Last week’s referendum result sent shockwaves not just across the UK but across Europe and internationally. The 52% vote to leave the EU represents a massive defeat for Britain’s ruling class and the City of London, and also dealt a severe blow to the confidence of ruling elites around the world. Long regarded as a safe haven for international capital, the days since the referendum result have seen the markets go into hysteria in an attempt to sell off the pound, worried about what comes next for the British economy.
No less hysterical than the international markets has been the reaction of Britain’s Remain camp, and in particular the middle-class London-based liberal intelligentsia who have appointed themselves arbiters of good sense and correct moral behaviour. The vote to leave the EU has resulted in frankly unbelievable outpourings of emotional turmoil as well as naked class snobbery against those who voted leave, who were disproportionately poor and working-class. The referendum on the EU was seen by many as a vote on the status quo and a political and cultural settlement that since the ’80s has done very well for a few at the top of society, and reasonably well for professionals and the educated middle-class; but which has left massive swathes of the population in the cold since the Thatcherite drive to destroy Britain’s industrial base and militant proletariat in the early 1980s.
In the absence of any class-based opposition to the EU from any major political force, it was inevitable that much of the anti-EU campaign would be dominated by right-wing populists and even fascists. But the argument that opposition to the EU is inherently nationalist and reactionary is simply untrue, a fact I alluded to in a previous blog post. Considering the turmoil now engulfing the Conservative Party–the Prime Minister just resigned!–and the fact the Labour Party has the largest, most left-wing and most active membership base in its recent history, you’d think this would be the perfect time for a class-based opposition to the ruling elite and their political culture. But the Blairite wing of the Labour Party and the liberal BBC and Guardian are leading a desperate charge against Corbyn, trusting that the demoralization and disorientation of his youthful base will be decisive.
The leave result has thrown down a challenge to many of my generation to show a degree of reflection and empathy with people whose lives and experiences are largely alien to them. So far the majority have been found wanting to a truly shameful extent. The hidden prejudices and smug self-righteousness of a whole generation of self-styled liberal progressives has come to the fore in the last week, with a display of sheer contempt for those leave voters they regard as intellectually or morally inferior. The sneering desire that the poor will now ‘get what they deserve’, or that old people who voted leave will freeze to death in their homes during the winter of a recession-hit Britain. This is what I have seen on social media over the last few days. Look into your hearts, people.
One of the most egregious examples has been the laughable campaign to get London declared a sovereign independent state. For people so quick to deride others as ignorant or stupid, this displays a stunning lack of understanding of how countries work. It’s pretty normal for major cities to be socially progressive in relation to the country as a whole, just as it’s normal for them to be richer. With industry, commerce, government, finance and tourism generally concentrated in cities, it’s also normal for them to control taxation and the national economy; there has to be a level of redistribution of wealth from the town to the country in order to support social services in rural areas and to, you know, maintain some vestige of a national life and national culture. The idea that the city should hive itself off from the rest of the country–even if on the pretense that it is more intellectually or politically progressive–is actually deeply reactionary and has much more in common with fascism than anything else, sort of like something out of Judge Dredd. In fact, it proves right the fears of many people living in forgotten ghost towns all around the UK: that people in London don’t care about them and just wish they didn’t exist. How can someone who claims to welcome refugees, for example, subscribe to a mentality like this?
Another risible reaction has been the campaign to have the referendum result disregarded. So far a petition along those lines has attracted several million signatures. It’s truly a touching testament to the sincerity of people’s professed belief in democracy that they’ll join an internet campaign to get the largest vote ever conducted in the UK overturned because they disagree with the result. That said, in some cases I know people are rationalizing this as follows: it doesn’t conflict with their belief in democracy because those who voted leave were too stupid or too racist to understand what they were doing. In other words, that only those who have the right access to information should have the right to vote. Which, again, is actually more akin to plutocracy or fascism than it is to liberal democracy.
But what we’re seeing here is, above all, a crisis of liberal democracy. For the last 25 years liberal democracy in the UK has largely had everything its own way, and this is what they have to show for it. A massively divided country where the received wisdom of the political and educated class has been decisively rejected in a popular vote, in the teeth of months of dire warnings, and where the supposedly enlightened class of young liberals are lining up to consign working-class people to renewed misery and poverty. But already, of course, we’re seeing a counter-attack from the ruling elite. The main part of this is the narrative that the referendum is simply a win for Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Farage, remember, is not even an MP, and owes his fame to the BBC more than anything else; while Johnson is reviled by large sections of his own party, never mind the rest of the population, and is far from a shoo-in as anything other than an interim Prime Minister at best.
But the main front for the bourgeoisie’s counterattack has been a renewed offensive against Jeremy Corbyn. Well, it’s barely renewed since it only briefly relented in the last weeks before the referendum, when they were desperate for him to bring out Labour voters and the young to vote for Remain. Which he did, despite what had hitherto been a lifelong principled opposition to the EU. Neverthless, the Blairite wing of the Labour Party–which constitutes about 90% of the MPs and about 5% of the membership–has launched a massive witch hunt against Corbyn and demanded he resign because… well, because David Cameron lost the referendum. Shouldn’t that be a good thing for the Labour Party? Of course, Corbyn delivered the voters he was supposed to. But the point is, the Blairites will stop at nothing to get rid of Corbyn. Whatever he does, it will be spun by them and their infinite allies in the mainstream media as a reason he has to go. They could care less about what Labour’s members want–and most Labour members still ardently want Corbyn to stay. Never mind the thousands who would now join Labour to vote for him if they had another election. Notice a similarity here? Some kind of a theme about what the people want not actually mattering? I thought this was supposed to be the world’s greatest democracy?
The irony is that Corbyn’s historic views on the EU actually chime with the views categorically expressed by 52% of those who voted in the referendum. Corbyn has always been opposed to the EU–as an organization of the bosses determined to strengthen the ruling elites of Europe against their own working populations, as well as against developing nations abroad. The massive groundswell of support for Corbyn last year, much of which remains to this day, would have been the perfect springboard for a popular, trade union-based left-wing opposition to the EU which could have wrested the issue away from organizations like UKIP.
As it is, there is no mainstream force to give voice to the socialist truism that immigration is used by the government and the ruling class to drive down wages and living standards for the working class as a whole, not least by expanding the ‘reserve army of labour’. In a context where there is massively increasing poverty and social immiseration for millions of people, especially in deindustrialised areas, it is inevitable that, in the absence of anyone motivating an inspirational class-based perspective, some people will buy into the anti-immigrant propaganda of the far right. Unless you have a strategy to answer falling wages and unemployment, it’s not enough to simply say immigration is a good thing. That is why in addition to opposing all deportations and supporting full citizenship rights for all immigrants, socialists fight to unite the working class in a struggle for better jobs, pay and conditions for all. In the absence of such a strategy, and in demonizing leave voters as recidivist racists and idiots, liberal Remainers simply serve as unwitting agents of the ruling class’s strategy of divide-and-rule.