Brexit continues to cause chaos in the British parliamentary system. As I write this, Theresa May has lost her second ‘meaningful’ vote on the deal negotiated with the European Union, and the debate over Brexit is almost the only thing the government and wider political class are able to focus on.
In a superb article, Aditya Chakrabortty writing in the Guardian connects this crisis of the political class to the policies of austerity implemented by coalition and Conservative governments since 2010. In endlessly arguing about how to manage Brexit, politicians are using up energy that would be more usefully employed in addressing the problems that persuaded people to vote for it in the first place. Even more ironically, the members new Independent Group, specifically set up as a home for those in both parties who deplore Brexit as a historic mistake, continue to express support for austerity and the economics that created the frustration that brought it about.
“As economics, Osborne’s cuts were always going to be a failure; as class war, however, they were a triumph. Until, that is, the Brexit vote came along and the victims of Osbornomics got a chance to take their revenge.”
“The great frustration of this age is that the political classes keep treating the deliberate immiseration of so many people and places in Britain as a sideshow to the high drama of Brexit.”
Paul Mason has a similar analysis in the New Statesman, arguing that “the class dynamics that are emerging in most Western economies” are driving the breakdown of neoliberalism under the impact of the very policies that it’s advocates have implemented over the years.
“The economic system they’ve learned to operate no longer delivers, even for the small business owners, pensioners and professional classes that form Toryism’s grassroots.”
The damage being inflicted on the Conservative Party by the attempt to deliver Brexit is symptomatic of the wider disintegration of the economic consensus they have managed over many years as the “natural party of government”. The government’s focus however remains on finding a way to implement Brexit, rather than tackle what caused 17.4 million people to vote for radical change in the first place, even though most Conservative MPs voted remain and likely think leaving the EU to be a strategic error.
Why then, does Brexit continue to consume all this political energy that could more usefully be channelled into addressing the actual problem? Marx addresses a similar point in “The German Ideology”, the early and probably most detailed working out of his materialistic approach to the analysis of history and society. Here Marx sets out the connection between the “relations of production” and the rest of society. Marx is often portrayed as suggesting this is a mechanically deterministic relationship. Where the economy leads, the rest of society will follow. In fact Marx’s argument is more complex than this, but for the purposes of this post it is enough to point out that there is a deep and strong interconnection between how the economy is structured and how politics works, what problems it is possible for politics to tackle. Along the way these ideas, philosophies, and laws which form the basis of civil society become separated in thought from the economic relations on which they were constructed.
“We saw earlier how a theory and history of pure thought could arise among philosophers owing to the divorce between ideas and the individuals and their empirical relations which serve as the basis of these ideas… On this account, political and civil history becomes ideologically merged in a history of the rule of successive laws. This is the specific illusion of lawyers and politicians.”
(Marx 1970, p.107)
Simplistically then, the ruling class get caught up in their own set of beliefs, their own philosophical view of how the world works. It is simply the natural order of things. And so, as Mason and Chakrabortty write, they are blinded by this to the impact of their own policy choices and to the changes in political economy they are contributing to. Brexit becomes a problem in its own right, something to be tackled in isolation, rather than inherently connected to wider society.
It is no accident that the totemic policy for The Independent Group, driving the decision that it could no longer tolerate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, is opposition to Brexit under all circumstances. They give priority to the halting of Brexit ahead of any other policy – including prioritising halting Brexit over delivering a progressive Labour government. Their world view is that of the ruling class, and in that world view the problems impacting those areas likely to vote leave (wage stagnation, the degradation of public services etc.) either don’t exist or if they do they are ‘natural’ phenomena not appropriate for policy interventions. Instead they seek to preserve the system as it is, without seeing how that system has failed to deliver for large chunks of the population.
Chakrabortty, Aditya “Britain is trapped in the purposeless austerity that gave us Brexit.” The Guardian (12 March 2019, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/britain-austerity-brexit-economy-recession-regions)
Mason, Paul “The Brexit crisis shows that the Conservatives have lost the ability to change”, New Statesman (13 March 2019, available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/03/brexit-crisis-shows-conservatives-have-lost-ability-change)
Marx, Karl The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970)