Max S assesses the meaning of Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament, and the prospects for the protest movement that has broken out against him
Despite everything that has happened over the last few years, many voters in the UK still do not identify, first and foremost, with the side that they supported during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Those who do identify politically in this way have been gradually polarised over the last few years, cleaving more and more tightly to their camp as the divisions have sharpened. The sense of political grievance felt by many Leave voters over the arduous delays of the Brexit process is now well-documented, and lay behind the sudden eruption of the Brexit Party in this year’s European elections. Directed at an elite and technocratic pro-Remain lobby, this sense of nationalist anger has many vicarious sympathisers on the radical left, including at the Morning Star, which has today published an editorial blaming the prorogation of parliament on “anti-Brexit MPs” who have refused to “honour the people’s vote to leave the EU.”
What is less well understood on the radical left is the counterposed anger that has built up in the last 3 years among many of those who voted Remain in 2016 (or who could not vote, as with most migrants and with people who were under 18 at the time, but who strongly supported that camp). There has been a general willingness to dismiss all active agitation against Brexit as the project of affluent technocratic liberals. There are many cases in which this characterisation holds water, but it becomes unhelpful when applied to all manifestations of anti-Brexit sentiment, and is an obverse of the equally unhelpful assumption that all active support for Brexit is driven directly by racist xenophobia.
With many thousands of people now taking to the streets against the prorogation of parliament, it is necessary for those of us on the internationalist left – who oppose both the British state and the European Union – to take a close and empathetic look at the motivations of those taking action.
Johnson’s actions have provoked such a marked response because they clearly show that he is now dabbling in a kind of authoritarian populist governance. After all, the claims of the pro-Brexit Tory right to possess a real democratic basis for their actions are manifestly absurd: their party has appointed two unelected prime ministers in a row, and has now suspended parliament via monarchical intervention so that a prime minister with a majority of one seat can ride roughshod over elected MPs. Nobody can seriously believe it “democratic” to carry out this course of action on the grounds of a very slight majority favouring some form of Brexit in a referendum held more than three years previously.
This dissonance – between the Tory Brexiteers’ claim to a democratic mandate, and the extremely tenuous factual reality underlying that claim – is highly instructive. It is absolutely not, as some have suggested, simply a product of deluded post-imperial nostalgia or nationalist senility, much as a figure like Jacob Rees-Mogg may tend to give that impression. The reality is far less innocent: by asserting that “the British people” monolithically demands the hardest possible form of Brexit, the Tory right are working backwards to fix in place a specific definition of who may or may not be included within “the British people”. We are not dealing with an empirical observation, but a statement of supremacist principle. The demographic fissures opened up by the referendum vote are being used to establish a racialised (mainly white), gendered (disproportionately male), and ideologically coloured (largely right-wing) bloc of the population – namely, the demographic base of the 2016 Leave vote – as the sole legitimate and sovereign subject in British politics.
For these figures on the Tory right, a “hard Brexit” is about much more than its own legislative content, and more than a potential trade deal with US capital. The manner in which they are carrying out the Brexit process is their way of trying to grasp their way towards the broad mode of right-populism which has brought Donald Trump to power in the US, sustained Viktor Órban in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India, and is contending strongly for power in Italy, France and elsewhere. The method of the populist right is usually not to try for strong support from the majority of the populace, but rather to lock in the support of a racialised and gendered bloc which is larger, more organised and more energised than any single oppositional social bloc can succeed in being. Sporadic bursts of repression and acts of petty autocracy serve to supplement this strategy by making it harder for opposition to crystallise. Johnson’s suspension of parliament is more driven at this stage by bluster and recklessness than by any far-right masterplan, but that does not change the fact that it represents a major step in this political direction. We should remember that the Trump campaign in 2016 was reportedly never intended to actually win, until it did so.
Having sight of this analysis can help us understand the sense of alarm that has driven the recent protests. Allowing for some exceptions, it seems clear that people identifying as Remainers are providing the main force to the current movement, but events have been far more spontaneous and organic than anything organised by the People’s Vote campaign or other mainstream Remain groups in the last 3 years. The seemingly sudden eruption of protest reflects a chronic resentment over the way in which the Tory right, Ukip and the Brexit Party have worked since June 2016 to expel opponents of Brexit from the British demos, casting them as inherently external to the process of expression of the national will.
