The day marking the UK’s official departure from the EU is fast approaching, following December’s Brexit election which handed the Tories an 80-seat majority and with it the votes to comfortably pass Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill. Johnson’s deal has yet to receive the assent of the House of Lords or the European Parliament. Although these decisions were considered a formality, the Lords has just defeated the government by voting for EU citizens to receive physical proof of their right to remain in the UK post-Brexit. Tory MPs are likely to be whipped to overturn the Lords vote in the next week, clearing the way for the UK to meet the new deadline of 31 January and for Johnson to claim that he has delivered on his simple election pledge to ‘Get Brexit done’.
The government’s plans for ‘Brexit day’ include a special cabinet meeting in the north of England and the launch of a commemorative 50p coin. The Prime Minister will also give an address to the nation in the evening, followed by a countdown to 23:00 GMT (midnight CET). It is at this point that Brexit will become a legal reality and the Remain project, already politically dead as a result of the general election result, will be formally redundant. There are important battles to be fought during and beyond the 11-month transition period, over matters ranging from trade and regulatory standards to workers’ rights, security, agriculture, fisheries and the Irish question. But the scale of Johnson’s election victory has surely put paid to the notion of a People’s Vote and any illusions of returning to the status quo ante.
The parliamentary and extra-parliamentary British left
For the labour movement, the task ahead is one that will involve learning the right lessons of the past few years and building the fightback to shape post-Brexit Britain. In the wake of December’s crushing election defeat, Jeremy Corbyn pledged that the Labour Party would lead ‘the resistance’ to Johnson’s Tory government in the coming year and beyond. The nature of this resistance will be largely determined by whoever replaces Corbyn as party leader, with the leadership and deputy leadership contests essentially boiling down to a choice between a class-based politics built on the radical foundations of Corbynism and one that is more closely aligned with the parliamentary centrism of the Blair years.
Whoever becomes the next Labour leader will be charged with re-establishing the party’s once organic connection with working-class communities, not just those in the 52 Leave constituencies that were lost to the Tories but right across Britain. The longer term problem of organised labour’s industrial and political decline in large parts of the country was briefly arrested by the rise of Corbyn, but the circumstances of Brexit and the Labour Party’s response to it has ultimately served to compound those trends. The apparent weaknesses of the parliamentary left – in general terms but particularly in this mandate – should drive home the importance of building extra-parliamentary working-class institutions and struggles, be they focused on housing, health, climate action, migrant and ethnic minorities or the workplace.
Already we are seeing that five more years of Tory government are going to bring renewed attacks on trade unions and workers’ rights across the institutions of the state. Following the High Court decision to invalidate a ballot of 110,000 Royal Mail postal workers in favour of strike action, Johnson’s administration has now set out plans to effectively outlaw full-scale strikes in the transport sector. The trade unions concerned have vowed to resist these and any forthcoming measures designed to curtail basic trade union freedoms. But to succeed in fending off and ultimately reversing the Tory agenda these struggles will need to be part of a broader process of trade union organising and mobilisation, from the ‘upstart unions’ taking on the gig economy and outsourcing to more established unions and the TUC.
English Toryism and constitutional uncertainty
For the incoming Tory government, there are a range of complex legal and constitutional questions that are likely to pose significant challenges in the months and years to come. Obviously, the UK’s future relationship with the EU and other major economic and political powers such as the US has yet to be determined. But more fundamentally, the Brexit saga has brought to the fore debates over national identity, self-determination and the very future of the Union.
The Scottish independence debate has been reignited as a direct result of Brexit, Johnson’s electoral victory and the continued growth of the SNP. Senior SNP figures have admitted that the chance of a fresh independence referendum in 2020 is ‘likely nil’, something that Johnson confirmed in a recent letter to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The pollster John Curtice meanwhile has branded the case for a new referendum as ‘highly dubious’, citing figures which indicate that there is no clear majority for another ballot much less for Scottish independence. But as Curtice concedes, public opinion could shift dramatically based on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the British government. The continued pursuit of a distinctly English Tory agenda may yet collide with a resurgent extra-parliamentary movement for independence to force a significant confrontation.
