How Boris Johnson Broke the Brexit Interregnum
20 December 2019
Boris Johnson resolved the Brexit impasse through transforming the class basis of the Conservative Party, renewing his party for a generation, ripping into the Labour heartlands by aligning Brexit with national renewal, and exposing the class divisions within Labour by siding with the poor.
With one throw of the dice, Boris Johnson broke the Brexit interregnum. After three years of frantic inertia, he resolved the impasse through transforming the class basis of the Conservative Party. In doing so, he has renewed his party for a generation and ripped into the Labour heartlands by aligning Brexit with national renewal and exposing the class divisions within Labour by siding with the poor.
Although the Conservatives led across every social class, their lead in the skilled and unskilled working class was particularly emphatic. Boris has no equal in cabinet. There is no coherent opposition, his majority is impregnable and all his MPs have signed up to his agenda. Hail Caesar. Meet the new King of Merry England. Good King Boris.
His goal is to make his domination hegemonic through two measures. The first is to identify the Tories with the working class and the country towns and distance them from London and finance. Putney went Labour and Bolsover went Tory. Look up the difference in house prices between the two. It is a class polarisation against the ruling financial and cultural elite.
Ministers have been banned from going to Davos. The Conservative vote went down across the home counties, and especially those areas nearest London. That was the logic behind proroguing Parliament and the expulsion of the remain rebels from the Party. The Conservatives were happy for them to vote Lib-Dem and Labour. Instead the party concentrated entirely on the towns and villages of the North and the South, the country shires and the post-industrial working class, the basis of the Brexit coalition. “Fuck business.” The Conservatives will be more northern and proletarian and Boris will drink beer with his new MPs in the many bars in Parliament. The Cavaliers will lord it over the Puritans.
The second step was to break from fiscal orthodoxy and embrace the activist state. Expect to see a thousand Boris busses bombing around the country lanes of England in partnership with local government. Expect a house building boom. The PM will violate EU rules on state aid and competition law with relish, while Labour will cleave to the constraints of the single market and the rulings of the ECJ.
During the election campaign, the Conservatives pledged state aid to small regional businesses while not pointing out that half of Labour’s manifesto would have been illegal under EU Law. They quietly renounced Thatcherism. Boris will be the heir to Keynes while Labour will uphold the rectitude of Hayek forever enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and its sovereignty over the single market and customs union. While Boris will point out the distinction between free trade and free movement, Labour won’t know the difference between the two. The interregnum has been broken, and as in 1979 it has broken to the right.
Pope Francis said recently that we are not living through an era of change but a change of era. This Conservative victory is an important part of defining what the features of the new era are. The previous consensus was defined by four shared assumptions; that the nation state, democracy, the working class and conservatism would matter less. The dominant forces were the educated middle-class, globalisation, written constitutions and liberalism. Blair and Cameron expressed this perfectly.
Brexit is a sign of the times, a glimpse of the future but the progressive mind can only see it as reactionary, nostalgic and backward looking. The decisive role of the working class in asserting national sovereignty through its democratic vote in order to renew the ancient institutions of Parliament and the common law is incomprehensible to the left. The new era is a foreign country for those who thought the arc of history was with them.
The scale of Labour’s defeat last Thursday is hard for the progressive mind to comprehend. Like the death of a loved one, who has survived terrible illness before, it is both shocking and predictable. The responses of blame, avoidance, denial, anger, displacement and depression from the Labour family are also shocking and predictable. Labour is like a family from hell. Full of hate and blame and unable to understand how it got here. Labour is no longer a tribe and has lost its homeland. It’s gonna be lonely this Christmas.
This is because Labour is out of relationship with its history, traditions and the communities that created and cherished it. So out of touch that it couldn’t see the rejection coming. It now shares the entropic fate of the French, Italian, German, Belgian and Dutch Labour Parties, who have shrunk progressively into irrelevance, replaced by nationalist and Green Parties on the whole. Drained of their national purpose by the constraints of the European Union, social democracy has no conception of the social, or of democracy. Labour now shares their fate which means irrelevance and endless meetings that go nowhere. Just a slow and inexorable decline. It marks the end of British exceptionalism on the Left, just as we leave the EU.
It could have been so different. In 2017, when Labour said it respected the result of the referendum, it surged through the final two weeks of the campaign. The Conservatives, running on the policy of “lose your mind, lose your home”, turned a Brexit election into a discussion of the financial consequences of dementia.
There were indications of disaffection as Mansfield and North Derby turned blue; but the heartlands believed that Corbyn was a faithful son of Tony Benn and he had spent a lifetime denouncing the EU as a capitalist club where no-one was accountable. Against the current of continental Europe, Labour alone was a vital and renewed social-democratic party committed to nationalisation and the redistribution of wealth. Brexit was a source of socialist renewal and democracy was re-affirmed as the means of resisting the domination of the rich and their decades of relentless plundering. But, then, Corbyn’s Labour renounced Brexit.
