During the 2016 Brexit debate leading up to the referendum to leave the European Union, Boris Johnson sold Brexit as an answer to Britain’s economic and social problems against the backdrop of an emblazoned bus, with the now infamous lie that £350 million would be given to the NHS each week instead of membership payments made into the EU. The global economic crisis of 2007-2008 caused by the financialisaton of advanced capitalism, manifested by the US property bubble, the subprime mortgage crisis and the unregulated, catastrophic use of derivatives, created the conditions that led towards the end of Gordon Brown’s Labour government with a general election in 2010.
The impacts of the economic crisis and the subsequent implementation of austerity led to a rise of hostility towards ‘foreign’ workers, with Gordon Brown’s dog whistle ‘British jobs for British workers’, followed by the rise of UKIP and the election of David Cameron. Cameron feeling pressure with Tory voters gravitating towards the racist policies of UKIP promised a referendum on European membership in 2013, which was to then form part of Tory policy leading up to the general election in 2015. Cameron was banking on failing to get an overall majority in 2015 and continuing in coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, who would veto such a referendum as they had done previously. Once re-elected with an overall majority, Cameron had to deliver the referendum. The whole debate surrounding Brexit polarised politics in the UK. The main drivers in the debate were issues surrounding immigration and sovereignty, which also coincided with the ongoing refugee crisis caused by British and American imperialism in the Middle East and Libya.
The refugee crisis was capitalised on with Farage’s sickening Nazi-esque ‘Breaking Point’ poster of queues of refugees, and the ‘Leave’ campaign’s absurd claim that Turkey was imminently joining the EU with 75 million Muslim Turks ready to flood into Britain. While the European Union acts as a protectionist neoliberal cartel, Brexit was always a project driven by Islamophobia and racism from the right wing of the Tory Party with its ‘hostile environment’ policy and the reactionary elements of the British working class, accentuated by the poison in the British press. There were elements on the left that embraced this under the banner of ‘Lexit’, in the mistaken belief that it could somehow evolve and pave the way to ‘socialism in one country’. The reality is this position was always flawed, particularly as the left were never in control of events, or even with any noticeable contribution to the narrative. Brexit was sold to British workers not based on material reality but as a ‘wish-list’ of fanciful wants that bordered on the absurd.
Britain’s serious decline led to a split developing in the ruling class over questioning their position in Europe and looking for deeper ties with the US, with many clamouring for Britain’s lost imperial past. Britain finally leaving the EU came after Johnson defeated Labour at the 2019 General Election with the mantra ‘Get Brexit done’ with his ‘oven ready deal’. However, the incompetent and duplicitous Johnson lied to the British public, his half-baked deal was unilaterally withdrawn, and another deal had to be re-negotiated with threats exchanged between both Europe and Britain in the fall out. The general election resulted in a major defeat for the British left, leaving it demoralised and opening the door for more reactionary right-wing politics from an emboldened Tory Party.
Consequences of Brexit
Hard Brexit has created supply problems with the UK’s biggest trading partner due to the creation of tariff barriers and the ending of free movement of people, which were sought to satisfy the hardened Eurosceptic ERG right-wing of the Tories that installed Johnson as leader of the party. This was under the pretext of ‘taking back control’ with Britain regaining sovereignty but has in many ways done exactly the opposite with the UK economy left completely exposed and isolated. Attempting to dismantle 40 years of a ‘just in time’ economic model that had become fully integrated into the EU, to become a European ‘Singapore’ tax haven with trade barriers in a matter of a few years was always going to be problematic, with the burden falling onto the working class.
Leaving the European Union coincided with the onset of the COVID pandemic, which has exacerbated the economic effects that Britain now finds itself in. Since leaving late 2019 it is estimated that 1.3 million non-UK workers have left the UK, leaving serious gaps in the labour market, which in turn is impacting on the supply chain and other vital sectors of the UK economy. In the meat industry alone, 62% of the UK workforce were EU nationals, with some producers reporting workforces of up to 85% EU nationals.
