For a little over two years, many people, both inside and outside of the United Kingdom, have been trying to figure out what the impending ‘Brexit’ will mean for the country’s future. This widespread bafflement can be forgiven because, even putting the complicated untangling from the European Union aside, until very recently, the UK government didn’t seem to have a plan and the EU bureaucrats in Brussels have been tight lipped about what they’ll accept in terms of the divorce.
With the oft stated March 29th, 2019 deadline for the country to leave the union, Prime Minister Theresa May, who was originally a Remainer, gathered her cabinet at the head of government’s official country residence, Chequers, on July 6th to discuss her plan.
Hoping to please enough of her fractured cabinet, split between those who would prefer to remain in the EU but at minimum are pushing for a ‘soft’ Brexit and those, mostly of a right-wing populist bent, who demand a ‘hard’ one.
Defining hard and soft Brexits in the context of the British Conservative Party, where a number of views prevail, can be difficult, but the basic economic differences between the two was well explained by Georgina Downer of the Lowy Institute in a recent article: “Hard Brexit means leaving both the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market, ending the EU budget payments and withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Soft Brexit means the UK leaves the EU but remains part of the Customs Union and/or Single Market, as a sort of quasi-EU member without voting power and perhaps with less constraints on its sovereignty.”
A key talking point for May and her supporters in the Conservative Party is the hot button issue of immigration, not from far flung places, but mainly from poorer EU member states like Poland (although right wingers in the United Kingdom as elsewhere in Europe, are not above using the hysteria over the migrant crises emanating from the Greater Middle East and Africa for their own ends).
In essence, the Prime Minister is pushing a soft Brexit but is focusing in her public statements on migration and re-establishing legal sovereignty from Brussels, the issues most often brought up by the hard Brexiters.
Speaking to the Conservative conference sometime before the Chequer’s agreement, the PM was adamant about these very issues, “Let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
Unfortunately for May, the tough language has not done much to placate the hard Brexit rebels in her own party. Just when it appeared that the Prime Minister had wrangled herself a deal, her Foreign Minister, longtime also-ran Boris Johnson, and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, resigned from their cabinet posts.
Also key to May’s vision is for the UK to effectively be in the European single market for goods but not for services. This is a strange choice as The Economist explainedthe day the Chequer’s plan was announced, “[Services] make up 80% of the economy” and Britain actually has a surplus in this area in terms of trade with the EU, meaning that these terms are actually more favorable to Brussels than to the UK where other EU states could try to become more competitive with their British rivals by convincing Brussels to slap tariffs on them.
Some of the stories in the British press in the aftermath of the Chequer’s meeting have taken on a panicked tone, warning that not enough has been stock piled in the country in anticipation of a possible ‘no deal’ and thus the hardest possible Brexit. At one point, pundits and broadcasters who should really have better things to do were talking about a crisis in terms of sandwich ingredients as if a famine was imminent.
The simple truth is that no one knows what the result of leaving the EU will be because it’s never been done before, so whipping up hysteria about what could happen in the media is the opposite of helpful and has to be as confusing for many ordinary citizens in the UK as it is for this writer.
The 2016 Brexit referendum, whatever one thinks of the result, was a victory for democracy in that 72% of UK citizens turned out and voted on the most consequential domestic issue in most of their lifetimes, but the difference between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ was just 4% so it does seem that some Leavers like Boris Johnson are a little over the top in their demand for the hardest possible Brexit and often describe a best case scenario for what comes after in what can only be called utopian terms.
The dream of the right-wing hard Brexit supporters is the kind of libertarian paradise that can only exist in the work of 2nd rate writers like Ayn Rand. They envision a future where the UK charts a new global free trade course with countries like the United States and former colonies, ignoring the size of their country in comparison to the behemoth that is the EU, who will likely compete with its former partner to ink similar deals. Like most such political dreams, it’s unrealistic at best, as the British economy is one of the most reliant in the Western world on a rentier class, often extremely wealthy foreigners from Saudi Arabian Princes to Russian Oligarchs but mainly centered on the country’s financial sector.
Besides this, it should be noted that the EU itself has not weighed in on May’s proposals but, as made plain by the radio network LBC on its website, there are some flaws, intentional or not, in some of the comparisons being made to deals struck by other countries by the PM and her supporters.
“Other countries, such as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, are not members of the EU, but have access to the single market by being part of the European Economic Area. In return, these countries must make payments into the EU and accept the “four freedoms”. These include free movement of people, goods, capital and services,” LBC reported.
It seems unlikely that a similar deal to those of these other countries can be reached if the UK government wishes to deny two of the ‘four freedoms’ demanded by the EU for participation in the single market.
