The Tories Have No Grand Strategy for Post-Brexit Britain

The conservative government did not want to leave the EU just for show. They wanted to leave to join what we call the race to the bottom: in environmental standards, labor standards and food standards. All signs show that this is what Johnson is going to do, says Paul Mason in an interview with Jakub Majmurek.

Jakub Majmurek: The United Kingdom has left the European Union with a deal which puts it outside both the Common Market and the customs union. Is this actually what people, who voted ‘leave’ in 2016, wanted?

Paul Mason: We have no way of knowing whether the deal that Johnson achieved is what people intended back in 2016, because at that point no form of Brexit was ever offered to them. Indeed, many people, who have become what we call the ‘hard-Brexiters’, who now want to have as little in common with the EU as possible, were at that time saying that they were happy if we remain in the single market, or that free movement could effectively carry on. Since then, the people who preferred Brexit radicalized. They’ve become more and more alienated from the idea that the UK should have anything to do with Europe. Indeed, as the results of 2019 elections showed, they’ve become alienated from the politicians who were attempting to solve this problem in the technocratic way, like Theresa May, who said “Let’s stay in the customs union for goods only”. In 2019, the section of the electorate wanted to leave the EU so badly, that they were ready to do it on any basis.

Why couldn’t the British parliament agree to a softer version of Brexit between 2016 and 2019? Like the deal that Theresa May negotiated.

In the first two years after the referendum, the left and the liberals didn’t want to reverse its outcome, they just wanted to secure that Britain will stay in the single market and have as close a relation with the EU as possible. But the problem was that Theresa May wasn’t able to sell her deal to her own party, so her government progressively fell apart. As the Conservatives were moving more and more in the chauvinist direction, pushing for hard Brexit, the liberal and left segments of society said: “We agreed to the limited form of Brexit, now, when the Conservatives push for hard Brexit, the deal is off, we want to reverse the whole 2016 thing”.

When Johnson took control of the Conservative Party, he purged the parliamentary group from all liberal pro-Europeans.

In the beginning of 2019, the Labour Party made its internal poll, which showed that if it won’t actively advocate for the second referendum with the option to remain, it will lose three voters for every one it’ll lose who wants Brexit. In effect Labour switched to a more pro-Remain position. When Johnson took control of the Conservative Party, he purged the parliamentary group from all liberal pro-Europeans. The membership of the conservatives was heavily infiltrated by former members of the United Kingdom Independence Party. It was like re-thatcherisation of the party, a lot of small-business, jingoistic, often racist people joined. Consequently, British politics changed fundamentally in the second half of 2019. The elections in 2019 were fought by the Tories on a chauvinist, nationalist platform. They won because part of the working class really wanted Brexit and was ready to switch their vote from Labour to Conservatives to get it.

It was like re-thatcherisation of the party, a lot of small-business, jingoistic, often racist people joined. Consequently, British politics changed fundamentally in the second half of 2019.

Why did that part of the working class want Brexit so badly?

Basically, because they hated the Eastern-European migration. I’m afraid it was the number one thing they disliked about the EU.

If Tony Blair hadn’t opened the British labor market for workers from new member-states like Poland immediately after they joined the Union, Brexit might have not happened?

Of course, Brexit is not the fault of Eastern European migrants. But remember that contrary to most European countries, Britain never put transitional limits on migration. The government predicted that only a small number of people – skilled workers, which British economy badly needed – would come. Instead, a really large number of migrants settled in the UK. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the public services expanded at the same time, which did not happen. I live in a part of South London, which is called Little Portugal, it has the greatest population of Portuguese in the UK. But nobody minds it, because the social services are great. In the towns of the Midlands and the North of England, where I come from, the services are terrible.

In many small towns in the north of England, you can even hear calls for some kind of ethnic cleansing. The scale of right-wing radicalism among the plebeian classes in England is something which is still underestimated.

When I was campaigning for Labour in the 2017 elections in Nottingham with Polish and Czech migrant workers from Boots pharmaceutical factory, they said to me: “The white British people on the factory floor are telling us: after Brexit, you’re gone, our wages are up again”. That’s the story that British right-wing press was telling the workers about Brexit and in Britain there’s no left-wing press able to reach the working class. In many small towns in the north of England, you can even hear calls for some kind of ethnic cleansing. The scale of right-wing radicalism among the plebeian classes in England is something which is still underestimated. We, on the progressive side, are now trying do deradicalize that kind of people, but this anger is going to remain long after Brexit. Now we can see how it’s turning against Black Lives Matter.