UK farmers, many who voted to leave the EU, now find themselves with crops that cannot be picked, the NFU have said only 11% of seasonal workers in the 2020 season were UK residents, with farmers heavily reliant on migrant labour. Farmers are also faced with the prospect of having up to 120,000 pigs being slaughtered in fields and burnt because of being overgrown and not able to travel to the abattoir. This is the biggest slaughter of animals carried out in UK fields in the history of British agriculture. It is a travesty that while we have families with children going hungry, the UK which is not food self-reliant finds itself in the absurd position that food and livestock are being laid to waste.
The Brexit exodus has resulted in empty supermarket shelves, shortage of CO2 causing disruptions within the food industry and more recent fuel shortages that are spiralling out of control. With the country now deep into its second week of a fuel crisis, lengthy queues of frustrated motorists have been trying to get onto petrol garage forecourts, with many of them dry and completely out of fuel. This crisis is completely of the government’s own making and just as the emperor had no clothes it shows Brexit for what it truly is, a disaster as a result from an argument within the British ruling class who have no real answers from the quagmire that they now find themselves in. The UK Southeast peninsular lies just 29 miles from France. Being the UK’s biggest trading partner, it makes no sense economically to forge new trade deals unilaterally halfway around the world. The increase in air miles alone makes a mockery of Britain’s commitment to tackle climate change.
The Tories’ response has been woeful, with decision-making conducted on the hoof, lurching from one crisis to the next. Johnson and his ministers are scrambling around to find quick fix answers to fix an economy that has deep structural problems. These quick fixes include ‘temporary visas’ in a desperate attempt to attract European HGV drivers back into the UK, which instead of the initial 3 months have been extended to March 2022 and sending out letters to German nationals who have licence categories on driving licences issued before 1999, which allow them to drive medium-sized lorries of up to 7.5 tonnes, even if they have never been behind the wheel of a lorry. Other desperate measures include ‘streamlining’ current HGV training, which is code word for cutting corners in the training programme with only one test taken to drive articulated and rigid vehicles, as opposed to two different tests. Other changes include shorter tests with the removal of the ‘reversing exercise’ element, and for vehicles with trailers, the ‘uncoupling and recoupling’ exercise.
The main concern must be workplace safety with such measures being introduced. Heavy goods vehicles are much more likely to be involved in fatal accidents per mile travelled than any other vehicle in the UK. Data from TSGB (2007) showed that 12.1% of motorway traffic was by HGVs, which were responsible for 41% of fatalities. Between 2016 to 2017, there was a 50% increase in fatal accidents involving lorry drivers, which resulted in the union, Unite, calling for urgent reforms into how road accidents with lorries are recorded. The concern was how they are recorded as traffic accidents and not workplace accidents with workers working with time pressures, long hours away from home, terrible road conditions and in poor working conditions with workers being denied basic welfare facilities. Accidents should be investigated by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) as to the culpability of employers and industrial negligence. According to figures released by the Department of Transport in 2019, 1,258 people were killed or seriously injured in accidents involving HGVs during 2018.
The UK has a shortage of around 70,000 HGV drivers and while Europe also has shortages, this is not leading to scenes of empty supermarket shelves and dry garages with queues trying to get onto the forecourt on the continent. European free movement means that the impact of driver shortages is mitigated by drivers moving around between member states as well as the practice of cabotage; delivering and collecting consignments within member states to prevent return journeys with empty containers. This is not simply a Tory problem with European workers, even Labour has succumbed to this petty nationalist backwardness with Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, in her interview on Newsnight (29th September 2021) suggesting that there is ‘no appetite for free movement’.
