The ability of the illusory British bourgeois democracy to dupe the workers of this country is fast eroding.
Nearly three years after voting to the leave the European Union, workers still have no idea when, how or even if that promised exit will actually take place.
Despite 17.4 million people delivering a direct democratic mandate for leave in June 2016, the overwhelming majority of British parliamentarians are committed remainers. As a result, ‘Brexit day’ has passed with Britain still a member of the EU.
According to the law passed two years ago, 29 March was supposed to be the day Britain left the European bosses’ club; prime minister Theresa May promised on more than 80 occasions that the people’s vote would be honoured and the country would leave the union on schedule.
Instead, she has seen her withdrawal deal (which is really a treaty) rejected three times by Parliament; and rejected by leavers and remainers alike. In an attempt to satisfy everyone, she has satisfied no-one. For remainers, any deal to leave the EU was too much, and for leavers, her deal was ‘Brexit’ in name only.
In each successive parliamentary defeat for her deal, Mrs May did manage to narrow the margin of defeat, moving from a record-breaking 230 votes the first time to a relatively moderate 58 votes on the third time not-so-lucky.
For any other prime minister at any other time, to have lost even once would have been a resigning matter. To have lost three times and to be considering a fourth attempt at squeezing the same deal through is self-evidently beyond the pale – a sign of the extraordinary chaos presently reigning in ruling-class circles.
Political bribery fails
In fact, May did finally offer to resign just before the third round of voting – in the hope of enticing members of the Tories’ freemarket-fundamentalist Brexiter European Research Group (ERG) in the first instance, but also those (rather fewer than one might expect) opposition MPs who are hoping to secure a general election, to back the hated deal.
And this political bribery did in fact manage to pull some Tory big-hitters – allegedly ‘staunch’ Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith – into line. Their numbers were not enough to swing the deal for Mrs May, however.
These hypocrites thus showed the depth of their much-touted ‘commitment’ to Brexit and to the ‘national interest’. Clearly the only reason for switching from their previous position of opposing the deal (quite rightly pointing out that it would deliver Brexit in name only) was that they hoped personally to capitalise on the prime minister’s resignation, which in turn was dependent on the deal being passed.
Desperate last-minute haggling to save May’s ‘Brexit means remain’ deal
May has nothing left to offer before a touted fourth vote, and is, in desperation, turning to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to find an acceptable compromise that will pull Labour party MPs into supporting her.
This could conceivably work if they are promised extensive legislation for the ‘protection of workers’ rights’, which would in turn enable them to present their betrayal of Brexit as a great victory for the labour movement.
However, cosying up to Corbyn is just as likely to cost May a whole host more of Conservative defections.
Since June 2016, the prime minister’s political slogans have been the notoriously vacuous ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the somewhat more meaningful ‘No-deal is better than a bad deal’. If she had been true to these statements, Britain would have left the EU on 29 March without a deal under World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.
Nigel Farage, erstwhile poster boy for the xenophobic little Englander branch of the leave campaign, has characterised May’s withdrawal deal as a surrender document, the likes of which are only signed under conditions of war. In this he is perfectly correct. May’s deal is, in fact, such a surrender that it would clearly be better to remain than to leave under the conditions it contains.
To remain in the European Union is to at least retain the right to leave. But May’s treaty would lock Britain further to the EU project. Only now the country would have gone ‘from rule maker to rule taker’, as the popular argument goes. It is a sign of the deep division in the ruling class that its members have allowed themselves to get into such a mess.
Britain until now has been one of the three major powers (along with France and Germany) determining the direction and reaping the rewards of Europe’s joint imperialist bloc. To remain inside the customs union, bound by its rules and trading standards as the deal proposes, would mean that to all intents and purposes Britain would be remaining in the EU. It would be ‘Brexit’ in name only. Only under the terms of the deal, she would remain indefinitely, and with no ability to shape those rules and standards.
What a comedown for the once-mighty British imperialists!
And yet, despite knowing all this perfectly well, since most of the ruling class simply wants to remain in the EU, increasing numbers of MPs are being persuaded to vote for this deal in order to stop a real exit – the one that was voted for – from taking place.
