The politics of reaction in the UK are scrambling. The events and debates surrounding the upcoming Brexit referendum reflect well the chaos, the idiocy, and sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. The quality of the coverage, most notably the naked class-interest on display, reflects well the Tory press. In its efforts to sustain and popularise the Blairite neoliberal settlement by protecting Cameron at every turn, this press has found itself all-too-successfully aping his inability to sustain a thought for more than ten minutes. It has been the PR-man of the PR PM. Unlike most PR campaigns, this one – the project of the Tories and their press to reinforce their class rule – has done and will continue to do an astonishing amount of damage to the people of the UK in a short amount of time.
First the contours of Tory rule. This referendum was called by David Cameron to appease the backbenchers or the ‘fringe’ of his party who have questioned the European project since the 1990s. This potted history by a former editor of the Spectator – a publication that recently described Muhammad Ali as a “performing seal” – argued that Euroscepticism within the Tory party was began as a movement for liberty, modernity and national economic flexibility in response to poor governance by an increasingly sluggish European behemoth. At the start, these meek, cool-headed Tories merely wanted the EU to focus on “trade and business” rather than “grand political projects”. As they were ridiculed and marginalized by Blair in the 2000s, and then by the Clegg-Cameron coalition in 2010, their stance couldn’t help but harden into outright malevolence for these effete cosmopolitan elites (Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg) who had little concern for the true interests of British business. Blair’s failure to use his outsize charisma to “reform the EU” per Carswell’s requirements forced the latter into the hard Brexit position. What were these reforms that Carswell and the charmingly dubbed Brexiteers wanted? Tellingly, the accomplished journalist and one-time editor of Britain’s oldest conservative magazine allows this question to pass in silence. Whatever they were, they clearly weren’t racist.
We have two factions in the Tory party who have been given complete hegemony in the British political debate as it is reflected in its papers and broadcast media. The Remainers on the one hand, led by Cameron and Osborne, are arguing for more of the same. By their expected win they are hoping to silence their power-hungry opponents within their party once and for all. On the other side, the Brexiteers, led by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage, given intellectual weight by giants like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, and emboldened by the racist campaign run by Zac Goldsmith in London last winter (a campaign which failed), are all too eager to overthrow the ‘metropolitan’ conservatives and benefit from the economic and social chaos inevitable upon their victory. The Tory press have little interest in the opinions of those outside the Tory party. Thus Corbyn while reserved yet steadfast in his support for Remain but with his politics of moderate Keynesianism considered far too left-wing for “acceptable mainstream opinion”, has continued to be given short shrift by the big papers. No doubt he will be blamed no matter the result.
We have an apparent paradox. If, as I argued, the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the UK is total, then why is there a right-wing faction within the right-wing party unhappy with its apparent success? The EU has no issues with the brutal austerity policies pursued by the Conservatives. Indeed it inflicted something similar on Greece late last summer. The EU has also done little to reign in the City of London and its financial sector’s profitable boondogglery. The access to the single market in labour and goods that the EU offers is a net economic gain for the UK – the country is the largest recipient of FDI in the single market, acting as the primary conduit for international capital into the continent and continental investments into the outside world. If Tory rule consisted primarily in safeguarding the interests of capital, the interests of the ruling class as we have said, why then is a significant faction within the Tory party willing and almost quite able to throw a massive spanner in its profit-making operations by triggering Brexit? A “Leave” vote would cause a massive loss in financial confidence in the country for all of its trade and legal agreements with the EU – a significant portion of its economic external relations – would be put in limbo. The UK would then have to negotiate an exit as a much weaker partner ripe for punishment by an already hurting Europe.