Now, after you’ve actually left, is Brexit something that is done? Or is it still going to shape British politics?

That’s the position of the official opposition, the Labour party: Brexit is done, we shall move on. But it’s not that simple. The first obstacle to Brexit being done is Scotland. 57% of the Scottish electorate is demanding a second referendum about Scottish independence: they want to leave the United Kingdom. The main reason they want to leave is that they want to rejoin Europe. And if they’re allowed to vote, they’ll vote to leave the UK – it’s mainly the older generation that wants to stay. Scotland has six million people, it has most of the British oil and a large chunk of financial services. The possibility that the UK is going to fall apart because of Europe is keeping the issue of Brexit alive.

What about Northern Ireland? Is the Brexit deal going to reopen the Irish question?

Not in the next few years. Johnson’s deal effectively leaves Northern Ireland in the common market. It’s everything that Northern Irish nationalists now need. Under the Good Friday agreement, the people of Northern Ireland have a right to call for a referendum on the future of that region. The Irish nationalists are happy to wait. They know that the current situation, when Northern Ireland remains in the single market and the UK does not, is going to further integrate the economies of both parts of Ireland.

In Scotland and Ireland you can buy maps depicting the whole of Ireland and Scotland, without England in the south. There are people in both places who dream about a strong, social-democratic, Celtic bloc in the EU.

This can convince some part of the moderate middle class of Northern Ireland about the rationale of Irish unification. Besides, the birth rate among Catholics is higher than among Protestants. Time works in their favor. The only thing which could force them to call for an earlier referendum is the independence of Scotland. In Scotland and Ireland you can buy maps depicting the whole of Ireland and Scotland, without England in the south. There are people in both places who dream about a strong, highly economically competitive, but also relatively social-democratic, Celtic bloc in the EU – a kind of Scandinavia-on-the-Irish Sea.

There’s also another issue, which is going to keep Brexit alive: the conservative government didn’t want to leave the EU just for show. They wanted to leave to join what we call the race to the bottom: in environmental standards, labor standards, food standards. All signs show that this is what Johnson is going to do. They recently briefed the “Financial Times” that they’re going to attack the 48 hour working week. They repeatedly said that they want to admit GMO food to the British market. This would be breaking with common European standards. When they do this, the left is going to oppose them, and the Tories are going to respond that Labour is opposing American style cheap food, because it’s listening to Brussels, not to the British public, because it wants to rejoin the EU. We have a culture war going on in Britain, Brexit is part of it, and no matter how hard the left try to say that it’s a closed issue, it won’t stop coming back.

The majority that Johnson won in 2019 depends on seats in heavily working-class constituencies in the Midlands and the North of England – isn’t this an obstacle for any plans to scrap, for example, working standards in the UK?

We have a culture war going on in Britain, Brexit is part of it, and no matter how hard the left try to say that it’s a closed issue, it won’t stop coming back.

No, you see, the most important divide in the UK right now is between the elderly – who paid their mortgages and enjoy their pensions, which are raising every year – and the young, whose wages are stagnating and who have been out-priced out of owning a home. The Tories won the votes of the elderly working-class, people who are often retired and don’t really care about current labor standards. So, I think Johnson can push the race to the bottom and keep a large part of his elderly working-class electorate by playing the culture war, attacking wokeness, Black Lives Matter, etc.

What is the plan for post-Brexit Britain among British political elites?

I honestly think that the conservative elite has no grand strategy for Britain’s place in the world. It has a fantasy of a neo-British Empire, where there’s an economic bloc, which mirrors the Five Eyes Agreement –the intelligence agreement between US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s never going to happen.

