By Alex Callinicos
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Ruling class in open warfare after court ruling on Brexit

This article is over 7 years, 8 months old
Issue 2529
Negotiating Brexit is going to be very difficult for Theresa May
Negotiating Brexit is going to be very difficult for Theresa May (Pic: Surrey County Council News/creative commons)

Is Britain beginning to experience the kind of “culture war” that divides the political elite in the US?

Until recently the tops of both Democrat and Republican parties were broadly agreed in supporting neoliberalism and maintaining a global empire enforced by the Pentagon.

But back in September 1992 Pat Buchanan proclaimed on behalf of the Republican right a “cultural war”. He denounced Bill and Hillary Clinton for pursuing an agenda on issues such as abortion and LGBT+ rights that was “not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country”.

The anger generated over these so-called “social issues” has gradually migrated from the margins to the very centre of Republican politics. It now powers Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Brexit has created what is beginning to look like a similar kind of polarisation in Britain. The political establishment and its allies in the corporate media share broadly the same outlook. That is support for neoliberalism and austerity, and for Nato and the alliance with the US. Hence their shared distaste for Jeremy Corbyn.

But they are divided over the European Union (EU). The Leavers among them have been cock-a-hoop since 24 June. They celebrate the bright although largely indeterminate future the vote to leave the EU has opened.

The Remainers, meanwhile, are seething with rage at what they regard as the theft of their future. But they talked quite as much nonsense during the referendum campaign as the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove did.

The High Court ruling that the government can’t activate Article 50 to leave the EU without parliamentary approval has brought the mutual loathing to white heat.

Comparing the coverage in the media is like watching different ideological apparatuses of the British state at war with one another. Meanwhile, to gauge the attitude of the capitalist class itself one has only to look at the pound. This has had its best week in the currency markets since March.

The bosses want either no Brexit or as soft a Brexit as possible. What Karl Marx called the economic base and the ideological and political superstructure of British society are out of alignment with one another.

There’s no reason to accept the Brexiteers’ definition of life outside the EU

The High Court judgement concludes that the executive cannot use the royal prerogative to extinguish rights created by the European treaties. This seems perfectly reasonable on democratic grounds. Left wing Labour MP Tony Benn often denounced the way governments hid behind the prerogative.

But even if the Supreme Court upholds this judgement, this won’t stop Brexit, despite the urgings of some Remainers. For example, Polly Toynbee writes in the Guardian newspaper, “It’s not anti-democratic to try to stop what so many other countries see as an incomprehensible act of economic suicide.”

Most MPs—74 percent—may have voted to remain. But—among the voters—only 39 percent of constituencies voted remain. That makes a parliamentary vote to reject the results of the referendum suicidal as well as undemocratic.

But the High Court judgement does underline two things. First, negotiating Brexit is going to be very difficult indeed for Theresa May.

She will have to balance the interests of big business, the demands of the Tory Brexiteers, and the hardball tactics that the rest of the EU will use. Steering Article 50 through both houses of parliament will make this that much harder.

Secondly, the content of Brexit remains a largely open question. May’s mantra “Brexit means Brexit” has become a laughing stock. She has allowed the Tory right to impose its own meaning—an ultra-neoliberal, xenophobic Britain that probably doesn’t fully correspond to her own objective.

But there’s no reason to accept the Brexiteers’ definition of life outside the EU. Corbyn has made a stab at defining an economic alternative, but he hasn’t had much support from the rest of the left.

Too many are still mourning their lost fantasy object of the EU, or engaging in Toynbee-like daydreams. It’s time to develop and fight for an anti-capitalist alternative that can break out of the establishment culture war.

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