By Mike Faulkner
Sr. Contributing Editor, London Correspondent
On the road to Little England
The last Letter from London (May 2nd) which appeared more than seven weeks before the June 23rd referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, concluded with these words:
“While it is impossible to know what the longer-term consequences of Brexit might be, there is no doubt what the immediate consequences of a vote to leave would be. Cameron and possibly Osborne would be forced to resign. There would be a major crisis of political leadership and the Tory party would be plunged into open warfare of a ferocity that would make the present infighting seem like a petty spat. And in the not unlikely event that the Scottish vote might go heavily in favour of remaining in the EU, very soon afterwards there would likely be an irresistible demand for a second referendum on independence. The outcome could be the break-up of the United Kingdom.”
Now, in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU, some of what was predicted has already happened. On the 24th June the prime minister announced his resignation. Sixty two per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, in order to retain its membership, announced that her party was considering a second referendum to take Scotland out of the UK. Hostility between the pro and anti-EU sides of the Tory party intensified before the referendum and has got worse since. At the time of writing ( July) the country is gripped by a crisis of political leadership unparalleled since 1931.Unforeseen at the beginning of May was the impact that the outcome would have on the Labour party. In what amounts to an attempted coup, more than two thirds (172) of Labour MPs, in a secret ballot, have demanded the resignation of Jeremy Corbyn, who they accuse of ineffective leadership and failure to persuade the party’s traditional working class supporters to vote to remain in the EU. There is reason to believe that there may be other darker motives at play in the pressure to force Corbyn’s resignation before the publication next Wednesday (6th July) of the Chilcot report into the Iraq war. Also unforeseen two months ago were the implications of Brexit for the future of Northern Ireland, which, like Scotland, voted (55.8%/44.2%) to remain. The only parts of the UK to deliver majorities in favour of remaining in the EU were Scotland, Northern Ireland and London.
It is still too early to deal in any detail with the consequences of the referendum. The Westminster political establishment and the professional commentariat have barely come to terms with the enormity of what has happened. They seem to be gripped by a palpable sense of disoriented bewilderment. It very soon became clear that hardly anyone, on either side, had prepared for this eventuality. The exception is the Scottish National party. Nicola Sturgeon is the only party leader at the moment who is speaking with measured and convincing self-assurance; more on that later. The observations that follow are offered as no more than a snap-shot of the situation leading to the referendum and of how it looks now. Inevitably any speculation about the way things may develop will be tentative. The chaotic political scene in Britain, where new and largely unforeseen things are happening on a daily basis, is not yet susceptible to a detailed analysis. This will be the first of a few Letters from London over coming weeks which will try to make sense of the consequences of this unprecedented situation.
The level of debate in the referendum campaign was abysmal on both sides. Most people in Britain are woefully ignorant about the European Union and neither side made any real attempt to enlighten them. There is widespread and growing discontent with the EU throughout many of its member states. Anti-EU sentiment has grown particularly in the years of austerity following the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. In many countries it has found expression in the rise of anti-immigration xenophobic parties of the extreme right. This has also been evident in Britain – particularly in England and to a lesser extent in Wales. But here there has been an additional factor, largely absent in continental Europe, which long pre-dates British membership of the EU. That is a deep-rooted insularity and sense of post-imperial superiority which ignores the geographic reality that the British Isles are part of Europe. It is the mentality that regards Europe as somewhere else and feels a seemingly more natural affinity with Anglophone countries such as the United States or the (white) British Commonwealth. But it became evident during the referendum campaign that as well as the widespread hostility to the EU which had long been evident amongst the middle class electorate of the Tory shires, millions of working class voters all over England whose natural loyalty the Labour party had long taken for granted, were solidly committed to Brexit. While their motives for wanting out may have been mixed, the recurrent theme in their complaints was hostility to immigration which was blamed entirely on membership of the EU. Both the ‘in’ and ’out’ campaigns indulged in the most shameless, fear-mongering propaganda, the Brexiters soon pitched theirs in the gutter of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee racism. The two leading lights from the Tory right – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were happy to echo UKIP’s Nigel Farage in this scurrilous enterprise. Within a few days of the vote to leave the EU there has been a fivefold increase in reported racially-motivated hate crimes. [This kind of deliberately obtuse “national debate” leaves out, as it does in the US, the logical and inevitable repercussions of a longstanding criminal imperialist policy.—Eds]
The Right Wing Press and Brexit
In most elections the Tory party can rely on the support of most of the press. The Tories have always been very keen to keep on the right side of the press barons, just as Tony Blair, when he became prime minister was keen to assure Rupert Murdoch that his government was committed to neo-liberal capitalism. But in the referendum campaign, for reasons touched upon in the May 2nd Letter from London, pro-Tory papers with the largest circulations backed Brexit. Daily and Sunday newspapers with a combined circulation of almost nine million copies came out for British withdrawal from the EU. The only national newspapers strongly committed to remaining in, The Guardian, The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The Observer, have a combined circulation of just over two million. The pro-Brexit tabloid The Sun and Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail both played the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee card for all it was worth. While it would be wrong to suggest that press was entirely responsible for the outcome, it can hardly be claimed that the tendentious propaganda so many papers peddled on a daily basis had no effect.
