On Tuesday, the UK Parliament will almost certainly vote down the British prime minister’s Brexit deal with Europe. In all my life, I have never known a government so incompetent and uncertain of where it is going.
It is over two-and-a-half years since the British people voted to leave the EU and all Theresa May has come up with is a shambolic deal.
She also has to live with the fact that this is the most-divided parliament perhaps for over a century. Out of 650 MPs, there may only be 200 to 250 Tories prepared to support her deal; and a small handful of Labour MPs, perhaps just under a dozen. Those likely to vote against it could be anything up to 80 Tory MPs and virtually 250 Labour MPs. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and one Green MP are also voting against May’s deal. Her semi-coalition partners, the Northern Irish DUP, are also opposed to it.
While there is a still majority against the deal, there doesn’t seem to be a majority for any alternative. Two thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has respected the fact that the majority of British people voted to leave in 2016. In the last week, Theresa May’s government has been defeated twice in the House of Commons as a handful of Tory MPs sided with Labour and the other parties. The most recent vote forces her to return within three days with a new proposal if her deal is voted down.
I have never known the people of Britain so divided over an issue. Sensibly, Corbyn is demanding a new general election and the Labour Party is moving in favor of something similar to the Norway deal. Norway isn’t a member of the EU but is effectively a member of its economic bloc. If Labour negotiated a Norway-style deal, Britain would remain in the single market and in a permanent customs union. This would solve the problem of the Northern Ireland border and would leave Britain free to devise its own policies over fisheries and agriculture. One thing that is attractive to Labour MPs about a Norway deal is that the Norwegian government has just about the biggest level of state aid to its economy as anywhere in Europe.
Although the Tory Brexiteers won the referendum by promising our economy would be stronger outside the EU, it’s hard to see how Britain can benefit from walking away from the largest economy in the world, into which we have been integrated for almost half a century. Since the referendum, our exports have declined because of the uncertainty of the impact. Investment by British businesses has almost come to a stop with the likely impact of this being a recession caused by a rapid decline in car production and sales.
Shaun Loughlin, who runs a Bristol-based online retail company and employs 85 people, has warned that he will have to move much of his business to Germany because Brexit means tariffs imposed on his exports to the EU. He has already opened an office in Romania and is negotiating to take over a warehouse in Germany so that he can avoid the tariffs.
The Institute of Directors warned that “Businesses were tearing their hair out” because of the uncertainty, and the Confederation of British Industry pointed out that hundreds of millions of pounds has been diverted away from Britain because of Brexit. Loughlin warned that his business would be dead if it had to be bound by World Trade Organization rules, which would mean a tariff of almost 17 percent on the footwear he sells in Europe, with his T-shirts and jackets facing a 12-percent surcharge.
Not everybody shares this pessimism. The Guardian’s economist Larry Elliott recently pointed out the weakness of the European Union’s economy. “There is no European Facebook or Google, no rival as there is in China to Ebay. When it comes to artificial intelligence Europe is lagging well behind the US and China. Europe’s position as the world’s biggest market is a legacy of its success in developing the products that were behind the economic boom in the first three decades after the Second World War – cars and other consumer durables. In terms of a fourth industrial revolution Europe is playing catch-up.”
He goes on to warn: “There are those who say the answer is not for Britain to leave but to reform Europe from within, so that it is run along progressive rather than neo-liberal lines. But Germany is never going to agree to a common budget and the European Commission wants to fine Italy… because it is running a higher deficit than under eurozone budget rules.”
Elliott’s point, I think, hits the nail on the head. I was born in 1945 and in the first 30 years of my life everything got better. When I left my boys’ school, every one of us got a job and just a few years later we had either got a good council home to rent or were able to buy one. But in the last 40 years since Margaret Thatcher introduced neo-liberal economics, no-one can say that things are getting better.
Part of our problem is that Thatcher persuaded the EU to follow a neo-liberal economic strategy, but that of course isn’t just happening in Europe. It’s all around the world. In 2017, the world’s billionaires made more money than ever in our history. The wealthiest people on our planet got richer by a fifth in just one year. Across the world, however, ordinary working- and middle-class families have struggled since the banking crisis of 2008 and that fueled the Brexit vote.
People think the world isn’t working and they want to see change. This is what led to the election of Donald Trump and, here in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 commitment to dropping neo-liberalism and going for an increase in public spending and investment saw the biggest increase in the Labour vote since 1945. Had Theresa May lost seven more seats, Jeremy would be leading a radical minority Labour government.
Although no-one can predict what is going to happen following Theresa May’s defeat on Tuesday, we have to tell people the truth that if we were to stay in the EU we must campaign for radical reform to change its economic policies and democratize its increasingly powerful bureaucracy.
Right-wing politicians in Britain have always pandered to racism, with a Tory candidate defeating a sitting Labour MP in the 1964 election with the slogan “If you want a ni**er for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Nowadays we’re told that the wave of migrants who have come here are taking our homes and taking our jobs.
The truth, however, is Labour and Tory governments for 40 years have refused to build council housing and completely neglected our manufacturing industry, which has meant the loss of millions of jobs. Last week, I was in hospital having a colonoscopy and the woman who performed the operation came from Spain. As we talked, she told me about how she lived in London and her children went to a local school, but she wasn’t sure if she would still be here next year after the Brexit vote. Immigrants who come here have propped up our NHS, have taken construction, manufacturing and agricultural jobs (collecting and selling our crops) and without immigration our economy would be in a much worse position.
Across the world we need to challenge the lies of the super-rich and the giant corporations and expose the politicians who are basically no more than their puppets. Whether we stay in the EU or we leave it, things will continue to get worse unless we bring 40 years of neo-liberalism to an end, both in Europe and America.
First published by RT.