In his speech on 3 February in Greenwich, Johnson stated his intended aim of Brexit: Britain is going to be the force for opening up the world economy, going around the world, breaking trade blocs and bringing the whole globe to WTO trade standards. He also said that “Covid-19 is not going to stop us”. The problem is that Covid-19 is accelerating the counterforce that was already there. I believe that the real tendency in the world is toward a break-up of multilateral institutions, like WTO, and the emergence of great power politics with huge trading blocs. We have the very obvious rivalry China vs. America and we have Macron, who’s the strongest voice for the strategic autonomy of the European Union. If we live in a world, where we have a strong US, a strong China and a strategically autonomous Europe, where does Britain fit in? I really think that the Johnson clique has no idea. When the world is breaking into different power blocs you simply have to be in one, you can’t be a free agent. Especially if you’re a mid-size country like Britain, with a very poorly developed industrial base.

If we live in a world, where we have a strong US, a strong China and a strategically autonomous Europe, where does Britain fit in? I really think that the Johnson clique has no idea.

Johnson’s once all-powerful special adviser Dominic Cummings wanted to use the post-Brexit freedom to build a new, globally competitive, British economy centred around big-tech and biotechnology.

Yes, Cummings said: “forget about free trade, forget about Britain as Singapore-on-the-Thames. I have a better plan”. We can describe his plan as a triangle. The first point is the following: let’s use all the state intervention, borrowing and money printing we’re using to combat Covid-19 to create a new British bourgeoisie because the old one doesn’t like Brexit. The state, using grants and government money, should build up crony capitalism, in a similar manner as Viktor Orbán did in Hungary. It’s already happening. The New York Times found out that around 12 billion pounds worth of government contracts, connected with battling Covid-19, can be suspected of being influenced by political patronage. So that’s the top of the triangle. The next thing to do is to create the narrative of nationalism and culture war, which keeps the left out of power. Then, in the third movement, the proceeds of growth, borrowing and money creation are funnelled to the new electoral base of the Tories, the working class of Brexit-voting small towns. The problem is that to fulfil that plan, the British government would have to abandon the ‘level playing field’ rule to which it subscribed in the Brexit agreement.

Cummings was sacked from his job at the government at the end of 2020. Is there anyone in Johnson’s cabinet who would be willing to follow his plan?

No, not really. Michael Gove, he represents the Cummings strategy, but I’m not sure if he understands it. A lot of people on the right of the party would like to see the Cummings strategy implemented. But not only was he fired, but also replaced by Dan Rosenfield, a career liberal technocrat, who became Johnson’s chief of staff. I think that he was put there to pull Johnson away from an erratic, Orbán-like, style of politics. Rosenfield is going to limit fantasy-driven post-Brexit politics. It was reported that he only took the job after Johnson promised to stop attacking the judiciary and the civil service. So, as I’ve said, I don’t think that there’s any grand strategy among the Tories.

What about Labour? Do they have any idea for post-Brexit Britain?

On 16 January, Labour Leader Keir Starmer gave his first foreign policy statement. You could clearly see how undeveloped Labour’s strategy is. Starmer used a metaphor of Britain as a bridge between America and Europe. But what does it exactly mean for example in terms of trade? US doesn’t need any trading bridge to Europe, it has a direct link. Maybe he meant geopolitics? But I also don’t think that’s going to fly. Look at Biden’s new secretary of state, Anthony Blinken. He’s a francophone, he grew up in Paris, he can speak French so well, nobody can tell he’s an American.

Starmer used a metaphor of Britain as a bridge between America and Europe. But what does it exactly mean for example in terms of trade? US doesn’t need any trading bridge to Europe, it has a direct link.

On the other hand you have Macron, who has a clear grand strategy: technological and strategic autonomy for Europe, fast forward of European integration, Europe as a stabilizing force for the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Look at Macron’s military deployment, look at his politics in the eastern Mediterranean, where he constructed a really workable alliance of France, Cyprus, Greece and Israel to check Erdogan. What use can Blinken’s state department possibly have in its dealing with France and the EU for Britain?

To be clear, I don’t think Starmer is on the wrong path. The idea that Britain should not be completely pro-American, that it should work as a glue joining the emergent European super-power with the US, isn’t irrational.

Does Starmer and his Labour have any idea how to counter Johnson’s politics of post-Brexit culture war?