Irish nationalists, republicans and liberal Unionists will be quietly happy with the content of Johnson’s deal since it removes the threat of a hard border and hands power to the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide on continued alignment with EU customs rules. One consequence of this is that talk of a border poll has receded, with republicans reverting to a longer term strategy for achieving Irish unity in the absence of a sudden rupture occasioned by Scotland. As Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast has argued, the recent New Decade, New Approach agreement to restore devolution in the region ‘goes some way towards’ assuaging Unionists’ main concerns regarding the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Britain. But there remains significant unease among sections of loyalism at what has been dubbed Johnson’s ‘betrayal act’, which still contains the possibility of some friction within the UK internal market.
The restoration of devolved power-sharing and the DUP’s loss of power at Westminster should act to remove some of the political instability that has co-existed with and exacerbated the negative impacts of Brexit on the north of Ireland. That the region’s five parties of government have inched closer to a consensus as to how Brexit should be managed is evident not only from the detail of the New Decade, New Approach agreement but also from the fact that they have joined the Welsh and Scottish legislatures in symbolically rejecting Johnson’s deal.
As with Scotland, the sustainability of devolution in Northern Ireland will largely depend on how the Tories decide to engage with the region going forward. Already there are signs of friction between the two administrations over the British government’s paltry financial contribution to Stormont, described by the new Finance Minister Conor Murphy as ‘an act of bad faith’ that will leave Northern Ireland in an ‘austerity trap’. This does not augur well for the prospects of sustainable government or social cohesion, given that Northern Ireland is already impoverished and its peace process beset with seemingly intractable problems. In this respect, Boris Johnson may yet be remembered as the midwife of radical constitutional and political change in Ireland.
The left in Europe
Turning to events further afield, 2019 brought mixed fortunes for the left in Europe. Electorally the first serious signs of trouble came in May, when the European Parliament elections restored control to forces of the centre-right and provided an indication of the left’s waning strength. The worrying implications of this realignment can be clearly seen with the vote against strengthening search and rescue efforts for refugees in the Mediterranean and the failure of the Parliament’s Green New Deal proposals to properly tackle the neoliberal agenda that lies at the heart of the EU project.
More significantly perhaps was the failure of the left to make serious advances in core European countries, one necessary pre-requisite of reforming the European economic and political system in a progressive direction. The traditional centre-left parties and radical left suffered reversals in several national contexts, from the UK and Greece to more peripheral states such as Romania. The radical right in Europe has not experienced the electoral surge that many predicted, however it has remained in government in places like Hungary while in November’s Spanish general election the far-right Vox party came in third with 15% of the vote. In Britain, the radical right has been consolidated into a Tory Party that has done much to legitimise the forces of racism and reaction in the past number of years. This is part of what Richard Seymour has characterised as the success of ‘disaster nationalism’ from Britain and the US to Israel, Turkey, India and Brazil.
That is not to say there haven’t been very tentative signs of optimism for the European broad left. In a number of post-communist nations the centre- and radical left have recorded a slight bounce in the polls against the expectation that they would continue to experience electoral collapse. In Finland, the mishandling of a postal strike by social democratic Prime Minister Antti Rinne was not enough to kill off the left-leaning government, if only because the other coalition parties were willing to support his 34-year-old deputy Sanna Marin in his place. Similarly, the Socialists in Portugal improved their share of the vote this year after a term of government with the Left Bloc, an experiment regarded by some as a poster child for what could be done differently within the EU. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Spain’s social democrats are now looking to replicate that experience by forming a government with their left-wing rival Podemos, the first action of which has been to declare a climate emergency and pledge ambitious measures to avert climate breakdown.
Outside of the parliamentary sphere, the most significant development of the past year has been the emergence of a youthful grassroots movement for urgent and far-reaching climate action. France meanwhile continues to provide the exemplar of militant trade union resistance against the Macron’s neoliberal reforms and police regime. What appears to be missing in France and across Europe is the formation of effective red-green alliances, be that on the streets or in the electoral arena.
The challenges of 2020 will not be radically different to those which lay in front of us at the beginning of last year. It is only in severity and scale that they have really changed. Accordingly, while the blog will continue to provide running commentary and analysis on the Brexit process, increasingly our focus will shift to the urgent battle to create an alternative that meets the combined threats of economic stagnation, neoliberal business as usual, trade union decline, climate breakdown and the radical right.
by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Originally published on 23 January 2020 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.