While May has decent rhetorical skills and occasional good wit, usually on display in Prime Minister’s Questions where she parries her opposition with some aplomb, her and her inner circle’s political instincts are far from perfect as she most famously demonstrated when she called a snap election in June, 2017 expecting an easy victory but actually giving up seats to her opposition and forcing her into an alliance with the extreme right wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) based in Northern Ireland.
It usually seems like only one thing has been working in the Prime Minister’s favor, and that is the mainstream dislike, bordering on hatred, for the mild-mannered leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who the British Establishment seems to fear more than the possible consequences of the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
The continued smearing of Jeremy Corbyn
There has rarely been a week since Jeremy Corbyn surprised the world by being voted the leader of his party against the wishes of its Blairite or 3rd Way wing in September of 2015 that he hasn’t been attacked by most of the press, by the opposition, and even by members of his own party.
The charges have at times bordered on the absurd, with the accusation that Corbyn is a former Czech spy being only the most spurious in a long list of unsubstantiated attacks that nonetheless rule the headlines and talk shows for days at a time.
Rather than talking about Theresa May’s inability to control her own cabinet, let alone her party, soon after the Chequer’s uproar, the topic became, yet again, anti-Semitism in the Labor Party, with some promoting the libel that Corbyn himself suffers from this odious prejudice.
The row stems from the Labor Party’s definition of the term, which differs in some respects from that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), mainly in allowing for criticism of the state of Israel.
However, removing the rule about not comparing Israelis to Nazis seems a tactically stupid but the decision was a collective one rather than one proposed by the Labor leader. This was bound to be controversial and the left needs to be a little more creative in terms of the comparisons it makes rather than always relying on the same worn out tropes, especially ones that are hurtful enough that they are counterproductive to the greater cause of securing the rights of the Palestinian people.
One MP, ensuring that others, especially journalists, would overhear her getting into the generally low-key Corbyn’s face, called him an expletive and an “Anti-Semite and racist!”
Oddly, in terms of the British left overall, and never once mentioned in any of the press reports I read in preparing this article, besides a piece by Michael Barker forCounterpunch, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research released a report last September titled “Antisemitism in Contemporary GreatBritain: A Study of attitudes towards Jews and Israel” that states, “Looking at the political spectrum of British society, the most antisemitic group consists of those who identify as very right-wing. In this group about 14% hold hard-core anti-Semitic attitudes and 52% hold at least one attitude, compared again to 3.6% and 30% in the general population. The very left-wing and, in fact, all political groups located on the left are no more antisemitic than the general population.”
One would never know this from watching the BBC, Channel 4 or other mainstream British news outlets, let alone from reading the headlines in the country’s right wing gutter press. It also begs the question, where are similar discussions about the widespread racism in the Conservative Party?
As the report cited above shows, there is undoubtedly more anti-Semitism in the Conservative and other right wing parties in the country but you will almost never hear this in UK media. There is also clearly more racism and anti-Muslim bias on the right, just think of the Windrush Scandal that caused less outcry than the current hysteria over a definition.
To call Jeremy Corbyn a racist is, in this writer’s opinion, a little bit much on the part of Hodge who, unlike the leader of her party, has never seen a war in some farflung place that she was unwilling to support and whose political instincts pushed her to the right rather than the left when she was faced with a challenge by the far-right British National Party between 2006 and 2010.
I think that most people would agree that it’s a disgrace that someone like Jeremy Corbyn, who has been so principled as a politician over so many years, is being treated in this way, with few outside of the left-wing press standing up to these Blairite bullies whose time, like that of the Clinton machine in the United States, has finally passed.
In the current environment, with a revival of traditional anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, the distinction needs to be made between legitimate criticism of the state of Israel and its far-right government and prejudice against Jewish people in general, most of it based on ridiculous 100 year old conspiracy theories.
Interestingly, in terms of her possible motivations for her harsh and very public words, ‘Dame’ Hodge was one of two senior MPs who forced a vote of non-confidence on Corbyn’s leadership of Labor two years ago, a betrayal that only caused him to be returned to his post with a greater share of the vote in a party already transformed by opening up its membership to a greater number of people, most of whom share his vision of a country, “For the many, not the few”.
And in the main, this is what these accusations and those that came before them are all about, stopping Jeremy Corbyn from ever becoming Prime Minister and bringing his party back to its roots in trying to improve the lives of working people, protecting the environment, shoring up institutions like the National Health Service and ending the country’s involvement in foreign conflicts.
A dangerous agenda, indeed, especially for corporations and the wealthy who may finally have to pay their fair share.