United Against Tory Brexit

It doesn’t matter how socialists voted in the 2019 referendum, argues Phil Hearse. What matters now is unity against the nationalist-racist Brexit of the Tories.

So as far as the Left is concerned, the people have voted for Brexit, so let’s just do it, right?

Wrong. Whatever position left-wingers had on the 2016 referendum, the no-deal Brexit the Johnson government is crashing towards would be a disaster for the working class. Opposition to Tory Brexit must be part of any united movement on the Left.

‘No deal’ is part of a process of trashing environmental standards and workers’ rights, and freeing up the NHS for sale to US health corporations. It is also central to assault on migrants and asylum-seekers, as well as EU citizens living in Britain. And in true Tory philistine fashion, it is shutting the door on a swathe of cross-European scientific and health research collaboration. The refusal to collaborate wholeheartedly with the EU on vaccine research and acquisition amounts to aiming both barrels of a shotgun at your feet.

One left-wing ‘Lexiteer’ said in January 2017 that ‘… this historic moment gives us a chance to pose a totally different scenario, one which benefits working people rather than the rich, which creates decent public services and develops jobs and work practices which are not part of the race to the bottom which characterises the neoliberal EU.’[1]

Things have not turned out that way. Victory in the June 2016 referendum enabled Johnson in December 2019 to pose the general election as a democratic issue of ‘get Brexit done’. What is on the agenda now is a series of anti-working class and anti-migrant measures wrapped up in Union-Jack patriotism. The only kind of exit on offer now is nationalist-racist Tory Brexit.

When David Davis was the minister for exiting the EU, right-wing Tory MP Peter Bone asked in Parliament what would happen to EU labour and environment regulations after Brexit. Davis replied that when Britain left they would all be transferred into British law. Bone replied that they could all be abolished – to general hilarity from the Tory benches and enthusiastic agreement from Davis. That is what is on the cards.

The Brexit scrapheap

So what’s going to be trashed? The right of part-time and irregularly employed workers to paid holidays was always opposed by the Blair government, but was imposed by the EU in 2001. Also in the Brexit line of fire is the whole Working Time Directive, which sets 48 working hours as the maximum. There are plenty of get-outs of course, and in Britain notably for domestic servants working in private households and for police, army, and security workers. Nonetheless the working time directive sets a legally-enforceable framework for millions of workers, and the Tories want rid of it.

EU law establishes minimum daily and weekly rest-periods, a minimum four weeks’ paid holiday, the right to union consultation for group redundancies (more than 20 people), and minimum standards for health and safety at work. All for the Brexit scrapheap.

Tory Brexiteers argue that unshackled from EU trade deals Britain could trade according to ‘WTO rules’, i.e. outside any specific international trade agreements. In reality, only a few countries like Madagascar and Micronesia are in that unfortunate situation, which ensures that all trade is subject to tariffs. And Johnson/Cummings Britain will in fact seek a trade deal with the United States ASAP. That way lies catastrophe for workers and regulatory standards.

In a trade deal with the United States there is no doubt who will have the whip-hand. US aims have been outlined with alarming bluntness in a US government documnent. This is an extraordinary text which essentially demands that Britain acts in accordance with US diktats. A key example is the requirements placed on state-operated or -controlled enterprises (SOEs). These include:

a) Ensuring that SOEs accord non-discriminatory treatment with respect to the purchase and sale of goods and services.

b) Ensure that SOEs act in accordance with commercial considerations with respect to the purchase and sale of goods and services.

c) Ensure strong subsidy disciplines applicable to SOEs, beyond the disciplines set out in the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM Agreement).

d) Require that SOEs not cause harm to the United States through provision of subsidies.

e) Require that SOEs not cause harm to the domestic industry of the United States via subsidised SOE investment.

f) Ensure impartial regulation of SOEs, designated monopolies, and private companies.  

F ) Provide jurisdiction to courts over the commercial activities of foreign SOEs.

