There are two common mistakes about Brexit.
The first is that it is necessarily a coherent right wing project about achieving an even more radical form of neoliberalism than currently prevails in Britain.
This is commonly argued by left wing Remainers, but it is false. It’s possible to advocate leaving the European Union (EU) for a variety of political reasons. For example, from the left, Grace Blakeley of the New Statesman magazine argues that any government that wants to break with neoliberalism must break with the EU.
But there’s also the opposite mistake. It sees Brexit as a straightforward democratic issue that can unite people of widely differing views behind ensuring the referendum result is respected. This is the ploy currently being pursued by Nigel Farage with his new Brexit Party.
Despite his boozy, blazered image, Farage is no fool. To win as many votes as possible in the European elections he is positioning the Brexit Party as close to the centre as possible. He had already broken with his old party Ukip, whose current leader Gerard Batten is trying to turn it into the electoral wing of the alt-right and open fascists.
Farage is exploiting the Tories’ implosion to make huge inroads into the party’s base. According to one poll, 40 percent of Tory councillors plan to vote for the Brexit Party. But he’s also targeting Labour.
Presenting five new candidates last week, he said, “There are five million people that voted for Jeremy Corbyn and voted for Brexit as well, and that’s going to be our task. I think we will go on squeezing the Conservatives and squeezing Ukip down to virtually nothing. We’re going to go after that Labour vote in a very big way.”
The candidates who appeared with Farage reflect this strategy. They included a decorated ex-marine who’s now an environmentalist, a Malaysian ex-nurse, and broadcaster Claire Fox, who proclaims herself “a lifelong leftie”.
Fox was a leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party. In the 1970s and 1980s it specialised in finding pseudo-Marxist arguments for right wing positions, and in the 1990s dissolved itself into a neoconservative media coterie. Her recent intervention in a left wing pro-Brexit meeting must have been her first outing in the real left for decades.
But people with more genuine left wing credentials have been taken in by Farage’s ploy, most notably—and tragically—George Galloway. More generally a section of the left that campaigned for Leave in 2016, while not going as far as this, has shifted in a nationalist direction. Thus, many of those supporting a “people’s Brexit” are reluctant to defend free movement for European workers.
We shouldn’t underestimate how dangerous Farage is. The Brexiteers are making the running in the Tory crisis. They see themselves as the heirs of Margaret Thatcher, who successfully combined neoliberalism and nationalism.
But whereas Thatcher was able successfully to restructure British capitalism, the Brexiteers are despised by big business, which wants to stick close to the EU.
The most potent surviving elements of Thatcherism are ultra-nationalism and racism. Ideologically Farage is an ultra-Thatcherite, not a fascist.
But Alan Sked, the founder of Ukip, accused him of being a racist when they worked together in the 1990s. “Only immigration mattered to him,” Sked wrote.
Farage says he isn’t after a protest vote this time. He wants to reconstitute mainstream politics to include a strong party of the far right comparable to the Lega in Italy, the Rassemblement national in France, or Fidesz in Hungary. As with these parties, anti-migrant racism is central to the project.
But to fully exploit the opportunity offered by the Brexit crisis Farage must appeal as broadly as possible.
He must be hoping that a good performance by the Brexit Party in the Euro elections, combined with continuing paralysis at Westminster, might catalyse a serious split in the Tory party where a section moves rightwards.
No one should be fooled by Farage’s soft, inclusive rhetoric about democracy. The Brexit Party is about building a much stronger far right in Britain. No genuine socialist should be hoodwinked into becoming one of Farage’s useful idiots.