Starmer believes that by saying “Brexit is over” and by repudiating many of the rhetorical leftism of the Corbyn era he can actually take down Johnson. He might not be wrong. Look at the polls, Starmer in charge took Labour from 28 points in April 2020 to 40 points in January 2021. Most of these 12 points came from remain-voting liberals. It still doesn’t give Labour a majority. Labour still has to reach back to the so called ‘red wall’, working class constituencies in the North, which voted Brexit. I think he can do it, because he’s ruthlessly policing the politics of the Labour party, to create a political narration which is trustworthy and non-radical. The Tories managed Covid-19 pandemic in a very chaotic way, which also helps the chances of the Labour Party.

Labour still has to reach back to the so called ‘red wall’, working class constituencies in the North, which voted Brexit. I think he can do it, because he’s ruthlessly policing the politics of the Labour party.

Starmer has a shot at winning the next election?

He has a shot at forming a government. But it’s very unlikely that Labour will regain its seats in Scotland. In Scotland, Labour is squeezed between the conservative Scots who want to remain in the UK and progressive nationalists who want independence. And without Labour regaining Scotland the most likely outcome of the next election is a scenario, where Johnson loses his majority, but Starmer can’t form a government without the Scottish nationalists. Their price would be a referendum. This country lurches from one constitutional crisis to the next.

What would be the politics of Starmer’s cabinet toward Europe? Do you think there’s a chance that the Labour government would renegotiate the deal? Or even, perhaps, apply to re-join the European community?

Nobody in English politics wants to re-join immediately. For Scots the road to Europe is independence from the UK. I also don’t think that Starmer’s government is going to reopen negotiations on Johnson’s deal. Labour now uses the phrase “we will build on the deal”. Johnson’s deal is so meagre that it is possible. For example, at the beginning the financial industries were going to have a kind of passport, which would enable them to keep trading inside the EU. But that idea was abandoned. So, you can imagine that in the future services and intellectual property industries could renegotiate, sector by sector, the rules of their activity in the common market, building on the current deal. That’s the first thing. The second is cooperation on issues of security, education and science. Starmer would probably re-join the Galileo project, the Erasmus project – all these breaks were unnecessary, even from conservative point of view.

But the most important issue is how Biden and Blinken will approach the EU. Are they going to say: “let’s build the alliance in world politics and world trade politics to face down what China is doing, gaming the system and undermining all standards”? If we’re lucky, Labour will come to power in 2024, Biden and Macron are going to stay in power and we’ll have a global Biden-Macron axis and a Europe, that without Britain, knows what it wants. That would be a good place to start for Starmer’s European policy.

Not only Britain was sceptical towards Macron’s ideas for Europe. Where I live in Poland, Macron is a kind of bête noir of European politics for the right wing government and its media. The Polish right is openly hostile to his plans for Europe.

The best outcome for Europe, US and the UK would be a strong Biden-Macron alliance. I think that other actors, like the European Commission, which is now thinking more boldly about the technological autonomy of Europe, is beginning to notice it.

Sure, that’s the obstacle for Macron’s plan. I think though, that all that PiS actually want is the right to do things their way in Poland. Kaczyński has no ambition to actually shape the future of Europe or even to destroy Western liberal democracies. He just wants to be left alone in his little Polish Catholic paradise. He can be easily bought off. A far more serious obstacle to Macron’s plan may lay in Italy. If the Italian right wins the elections, it starts to disintegrate Europe. If they’re joined by the Government of the Popular Party supported by Vox in Spain, we get powerful centrifugal forces in Europe. But the best outcome for Europe, US and the UK would be a strong Biden-Macron alliance. I think that other actors, like the European Commission, which is now thinking more boldly about the technological autonomy of Europe, is beginning to notice it.

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

Paul Mason

Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice. He was Culture and Digital Editor of Channel 4 News, becoming the programme‘s Economics Editor on 1 June 2014, a post he formerly held on BBC Two‘s Newsnight programme. He is also a visiting professor at the University of Wolverhampton. In the past, Mason was a member of the Workers‘ Power group. In 2016, he distanced himself from his former involvement in far-left Trotskyist politics, by saying that he no longer holds such views and identifies with a “radical social democracy.” His books include PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future (2015) and Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (2012). Mason won the Wincott Prize for Business Journalism in 2003, the Workworld Broadcaster of the Year in 2004, and the Diageo African Business Reporting Award in 2007. His report on the social movements behind Bolivian president Evo Morales was cited when Newsnight was awarded the Orwell Prize (2007).

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