It has been easy to disregard warnings to this effect when, as has often been the case, they have been raised by privileged white British Remainers with rigid liberal and Europhile views. However, the constituency of those excluded from Johnson’s “people” does not stop with this demographic, nor are they the primary potential victims of this political operation. With the formation of a hegemonic nationalist bloc represented by the government of the day, various largely proletarian groups – such as migrant workers, people of colour, and queer or trans people – are also collapsed into a category branded as hostile to the “will of the people”. By virtue of their incompatibility with the declared “popular” bloc, these demographics find themselves politically obscured, and compressed into an imaginary counter-bloc presided over by technocratic centrists.
Throughout this process, the input of the nationalist left – those socialists, like the Morning Star editorial board and perennial commentator Costas Lapavitsas, who have pitched their support for Brexit with reference to national “sovereignty” or “the will of the people”, and accepted the 2016 referendum result uncritically as a settled democratic mandate – has been much worse than useless. The central thrust of their arguments has legitimised and strengthened the Tory right’s project of constructing a British nationalist political bloc that can, in turn, be wielded politically as a monolithic “people”. Indeed, at times the full schematic of right-wing racial demagoguery, rather than just its starting premises, has been parroted by supposedly “left-wing” figures, as with the prominent trade unionist who bemoaned at a public meeting a few months back that the Labour leadership believes “a certain section at the top end of the working class, in alliance with… ethnic minorities and liberals, [is] enough to get them into power.”
In contrast, the task of internationalists is always to contest and interrupt the development of a right-wing populist hegemony. This does not mean lining up with the forces of centrist technocracy, but rather two other, very different things: working for the re-emergence, as independent forces, of those working-class and oppressed social groups which find themselves subsumed into the liberal-led “oppositional” bloc; and, working to draw those together in coalition with the working-class elements being compressed into the right-wing populist bloc.
In the concrete situation of the UK today, the meaning of the first point is that we must encourage potentially militant elements involved in the anti-prorogation protests – for example, migrant workers; anti-racist activists; and organised workers in sectors threatened by a Tory-run “No deal” exit – to emerge as quickly as possible as independent political forces. The second point implies trying to draw significant numbers of people who supported Leave in 2016 into the anti-prorogation movement. Both of these priorities point in the same direction – towards challenging the dominance of pro-EU (as opposed to merely “anti-Brexit”) centrists in these protests. Several times around the world in recent years we have seen significant protest movements open up and have their meaning contested internally between the left and the right. With the Gilets Jaunes from late 2018, the radical left fought the far right (often physically) for ascendance; in Brazil, originally left-wing protests were hijacked by the middle-class right and turned against the Workers Party in 2015, leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and setting the stage for the victory of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro. Similar tugs of war are at work in Hong Kong. If the anti-prorogation movement grows, it could become a field of serious contestation – this time, between the radical left and centrist liberalism. The current political crisis, like any other, will be resolved either to the right or to the left, but will not go away except as a result of political struggle.
In this case, the goal of radicalising the movement politically sits naturally alongside the notion of radicalising its tactics. Johnson will have known in advance that substantial protests would be called against his manoeuvre – it will take more than raised voices alone to shut him down. The more pro-EU protesters involved at present are both the least politically promising participants in these recent demonstrations, and also the least likely to want to advance their tactics beyond orderly, purely verbal expressions of outrage. If the movement can be nudged towards more militant forms of action – starting, for example, with occupations and sit-ins – then its chances of success will strengthen substantially, and its initiative can pass to the more radical elements motivated by anti-Tory and anti-racist impulses. The prospect of strike action still seems doubtful, but not impossible, and we must work within the trade unionist movement to advertise our willingness to support strikes.
After a long period of stasis in the face of Westminster’s Brexit gridlock, we must now rouse ourselves quickly for a frontal political struggle. For several years, the politics of Brexit have driven a demobilising wedge into the left, dividing those who have called to “Stop Brexit!” from those who have demanded a General Election as an alternative solution. Though the cleavages underlying that split still remain, the Labour Party’s current stance in support of a second referendum, and the clear contrast opening up between Corbyn and Johnson on the issue, make these divisions less debilitating than they have been in some time. Meanwhile, the political space available to those politicians in Labour and the Liberal Democrats who have made their excuses to oppose a Corbyn government has now closed down almost entirely. Momentum is, so far, committing itself to the protest movement, threatening to “shut down the streets”. If Corbyn enters government soon, as with any social democrat, it will be in part because the capitalist class has found his Tory predecessor no longer tenable. But for the first time since the poll tax riots, that untenability will have been brought about, in part, by pressure from below. Despite the risks we face, this prospect is profoundly heartening. There is everything to play for.