In whose interest would Brexit be? What role is the referendum playing in reinforcing Tory rule? To answer the second question: the referendum, with the help of the press, has ensured that the disastrous economic policies of David Cameron have been largely ignored in favour of a debate between staid pleas for stability and sanguinary calls for a rejuvenation of the Isles. To suggest an approach to the first, we might turn to Marx, Stuart Hall and Antonio Gramsci. In Hall’s essay (The Toad in the Garden) on the ideological emergence of the Thatcherite hegemony in the 1980s (the forceful take-up of Thatcher’s arguments about the failure of unions and welfare and the need for flexible, free, and brutal markets in all rungs of British society), he finds that the balance of social forces on which such hegemony rests “is subject to continuing evolution and development, depending on how a variety of struggles is conducted.” There are a variety of struggles within the Tory ruling class that are currently playing out in the reproduction of this unstable bourgeois hegemony. Finance capital is generally happy with Hayekian free-market reform and agnostic (if not silently encouraging) towards racist war-mongering. While the old landed aristocracy and a virulent press as its agent, the great bastions of English values, favours strongly racist warmongering and is agnostic towards, if not slightly concerned about, limitless economic liberalisation. Thatcherism was founded on a contradictory combination of a return to old values (“tradition, Englishness, respectability, patriarchalism, family, and nation”) and the construction of a distinctively neoliberal, free-market, individualistic subject – an iron regime for iron individuals in iron times. These contradictions continued to play out as struggles between sections of the ruling class all through the Blair, Brown, Cameron-Clegg, and Cameron regimes. For example, Blair’s embrace of welfare reform coincided with the second-half of the opposition, while his decision to invade Iraq ensured the old Thatcherist energies of a traditionally powerful England were also released.
What about now? There is a lot going on and the following are offered merely as hypotheses for further investigation. First, Gramsci tells us that as a political regime tries to conserve itself in the face of its own incurable structural contradictions, it will make “every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them”. Farrage, Johnson, and Carswell are seeking to cure Thatcherism of its fundamental contradiction – caught as it is between an international, integrationalist Hayekianism (as Streeck argues the EU has become in Buying Time), and nationalist, chauvinist imperialism – by reconstituting the nation-state around the latter. Second, Thatcherism is a victim of its own success. Farrage, Carswell et. al. might not have expected to succeed if the Tory hegemony over the broadcast media and national narratives on political history was not so pronounced. If, for example, the Sun, Spectator et. al. did not spend the last twenty-five years repeatedly decrying the influx of immigrants and stoking racist Islamophobia for no other reason than the pure reactionary joy of taking our country back, then the constituency for this latter kind of thinking would likely have remained marginal. This counterfactual however, would require a completely different balance of forces in Britain’s political economy (for instance, a strong labour movement and press that would rebut these arguments with a force that the BBC or the Guardian structurally cannot deploy). It points instead to the division of labour that upheld Thatcherism and is now coming apart in this struggle. The press did the racist, hateful rhetoric; the government did the economic liberalisation and welfare cuts. The former were speaking “for the people”, the latter the reasonable, serene voices of the “politicians”.
Brexit would be an economic disaster for the country in the short-term, and yet it would not be a disaster for the reproduction of Tory rule. Quite the contrary. In the past few years, the Tory press has done its best to maintain a sense of immediate, perpetual, and ever-increasing crisis amongst its readers – “Britain is falling apart”, “you are all about to get cancer”, “only the Queen can save us now”. The coming years of uncertainty will only add to its arsenal of blaring headlines urging the populace to put Britain First . In the current context, continuous stable international institution-based economic growth and growing fascist-nationalist sentiment within the UK cannot stably coexist. In any case, however the two Tory factions reconcile, the balance of forces in the political economy remains firmly on their side as electoral politics has come to be largely mediated through the spectacle of a largely right-wing press which has little interest in social democracy and anti-racism. Corbyn’s challenge has been to bypass this universally hostile press but also somehow make enough use of it to get his message out; the scale of this task helps explain the measure of his success so far.
This is why there is no Left case for Brexit and no Left case for Bremain. This is a debate within Thatcherism and between Thatcherisms. No wonder that it is so toxic. Insofar as there is a lesser evil to choose from, and insofar as effective political organising requires a terrain of relative stability – the lesser Thatcherism of “Remain” is the only meaningful vote one can give. This referendum is entirely orthogonal to left interests in democratizing the EU or gathering momentum by making the most of the chaos in the Tory party that is likely to ensue if “Leave” wins. The politics of reaction in the UK are scrambling. The events and debates surrounding the upcoming Brexit referendum reflect well the chaos, the idiocy, and sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule.