by Roger Silverman in London
The recent gyrations of the May government are descending into farce.
Trotsky once wrote that the British imperialists “do their thinking in terms of centuries and continents”. It seems hard to reconcile this majestic image of Victorian statesmanship with the antics of their descendants today. Centuries and continents? Nowadays the heirs to the British empire flee in xenophobic panic from their very own continent, and stagger on blindly from one day to the next. That’s the context of the collapse of Theresa May’s so-called “Chequers deal”, which, as Jeremy Corbyn says, “took two years to reach and just two days to unravel”.
Days of British Empire long gone
In the days of the British Empire, their ancestors had become virtuosi at playing off rival foes and fleeting allies in their maintenance of world domination. Two world wars and the collapse of their empire forced their descendants to accept a hobbled status as a subordinate patronised by US imperialism, their horizons curtailed to a couple of years at most. Their political runts of the present generation can see no further than their own noses, improvising with no more than a makeshift box of tricks from one stopgap stunt to the next.
The owners of whatever is left of productive industry in Britain know that their best interests lie in the EU, which after all offers them free access to lucrative markets and a ready supply of cheap labour. But it’s a long time since Britain was “the workshop of the world”. Manufacturing industry nowadays represents only a tiny fraction of British business, having been wilfully wrecked by a previous Tory leader, Mrs Thatcher, as a means of smashing the power of the industrial working class. It is hedge-fund speculators, property magnates and corporate money-launderers who constitute the real face of British capitalism today. Meanwhile, the billionaire media moguls who have no domicile and whose empires sprawl the English-speaking world are happy to feed their readers a constant diet of cheap xenophobia.
Demagogues like Johnson and Farage have used jingoistic bombast to conjure up the faded glory of British imperialism 150 years ago, when Britain was a “great trading nation” and “the workshop of the world”, and ruled “an empire on which the sun never sets”. It is a cruel fantasy.
Ever since the wilful destruction of British industry by Thatcher’s government in the 1980s – a deliberate policy to smash the power of the trade unions, cheerfully maintained under Blair’s subsequent “New Labour” government – the old manufacturing base of the British economy has gone. There are virtually no shipyards, coal mines or steelworks left, and the only car plants are assembly lines for foreign manufacturers reliant on parts from and sales to Europe. The only heavy industry that survives is owned by foreign companies which had strategically targeted a British location for no other reason than precisely as a stepping stone into the European market. Once Britain leaves the EU, these companies will inevitably pull out. All that is left is the banks, whose crooked practices have already plunged the economy into catastrophe. Meanwhile, the sharp fall in the value of the pound will send the price of fuel, food and other essentials sky-high. Brexit will bring in its wake the added horrors of mass unemployment and soaring inflation – both of them problems which the British economy had avoided up to now since the 2008 recession.
Britain a money laundering tax haven
Britain is now little more than just another money-laundering tax haven offshore island, siphoning up the dirty money of the world’s oligarchs and gangsters into a booming property market that shuts out the local population from any hope of ever buying or even renting any living space. Britain will end up as just another island off the European coast, like Guernsey: a theme park, perhaps, living off guided tours round the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s birthplace.
It was an act of breathtaking irresponsibility for Britain’s last prime minister, the Old Etonian “toff” David Cameron, to frivolously gamble away the strategic interests of his class by fobbing off the UKIP rabble with the rash promise of a referendum, without the slightest inkling of how to win it. When he lost, the very next day he simply walked away, leaving his former colleagues to cope with its poisonous mandate.
From Thatcher to Cameron to May!
Cameron was rightly judged the most disastrous British prime minister so far. But his successor Theresa May has been even worse. She tries to model herself on the Tory icon Margaret Thatcher – a decisive leader of her class who had single-handedly privatised whole swathes of the economy, destroyed its manufacturing base, and ruthlessly curbed the trade unions. It’s a laughable facade. Mimicking Thatcher’s shrill voice and imperious tone, but lacking any trace of her strategic vision or will-power, May looks like nothing more than a pantomime puppet, a cardboard cut-out parody of the “iron lady”. Her most notable achievement within a year of taking office has been to wantonly throw away the Tories’ first parliamentary majority since 1992.
But compared to the ambitious rival breathing down her neck, even May looks principled and statesmanlike. On the eve of the referendum, Boris Johnson drafted two alternative articles, for and against Brexit, before making up his mind which side he was on. Later he wished that Trump instead of May was negotiating with the EU. At the recent Chequers Cabinet meeting, he elegantly described May’s Brexit plan as a “turd” before gallantly promising to “polish” it and support it wholeheartedly. Then he resigned and denounced it.
Strangely, we have just seen a projection of the nostalgic fantasy of Brexit in the football World Cup, in which for a moment the England team looked almost capable of recapturing its bygone glory days. Salivating at the prospect of a momentous encounter with France at the finals, the sports columnists were busily scouring the internet for patriotic quotes: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”, perhaps? Or: “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George’”?
On the football field, a brutal reality has prevailed. And on the political plane, in the antics of the government, instead of historical drama we have slapstick farce: not so much Shakespeare, more Laurel and Hardy.
Britain has entered into a dangerous, volatile period. Both traditional political parties are on the verge of splits. There could well be sharp lurches to right and left, strikes, riots, even uprisings… and also the election of a left Labour government, and the chance at last to begin to shape a new future for Britain and Europe.