15th September 2019
Populism – winning for Salvador Allende in Chile 1970
The crisis of British imperialism has been playing out in one form or another for over a century. The re-division of the nineteenth century colonial empires was the driving force behind the recently, widely commemorated, First World War. The widespread massacre which that conflict represented saw Britain emerge, still as a world power, but a weakened one.
The outcome of the Second World War was to reinforce the hegemony of the United States, ahead of Britain in terms of its imperialist influence, and accelerate Britain’s relative decline upon the world stage in economic, political and military terms.
Not that the influence of Britain was diminished entirely. As a nuclear power, permanent member of the UN Security Council and founder member of military alliance NATO, Britain still had a role to play in imperialist power plays around the globe. The days of Britannia “ruling the waves” were however, long gone, and the UK has largely played second fiddle to the world policeman role of the US ever since.
The military hegemony of the United States has flourished in proportion to its economic dominance, while the reverse can also be said of the UK. The push to join the European Community in the 1970’s was part of a bid by the UK establishment to shore up its global position, as its independent economic power waned. The former colonies of the Empire were kept within some degree of political and economic orbit, through the Commonwealth, but increasingly looked to non-capitalist models of development to assert their identity.
Joining a European trading bloc that could both mitigate some elements of the UK’s decline and potentially offer routes into guaranteed European markets seemed like the smart move for British ruling circles.
The European question has been a fault line in both major UK political parties ever since. The Left in the Labour Party led the campaign against EC membership in 1975, rightly arguing that the constraints imposed by the Community at that time would not allow a Left Labour government to deliver radical measures, such as increased public spending or nationalisation, to change economic direction. The transformation of the EC into the European Union, with its mission of ever greater economic and political union, has only tightened those constraints.
The Conservatives, as the key representative of ruling class interests in the UK, have taken a pragmatic approach to the EU. The Thatcher negotiated ‘opt out’ essentially ensured reduced contributions while accepting the Thatcherite economic policies of the EU itself, focussing upon inflation control over public spending or employment rights.
This pragmatism has however always been tempered with a strand of right wing Conservatism which sees the EU as a constraint upon the independence of the UK, a barrier to the UK being able to make trade deals, and a block upon the ability of UK business to exploit cheap labour. Such arguments have been wrapped in the flag of sovereignty, control over borders and limiting immigration but are essentially part of the Little Englander mentality which has fuelled the rise of Nigel Farage and placed Boris Johnson in 10, Downing Street.
For the Left in the UK the position has been complicated by the leadership of the Labour Party and TUC welcoming aspects of EU membership, such as the working time directive and free movement of labour, then elevating these notions into great examples of international co-operation and friendship between peoples. The fact that EU membership has done nothing to prevent the mass privatisations of the Thatcher years, the sale of Council housing, the tearing apart of the education system, the destruction of local government, zero hours contracts, or the contraction of the NHS does not appear to register.
Add to that the liberalisation of the rules governing the movement of capital and the obscene profits made from stock market gambling in the City of London, it should be clear that the interests of the EU are hardly those of defending, protecting or expanding the rights of ordinary people.
The Leave driven elements of the British ruling class, fronted by Boris Johnson, are clearly pushing for a new deal for the UK which will see it as a European offshore tax haven, outside the EU but closely aligned, and still a major player due to its nuclear capability and high levels of military spending. This tendency also sees the transatlantic relationship with the United States as key to the UK’s future.
The more pragmatic tendency in the UK establishment continues to be to Remain. This position is supported by elements of the Conservative Party, the austerity loving Liberal Democrats and sections of the Labour Party, not least Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who are now openly flouting Party policy and suggesting that Labour should adopt an openly pro-Remain position. With the TUC and CBI on board for Remain positions there will clearly be a significant push on this front before the next General Election.
The problem is that remaining in the EU solves nothing. The German economy is slowing, the French and Italian systems are in crisis, mass unemployment plagues Spain and Greece, the Eastern Europeans economies are feeling little befit from EU membership. The migration crisis continues to be a live issue across the EU. Talk of reuniting the country divided by the outcome of the 2016 referendum is tosh. The referendum outcome reflected the divisions in the UK, it did not cause them.
There is a crisis of capitalism across Europe. Constraining public investment and limiting the rights of workers, to maximise corporate profits and enrich the City of London, has had its day. Spending on weapons of mass destruction when schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure go begging for investment, has had its day. Zero hours contracts, the free movement of cheap labour, constraints on the operation of trade unions, have had their day. Racism, xenophobia and prejudice against migrants and asylum seekers, has had its day. Failing to acknowledge the climate emergency and invest in new forms of energy when the planet is dying, has had its day.
The European Union is not Europe. It is a particular club formed with particular objectives, which do not meet the real needs of the peoples of its constituent nations. The argument to remain and reform is spurious, just as the idea of a peoples capitalism is spurious.
However the current Parliamentary shenanigans play out in the coming weeks, the first step towards a socialist path of development of the UK must be to leave the EU. Membership over the past 40 years has illustrated time and again the failings of the EU for the peoples of Europe. It is time for the people to fight back.
Populism has become a dirty word, hijacked by the right wing to describe the politics of Trump, Johnson and Farage. Yet populism brought Castro to power in Cuba, Allende in Chile, Mandela in South Africa. It fuelled the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. A populism of the Left is needed now more than ever in order to mobilise against demagogues on the Right and crush the arguments of the weak kneed liberal centre. There is no fence left to sit on, it is time to take sides.