2010s >> 2019 >> no-1374-february-2019

Which way for British capitalism?

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 on 17 January Tony Blair explained the dilemma the UK capitalist class face. He pointed out that for the past 40 or so years their governments (even under Thatcher) had pursued the policy of becoming part of a Europe-wide single market (i.e. a market with common regulations and standards and not just a tariff-free trading area) and that they were now completely integrated into it in terms of export markets and supply chains. They could withdraw but this would cause disruption and would be giving up a secure market they already had. A referendum had voted in favour of withdrawal but this could be interpreted in various ways, including just withdrawing from the EU’s political institutions. He said that this (now called Norway Plus) would avoid the economic damage but would leave the UK in the position of a rule-taker, as the extreme Brexiteers pointed out, as it would have no say in drawing up the single market’s regulations. In that case it would be better for the UK capitalist class if the UK stayed in the EU.

This is politically impossible, at least not without another referendum. But if the UK gives up its frictionless access to the single market this would have to be the first time in the history of capitalism that a capitalist state has voluntarily opted for less favourable access to a market it already has. In proposing this, even via a no-deal, the extreme Brexiteers are in effect arguing that two birds in the bush are worth more than one bird in the hand.

If there is no second referendum and no-deal is ruled out, the only deal that would probably make sense from the point of view of the majority of the UK capitalist class would be Norway Plus, as that would at least ensure the status quo of frictionless exports and imports and would avoid having to turn the clock back by unravelling the single market integration that has happened so far. The trouble is that this is likely to split their main party, the Tories, as the Tories like to remind themselves happened to them in the mid-1840s when Sir Robert Peel embraced Free Trade and repealed the Corn Laws.

From the point of view of pure democratic theory, there is nothing wrong with holding a second referendum. One referendum result can be overturned by another referendum. In this particular case — which is about the trading arrangements of the UK capitalist class — the issue is not one that concerns those who want socialism. It would be an even greater festival of xenophobia than the first. And those favouring it might not get the result they expect, which is why the UK capitalist class might settle for Norway Plus as less risky politically. But they don’t act directly. They leave that to their political representatives, the MPs, who have their own agendas like keeping or obtaining office or being re-elected at the next election or keeping their party together and who might screw things up.

The Labour Party leaders want a general election. This makes sense from their point of view since, if they don’t get one now, they won’t get another chance until 2022. Some Labour supporters imagine that this is the most important issue today as a Labour government will end austerity and usher in a period of prosperity for the many whether the UK is in the EU or not. But they are as deluded as those workers who believe the toffs who tell them that Brexit will bring them sunny uplands and a golden future. Neither will for the simple reason that capitalism does not work, and cannot be made to work, in the interests of the majority. It is a system driven by profit-making that can only work in the interest of the profit-takers.