Socialist Alternative

The Brexit saga continues: Workers’ movement must act independently!

Joint statement between Socialist Party Northern Ireland and Socialist Alternative in England, Wales and Scotland (both part of International Socialist Alternative)

Last year, politics was dominated by the constitutional crisis of Brexit. The seriousness of the Covid pandemic and the global economic crisis has meant that the Brexit process has very much taken a back seat since the UK formally left the EU on 31st January. 

Now, with the end of the ‘transition period’ on 31st December looming, pressure is on for a trade deal between the UK and the EU. Johnson and the EU have set deadlines of 15th and 31st October respectively for a deal to be made if it is to be implemented by the end of the year. If no deal is reached and there is no agreement to extend the transition period, then a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be the consequence.

Added to this already precarious situation is the seemingly out-of-the-blue decision of the Johnson government to bring forward their Internal Market Bill. According to the government, its aim is to ensure that goods and services can be sold on the same basis across the UK, and that no devolved administration can introduce regulations which would favour goods or services from one part of the UK over another. It does so by overriding parts of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the Westminster government and the EU last year, by giving ministers the power to make regulations relating to customs procedures for trade between Northern Ireland and Britain, as well as on state aid. Of particular concern for sections for the ruling class is the open acknowledgement by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State that the bill will “break international law in a specific and limited way.” 

The divisions which exist have been reflected in open clashes in the press between Michel Bernier and David Frost, chief negotiators for the EU and UK respectively. Frost stated, “We are not going to be a client state. We are not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control over our own laws. We are not going to accept level playing field provisions that lock us in to the way the EU do things.” The idea of a “level playing field” has been an important battle ground between the Tory government and the EU. The dream of the Tory Brexiters and the fear of the European bureaucrats is the idea of the UK becoming a “Singapore-on-Thames” – a low-tax, lightly regulated economy that would have a competitive advantage over EU economies. 

Connected with this, the section of the Tories around Johnson want the freedom to use state aid in order to give British companies support not possible under EU rules, which will still apply to Britain under the current arrangements if it affects the “integrity of the EU market”, including, for example, if the British government wished to provide state aid to a company which also had operations in Northern Ireland. This form of state aid will not be used to save jobs or public services, but instead as a way of subsidising big business, such as tech companies which Johnson hopes will allow Britain to compete with the US and China.  

More divisions in the Tories

Despite the fact the Tory government has what seems a secure majority following the 2019 general election – including on Brexit, where there has been an increase in the number of Tory MPs allied to Johnson’s position – this government has been forced into a series of U-turns, including on the use of discriminatory algorithms for exam results, which was defeated following protests by young people. While the Internal Market Bill passed the first stage relatively comfortably, it is of note that 30 Tories abstained and two voted against it. It is also expected there will be greater problems for the government in future readings of the bill, particularly in the House of Lords, with the government already being forced to put forward concessions to Tory MPs threatening to ‘rebel’ on the next vote, for example, by promising that Parliament will have a vote before the powers are invoked.

Illustrative of the division is the fact that the last three Tory prime ministers have publicly criticised the government’s approach, as have former New Labour prime ministers. It is quite hypocritical of these representatives to preach about “international law” given their role in imperialist conflicts across the world, some which would be deemed illegal under such law.

Northern Ireland border

Significantly, the bill has put centre stage once again the question of the “Northern Ireland border”. The Withdrawal Bill scrapped Theresa May’s idea of a “backstop” and replaced it with a ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ which would mean that Northern Ireland will leave the customs union along with Britain but will remain closely aligned to single market regulations. There would be customs checks on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland, and potentially regulatory checks as Britain diverges from EU standards. This would effectively mean the creation of an east-west border in the Irish sea. Stormont would have a regular say on how long alignment to the single market would last. This deal only added to the legitimate feeling of insecurity of many ordinary Protestants about the future, and the sense they were being coerced into an “economic united Ireland”. 

The Internal Market Bill raises the possibility of the British government refusing to impose east-west checks, which – if it was deemed to undermine the integrity of the EU single market – would lead to pressure from the European Union to force the Irish state to impose checks on its side of the border. The prospect of such a hardened border would not be tolerated, particularly by the Catholic population in the North and border communities. It would lead to significant economic damage, evoke memories of the Troubles and be seen as the copper fastening of partition on the island of Ireland. 

Added to this, the British government has come under pressure from the US establishment, particularly the Democrats, with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden stating a UK-US trade deal would be scuppered if the Northern Ireland peace process was undermined by the introduction of the Internal Market Bill.  Even the generally pro-Brexit Trump administration has intervened via Mick Mulvaney, US special envoy to Northern Ireland, demanding the Tories abandon the measures that conflict with the Northern Ireland protocol.

As would be expected, this bill is opposed by the ‘remain’ parties in Northern Ireland (nationalists, the Alliance Party and the Greens), who see it as “undermining the Good Friday Agreement political framework and peace process.” The Unionist parties have broadly welcomed the Internal Market Bill, with the DUP claiming it will “undo some of the damage done by the withdrawal agreement.” Unlike last year, there is now a restored Executive at Stormont, but this will be a much more fractious Executive than in the past, with divisions already visible on a series of issues, including observance of Covid-19 regulations and legacy issues from the Troubles. Now, the Executive will be divided on the crucial issue of Brexit.   

