the neoliberal structures of the European Union, but this doesn’t mean that existing standards can’t be eroded even further.
Whether pressure from the City or British exporters softens the UK negotiating stance over coming weeks remains to be seen, but what is clear is that working people have nothing to gain from any form of Tory Brexit.
If Johnson succeeds in gaining his uneven playing field, it will quickly be followed by attacks on both workers and a raft of other progressive legislation. If he doesn’t, it will mean the economic devastation of a hard Brexit alongside the possible imposition of a hard border through Ireland.
And even if Johnson concedes on the playing field and the Northern economy – the fact remains that the Tories are out to revive the fortunes on British business on the backs of workers and their families.