Britain to Vote on Leaving or Staying in European Union

(Introduction: On June 23, Britons will vote on whether to stay in or leave the European Union. There are a couple of points for US workers to think about:

  • In the first place, the very fact of the vote shows the extreme weakening of the grip the two main parties (the Conservatives and Labour) have over British politics. We, here, are seeing something similar with the fracturing of the Republican Party.
  • Second, the campaign to leave – which is currently leading in the polls there – is led by far right wing xenophobes. If that vote succeeds, it will not only strengthen them there in Britain, it will do the same here in the US. As the Wall St. Journal points out, “Boston’s (England) debate echoes that seen in the U.S., where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been preaching American renewal, more immigration controls and taking on the Washington establishment.” 

Below, Julian Silverman explains what’s happening in Britain:

The referendum taking place next week over whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union has stripped bare the political crisis of British capitalism. The repercussions could spell, literally, the end of the Tory party, the end of the British “United Kingdom”, and the end of the European Union.

One, at least, of Lenin’s conditions for revolution has been met. The ruling class cannot go on ruling the old way. And the middle class is volatile and increasingly hostile to the establishment.

Conservatives in Majority

British Prime Minister David Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron

Last year the Conservatives found themselves unexpectedly with an absolute majority in the House of Commons. They had no choice but to form a government. Meanwhile, outflanked in ‘neoliberalism’, demagogery and xenophobia by UKIP (the “United Kingdom Independence Party – a far right, xenophobic party) they had promised a simple referendum ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’ of the European Union and – when pushed – had had to give a date.

Opinion polls then were largely non-committal and tended rather towards remaining IN. No doubt the Tory hierarchy thought they could stitch up a speedy apparent ‘reform’, mumble a few comforting patriotic platitudes, surrounded by undecipherable statistics – talk of GDP and single markets etc., relying on general ‘apathy’ and unwillingness to step into the unknown, and thus despatch the Brexteers without much fuss.

Britain’s rulers needed immigrant labour. They needed it as cheap as they could get.

[Incidentally, not only do the immigrant workers disproportionately care for our old, sick and disabled, at little cost, but, being predominantly of working age and ready to work, they also give Brits better, cheaper public services – since they bring in £millions more in taxes than they use.]

They needed the immigrants as workers but they needed them as scapegoats too. Whether immigrant or native British, low wages cannot keep the workforce alive. So, to keep their system running, the government is forced to subsidise bad employers and top up wages. (Tescos, the massive super-exploiting supermarket chain gets £385 million a year). This is called ‘in-work benefit’.

Cameron tries to stitch up deal
In order to appease both the screaming right and his EU colleagues/rivals at the same time, Prime Minister Cameron demanded from the EU a rule delaying immigrants in-work benefits for four years. This was not accepted, since it would have breached the principle of free movement of labour. Faced with European hostility to the Tories’ demands on immigration, for yet further deregulation and special privileges for British ‘financial services’, Cameron rushed across European capitals trying to stitch up one-to-one deals with individual governments.

He came back with nothing [apart, it seems, from some token – and unpublicised – ‘improvements’ to London’s financial dominance] But Cameron was a more than self confident professional liar, born to privilege, connections and money and trained in how to build on them at England’s elite private school, Eton. He had ‘worked’ as a Public Relations consultant. He had no reason to believe that his bread would not continue to fall butter-side up.

Decline in British economy
But he returned to office last year when, largely as a result of his last five years of office, manufacturing had actually declined, a fact which the government’s own ‘Office of Budget Responsibility’ read as a sign of “a coming crash”. Manufacturing represents no more than 8% of the British economy, but the Service industry was also declining. GDP was growing very little, and was to rise by no more than 0.4% in the first quarter of 2016. Estimates of productivity dropped and the OBR called previous optimistic reports “a false dawn”. Standard & Poor down-graded UK credit rating to ‘negative’ [from AAA] based precisely on the risk of exit from the EU.

