Oppose Johnson’s little-Englander Brexit

Photo: No 10

The controversial UK Internal Market Bill passed it second reading with a majority of 77 in the Westminster Parliament on 14 September.[1].

There had been a chorus of disapproval in mainstream politics after the Bill was published the previous week. The Tory Northern Ireland minister shocked some observers when he confirmed that sections of the Bill, dealing with overturning sections of the so-called ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ of the EU Withdrawal Act, would “break international law” in a “very specific and limited way”. 

This became the overwhelming point of debate and criticism in the media. A procession of the ‘ghosts of Christmas Past’ of the five living former UK Prime Ministers was wheeled out against the bill. Tony Blair and John Major appeared together in the Sunday Telegraph, while statements also came from David Cameron, the architect of the 2016 Brexit referendum, along with attacks on Johnson from Gordon Brown and Theresa May.

Mike Picken examines the background and explains why this Bill represents an entirely consistent part of the Tory Brexit process that Socialist Resistance has repeatedly attacked from the left.

Massive vote by for Bill

Despite the wheeling out of Tory Brexit grandees to oppose Johnson – including former leader Michael Howard, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont and former Brexit deal Attorney General Geoffrey Cox – over 330 Tory MPs and seven members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) trooped into the voting lobbies to give the Bill a massive majority for its second reading.

Only two Tory MPs voted against with all the opposition parties, with 10-20 absent. Despite the noises which has forced the minor concession from Johnson that any proposed breach of international law would need a specific parliamentary vote, the Bill is set to be passed largely intact.

With Labour leader Keir Starmer in self-isolation, former Labour leader Ed Miliband led the official opposition with an uncharacteristic witty and pointed series of attacks on Johnson’s character. But he ultimately failed to set out a strategy for building resistance to what the bill represents.  

Labour MPs fell over themselves to argue that breaking international law was “so wrong” and that the “proud nations of the United Kingdom” had an exemplary record of upholding international law.  Labour invoked not just the gang of five former PMs and the current dissident bit-part playing Brexiteers, but also tried to claim the legacy of Tory leaders like Winston Churchill, Harold McMillan and even Margaret Thatcher, in a forlorn attempt to win over the massed ranks of new Tory MPs. 

No one mentioned the “proud” record of the UK upholding international law including the 1956 Suez invasion, military support for the Korean war, MI6 and military intervention in Borneo in the 1960s, the forced removal of the Chagos Islanders in the 1970s, UK support for Pinochet junta during the 1980s, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Labour argued that the Good Friday Agreement was “under threat” from the Tories, though it fell to a newly elected SDLP MP from the six counties to point out that the DUP had stood outside Stormont protesting against the ‘betrayal’ of unionism allegedly represented by the agreement that they and the Tories now claim to be defending against the EU. .

Nicola Sturgeon rightly called the Bill an “abomination” and the Westminster SNP,  Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Alliance MPs and a few Welsh Labour representatives repeatedly pointed out  how the Bill represents a massive ‘power grab’ by the Tories against devolution that will be overwhelmingly rejected by the elected representatives in the devolved institutions.

It was not difficult to see why the feeble attempt at ‘reasoned argument’ by the Labour leadership made so little impact on the massed rank of Tory MPs. Alongside the longstanding swivel-eyed ultra right wing stalwarts of the Brexit-obsessed European Research Group now running the Tory Party, many of the 100+ newly elected Tory MPs made the same tedious speech: the EU is a bad thing that’s trying to destroy our wonderful union and we need to show it that we mean business because the British people voted for Brexit, etc etc.  It really felt that the Thatcherite Monday Club, DUP, ERG, UKIP and Brexit Party had all merged into one to become the Parliamentary Conservative Party.

Tory Brexit strategy

Johnson’s lazy oafish behaviour and specious posturing must not distract from the way the Tory Party and ruling class strategy has been reoriented around the project of implementing a destructive Tory Brexit. 

The UK Internal Market Bill is one of a number of key legislative measures to implement Tory Brexit.  The Immigration Bill [2] will end 47 years of ‘free movement’ from the EU and aims to keep all but wealthy foreigners out, even if it means public services and businesses grinding to a halt alongside the lorry queues outside the channel ports caused by a ‘no deal’. 

Tory Brexit is not a project to defend “national parliamentary sovereignty, but one that reinforces right wing xenophobic Unionism in favour of free market economics and the destruction of working class resistance. 

Some ‘Lexiteers’ still cannot see the wood for the trees. Writing in the Morning Star last week, Communist Party of Britain International Secretary John Foster argues that it is a really good thing that Britain has left the EU as it now means that ‘state aid’ can be directed at propping up industry.  This completely ignores the fact that no UK government ever spent up to the limits of EU state aid, The much heralded free trade agreement with Japan includes even tighter controls over ‘state aid’ than the EU were demanding!

Tory Brexit is the latest phase in a process that has enveloped the Tory Party since the referendum in 2016, which we described at the time as the ‘UKIPisation of the Tory Party’, and against which there has been far too little opposition. The strategists behind this are not just Johnson himself, but Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. Their political inspiration comes from the extreme right in the USA and the ideology of Steve Bannon. 

