Socialist Worker

Brexit broke the bosses' system

by Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue No. 2647

Theresa May - just about managing

Theresa May - just about managing

It’s little wonder that so many people are frustrated and fatigued by the Brexit shambles. For the last three years Theresa May has manoeuvred

between defeats, delays and half-baked compromises with little support.

This isn’t just down to May’s mistakes or her incompetence. It’s to do with a profound crisis for the ruling class unleashed by the Leave vote in June 2016.

Almost the whole of the British establishment was lined up behind the Remain campaign in the referendum.

Many people voted Remain for left wing reasons.

They looked at the vicious racism pushed by those heading up the Leave campaign, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage.

Others feared the Tories would use Brexit as a pretext to rip up legal protections for workers and the environment.

But the leadership of the Remain campaign was made up of figures desperate to protect the neoliberal status quo.

In Britain backers included Tory prime minister David Cameron and 25 out of 30 cabinet ministers, the CBI bosses’ organisation, the City of London and big business.

And internationally support was found among the major imperialist powers and the Nato military alliance.

The Brexit vote was a kick in the teeth to all of these establishment interests—and they have tried to thwart the process since.

Big business is one of the most important sections of opposition to Brexit.

A letter to the Times newspaper during the referendum showed how bosses were united from the global bank Goldman Sachs to a small off licence in Penarth, Wales.


They included polluting oil giant BP, the arms dealers of BAE Systems, and Carillion—the firm at the centre of one of the biggest privatisation scandals.

The letter said that “business needs unrestricted access to the European market of 500 million people in order to continue to grow”.

They need the EU as a bloc of capitalist states that allows British bosses to compete with far larger rivals, such as the US and China.

Bosses pretend that being part of this is good for everyone and that Brexit would “deter investment, threaten jobs, and put the economy at risk”.

But when they talk about what’s good for the “economy”, they’re talking about what’s good for maximising profits at the expense of people and planet.

What’s more, the EU’s single market rules restrict left wing policies, such as renationalising the whole rail industry to run it as a public service.

Brexit forced divisions between May, the warring wings of the Tory party and big business.

The Tories have been the dominant party of British capitalism since the beginning of the 20th century.

The left should try and shape the anger that produced this crisis—and use it to clear away the broken political system and replace it with a far better one.

But for fifty years they have been split over the question of membership of the EU. Their crisis today is a hangover from a time when British bosses were themselves divided over whether their interests were served better in the EU, or by looking to the US.

That left a deep fissure in the Tory Party. A section of Tories believes British capital would do better outside of the EU.

Another sides with the majority of Britain’s bosses in wanting to Remain. This split has torn the Tories apart.

David Cameron called the EU referendum to placate the Tories’ right wing backbenchers and base and to win back voters from Farage’s Ukip.

The pig-headed prime minister was confident that Remain would win with him at the helm.

The vote to Leave humiliated him—and he had to resign.

When May—who had been a quiet Remainer—took over, she asserted her commitment to leaving the EU with the hollow phrase, “Brexit means Brexit”.

But the division meant she tried to postpone any real decisions.


She refused to trigger immediately the Article 50 process for exiting the EU after the vote to leave in June 2016.

As Brexit negotiations began in January 2017, May laid out her vision for a “hard Brexit”.

This would involve leaving the single market, customs union and dumping free movement for migrants.

It promised a nasty, racist, xenophobic clampdown on migrants. But business was furious because it risked their profits.

David Cameron resigns

David Cameron resigns

Extraordinarily, right wing Tories attacked bosses.

Boris Johnson said, “Fuck business”, and Iain Duncan Smith compared listening to the CBI’s fears to appeasing Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s.

At the CBI’s annual conference that November, May got a more lukewarm reception than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

He had made a play for business support by promising to retain single market access.

Big business was never about to jump ship for the Labour Party, but sought to exploit the Tory divisions and pile pressure onto May.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has fought to keep the most neoliberal aspects of the EU.

At one point his department, the Treasury, released data showing how devastating leaving without a deal with the EU would be.

That was despite the fact that May had said it was better than a bad deal.

Big business saw a chance to push for their demands in the summer of 2017.


May had called a snap general election to increase her standing among the Tory party’s warring factions and bolster her position in EU negotiations.

For the second time in two years a Tory prime minister launched a vote full of arrogance that they would win.

And for the second time, they were humiliated.

Ordinary people delivered a stunning humiliation to May, with a vote for Labour that robbed the Tories of their majority. Her authority was smashed to pieces.

Now she was even more powerless to control the rival wings of her party and the bosses.

She has only managed to hang on by endless delays to decisions and attempting to fudge between the two sides.

The lack of progress means some in the establishment now see an opportunity to block Brexit altogether through a second referendum.

While many good people will have joined the People’s Vote march in London this Saturday, it is a campaign led by big business and Blairites to defend neoliberalism.

Whatever the outcome, bosses will continue to try to defend their interests.

As the bosses’ Financial Times newspaper notes, “If her deal falls, she will have failed utterly, but even if it passes, little is resolved.

“For although Mrs May’s package is often called a deal it is little more than a standstill agreement.

“There is no trade deal, no plan for services, no final destination.

“Mrs May will soon be gone; these battles are still to be fought.”

The left must not tail the different wings of the ruling class argument as it has done during the last three years.


That has allowed opposition to May’s Brexit cohere around a defence of neoliberalism—which even Labour and the union leaders fall into by supporting the single market.

The joint statement between the TUC union federation and the CBI on Brexit is a real low point.

For more than a decade union leaders have failed to challenge the bosses who have slashed pay and jobs.

Now they line up with them to pretend that protecting their interests is best for ordinary people.

The vote to leave was a contradictory revolt against the establishment, with progressive and reactionary ideas.

It’s caused a situation where deep political crisis is the norm. The prime minister can’t push her flagship policy through parliament, and the Labour Party is ripped apart.

The left should try and shape the anger that produced this crisis—and use it to clear away the broken political system and replace it with a far better one.

An alternative vision lies in fighting for a socialist and anti-racist Brexit—one that says “Yes to free movement” and “No to the single market”.

That means seeking to turf out the Tories by building struggles against racism and austerity.

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