Privatization and cuts
Meanwhile the population was rising. Each new baby had to be clothed, fed, housed, and taught before it could become a customer, worker or little entrepreneur. Then there were the disabled, the workless, the sick….Despite shifting much of the burden on to local authorities, while cutting down their funds and powers, despite NHS (National Health Service) and school privatisations and welfare caps [limits on benefits regardless of need] despite destroying centres and help for the mentally sick and despite the cuts and privatisation of care for the elderly, ‘welfare’, pensions and health care remain the three top drains on government spending., and the old stubbornly refused to die off quickly enough to save the government from budget irresponsibility. As one poor woman [a Brexiteer] said: “Never mind where they come from, we just can’t cope with more people………We won’t be any better off if we leave, but it’s our children…”.

"Welcome to hell" Poverty in Britain has reached epidemic proportions.

“Welcome to hell”
Poverty in Britain has reached epidemic proportions.

The Tory leadership were ready for action. They prepared for the most massive onslaught on the poor and on workers that had been seen in many generations. They promised to cut all public services by a total of £12 billion, they made massive plans to cut disability allowances, they tried to impose a new work regime on all hospital doctors, they refused to take in even orphan refugee children with relatives in Britain, to throw out the [International] Human Rights statutes, cut the police force and bring in a new Trades Union Bill’ which would impose the harshest possible ballot and picket restrictions and effectively all but destroy their powerful link to the Labour Party. It was a fellow Tory who declared that this would take the unions back to their role in Fascist Franco’s Spain!

Tory Revolt
But there was a revolt. The very minister who had prepared the killing welfare reforms announced his resignation during the budget debate. He claimed he couldn’t go along with such attacks on the poor and vulnerable. [He went on to become one of the leaders of the OUT campaign]. The Tory (Conservative Party) establishment was running scared. A combination of Labour, Scottish Nationalists and an ever-increasing and ever more vocal band of Tory dissidents combined to force the government to withdraw every one of these projects – as well as others like increased liberalisation of Sunday trading, and relegalising fox hunting. The Tory establishment could not go into a referendum as such an overt and obvious enemy of the people whose interests they were claiming to want to serve.

Boris Johnson & background

Their opponents were no rosy kindly liberals. Like Cameron, the leading OUT Tory minister Boris Johnson went to school at Eton and joined the aristocratic Bullingham Club at Oxford. Ministers Duncan Smith and Michael Gove were directly responsible for welfare cuts and privatisations. Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing xenophobic party UKIP was a millionaire commodities trader.

UK Independent Party. Longing for a return to the days of British colonialism.

UK Independent Party.
Longing for a return to the days of British colonialism.

The campaign started low-key, slow and boring. It was as though we were being asked to act as unpaid auditors to “Britain plc”, and the debate was conducted in grandiose abstractions (“sovereignty”, “democracy”, “control of our own borders”. Soon, the invective increased without any corresponding rise in wit, as it descended to sheer Tory vs Tory nastiness: increased invective but no increase in wit. “You’re just polishing poo” said one, among similarly elegant use of words like “shit”, “crap” and worse.

Capitalist establishment unites
The initial response of the newly-elected left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was: “This is a squabble between Tories”. Later he was edged into taking up a relatively progressive position, refusing to join Tory platforms and emphasising the risk to workers’ hard-won rights. Meanwhile, under increasingly strident anti-immigrant propaganda from the OUT side, Labour panicked and adopted the uninspiring slogan “Labour: better IN for Britain!” and issued posters saying simply “VOTE REMAIN”. Some Labour MPs appeared on the same platform with Cameron. Cameron is in effect using Labour to keep his job. The Labour right is colluding with the Tories, just as they did in Scotland – thus losing at the last election every parliamentary seat they had in Scotland, bar one. The archbishop of Canterbury, the EU bosses, Obama, the banks, etc., all say one thing (helped by Blair, Brown and others who imagine they still have some influence). But the more they panic, the more workers see the combined establishment ranged on one side and they on the other.

Left Groups
Most of the left groups scoff at those who fear the consequences of a victory for the LEAVE camp for their “lack of confidence in the power of the British working class to fight back”. They for their part can equally be accused of a lack of confidence in the power of the European working class to mount an international struggle against the EU.