Parliamentary democracy exposed as a sham
This is not just the failure of one hapless remainer PM, but of all of parliament and the entire so-called democratic system. Our whole system of government has been fatally exposed in the eyes of the British people.
As Lenin pointed out a century ago: “In capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority.” (The State and Revolution, 1917, Chapter 5)
This is the key issue to be grasped in the Brexit shambles; the point which is being hammered home for an entire generation. Government, Parliament, the bureaucracy, the EU, the media, big business and the deep state are all colluding on this front against the interests and expressed will of the people. We have a state and an EU project which are in essence instruments of bourgeois power, and they are working to maintain that power. They will fight relentlessly to this end with every instrument at hand.
The organised campaign against Brexit was little more evident than in the coverage of the remain and leave rallies held in London as the Brexit deadline approached.
The so-called ‘people’s vote’ march of Saturday 23 April received wall-to-wall positive coverage of its well-funded and organised demo, backed by the deep pockets of international financier George Soros and with spin-doctor extraordinaire Alistair Campbell at the helm.
The coverage of the leave rally on the supposed ‘Brexit day’ of 29 March was so biased that Channel 4 had to issue an apology after Jon Snow commented, in a portentous style that was clearly meant to convey the imminent collapse of civilisation, that he had “never seen so many white faces in one place”.
The implication of his remark was that the masses who demand Britain leave the EU are all racists who hate foreigners, supporters of the extreme right, rather than angry working-class people upset by the deep biting of austerity and by the closure of large parts of British industry, with the consequent loss of jobs, increase in poverty, and break-up of long-established communities.
The rest of the media took a similar tone. Instead of focusing on the mass of people from all over the country who had turned out in anger over the Brexit betrayal, they choose primarily to focus on the attendance of right-winger Tommy Robinson at a fringe Ukip-organised rally.
While right-wing parties do take advantage of working-class grievances in order to direct the anger of the masses in directions least harmful to the ruling class, it is the genuine anti-imperialist opponents of capitalism, representing the real interests of the masses, who have the most to gain from Brexit, which has the potential to weaken not only British imperialism, but also EU and US imperialism and the integrity of the warmongering Nato alliance.
The EU exists to benefit European imperialism, and European imperialism alone
Instead, politicians and media alike falsely present the EU as some kind of benign, ‘internationalist’ body that ‘protects workers’ rights’. Most of them, however, are only too aware that the EU exists purely to promote the rights of European imperialists, bankers and multinationals. The workers of Greece can offer a few lessons to their British counterparts on this question,
The point of the EU, as far as the big British bourgeoisie was concerned, was hammered home in Parliament by Tory remainer James Cartlidge. He told the House: “It was in the Lancaster House speech the red line on the single market was first stated. I want to return to it [that speech]. [Margaret Thatcher] was addressing an audience of business leaders in which she said:
“‘Think for a moment what a prospect that is, a single market without barriers, visible or invisible giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people. Bigger than Japan, bigger than the United States, on your doorstep and with the channel tunnel to give you direct access to it. It’s not a dream, it’s not a vision, it’s not some bureaucrat’s plan, it’s for real and its only five years away.’
“The Lancaster House speech of Mrs Thatcher in 1988, Mr Speaker. Because there’s only three MPs left in the house who voted against the Single European Act: one of them is the honourable member for Blyth Valley (Ronnie Campbell), the other is the honourable member for Bolsover (Dennis Skinner) and the third one is the Leader of the Opposition [Jeremy Corbyn]. Because the single market is not some socialist conspiracy. It’s capitalism and it’s free trade.”
This is the essence of the EU, outlined by an unapologetically pro-capitalist, pro-EU Tory and by the woman who took us into the single market by signing the Single European Act, the impeccably pro-capitalist PM Margaret Thatcher. They can tell us more about the essence of the EU than the current fake left – which preaches internationalism but defends the interests of the rich – ever will.
Brexit means remain
Calls for a second referendum will not go away until a proper Brexit has been concluded. In the absence of this, the hardline remainers’ well-funded campaign will continue to result in well-publicised rallies and petitions.
A petition to revoke Article 50 (the mechanism by which the UK gave formal notice to the EU of its intention to leave the union, thus setting the two-year countdown in motion) and remain in the EU received 6 million signatures (many from abroad). Support for the petition was strongest in the wealthy south east and Scotland’s wealthier and SNP-controlled constituencies.
