Fact is a poor story-teller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequentially and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.
And so the Brexit drama continues, wending inconclusively through the House of Commons as a post-modern farce premeditated by Franz Kafka. It must, nonetheless, be counted a success of sorts given the column inches it has generated. Like an episode of Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ it is difficult to take one’s eyes off this distracting blight on the politics of our archipelago of islands.
Perhaps what Brexit has revealed, above all, is that the UK’s unusual unwritten constitution[ii] – arguably a contradiction in terms – is not fit for purpose. When a majority unexpectedly voted in a referendum in 2017 against remaining in the European Union, it was unclear what should happen next. A court challenge was required to assert parliamentary sovereignty[iii], which is now as divided as the country on the matter. Speaker John Bercow recently invoked a precedent from the reign of James I, having been accused of acting ‘unconstitutionally’ for breaking with other precedents.[iv] The mind boggles at the pick and mix of Conventions from which fundamental laws derive.
That referendum was David Cameron’s brainchild for keeping troglodyte Eurosceptic colleagues off his back. The outcome was not supposed to happen. His strategists probably assumed that recalcitrant Mondeo Men, and Shire Tories unable to get over the smoking ban in pubs, were a lost cause. But they surely did not expect the working class of Stoke and Sunderland to put their two fingers up at the European Union in such numbers; never mind they had been incubated on unwholesome doses of Euro-trashing by the Red Tops, amidst repeated identification of the Union with Nazi Germany.[v]
Conservative Party top brass had been, after all, solidly Remain; the Parliamentary Labour Party could be relied on – even Jeremy Corbyn’s previously doctrinaire opposition had softened into a lukewarm Remain – while the Lib Dems were gushingly Europhile; and the SNP saw in the Union a counterweight to the ‘auld enemy’.
UKIP seemed an anachronism, a busted flush electorally, barely mustering a single MP, making the political earthquake all the more startling.
An amorphous and secretive – but identifiable and enduring nonetheless – Deep British State (DBS) is doing all in its power to avert damage to trade and industry; devaluation of the pound; and to prevent London’s property bubble from bursting. Make no mistake a fabled no-deal brexocide would damage corporations and wealthy individuals, with a rise in unemployment and even food shortages looming for the working class. The pillars of a profoundly unequal but at least functioning economy are shaking, but Brexit is only one aspect of a wider difficulty.
The financiers, captains of industry, press barons, and elements within the BBC, are presided over by a permanent civil service, including the intelligence services MI5 and MI6. These not entirely comic Sir Humphreys keep a vigilant watch over the political officeholders, often intellectual inferiors, without the distinction of an Oxbridge education. At the highest level of government there are well documented connections to major corporations, including the armaments industry[vi], allowing good fellows to secure pleasant retirements, where the only crash disturbing the evening air comes from willow and ash meeting above the village green.
The prospect of another referendum became politically impossible once the volume of True Believers in the Conservative Party became apparent. With a smell of Dunkirk in their nostrils, some relish Brexit at almost any cost. The DBS are struggling to contain this rowdy element, which could do serious damage to the economy, but this is the devil they know.
After her disastrous performance in the 2017 election, the ‘May-bot’ became as lame as any duck can be. No doubt she has been eyeing up a comfortable pile among wheat fields in rural Oxfordshire since – where good Tories go to die. A favourable retirement package requires her to align closely with the DBS.
The really scary outcome for the DBS is a Jeremy Corbyn-led, Labour Government. The City of London is petrified lest a large proportion of its vast wealth derived from speculation is seized. So an immediate election must be avoided, with only one winner possible in another round of Corbyn-May. Thus, according to the lead story in The Telegraph on March 30th: ‘Snap election under Theresa May would ‘annihilate’ the Conservatives, senior Tories warn’.[vii]
Corbyn, defying expectations, masterfully played his strongest card to offer a so-called People’s Vote – a referendum rerun – at a pivotal moment in the game. As the BBC’s Andrew Marr put it:
Corbyn’s greatest political skill may turn out to be his talent for delay. He lets events come to him. Under his bo tree, he quietly sits, and sits, and takes the hits – as, for instance, on the referendum issue – waiting for his moment.[viii]
Having averted deep ruptures in his own party over Brexit, at least compared to Tory factionalism, Corbyn allowed centrist opponents, including Chuka Umunna, to resign from the party to form the so-called Independent Group. Who’d have thought the bearded lefty could be so cunning?