Cohesion of Working Class vs. “Leave” Campaign
Anything that weakens the cohesion of the working class is a weapon in the hands of the ruling class. A victory for the LEAVE campaign, which is firmly under the leadership of the most vicious enemies of workers’ rights – Johnson, Farage, Gove, and Duncan Smith – will grossly aggravate the political conditions in which socialists and worker activists are struggling. This campaign has already brought to the surface among millions of the more politically backward strata the vilest prejudices long festering in the rotting heritage of British imperialism. A victory for Brexit will herald an orgy of xenophobia and racism; a plague of verbal and physically violent street attacks on migrants and minorities; it will be a carnival of tub-thumping monarchism and chauvinism.

"Kill All Muslims" Spray painted sign on a Muslim-owned shop in Britain. If the "leave" campaign succeeds, attacks on immigrants in Britain will get even worse.

Kill All Muslims
Spray painted sign on a Muslim-owned shop in Britain. If the “leave” campaign succeeds, attacks on immigrants in Britain will get even worse.

Foreign Investors
Foreign investors now own close to £1tn worth of shares in UK-domiciled companies. Around 53.8% of shares in UK-based companies, worth some £928.6bn (€1.3bn, $1.4bn), were held by investors outside Britain in 2014, up from 53.6% in 2012 and 43.4% in 2010. (In the early 1980s, less than 5% of British shares were held by overseas investors. The manufacturing sector, which accounted for 25% of gross domestic product in 1979, now accounts for less than 10% – less the financial sector. The value of UK-owned foreign assets is less than the value of UK assets that are in foreign ownership. There is now a net flow abroad of interest payments, dividends and profits.

Most of Britain’s infrastructure is now in foreign ownership. This includes seaports, airports, power stations, railways and buses, water companies and much else besides. Large swathes of manufacturing industry are also now in foreign ownership. This includes the car industry, steel industry, cement manufacturing industry, a large proportion of the food processing industry, and Britain’s aerospace industry…. is passing into foreign ownership.

“National interest” and bashing workers
Of course this is more than balanced by the foreign investments by British firms. British capitalists do not worry over the nationality of the people they extract their profits from! Neither businesses nor their subject populations are overly concerned with national borders. What it shows is that ‘national interest’ is just business-speak for deregulation, union bashing, tax laxity etc.

This global profit-lust is inevitable irrespective of the EU. Last year the IMF leaders themselves reminded us that 85 individuals owned more than the world’s poorest 3.5000,000,000 half of the world’s population.. But in one year things have moved on again: now Oxfam reckons it’s 62.

Fight one country at a time?
So the question for us is how do we free ourselves from rule by these remote but ever-present vast powerful forces? Even if the monumental struggle in Greece had not shown us, a simple reckoning of the balance of forces would have shown us that it is impossible to escape from – still less to defeat – our oppressors one country at a time.

The referendum gives us the opportunity to put forward our vision for how the immense wealth of natural and human resources of Europe could be used for our mutual benefit. And we have valuable allies in the trade unions, activist groups, the various anti-austerity movements and parties across the continent. Labour should be among those making links with these people and join them in calling for a conference and coordinated campaign to work out and enact a strategy to take us towards reaching these goals.

As our recent resolution explains:

“‘Austerity’ is an international phenomenon: the chosen method of Europe’s financial rulers to uphold corporate profits – causing monstrous inequality, ruining hundreds of millions of lives across the continent. Recent events in Greece prove once again that it can only be defeated by concerted action of the peoples of each country.

Europe’s assets have been valued at €155,000,000,000,000. 24 million people are registered unemployed, countless millions more under-employed.

We call upon the Labour leadership to make positive use of the opportunity of the EU referendum to mount a positive campaign for a socialist Europe which can use its immense human and natural resources for the common good.

To this end we call upon the leadership to prepare to link up with the political parties, trades union and activist groups across Europe who support our aims, with a view to working out a common set of goals, and a strategy to achieve them.”

Since we put up this article, the Wall St. Journal printed an article about this vote in UK. They make it clear that the debate over this issue has little or nothing to do with workers rights and everything to do with immigration. They toured the English town of Boston with a retiree and describe his comments: “That’s not English, that’s not English, that’s not English,” the 57-year old retiree said, gesturing to various shops around the town. “It’s all gone.” They also write: “Pollsters in the U.K. identify unease over immigration as a critical determinant of how likely a voter is to cast their ballot in favor of leaving the EU. More than 40% of voters backing Brexit said immigration was the most important factor in deciding how they will vote…”

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