Watching the media’s coverage, you would be forgiven for concluding that 6 million signatures on an online petition trumps 17.4 million votes in a legal ballot. The desperation is palpable.
The bourgeois-democratic institutions in our country are becoming more obviously bourgeois and more obviously undemocratic in the eyes of ever greater numbers of workers. Faith in the system is faltering, and further attempts to subvert the vote, whether by delivering a Brexit in name only, revoking Article 50, pushing for a second referendum or simply remaining in the European Union can only accelerate this process.
The custodians of bourgeois democracy are thus playing a dangerous game. And few are playing it more brazenly than the backers of the amendment proposed by Tory remainer Oliver Letwin. This amendment succeeding in taking power away from the executive (the government) for one day and passing it to the hands of the legislature (to Parliament), facilitating a first round of ‘indicative votes’ on other possible solutions to the ruling class’s Brexit conundrum.
The votes achieved little other than to further highlight the impasse in both government and Parliament, and to enhance the disrepute in which those august institutions now stand.
The indicative votes were a chance for Parliament to take control of proceedings and make known their preference for moving forward with Brexit in a series of non-binding votes. But not one of the options received a majority in the House.
The closest to succeeding was a customs union option put forward by arch Europhile and Tory grandee Ken Clarke, which received 264 votes for and 272 against. A second referendum was the second most popular choice with 268 votes for and 295 votes against – and this despite MPs having voted to trigger Article 50 in February 2017 by an overwhelming 498 votes to 114.
A proposal to revoke Article 50, meanwhile, which would reset or cancel the entire process, received 184 votes for and 293 against. Interestingly, Labour’s Brexit plan received 237 votes for and 307 against, a larger margin of defeat than was suffered by May’s deal at the third time of asking.
Finally, and shamefully, the option of a straightforward no-deal Brexit received 160 votes in favour and 400 against. Parliament is thus most clearly revealed to be at direct odds with the people.
The arrogance of MPs was perfectly highlighted by Labour’s Helen Goodman, who told her parliamentary colleagues: “We cannot continue with a situation where the government defies the will of the House.” If they are not careful, our elected representatives may find it is their defiance of the popular will that can no longer be tolerated by the long-suffering workers of Britain.
A second round of indicative votes followed on 1 April. The entire indicative voting process, it is worth noting, was one facilitated by the intervention of the Speaker (and remainer) John Bercow. As with so many other aspects of the Brexit process, his intervention was an unconstitutional one, for it passed control of the parliamentary agenda from the executive to the legislative branch, which is entirely against the conventions of the conveniently uncodified and unwritten ‘British constitution’.
As ever, our rulers are demonstrating their complete disregard for ‘the rules’ (even when those rules have been written to ensure their class’s permanent advantage and control). Rules, it turns out, are for the confusion and control of the masses, not for taking too literally if one is actually running the show.
Much attention has been paid by the press to the arcane ins and outs of parliamentary procedure and convention. None of it is in any way to the point, however. All that really needs to be noted is that while convention is used to inspire awe and to scuttle all chances of using Parliament as a vehicle for meaningful change, as far as the law-makers themselves are concerned (of whatever stripe and on whichever side of the argument), none of it is to be allowed to get in the way of their masters’ objectives.
Such are the wonders of our ‘great British democracy’ and ‘mother of all parliaments’.
At the second hearing, Bercow cut the options to be voted on from eight down to four. None of these options – two of which were remain dressed up as ‘Brexit’ and two of which were openly remain – received a majority. However, the so-called ‘Father of the House’ Ken Clarke saw his customs union plan defeated by the narrowest margin of only three votes. The common market 2.0 option was defeated by just 21 votes and a proposal to hold a second referendum was defeated by a mere 12 votes.
Significantly, a proposal to revoke Article 50 was defeated by 101. Although this would in fact be the simplest way to overturn Brexit, which is what the majority of parliamentarians want to do, they clearly still baulk at taking such an openly undemocratic route. A ‘Brexit’ that really means remain is clearly the favoured option for politicians who are keen to save themselves while also saving British imperialism.
