By Joseph Choonara
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Brexit wounds

This article is over 5 years, 6 months old
The prime minister’s commitment to both nationalism and neoliberalism is the worst of both worlds.
Issue 421

Theresa May has delivered her long-awaited speech on her Brexit strategy — knowledge of which was hitherto limited to the handwritten note spotted on the pad of a hapless Tory aide: “Have cake and eat it.”

May is pushing for a “hard Brexit”. Britain will leave the single market and the customs union governing trade between EU states. Instead she envisages a deal covering specific areas of the economy allowing “frictionless” tariff-free trade with the EU.

Although the speech was laced with nationalism and promises to curb migration, the prime minister was also keen to identify with the project of neoliberal globalisation that has underpinned ruling class thinking since the 1980s.

The term “Global Britain” was uttered ten times. At the World Economic Forum she argued: “The forces of liberalism, free trade and globalisation that have had…such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world…are somehow at risk of being undermined… Across Europe parties of the far-left and the far-right are…gathering support by feeding off an underlying and keenly felt sense among some people — often those on modest to low incomes living in relatively rich countries around the West — that these forces are not working for them.”

Yet the feeling that neoliberalism has failed working class people is not an illusion. It is the reality underlying Brexit and other recent electoral revolts.

Now May is offering more of the same. When she argues that 23 June was “the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain”, she is not talking about promoting an internationalism rooted in peace and justice, but about strengthening British corporations whose interests diametrically oppose our own.

Consider May’s threat to the EU if a favourable deal does not emerge: “We would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain.”

This is unlikely to appeal to the “just about managing” families May sometimes mutters about. Even Nicholas Macpherson, the civil servant who used to head the Treasury, felt moved to point out that this scenario would require “some fairly big discussions with the public” about how the NHS would be funded.

Still, May was praised by much of the right wing press. Her newfound confidence reflects, in part, the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

Trump identified his own victory with Brexit, and says he would welcome the breakup of the EU — in sharp contrast to his predecessors who favoured a strong EU as a partner in the US-led global order. The possibility of a trade deal with the Trump administration underlies May’s unseemly rush to the US to abase herself before the bigot now occupying the White House.

However, salvation will not be so easily attained. Negotiations for trade agreements outside Europe cannot even begin until Brexit is complete — and it is worth remembering that the Ceta EU-Canada deal took seven years to thrash out. Then there is the question of what Trump, who promises to “put America first”, will actually offer, and how this might affect other deals on May’s wish-list — notably with China, currently Trump’s main bugbear.

The proposed deal with the EU itself, allowing “frictionless” trade in specific areas, is beset with complications. As the Financial Times points out, if British motor manufacturers are included, why not include the companies supplying their components? And what about their suppliers? Where exactly would the lines be drawn?

Adding to the problems is the corporate response to May’s speech. The HSBC and UBS banks announced they were each moving 1,000 jobs out of London. Toyota is reconsidering its investments in Britain. Even Nissan, having been offered undisclosed sweeteners from the government last autumn, now plans to review the competitiveness of its Sunderland plant.

The “industrial strategy” promised by the Tories, so far little more than hot air, has been greeted with indifference by the major corporations.

Finally, there are the tensions in May’s own party, reflecting the pressure of its base on the one hand and the demands of big business on the other.

Our job is to make life as painful as possible for May.

Part of this is to set out a different vision of Brexit favouring working class interests. That cannot be based on continued membership of the neoliberal single market. Our priorities are to break with austerity, secure protections for workers and the environment, and reverse the privatisations that go hand in hand with corporate globalisation.

Even more urgently, we must fight over racism. In May’s speech she repeated the old fallacy that migration has “put a downward pressure on wages for working class people”. She continues to use EU migrants in Britain as bargaining chips in her negotiations, even though an overwhelming majority, including three-quarters of Leave voters, want their right to stay guaranteed.

The Stand Up To Racism demonstration on 18 March will have at its centre the defence of the 3 million EU migrants living here. We must argue, too, for the retention of the right to free movement, even in its current limited form.

May’s speech leaves unsolved many of the key problems Brexit poses. It is up to the left to ensure the presence of its voice in the debates certain to follow.

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