Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

How Brexit ends

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Jonathon Shafi writes that no matter how serious the crisis of the British state represented by Brexit, it will be resolved either by the left or the right, and outlines what the socialist left’s resolution might look like.

The Brexit crisis is first and foremost a crisis of the British state and the Conservative party. It is a crisis unlike any other faced by the ruling class in modern political history.

Whereas before major threats to the power and domination of the British state were met with a unified, organisationally and ideologically coherent response, today we see an increasingly intractable division in key elements of the ruling class itself.

It is now openly admitted that further mishandling of Brexit may lead to serious splits, and electoral oblivion in many parts of the country for the Tory party – a party which has dominated British capitalism since before this country was a formal democracy. As recent YouGov polling shows, most Tory party members would see the implementation of Brexit even if it meant the end of the Tory party, Scotland becoming independent, or a united Ireland. The only thing they cannot countenance is a Corbyn government, about which more later.

Differences over Brexit in the Tory party itself reflect a strategic division and a split in neoliberalism. On the one hand, Thatcherism through a deregulated, low tax economy outside of Europe, and on the other, the continuation of the current ‘free market’ experiment in an EU rocked by recent instability and warped by German ascendancy.

This divergence is not easy to manage. But it is even more difficult to navigate when the Tory base, a large section of their voters and galvanising figures in the party are pursuing a strategy that is counterpoised to that of their traditional allies in the leading element of British capitalism. May proved incapable of managing the split. She knows that the interests of British capitalism and the geopolitical influence of the UK are not best served by a hard Brexit. Maintaining a semblance of coherence in these questions while balancing the demands of the Brexiteer Tories could prove impossible.

This is the challenge that the next Tory leader also faces. It is a mark of the deference that has engulfed political commentary in the UK that each new Tory figurehead is heralded as a diabolical genius, only to expose themselves as insufficient to the scale of the Brexit challenge in quick time.

How can a crisis of this scale be resolved? Many trite words have been spilled over feelings that ‘Brexit feels like it has been going on forever and will never end’ or words to that effect. But it will end. Crises of this kind are resolved either by manoeuvre from below; by the democratic forces in society, the broad labour movement and popular anger, or from above; by one or other elite stratagem.

The role of the corporate Remain lobby is to address the crisis on the terms of the mainstay of the ruling class. It is no surprise that Blair, Campbell and so on are leading voices in this operation. They want the return the prestige of the UK just as much as Farage. They want a Britian that can protect the ‘international rules based order’ just as they did with Iraq in 2003. They want to remain in the EU to entrench neoliberalism, and to wage a rear guard action against Corbyn.

In this way corporate Remain is an unstintingly British nationalist, and pro-imperialist project. Labour party deputy leader Tom Watson’s latest campaign “proudly British, proudly European” is exemplary of its politics. Rather than challenging the ideas of the burgeoning radical right, he triangulates towards them. Further normalising them, further generating the political framing which allows them to grow and flourish.

This is what the EU does at a transnational level. It incubates the far-right and provides it with ideological sustenance. Today’s racism, just as in the past, derives from the regime of elite institutions, not from primordial urges in the base of society. A ‘free movement’ institution predicated on a European racial identity and violently policed with border camps, arbitrary detention, beatings and the deaths of 40,000 refugees since the Maastricht treaty in 1993, was always likely to foster a re-organised far right.

It has been unedifying to watch even ‘leftwing’ Remainers become less and less critical of the EU. This is dangerous for many obvious reasons. But perhaps the most proximate danger is the way it aids the potential recovery of the pro-war, pro-austerity centre.

They have chosen resolution of the crisis on ruling class terms. It matters not at all that they have deluded themselves with the belief that one wing of the ruling elite (the dominant one) is somehow more progressive than another. This is not only wrong, it points to a spirit of class deference that clearly maintains a hold on portions of left opinion.

Such a pattern is not limited to the centre left SNP, or to figures like Green party leader Caroline Lucas. It extends to sections of the radical left. Most notably, the experience of Syriza shows where capitulation to the European institutions ends. Syriza finish their term of government piling more austerity and privatisation on to the Greek people than even their conservative antecedents. The result is the skewing of the anti-establishment mood away from the left and towards the nationalist right. Why would they turn to the left for answers, when the left in simply unwilling to challenge the structural power of the transnational institutions it claims to oppose?

The claims by leftwing commentators including Paul Mason and Ash Sarkar, that their Remain is an anti-neoliberal one, fall flat. They recognise that the EU is undemocratic and a means to rescale neoliberalism across the whole continent. That the EU, is an economic block, competing with China and America in a new scramble for Africa. That Greece was pulverised by the Troika. And that it reflects rather than counteracts the legacy of European colonialism.