At this point in the process, Labour had moved to support for a ‘Norway +’ option, otherwise referred to as common market 2.0. This involves remaining not only in the customs union, as per Mrs May’s deal, but also in the single market – which would put paid to Britain being able to prevent the free movement of European workers.
The anti-democratic machinations of this move are twofold. The first is that remaining in either union is in no way compatible with delivering Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, therefore, is in direct opposition to the will of the people, and in direct breach of its own manifesto.
Furthermore, this plan also means maintaining the free movement of labour (for EU citizens only; naturally no-one in the bourgeois parties is suggesting we actually abolish divisive immigration controls). This is also in direct conflict with the party’s manifesto, which responded to the 2016 Brexit vote by once again upping its anti-immigrant credentials.
So Corbyn finds himself implementing a three-line whip onto his MPs in order to get them to break their own party’s manifesto promises. And this despite the outrage expressed by the party leadership when Chukka Umuna and his little posse of spivs left the Labour party to form the Independent Group (now rebranded as Change UK).
Chukka and co were attacked for getting themselves elected on a Labour manifesto only to quit Labour and discard those election promises when they became inconvenient. Corbyn and his team pointed out that the Independent Group were honour-bound to resign and contest by-elections.
Will the entire Labour party now step down and hold a by-election in every seat it presently controls? We need not hold our breath on that one; these are the workings of sham democracy – or, more precisely, of a bourgeois democracy. That is: democracy for the ruling class; which goes hand in hand with dictatorship over the working class.
There can be no certainty of the timeline or outcome ahead. What we do know is that on 10 April a European summit is pencilled in, and that, if May’s deal or another proposal does not get passed by Parliament, a longer extension to Article 50 may be requested – although some European leaders, including President Emanuel Macron of France, have argued against the EU’s acceding to such an appeal.
The current extension runs until 12 April, so if the summit decides against a further extension, there is still an outside possibility of Britain accidentally leaving on that date without a deal. If an extension is granted, as it most likely will be, this is the date on which Britain will have to decide whether or not to participate in the upcoming European elections.
If some kind of last-minute ‘Brexit means remain’ type deal is approved by both Parliament and the EU, the ‘exit’ is currently set for 22 May.
What is certain is that the ruling class will continue to obfuscate and hamper proceedings, hoping that the more they can delay and confuse the issue, the more chance there is that they can find themselves a way out of the present deadlock and back into their favoured-nation status inside the EU.
But there is a rising anger at the shambles, and should Britain participate in European elections then the results will no doubt be embarrassing for the EU. There is certain to be a heavy abstention rate, while a considerable number of people who do vote are likely to express their disgust at Britain’s failure to exit by voting for parties ill-equipped for running even a bourgeois government, such as Ukip or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.
Should Theresa May, having failed to get sufficient backing for any deal that is acceptable to the EU, finally decide to call it a day and call a general election as a pretext for securing a nice long extension of Britain’s leaving date, one can assume that nothing much will be resolved, whichever party or coalition of parties goes on to form the government. Even if constituencies are careful to ensure that they elect MPs committed to supporting their wishes on the matter, the country will still be divided, as will its political representatives.
Were there to be a general election this year, even in a first-past-the-post electoral system, anger against the main parties is so profound that it is possible we may see massive losses for Conservative and Labour alike.
From a remain perspective, it is possible that some seats might go to Change UK, now led by former Tory Heidi Allen.
The most likely benefactor, though, may be the Brexit Party. It is worth remembering that in the 2015 general election, before the Brexit referendum was held, Ukip under Farage’s leadership polled just short of 4 million votes. Given the level of anger at the Brexit betrayal of Conservative and Labour alike, we can expect this vote to grow.
It is not impossible that a general election in such a circumstance could lead to a hung parliament where a minority outfit like Change UK or the Brexit Party are the potential kingmakers, able to dictate Britain’s future relationship with the EU, and thus demonstrating the truth of Marx’s observation that in bourgeois elections, the workers merely “decide once in three or six years which member of the ruling class is to misrepresent the people in Parliament”. (The Paris Commune, May 1871)
It is time we learned the lesson summed up so profoundly by Lenin in 1917: “In capitalist society we have a democracy that is curtailed, wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.” (The State and Revolution, 1917, Chapter 5)