While Labour chimes with the Tories for ‘home grown supply’ and a ‘higher wage economy’, the reality is that Labour oppose the £15.00 per hour minimum wage and oppose increasing statutory sick pay. Labour has clearly positioned itself alongside the Tories and towards big business with Starmer rowing back on his 2020 leadership election campaign pledge to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”. Starmer’s recent 14,000 word ‘essay’ published just before coming into conference mentioned business 29 times, while workers were mentioned just a mere 3 times. Speaking to The Times newspaper, Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, confirmed that Labour would continue the ‘hostile environment’ with the continuation of deportation flights and would never bring back freedom of movement. This is a pitch towards the right and the dog whistle to what it sees as the Tory Brexit working class vote. The Labour Conference re-branding of the traditional red background with its new colour scheme of turning blue towards the right was clearly intentional, a subliminal message for its new patriotic stance.
Political and Economic Crisis
Johnson and his ministers are trying to downplay the seriousness of this crisis and while the fuel crisis has eased in some parts of the UK, in London and the Southeast there is evidence that the situation has deteriorated. The whole idea of enticing demonised European workers back into the UK on a short-term visa after they have been previously made to feel unwelcome is an obscenity, feedback suggests that many Europeans are hostile to the idea. This is the desperate act of a floundering government and shows the contempt they hold for workers. The narrative coming out of both Tory and Labour politicians is that EU workers were to blame for the lack of training, the suppression of wages, and the deterioration of working conditions because of the influx of ‘foreign’ workers during Britain’s membership of the EU. This is a sordid attempt to hide the effects of neoliberalism introduced both by Tory and Labour governments over the last 40 plus years, which has crushed British workers.
The Tory conference in Manchester is upon us and the Tories find themselves coming into a potential winter of discontent. Just as the economic consequences are unfolding, the furlough scheme has now been withdrawn with an estimated 1 million workers finding themselves in limbo, according to the Resolution Foundation. It is all too simplistic to assume that these workers will walk out of one position and into another vacancy caused by a European national leaving. This is the age-old problem of training and geographics not taken into the equation, which can only be resolved by having a planned economy and not one driven by the greed of market forces.
The Tories are also withdrawing the £20.00 uplift to Universal Credit, with 6 million people in receipt of this payment, this will leave many families already in a precarious position even more desperate. The National Education Union claim that 4.3 million children are in poverty in the UK, which is one of the world’s richest nations but one with one of the worst hunger rates in Europe according to figures released by UNICEF. The UK has a GDP per capita four times the global average. Yet, UNICEF figures show 19% of children under 15 in the UK live with adults who struggle to buy food. Over 2.5 million people rely on food banks in Britain, and the Tories response to the working poor and those in receipt of welfare is to let them fend for themselves turning the clock back to the Victorian era.
The supply chain crisis is creating a situation of higher demand and restricted supply, which inevitably leads to an increase in inflation. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has predicted that inflation will reach 4% by the end of 2021, which is far outstripping wages. This on top of the 1.25 % increase in National Insurance payments, which will see the poorest subsidise the wealthiest with a tax to increase revenue to pay towards the NHS. This itself blows wide open the Brexit bus lie of saving money from EU membership to pay the NHS instead. While there is a low level of class consciousness in the UK, these attacks on workers and their families could create the spark that causes real resentment to build up towards the British ruling class. We need a revolutionary movement outside of the UK Labour Party, one that will provide answers for people instead of laying the blame solely at the feet of our fellow European workers.
Trotsky wrote in ‘The United States of Europe:
“We shall not here indulge in speculations as to the speed at which the unification of the European republics will proceed, in what economic and constitutional forms it will express itself, and what degree of centralisation will be obtained in the first period of the workers’, and peasants’, regime. All these considerations we may safely leave to the future, remembering the experience already gained by the Soviet Union, constructed on the soil of former Tsarist Russia. What is perfectly obvious is that the customs barriers must be thrown down. The peoples of Europe must regard Europe as a field for a unified and increasingly planned economic life.”https://www.consistent-democrats.org/the-united-states-of-europe/
Trotsky’s key point was that there would be no way out for the people of Europe with the isolationist politics of the narrow nation state, and that the demand for a “United States of Europe” would need to be a transitional programme that could provide the basis for peace and progress, one on a revolutionary basis. Britain cannot divorce itself either geographically or politically from Europe, it is in Europe whether it likes it or not.