Yet the argument goes that one might “Remain and rebel”. Can anyone seriously argue that a second referendum, leading a sustainable Remain vote, leading to a Corbyn government (not an entirely likely scenario, since Corbyn may well be deposed in the push to adopt a second vote position) could then feasibly lead to a challenge to the EU from a left British government? Only if one completely ignores the fact that there is a ruling class, determined to regain control, and that this ruling class has its international dimension rooted in the EU.


The entirety of the civil service in the UK, the European capitalist apparatus, their political organs and institutions – having received a shot to the arm – would immediately close ranks on any notion of a Corbyn led government offering anything remotely resembling a challenge. We would be in a wholly weakened position. And not only that, we would have for many, many years to come – in what is a long crisis of the system – have positioned the left as subservient to the structures of the status quo, leaving yet more terrain for the far-right to capitalise on.

Choosing one ruling class resolution to the crisis above another can only reframe politics as a split between vying elite strategies.

And this reframing will live a long life. In opposition to resolution by Remaining and shoring up the existing institutional life of British and European capitalism, the minority section of the elite will project Brexit as both the great repository of British democracy and national feeling, and the alternative to the decline of the British state.

The consequences of eliminating a resolution from the left will be damaging regardless of the elite solution arrived at. And any notion that some progressive spin can be applied to a ruling class resolution, either a second referendum, a Tory hard Brexit, or some form of managed or compromised Tory Brexit deal, should be abandoned immediately for an independent left position.

That independent position could garner mass support. British society is not, as some would pretend, short on leftwing feeling or anger at the ruling elite. Almost 13 million people voted in 2017 for the most leftwing leader the Labour party has ever had. Public opinion is overwhelmingly for economic reform in key areas. We have a recent history of massive social movement mobilisations, from the anti-war and anti-austerity movements to the independence movement in Scotland. Britain is one of the most pro-immigration countries in Europe and has so far proved one of the most resistant to the fascist right (a resistance that will be ruthlessly tested should politics collapse into petty ruling class competition).

There is simply no good reason why the whole left doesn’t demand a general election immediately upon the appointment of the new PM. Complaints that parliamentary arithmetic would not support an election belong to media commentators and others who do not know that very few items of contemporary society came into being because of majorities of MPs.

In this general election, and any movement required to bring it about, all of the aspects of the current regime of governance; austerity, an aggressive foreign policy, the housing crisis, the transport crisis, the deliberate underfunding of the NHS and much else besides, must come to the fore and be understood as the central antagonism in politics. In Scotland, the right of Scots to national self-determination must be demanded. If the SNP refuse to make this the focus of their campaign, the mass independence movement should take the lead.

Should a Corbyn-led government be won, it can then tear-up the rule book on Brexit negotiations. Corbyn can begin by addressing the working class not just of Britian, but of Europe. An honest account of the destruction done to working class living standards by the EU and it’s constituent national ruling elites across the continent would suddenly pose a challenge not only to the European ruling elite, but also to far right figures like Matteo Salvini in Italy. Suddenly there would be a left telling the truth about the destructive nature of the EU and committing to act against it.

Such a government could mobilise the left onto the streets and to activity in workplaces and communities in self-defence as it levelled its demands on the EU leadership, and begin a programme of domestic economic, social and political reform. It could prepare the economy for attacks by elite actors and institutions, sure in the knowledge that economic activities organised by markets can also be organised by the state – a fact strangely forgotten by too many on the left who view working class people as straw dogs at the mercy of institutions like the Single Market.

The demands of such a government on the EU leadership would depart entirely from those currently engaged. EU citizens rights would immediately be established. Immigration would could cease to be the neurotic concern and attention would be shifted onto a new settlement for British workers in rights and economic empowerment. Crucially, this government could counteract the vicious cycle of European politics, with neoliberals re-enforcing the far right, by demanding sweeping changes across the continent; the abandonment of restraints on public expenditure in Italy, the abolition of grotesque instruments of economic violence like the European Stability Mechanism. The centre left will howl that a British government would have no right to make such demands upon a union it sought to leave. But in an era where barbarism is accepted, even speaking heresy is powerful.

All the while, the British state itself would have to be engaged by movements. The civil service and other elements of the British permanent state would try to frustrate this entire national and transnational strategy. The independence movement in Scotland and the movement for a united Ireland could be key dynamics in this confrontation.

None of this would be easy, and all of it would drive a logic of escalation. But this is what a socialist movement in the 21st century would look like. Those who cannot imagine or accept politics on these terms have no hope of resolving the climate crisis or eliminating inequality or racism.

At the very least, this survey of possibilities provides the scope for independent action. The alternative to that independent stance is capitulation to the ruling class, and a future both unimaginable and all too proximate. We see in European politics today the germinal stage of that possible future – a continent where the corpse of fascism is being revived just decades after it nearly destroyed our civilisation. If that is possible, so is its opposite.

You may also be interested in ...

Would you like to read more?
Support our work
Donate now