Don’t be fooled by the matter-of-fact language. This demands open access for US firms to all UK state contracts, which must be based on commercial criteria alone. The NHS, of course, is a state-operated enterprise. Donald Trump’s later-corrected statement that ‘everything is on the table’ in a US-UK trade deal was right the first time. The ‘jurisdiction to the courts’ is a particularly pernicious requirement. Whose courts? In which country? Given the propensity of US courts to see their writ running worldwide, this is a scary demand.

The demand for ‘strong subsidy disciplines’ means British state subsidies to state enterprises must be minimal because they could do ‘harm to the United States’.

This is just one aspect of the document, which time and again demands free access for US corporations on the basis of commercial criteria only – i.e. ignoring any damage to UK workers, industries, or communities. It also proposes joint oversight committees to ensure UK compliance.

NHS in extreme danger

In June this year, Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced an amendment in Parliament to prevent foreign ownership of the NHS after Brexit. It called for:

  • Ensuring the ability to provide a ‘comprehensive and publicly funded health service free at the point of delivery’ was not compromised by any future trade deal.
  • Protecting hard-working NHS staff from having their wages or rights slashed by any future trade deal.
  • Protecting the quality and safety of health and care services.
  • Regulating the control and pricing of medicines. Protecting patient data from being sold off.
  • Protecting the NHS from so-called ‘investor-state dispute settlements’ (ISDS) – clauses which allow foreign investors to sue national governments for any measures which harm their profits.

The Tories voted this down by 350 votes to 240. They at least are perfectly well aware that in a US trade deal the NHS will be on the table. The involvement of US health corporations will mean the more rapid advance towards a privatised two-tier health service, eventually to be buttressed by a (disastrous) US-style health insurance system.

The US will demand as part of any trade deal a harmonisation of heath and safety standards on food and agriculture. That means accepting US chlorinated chicken and meat treated with massive doses of antibiotics and hormones.

Migrant rights

A key aspect of Tory Brexit is limiting the right of EU workers to travel to and live and work in the UK. A raft of anti-migrant measures has flowed from the Brexit referendum outcome.

These include strict criteria for immigrant workers, who will generally have to have a job offer at £30,000 a year or more (which will exclude most people). EU citizens currently working in Britain can stay if they have applied for ‘Settled Status’ (for those who have been resident for at least five years) or ‘Pre-Settlement Status’ (if resident for less than five years). Those with only Pre-Settlement Status will not have an automatic right to welfare benefits.

Workers or other visitors remaining in the UK for more than six months will pay a £624 health premium for (possible) NHS treatment – despite having to pay the normal taxes that fund the NHS. Those with Settled Status who are not yet citizens will be liable to deportation for even minor crimes. And those wanting to bring their spouse or partner to the UK will have to show they an income of at least £18,000 a year.

The Brexit anti-migrant measures are part of the global ideological crusade against migrants. Authoritarian and far-right regimes are scapegoating minorities and migrants the world over. They peddle a pernicious racist lie – that ‘they’ are stealing ‘our’ jobs, undercutting ‘our’ wages, leeching of ‘our’ health and welfare services; that ‘they’ are somehow responsible for the rising unemployment, poverty, and social decay of a world capitalist system in crisis.

Inseparable from this is the militarisation of repression. Border controls, detention centres, deportation flights, and police raids directed against migrants are part of a wider crackdown on democracy, civil liberties, and human rights. The Brexit rubber-stamp on this is the Tories’ planso remove Britain from the remit of the European Court of Human Rights and to renounce the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the unfolding economic and social collapse, and the creeping fascism of the state, Tory Brexit represents a major assault on migrants, working people generally, and the natural environment. It no longer matters how left-wingers voted in 2016. The Lexit option is dead. It was killed by Labour’s election defeat in December 2019. The Left must now unite against the Brexit flagship of the Tory regime.

Phil Hearse is co-author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it. He is actively involved in Anti*Capitalist Resistance’s attempt to achieve regroupment on the revolutionary Left.


[1] https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18718-their-brexit-and-ours

7 Comments on United Against Tory Brexit

  1. Jonathan Pitts // 31st August 2020 at 4:43 pm // Reply

    I agree. In any event, the struggle for socialism must take place within the EU

  2. This is an excellent article. Those people who in 2016 supported leaving the EU on the basis that it is a bosses’ club have to acknowledge the real nature of the actual Brexit that is taking place.