The Left case for Brexit that was never heard.
A left case for Brexit was discussed in this column in May. Nothing remotely like it was put to the British electorate. Apart from one or two articles in The Guardian and a few leftist papers with tiny circulation, the media was dominated by what can only be described as propaganda on both sides. One looked in vain for anything that might explain the role of the European Union’s executive powers in promoting and imposing with patently disastrous results a neo-liberal austerity programme on its member states. There was no serious attempt to expose the undemocratic nature of this executive power elite. The campaign was led on both sides by different sections of the Tory party. The Brexiters were led by three charlatans, the old Etonian Tory Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Nigel Farage, the parvenu leader of UKIP. When early on the polls suggested that the ‘remain’ side was ahead, they ratcheted up the anti-immigrant, racist ballyhoo.
Small groups and some prominent individuals on the left made a principled case for Brexit at meetings and forums of one kind or another. They got no wider publicity and in effect finished up talking to themselves. The loudest and most influential voices for Brexit therefore came from the right wing Tory Europhobes, the Little Englander nationalists of UKIP and the neo-fascist racists to the right of them. A week before referendum day a young and much loved woman Labour MP, Jo Cox, was brutally murdered by a lone gunman who shouted ‘ put Britain first’ as he shot and stabbed her to death. This murder provoked shock and outrage and led to vigils, rallies and an outpouring of grief and sympathy for her bereaved family. The public mood was harnessed to the ‘remain’ campaign which Jo Cox had supported and it was widely believed that her murder would be decisive in producing a majority for ‘remain.’ Since the moment it became clear that the English and Welsh electorate had voted by 52% to 48% to leave the EU and won the referendum for Brexit, the murder of Jo Cox has hardly been mentioned in the media.
A few days ago the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was widely held to be the front runner in the bid to replace Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister, withdrew from the contest after having been betrayed by his close colleague, former justice secretary, Michael Gove, who has pushed himself forward as a candidate. Both these men are opportunists. Johnson is a superficial, unprincipled egoist motivated only by an obsessive pursuit of self-aggrandisement. Gove is an even lesser figure who has now been accused by one of Johnson’s Tory backers of being a security risk due to excessive drinking. This is the level to which the political ‘debate’ has sunk here since the 23rd June. But it now looks as though the successor to Cameron is most likely to be Theresa May, Home Secretary in the present government. She is also an opportunist but she possesses considerable skill in disguising it as principled commitment to addressing ‘the task in hand.’
Much more needs to be said about Jeremy Corbyn and the present critical situation in the parliamentary Labour party (PLP). The pressure to oust him from the leadership is intense and growing by the day. The problem for his enemies and critics is that he still has the support of the great majority of the party’s membership which has grown by 60,000 in the past week and now stands at 450,000. If the PLP forces a new election for leader while Corbyn is still in place he would automatically be a candidate and it is highly likely that he would win again. This his enemies know and that is the main reason why they are anxious to avoid such a contest.
Among the many questions that still need to be dealt with more fully if the outcome of the referendum is to be properly explained and understood, one requires urgent attention: why did so many of the poorest and most neglected working class voters in the de-industrialized, distressed parts of England and Wales, who were regarded as natural Labour supporters, vote to quit the EU despite the Labour party’s official appeal to vote to stay in? An attempt to address questions such as this will be made next time.
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