One of the reasons why the election result seemed so shocking was that the working class were supposed to be on the wrong side of history, to not really matter anymore. Despite the result of the Brexit referendum, it was assumed that the task for Labour was to build a coalition of ”progressive” voters around a second referendum which they called a ”people’s vote”. The difference between 2017 and 2019 was that the working class noted that Labour was blocking Brexit and denying the legitimacy of their vote (see Analysis #42 - Labour Lost Because it Failed to Grasp the Democratic Opportunity of Brexit; Analysis #43 - The Workers’ Revolt Against Labour). Corbyn’s Labour sided with global capitalism. It is a minor irony in all this that Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne, who prided themselves on their Marxist analysis with a central role for class ran a campaign based on ”values” and were trounced by the Conservatives who placed a relentless stress on the working class and transferring their loyalties. Labour Marxists turned out to be Whigs. What a lot of luggage for such a short journey.
The deep complicity between New Labour and the Corbyn Project was shown here. The progressive certainty that history was going in one direction, towards the free movement of people and things, that technology would dissolve place and borders in an undifferentiated swirl in which only the individual and Treaty law mattered.
That the future was based on globalisation was unquestioned between them, as was the idea that the nation state and democracy no longer really mattered. This Whig theory of history is as untrue now as it ever was. The working class, the Nation-State and democracy are key features of the new era. Far from being losers, the post-industrial working class has decided the two most significant votes of our time.
And the Left was the loser. The progressive illness has dissolved the ties that bind because it has no concept of society, of the social, of belonging and inheritance. Trapped in an endless now, it lost the future. The coalition of Peter Mandelson and John McDonnell that tied Labour to a second referendum is the key to understanding the catastrophic defeat because it finally ruptured the connection between the working class and Labour. It said, you didn’t know what you were doing. It said that democracy does not decide issues in our society. It said that it had no faith in our country to decide its future through democratic politics but that it had to be contracted out to an unaccountable system of directives and laws.
By embracing a second referendum, Labour crossed a line. It no longer supported workers who trusted democracy more than the European Court of Justice when it came to their rights. Labour thought that the consequences would be catastrophic and displayed no confidence that our country could flourish outside frictionless capitalism. The Left suddenly became experts in just-in-time supply chains as if capitalism, the most adaptable economic system ever devised, would not be able to cope. They were not faithful to the marriage and it is now over. There is no evidence that there will be a reconciliation.
At the last election, Labour lost Mansfield by a thousand votes. Now the majority is more than 16,000. The Scottish working-class have not returned to Labour, but moved to a nationalist party and show no sign of remorse. Once rejected, they move on and don’t look back. In Michael Lind’s recent book, The New Class War, he makes the connection between class and geography, between hubs and heartlands. Labour is the party of the hubs, but the Conservatives now lay claim to the heartlands.
And beyond the immediate devastation of defeat, is the existential horror of what it means. The severing of the long-term marriage with the working class that created the Labour Party in the first place. It opens the space for the emergence of a genuinely nasty right-wing populist Party as an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. The Brexit Party is merely a mild taster of what the future portends. The Conservative vote only rose a few percent overall, many former Labour voters went for the Brexit Party. What was clear is that the Labour vote collapsed in the heartlands and the Brexit Party saved more Labour seats than it lost.
The glory of Labour was its ability to express the Labour interest within the framework of the inherited Parliamentary and legal institutions asserting democratic politics as an alternative to violence. While the rest of Europe did polarise and went Fascist or Communist, Labour retained the affections of the working-class and engaged in the politics of war and peace. Defeating the Nazis in the War Coalition and then creating the National Health Service, nationalising steel, coal and the railways, creating the National Trust and the Green Belt.
The virtues of civility, generosity, and kindness in the public square are easily dismissed and hard to retain. Labour was the source of that politics and with its departure from the working-class communities it used to represent, a sullen resentful politics looms. Something closer to the Front National or the AfD in Germany.
The new Government needs to offer something more than electoral success and some infrastructure projects; it needs to build on the politics of earning and belonging, of contribution and civic renewal. Over the past 40 years, the counties and towns of our country have been denuded of its assets and inheritance. None of the building societies that were demutualised in the last 40 years exist any longer as local institutions. The endowment of regional banks so that there is access to capital once more is an essential part of that. The recognition of vocation is also essential and the establishment of vocational colleges for building, maintenance, social care and taxi driving with apprenticeship laws that regulate labour market entry would address the skills required for building homes, caring for the elderly and the 85% of the economy that functions outside globalisation.
The dignity of labour is the foundation of this. It should be the basis of Labour’s alternative. The central question for the next ten years is whether the Conservatives can recognise that their future now lies with labour.
About the Author
Maurice Glasman is a member of the House of Lords and the founder of Blue Labour.
This essay originally appeared on Unherd.