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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 4:55pm

The traditional business elite won’t stop a no-deal Brexit — only Labour can be trusted to

By Paul Mason

There’s an argument swirling around the British left that says: “no deal will be so catastrophic that British capitalism will never let it happen”. The practical consequence is to assume that Boris Johnson must be bluffing and that, once his bluff is called by returning MPs, among whom he has no majority, he will back down.

Those who believe this are wrong, and for three reasons. Capitalism is a system of social relationships. You hear them listed in disembodied form every time you accidentally switch to Bloomberg on your TV: the falling markets, the value of sterling, the volume of negative-yielding bonds, the decline of real wages. 

But these are ultimately relationships between people. Yes, capitalism is a system whereby uncontrolled market forces operate beyond the will of any given capitalist, worker or landlord. But the reactions, strategies and ideologies of these different classes, and factions within them, are what shapes politics.

Marx once wrote: “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”

The same goes for British capitalism. The problem is that the moneyed elite of Britain are split along the same factional lines as in the US. There is a coalition of interests that needs to break down the rules-based multilateral global order that was built during the previous 30 years: the frackers, the hedge-fund managers, the casino owners, the property developers and, above all, people who’ve sunk money into fossil fuels.

They need climate science to be proved wrong and for the multilateral commitment to reduce carbon emissions to break down. They need central banks to underwrite their business strategies but states to allow them to evade tax. They need governments to permit monopolies, speculative development and rent-seeking business strategies. And they need democracy to be a sham.

Above all, they need chaos. Because chaos is the environment in which people with money make more money. Johnson’s cabinet is basically a hand-picked team of yes men and women for this faction of British capitalism. Johnson, like Donald Trump, understands that to succeed he must become a chaos engine.

On the other side there are, of course, the real bosses of real businesses based in Britain, like Airbus, Honda, BMW – and the vice chancellors of the big universities, plus the major law and accountancy firms. They are terrified of no deal, and the atmosphere of xenophobia it will bring. Plus, there’s tens of thousands of small firms – from the metal bashers to the care home chains to the local garden centre – who will see their access to finance evaporate in a no-deal crisis. 

Insofar as these groups could be described as the “British bourgeoisie”, their political tool of choice was always the Tory party. But in July 2019 they lost control of the Tory party. That whole world of village fetes, Victoria sponge cakes and quietly-spoken posh people is in turmoil. Their party has been captured from below by former Ukip members, morally surrendered to Farage’s Brexit Party and, at the top, occupied by a mixture of English nationalist zealots and outright sympathisers of the far right.

Instead of being a tool for protecting the interests of British capitalism, the Tory party has, over the 30 year period of neoliberalism, become the tool for protecting oligarchic global capital in Britain: it represents the Saudi monarchy more than it represents Suffolk.

We will see in early September how large the faction of Tory MPs that will stand up to Johnson’s no deal threat is. It now certainly includes former cabinet heavyweights like Philip Hammond and David Gauke – but they know that, should Johnson call a snap election with no deal as the central pledge, and a Canada-style free trade agreement as the goal, they would have to repudiate the manifesto and form a separate party. 

In the past, of course, another embodiment of British capital might have been expected to step in and save the day: the deep state. There is a deep state in every country – and it exists primarily to protect the interests of capital in general from the class struggle, from foreign powers and from excess democracy.

The problem here is that because of the way neoliberalism works – as a contract-based system of public subsidies to the private sector – the rule of law has been strengthened. Whether it’s retired generals, serving MI5 officers or mysterious figures like the “official solicitor” who mysteriously appeared to spring five striking dockers out of Pentonville prison in 1972, thus averting a general strike – “things ain’t what they used to be”. We have a Supreme Court, a rules-bound civil service and a military top brass obsessed with legality.

However, as the crisis of the global system intensifies, the UK has become a playground for many other, more effective and less law-bound deep states: from the Israeli diplomat who boasted in an undercover Al Jazeera video that he would “take down” certain MPs to the Russian oligarchs who pay to play tennis with Johnson, there are all kinds of external forces at work inside our political system. The problem is, most of them are aligned to Trump and most of them have an interest in Brexit.

Putin wants no deal because it weakens both Europe and Nato. Trump wants no deal because it opens British supermarkets to toxic American chicken and the NHS up to wholesale privatisation. So in short, nobody’s going to stop no deal except a coalition of MPs in parliament backed by tens of thousands of people on the streets. 

How to do it should be well understood by anyone who does not want to spend September with their head under a duvet: the MPs who want to stop no deal have to take control of parliament in the first week of September – clearly and decisively – and pass legislation forbidding exit without a deal. Then, if Johnson refuses to abide by that, a vote of no confidence has to collapse the government.

In the 14 days that follow we need a caretaker government, and despite the abysmal response of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson to Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal, I am hopeful we can secure one. Corbyn should, by right, be the prime minister – but there is no need for that if it cannot be agreed. The caretaker government can only be formed around a written pact between parties, including the Tory rebels. 

The pact should state: that there will be no primary legislation passed other than that needed to extend Article 50 and call a new general election; that ministers will be caretakers, with the posts distributed according to the number of MPs taking the party whip in the new coalition; that no party can veto another party’s minister or special adviser; and that a body similar to “the quad” under the old Tory/Lib Dem coalition should deal with any urgent matters or disputes.

However, what the various fragments of centrism now need to realise is this: whether Corbyn leads the caretaker government or not, Labour is already leading the salvation of this country from a no-deal fiasco. Most of Labour’s 247 MPs will back the new coalition; they will form the majority of the interim cabinet; and Labour will be the decisive force.

As in 1940, when Clement Attlee saved British capitalism from the pro-Nazi wing of the Tory party, Labour will do this because it is a mass force for democracy, peace and stability. And it will – once committed to the project – put people onto every street corner, pub and coffee shop to explain it to the British people.

I know many progressive people are approaching the coming autumn full of despair but I’m not. We may lose – because Swinson can’t bear to sit in a room with Corbyn, or because Kate Hoey goes full Faragist in her last act of betrayal against her constituents in Vauxhall. 

But we will prove something. That Labour – not without needing a huge kick up the backside from its own activists – is the only force capable of leading a progressive government in this country.

It can be trusted with the national interest even where the capitalist elite is split and factionalised. That is a message I cannot wait to take to the doorsteps of incumbent Tory ministers in marginals, from Calder Valley to Swindon South.

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