But it’s not just in Ireland that Brexit raises the temperature on the national question. Boris Johnson presented the bill as uniting the “United Kingdom” but it is widely seen, in the words of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, as “a naked power grab which would cripple devolution.” The finance ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also issued a joint statement protesting against the ability of the Westminster government to spend money and exercise powers in what are currently devolved areas. The ‘threat to the Union’ is a major concern for the Tory Party. Faced with multiple political crises, Johnson does not want to go down in history as the Tory Prime Minister who allowed the break-up of the UK to happen. But his chaotic handling of the Covid crisis, compared to Sturgeon’s (despite the fact that in reality there is not much difference in action, only in rhetoric), has contributed to a big increase in support for Scottish independence (now 53%). He has also shown a complete lack of sensitivity on these issues, previously comparing a hard border in Ireland to the congestion-charge boundary between Westminster and Camden, and stating that there was no such thing as a border between Scotland and England. However, the Internal Market Bill will not help and will just add to support for Scottish independence. 

A socialist approach

Unlike the pro-capitalist representatives of both the Leave and Remain camps, the starting point for socialists is what is in the interests of working-class people. As well as opposing the Tory government, we also oppose the European Union which, despite presenting a ‘progressive’ facade, is an undemocratic capitalist institution with a long record of imposing anti-working class measures, while pursuing militarisation and a racist immigration policy which has led to thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean. A “no-deal’ Brexit and the turmoil it would cause would not be in the interests of working-class people. However, neither will any trade agreement between the Tories and the EU – which would be a deal between two capitalist blocs. 

The Labour Party under Starmer, which is holding its conference this week, is essentially standing back and allowing Johnson to hang himself over Brexit – already losing popularity over the handling of Covid, Starmer is hoping that the same will happen over the handling of Brexit. In a recent opinion poll by Quadrangle, 42% of British people think that the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic had made them feel less confident about the country’s ability to prosper in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (including 1 in 5 Tory supporters). But in doing so, Starmer is revealing what he’s really about. As shadow Brexit secretary, he was the chief architect of Labour’s failed strategy in the run up to the 2019 election who proclaimed, as a way of undermining Jeremy Corbyn, “Labour is a Remain party”. Now, Labour are criticising Johnson for not “getting Brexit done”! 

This is part of Starmer and the Labour leadership’s strategy of presenting themselves as a safe pair of hands for capitalism. ‘Starmerism’ is being defined as patriotic and being a responsible opposition – in other words: the same policies as the Tory Party but carried out in a more organised way. At the same time, they are trying to win back the so-called ‘red wall’ (former Labour constituencies in working-class towns in northern England) which they wrongly think can be done on the basis of just appearing to be pro-Brexit. In all the talk about the ‘national interest’ and ‘British values’, the Labour Party doesn’t mention the impact that a Tory Brexit will have on workers in any part of England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and there are no signs that it will fight for their interests. 

As socialists have consistently argued throughout the Brexit negotiations, the trade union movement – which unites 6 million workers in Britain and 800,000 in Ireland, including 250,000 in Northern Ireland, from across the sectarian divide – must be prepared to take action to defend workers’ rights and resist any moves which will inflame tensions.

A starting point would be to organise emergency conferences of trade union activists to discuss how we can fight back, including preparing for bosses using a no-deal Brexit to attack jobs and conditions. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the approach of trade union leaders in Britain or Ireland. Instead, most repeat the false narrative that rights were handed down from the EU, rather than won and defended in struggle from below. As well as organising against any attack on workers’ rights, socialists have a responsibility to oppose the ‘hostile environment’ against immigrants and refugees currently whipped up by the Tories.

Likewise, socialists oppose any measure which would heighten sectarianism in Northern Ireland – that includes any hardening of a border- either East/West or North/South. We support the right to self-determination for the Scottish population, including the right to have a further referendum on independence, something which both Johnson and Starmer are opposed to. We need to build solidarity between workers in struggle across the continent and fight for a different kind of Europe: a socialist Europe, run in the interest of the millions not the billionaires, in which the democratic rights of all are protected.

  • Trade unions must organise emergency conferences to organise the fightback against any anti-worker trade deal – whether with the EU or the US – or in the event of a no-deal Brexit, including against any attacks on workers’ rights, on jobs, pay and conditions or closures.
  • This struggle must be organised across borders and internationally – Resist the race to the bottom!
  • Oppose the hardening of borders – either in Ireland or the Irish sea. For workers’ unity against sectarianism!
  • For the right to self-determination of the Scottish population, including the right to a referendum on independence. 
  • No to a Tory Brexit! No to the neo-liberal, capitalist EU! Oppose anti-worker trade deals – struggle for nationalisation of key industries, under democratic workers’ control and management, as a step towards planning the economy in the interests of the working class. 
  • For a free, voluntary and equal socialist federation of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with the rights of all minorities protected, as part of a socialist Europe and a socialist world.

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