  3. The problem is that Brexit was always a Tory controlled and managed project.
    the Lexiters are right when they say that Brexit offers the possibility to re write a sustainable agricultural policy, re set the UK trade relations with developing nations, create a non racist immigration policy, allow types of national monopoly nationalisation that are blocked by EU regulations and raise environmental standards.
    But that opportunity was never on the cards because it is not a Left wing labour Government that was negotiating with the EU but a Conservative one. It was not a left wing government that has been negotiating with the US but a Conservative one.
    What Brexit will really mean is that the left and the labour movement is going to be on the defensive for years, trying to defend environmental; animal welfare, the NHS, labour rights, migrant rights the list goes on and on. The huge neo liberal offensive that Brexit has allowed effectively means that a positive left wing agenda will be essentially put on hold while we try and defend the status quo. Only the most optimistic Bolshevik can believe we will all these battles, many will be lost. Far from an ideal situation to say the least.

  4. This article sets out very clearly and effectively some of the key issues we will need to fight the Tories on in the coming period. But to pose these questions as a campaign against a ‘Tory Brexit’ is not the best way to gain traction. It will be seen as abstract and irrelevant, not least because Britain has already left the EU. Campaigns can only mobilise around demands that can credibly be won, not around those that are perceived to be already lost. It would be better to campaign directly on the issues that arise from the Tory Brexit than to frame them in those terms. A campaign against a trade deal with Trump could gain traction because people recognise Trump as a far right racist ally of fascism, and because defending the NHS from further privatisation is a popular cause. A campaign for a trade deal with the EU that protects working and environmental conditions could gain traction because workers will see the point of it. Campaigns against British nationalism could also gain traction, for example around the demand to decolonise the curriculum, and for the removal of imperial statues. And campaigns to defend migrants and refugees are both necessary and winnable. But what is wholly unwinnable is a campaign at this late stage for … for what? A second referendum? Rejoining the EU without a referendum? What exactly is the demand behind opposition to a Tory Brexit?

    We have a problem of disunity on the left and we need to take it seriously. I fully understand the temptation of the gloating “we told you so” attitude to those who advocated Lexit in 2016 but what does it actually achieve? It won’t change anyone’s mind. An equally rational case can be made that calling for a second referendum is what lost the December election for Labour. The ruling class set aside its differences over Brexit in the interest of their class unity. We should do the same. And we should unite on the actual issues facing our class.

  5. Very strong analysis. Highly relevant for the EU debate in my party Enhedslisten/Red-Green Alliance in Denmark

  6. Derrick Hibbett // 5th September 2020 at 1:43 pm // Reply

    Anyone who is still banging on about how Labour lost the 2019 election because it failed to back Brexit sufficiently, is, unfortunately, a lost cause. By the same token so is anyone who wants the left (whatever that term actually means now) to focus on getting the UK to rejoin the EU. Fortunately the former group seems to consist of a small number of ageing stalinists, and I’ve yet to hear anyone advocating the second view. My advice to young comrades is not to listen too hard to the old left, they (we) have completely messed it up.

  7. I agree with everything that Phil says in this article. But I agree with Roy Wilkes that Phil’s conclusion, that we should ‘oppose a Tory Brexit’, is far too vague. In particular it says nothing about the government’s current negotiation with the EU on a future trading relationship; this has to be concluded in the next month, and the government is evidently going for no deal (as its fatuous proposal to break the Withdrawal Agreement makes clear). No deal means exit of Britain from the labour and environmental regulations which Phil rightly emphasises. It would also mean the collapse of manufacturing in Britain in the medium term, with corresponding massacre of jobs (which Phil for some reason doesn’t mention). As I argued in my article on this site three weeks ago, socialists should demand that the government agrees to remain in the Customs Union, thus protecting both jobs AND labour and environmental regulations. This was Corbyn’s position from 2016 to 2019. It is being argued now by the TUC and the major unions, and is the formal position of Starmer. We should strongly and unequivocally support the unions on this matter. Opposition to no deal with the EU and staying in the Customs Union should be the number one concern of socialists in the next few months.

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