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Disunited Kingdom: Fractures and faultlines as Brexit t...

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Disunited Kingdom: Fractures and faultlines as Brexit tears Britain apart

Patrick Craven is the former spokesperson of Cosatu and SAFTU, now living in Scotland.

The current chaos around Brexit reflects deeper schisms within British society, which is why events in the UK are full of lessons for South Africa and other countries. It raises important issues around the nation state, nationalism and internationalism.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has never been more disunited. The campaign for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) has brought down Prime Minister Theresa May and she is likely to be succeeded by Boris Johnson, a nationalist demagogue – a British version of Donald Trump.

The “Brexit” crisis has created gulfs within the Conservative and Labour parties, which have dominated for decades, whose support and credibility is plummeting, triggered by the failure of government and Parliament to implement the result of the 2016 referendum when 51.9% of the electorate voted to leave the EU against 48.1% to remain.

The deal that May negotiated with the other 27 EU member countries has been rejected three times by Parliament, because so many of her own party’s MPs voted with the opposition.

Johnson has promised to renegotiate an agreement but says that if, as likely, the EU refuses to make any serious concessions, he will take the UK out without any deal, though this may once again be rejected by Parliament.

Even the country’s unity is in the balance. Scotland, which voted to remain in the EU, is now moving closer to achieving a majority in favour of independence. If there is no negotiated deal, Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain, faces the prospect of customs barriers across its borders with the Republic of Ireland, creating massive economic problems and social tensions for people on both sides of the border.

The British media’s coverage of the Brexit crisis has focused narrowly on the immediate consequences of either leaving or staying in the EU, but the current chaos reflects deeper schisms within British society, which is why the present events in the UK are full of lessons for South Africa and other countries. It raises important issues around the nation state, nationalism and internationalism.

European Union:

The EU, formerly the European Economic Community (EEC), was formed in 1957 as an attempt by the biggest capitalist powers, led by Germany and France, to confront the globalisation of the world economy, and its domination by the USA.

It did not weaken the independence of separate nation states which retained all their powers to impose their rule over their population, especially the working class, but aimed to build a capitalist club to ensure that the ruling elites got the biggest possible share in the wealth being generated in the postwar economic boom. In this they were partially successful, which led to the EU’s steady expansion to its present 28 member countries.

1975 referendum:

After Britain was invited to join the EEC in 173, it held a referendum in 1975, in which 67.2% voted to join and 32.8% against. The arguments on both sides then were similar to some of those being deployed 44 years later.

On the right, there was a clear majority in the Conservative Party to join the capitalist EEC reflecting the view of their paymasters in big business. But they were opposed by a minority of nationalists and racists, who demagogically raised the spectre of being swamped by foreign immigrants.

Most Labour Party leaders lined up with the Conservatives in favour of a Yes vote, but this argument was rejected by a majority of the working-class rank-and-file, who opposed joining what they saw as a capitalist alliance to strengthen the power of the employers, hold down wages, cut public spending and increase inequality.

This view failed to win a majority, mainly because of the lack of an alternative to the EEC. Simply being outside the EEC would solve none of the workers’ problems. What was lacking was a strong call for a socialist European federation, based on genuine internationalism.


The main difference in today’s debate is that the Conservative Party has become even more divided and almost completely captured by the Brexit faction. Boris Johnson has used nationalist, racist and xenophobic demagogy, to whip up support for Brexit. He has lied about possible benefits from withdrawal and promised billions of pounds for education, social care and the heath service, despite his party having spent the last few years cutting expenditure in all these areas.

These divisions led to a 14.8% drop in the vote for Conservatives in the May European Parliament elections when it got fewer votes than four other parties.

Yet in these same elections the Labour Party, at a time when it should have capitalised on the government’s failures to surge into the lead, shed 11.3% of votes and came third.

Just as in 1975 the party is riven with divisions, between Brexiters and Remainers, which has led to a lack of any clear policy, leading to complete paralysis, which will remain unless the party and trade union members intervene to adopt a clear socialist alternative.

The reason why so many working-class voters voted for Brexit was not just to leave the EU, but a protest at their deteriorating quality of life. Inequality is widening. Wages, in real terms, are still below their level in 2007. Low-paid, casual work and zero-hour contracts are now the norm for millions of workers.

Around four million children live in poverty. Household debt is at a record high. Knife and offensive weapon crimes have risen to their highest level for nearly a decade. There has been an increase in the number of black and Asian people experiencing racism. The government is even planning to try and use homelessness charities to identify “illegal” immigrants sleeping rough, so they can deport them.

But leaving the EU will solve none of these problems, especially if carried through without any agreement with the EU, which will make all these problems even worse.

That is why Labour has to offer an internationalist, socialist alternative to the EU in the form of a socialist federation of the people of Europe.

Lessons for Africa:

Similar challenges face the people of Africa. The most important difference, however, is that, unlike Europe, its national boundaries were imposed by European imperialist powers – Britain, France, Germany and Portugal – who were carving up the continent, and plundering its natural resources.

The states they created were administrative structures to enslave and subjugate the people and took no account of the history, languages or cultures of the people.

After these African states achieved political independence, political power shifted to a comprador bourgeoisie, who benefit from the economic structures of imperialism. They are primarily concerned with protecting their class interests within the boundaries inherited from the imperialists.

Economic power, however, has stayed with the imperialist powers, who continued to control their former colonies, to export cheap natural resources and raw materials to the former colonisers and transfer the huge profits they made into overseas tax havens.

Frantz Fanon argued that national autonomy was a prison that would turn independence into a curse for the poor and that any possibility of real human liberation required the abolition of national frontiers in a single, continual movement. The nationalist leaders, he wrote, becomes “a sort of little caste, avid and voracious… only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it.”

Jacob Zuma and his cronies are the perfect examples of this – a corrupt elite, who mouth radical slogans about fighting white monopoly capitalism, but do nothing to act on these promises while plundering the billions of rands of the country’s resources for their own enrichment.

They pay lip service to the idea of pan-Africanism, but have done absolutely nothing to bring it about. Their austerity programmes and adoption of neoliberal policies have created desperate levels of poverty, which have led to the rise of xenophobic attacks on fellow workers from other countries and calls for tighter border controls to keep out “illegal” immigrants.

The African Union (AU), is little more than a talk shop for these emerging capitalist leaders. Like them it proclaims to be motivated by the spirit of pan-Africanism and African solidarity, but has neither the power, nor the political will, to challenge the corrupt capitalist leaders of its member states or to take any serious steps to bring down the imperialist boundaries.

BRICS is even less likely to bring any benefits for the majority of South Africans. It is an alliance with four capitalist powers who are united only in wanting to become new global superpowers, to challenge the USA and EU.

Workers of the world unite!

The African working class should have no illusions that either the AU or its present governments will deliver a united continent or do anything to overthrow the capitalist monopolies which have pillaged the resources of Africa and still dominate the continent’s economies with their local comprador allies.

But neither would leaving the AU and BRICS offer any alternative solution. International solidarity must remain central to the workers’ agenda, but it will be impossible to achieve a united Africa on a capitalist basis, but only through a struggle led by the working class for socialist policies to transfer the continent’s wealth to the working-class majority and a democratic socialist African Union, leading to the breaking down of all national borders and a socialist world. DM


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