So a deal, however humiliating, is pushed through, and the DUP are surely being offered the required sweeteners in exchange for the Backstop; having been informed a refusal will see them being thrown to the wolves – howling rosaries in Gaelic.
The DBS is playing for time, seeking an orderly but irrelevant Brexit, and then for someone reasonable to emerge from within Conservative ranks, now May has obligingly agreed to fall on her sword. The chauvinist bluster of the likes of Boorish Johnson, Rabidly Dominic or Jacob Really-Smug do not inspire confidence, but Populism may be required to counteract the radical appeal of Corbyn, who has the DBS firmly in his sights.
A Very British Coup
Former Bennite Labour MP Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup imagines the possibly of a genuinely left-wing Labour Prime Minister coming to power. The fictional Labour leader Harry Perkins wins a general election on a platform of radical change to a floundering economy serving a privileged few.
Perkins is frustrated, however, at every turn as he endeavours to withdraw the U.K. from NATO and re-nationalise industries. Collusion between the permanent government, including Intelligence services, media barons and the captains of industry leads to his premature resignation – A Very British Coup – and replacement with a malleable, New Labour, government.
Although originally from Sheffield in the North of England, Harry Perkins bears a striking resemblance to one Jeremy Corbyn. Thus:
Harry Perkins made a fetish of travelling on public transport telling one official: ‘I am afraid it is necessary, Inspector. You see, my party wants to phase out the private motor car in cities and encourage people to use public transport instead.[ix]
On entering office he addresses an uncooperative Governor of the Bank of England: ‘What’s the point in having elections if, regardless of outcome, a handful of speculators in the City of London and their friends abroad continue to call the shots?’[x]
Perkins also dismisses New Labour centrism in a manner reminiscent of Corbyn: ‘We offer the electorate a choice between two Tory parties and they choose the real one;’[xi] and confronts a centre-left media that often pays lip service to promoting meaningful change: ‘The Guardian agonised for ten column inches before concluding that, although Labour’s plans made sense, “Now was not the time.”’[xii]
In the novel the DBS, many with links to the arms industry, are determined to maintain the American alliance and resist de-nuclearization. Thus, Sir Peregrine Craddock the fictional head of ‘DI5’, ‘had long regarded CND as the most subversive organisations on DI5’s books. Its subversive nature lay in the breath of its appeal.’[xiii]
Perkins, like Corbyn, invokes the possibility of a neutral Europe ‘which had haunted Pentagon defence planners for so long.’ Also, as with the current Labour leader, Perkins arrives from the point of view: ‘apparently supported by documentary evidence, which saw America as the centre of a worldwide network of tyranny, terrorism and suppression.’[xiv]
Little is said in the novel on Britain’s relationship with the Europe Community. This reflects how the Labour Left’s historic opposition Europe was based on an assessment that the E.E.C. was set up in the interest of capitalists, and used as a pawn against the Soviet Union by American Cold Warriors. This is quite unlike the sense of cultural exceptionalism and even outright racism motivating ardent Brexiters.
‘Eventually Socialists run out of other people’s money’
The DBS assumes that a Corbyn-led government will interfere with an economy still, broadly, dominated by free market doctrine, albeit the NHS remains largely untouchable.
Free market ‘reforms’ were unleashed by Margaret Thatcher throughout the 1980s as her dictum, ‘Eventually Socialists run out of other people’s money’[xv] became preeminent. The relative brutality of the adjustments impoverished large swathes of the country. The rust belts of the North, Midlands, and even Wales, would ultimately vote for Brexit.
Thatcherite policies were tempered slightly under John Major, and more so with the advent of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour, but the adjustments, especially privatisation of essential government services including railways, endured and in some cases continued.
At the end of Conservative rule in 1996 Britain was the most unequal society in the Western world, with the gap between rich and poor as great as in Nigeria. By then the worst-off were living on roughly the same incomes as their equivalents in Hungary.[xvi] Inequality actually deepened under Blair and Brown[xvii], albeit outright poverty diminished[xviii], but the Crash led to welfare cuts, while inequality deepened apace.
Armed to the teeth
The DBS is also profoundly worried by the turn U.K. foreign policy would take under a Corbyn-led government. This could jeopardise the valuable armaments industry that Corbyn has inveighed against throughout his career.
In 2016 The Independent reported that that U.K. was the second leading exporter of armaments in the world.[xix] Saudi Arabia alone pays £10 billion for equipment[xx] as it pursues a dirty war against Yemen. Just this month Jeremy Hunt visited the kingdom, and we may safely assume contracts were discussed. The DBS is intimately linked and lobbied by the leading companies, as the organisation Campaign Against the Arms Trade reveals.[xxi]
Furthermore, a Zionist lobby in the U.K. has long exerted influence over U.K. foreign policy, beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which led to the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948. This is hardly a controversial point, and there are many good reasons for this, not least sympathy for the idea of a Jewish homeland in the wake of the Holocaust. The Labour Party itself has a long tradition of support for Israel.
Corbyn, however, has stood with immigrants from Third Wold countries deeply opposed to Zionism throughout his career. This brought him into contact with unhelpful figures espousing implacable hostility. But there is no evidence of Corbyn advocating a military invasion of Israel or questioning its right to exist as sovereign state.
He did, however, make ill-judged comments during his years in the political wilderness, comparing ISIS to Israel, and calling for Hamas and Hezbollah to be treated as ‘friends.’[xxii] To his credit he has, however, apologised for these statements. As a consistent advocate of the rule of law, and multilateralism, there is no reason to be believe Corbyn has any concern other than vindicating the human rights of Palestinians, and respecting international law.
The accusation that Corbyn is anti-Semitic is simply a way of getting at him. The virtuous, ascetic and seemingly incorruptible character needs to be darkened, and prominent members of the Jewish community, including from within the Parliamentary Labour Party, are lined up to level the accusation.
Some of his colleagues, including Ken Livingston, have made unacceptable comments, but Corbyn has never stooped to racial stereotyping Jews. His quarrel with Zionism is political, and he has collaborated with left-wing Jews including the American Mike Marqusee.
Corbyn’s alliances with what he perceives as comrade anti-imperialists in the Irish Republican movement also brought accusations of treachery. To many, however, especially the young, the disadvantaged and those from immigrant backgrounds, he is a hero, who shares their own critical views on the domestic and international policies of successive U.K. governments.
Getting it right more often than not
Corbyn has leveraged popular global causes to engineer domestic political success. After Afghanistan he correctly predicted that George W. Bush would link the terrorist attacks with the ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, North Korea and Iran – to justify an invasion of Iraq. This was ridiculed by the media and the majority of MPs.
Subsequently, during the febrile period before the U.S-led invasion of Iraq, supported by Tony Blair, Corbyn was granted a rare audience with the Labour Prime Minister. ‘One question’, he asked, ‘Why are we doing it?’, to which Blair testily replied, ‘Because it is the right thing to do,’. Corbyn responded ‘That’s not an answer.’[xxiii]
A platform of wealth readjustment, especially advocating transfers from older property owners to younger people, including students, proved extremely popular during the 2017 election. The demographic supporting Corbyn is growing, and well-equipped to play the data wars that modern elections require.
Corbyn’s challenge, as with any aspiring socialist movement – whether that failing in Venezuela or those delivering across Scandinavia – is to ensure that state dominance of the means of production does not diminish innovation or lead to bureaucratization. Socialists must learn from the mistakes of the past, both in the U.K. in the 1970s when the trade unions ground the country to a halt and, more obviously, the extremes of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the most pernicious influence of Thatcherism, and neo-liberalism generally, is the dominance of the view that state services are automatically inferior to those provided by private enterprise, and that civil servants do not take pride in their work in the absence of incentives. In many cases this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For a true revival in the U.K.’s fortune a greater sense of national cohesion seems required. This need not involve a lasting break with the European Union, but could require a loser arrangement within the United Kingdom itself, with individual ‘nations’ granted increased autonomy, or even full independence. A written constitution and the abolition of monarchy would also be salutary.
Under Corbyn, England could accept its lot as a medium-sized country, guaranteeing a basic level of income for all, and operating within supranational institutions. The trade-off for would be a decisive end to imperialist ambitions, including abandonment of the vastly expensive nuclear weapon programme. This will, however, be resisted by vested interests seeking to preserve the status quo within the DBS.
In 2016, at one of his lowest ebbs politically, and with even long-standiy supporters losing heart, Corbyn was addressed by David Cameron in the House of Commons in the manner of a school prefect dismissing a lackey: ‘For heaven’s sake, man, go!’[xxiv]
In the interim Cameron has become a widely-derided irrelevance, while Corbyn is the front-runner to become the next Prime Minister. The question is whether the apparent disorder of Brexit will be resolved by this unlikely leader. If Corbyn does come to power he confronts the real possibility of A Very British Coup, whittling away its dramatic effects.
[i] W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, London, Vintage Books, 2000, p.v
[ii] Frank Armstrong ‘UK Unwritten Constitution Brews Brexit Confusion’, February 1st, 2018, Cassandra Voices, http://cassandravoices.com/politics/uk-unwritten-constitution-brews-brexit-confusion/, accessed 31/3/19.
[iii] Sandra Fredman, ‘A vital reaffirmation of Parliamentary sovereignty’, 25th of January, 2017, University of Oxford, http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/oxford-and-brexit/brexit-analysis/parliamentary-sovereignty#, accessed 28/3/19.
[iv] Isabel Hardman, ‘John Bercow’s disregard of precedent is a serious constitutional issue’, 9th of January, 2019, The Spectator, https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/01/john-bercows-disregard-of-precedent-is-a-serious-constitutional-issue/, accessed 28/3/19.
[v] Julia Rampen, ‘The 4 most unfortunate Nazi-EU comparisons made by Brexiteers’, 19th of January, 2017, New Statesman, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/01/4-most-unfortunate-nazi-eu-comparisons-made-brexiteers, 28/3/19.
[vii] Edwark Malnick and Nick ‘Snap election under Theresa May would ‘annihilate’ the Conservatives, senior Tories warn
[viii] Andrew Marr, ‘Andrew Marr’s Diary: May’s reshuffle plans, Corbyn’s gardener socialism – and why I’m painting clowns’, 20th of March, 2019, New Statesman, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/03/andrew-marr-s-diary-may-s-reshuffle-plans-corbyn-s-gardener-socialism-and-why-i, accessed 28/3/19.
[ix] Chris Mullin, A Very British Coup, London, Hodder and Staughton, 1982, p.44
[x] Ibid, p58
[xi] Ibid, p.63
[xii] Ibid, p.80
[xiii] Ibid, p.172
[xiv] Ibid, p.174-175
[xvi] Geoffrey Lean and Graham Bell, ‘UK most unequal country in the West’, 21st of July, 1996, The Independent, https://www.independe’nt.co.uk/news/uk-most-unequal-country-in-the-west-1329614.html, accessed 29/3/19.
[xvii] William Underhill, ‘INEQUALITY HAS GROWN UNDER NEW LABOUR’, August 1st, 2010, Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/inequality-has-grown-under-new-labour-70943, accessed 30/3/19.
[xix] Jon Stone, ‘Britan is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world’, 5th of December, 2016, The Independent¸ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britain-is-now-the-second-biggest-arms-dealer-in-the-world-a7225351.html, accessed 30/3/19.
[xxii] Tom Bower, Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot for Power, London William Collins, 2019, p.276
[xxiii] Ibid, p.136