Seeds sown in December 2019

The seeds of the passage of these bills were sown in the Westminster general election of December 2019 and the EU Withdrawal Act passed subsequently implementing formal withdrawal from the EU on 31January 2020 and a transition process ending on 31 December 2020. 

The December election  represented the triumph of a political strategy to convert the Tory Party into the final deliverers of a reactionary Tory Brexit policy, pitted against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. This electoral triumph was however based on a thoroughly biased electoral system – the Tories could get a large majority of MPs in the Westminster parliament on a minority of votes, barely changed from what they achieved in the ‘hung parliament’ outcome of 2017. 

The newly elected Johnson government is single-mindedly driving the process of Tory Brexit as its key project.  Leaving the EU on 31 January was only the first stage.  Central to the project is the negotiation of a trade deal on their terms with the EU, so that from 1January 2021 the UK can shed itself of the last vestiges of EU cooperation and instead align the UK economy with Trump’s America and the Far East.

The only way it can do this is by a race to the bottom in trade in low quality cheap goods and foods, while strengthening the hand of UK finance capital to operate and make global super-profits through the City of London.  The withdrawal agreement with the EU and the Northern Ireland Protocol is an obstacle to that and so the Tories want to break with it. 

The demands for devolution of previous EU-based spending from the Scottish SNP and Welsh Labour governments also conflict with that, so the UK Internal Market Bill aims to centralise economic and fiscal power in the Westminster government.  The Tories are counting on their “Get Brexit Done!” majority at Westminster to implement this.  They have realigned with the DUP to overturn the need for an arrangement with the EU over the border in Ireland.

The Tories are also counting on the political weakness of Labour leader Starmer to offer only verbal parliamentary opposition and on the disempowerment of the SNP Scottish Government and the Welsh Labour government through measure like the UK Internal Market Bill and the promotion of the “UK Government” as the spending driver of economic recovery across the devolved areas.  

They are counting on Labour’s traditional commitment to maintaining the union of the United Kingdom and  on a UK government constitutional veto on a Scottish Independence referendum.

It’s a high-risk strategy. 

They are so focussed on Brexit that they make mistake after mistake over the pandemic; failing to take the necessary public health steps to bring it under control.  The impending collapse of the testing system and the continuation of local lockdown measures are leading to a rise in support for Labour in the polls. 

They gamble on there being no UK general election for four and a half years to threaten their massive and inflated Westminster majority. They are fuelling the movement for Scottish Independence, currently consistently showing 55% – but are confident they can refuse a referendum. 

They risk creating trade and border chaos in Ireland and increasing the momentum towards a Border Poll and Irish reunification – but rely on the DUP and control over any Border Poll mechanism.  The Good Friday Agreement, despite claims that it represents a democratic outcome, actually contained no mechanism for the population demanding a Border Poll – whether or when to call a poll and on what basis is totally up to the UK government, which will give a veto to the DUP despite them being the only major party to vote against the Agreement back in 1998.

There are several things that can set the Tories back.  Johnson, Gove and Cummings are clearly in charge, but there is rumbling discontent that could blow up within the Tory Party in the way that it did against Thatcher and the poll tax.  A parliamentary political crisis cannot be ruled out, particularly when the going gets tougher.

Opportunity for fightback

The ‘no deal ’ Brexit the Tories are lurching towards on 1 January will create havoc with mass redundancies and chaos in medications and goods. The ending of the furlough scheme in November will also lead to a scale of mass unemployment not seen since the 1980s and massive attacks on wages .  The forthcoming change of leaderships in three big unions must be used to build the opportunity for resistance – including building confidence for industrial action. Union membership has swelled during the pandemic with some unions reporting growth of tens of thousands of new members anxious about their future livelihoods.  There will be opportunities to lift the lid and build a struggle.  Labour must be pressed by its mass membership, who have in the main stayed in the Party in England and Wales despite the passing of the Corbyn era, to encourage and vigorously support any industrial resistance.

The growing mass movement for Scottish Independence needs to break out of the straitjacket imposed by the SNP of a referendum authorised by the Tories and find new forms of struggle.  The Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021 will focus attention on the democratic demand for a referendum, but the inevitable refusal by the Tories needs to be met by a wave of civil disobedience. Polls consistently show 30-40% support by Labour voters for independence

 In Wales, experience of the pandemic is reflected in a recent poll showing the highest ever support for independence.A majority of Labour voters now support an independent Wales. The Labour Party must be forced to support self-determination and the break-up of the UK state.

The chaos of a border in Ireland must be resisted and a new momentum for reunification supported.

The left that supported Brexit needs to think again and ditch the idea that there is anything progressive about the current Tory Brexit project. 

The battle against the Tory Brexit has many facets but must be taken up with both understanding and vigour in the coming weeks and months.

Notes

[1] The full title of “UK Internal Market” Bill is important – current press coverage repeatedly drops the “UK” description and even supposedly well-informed commentators mistakenly pluralise it as “Internal Markets Bill”, when the whole point of the Bill is to create a single market for the whole of the UK state under the direct control of the Tory UK government overruling the devolution process.  The factual details of the Bill and links to the exact wording can be found here and  here

[2] Technically it is called the “Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill”.  There’s a factual House of Commons Library briefing here and a counter-briefing from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) rejecting the Bill as “damaging to the fundamental rights of migrants” here.

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