The Year in Review
In one month, Britain will leave the European Union – a staggering 1,316 days after a majority of citizens voted for this to happen. We have heard formulations like this so often over the past three-and-a-half years it can seem unreal.
At the start of 2019, the prospects for the referendum being honoured looked pretty bleak. In November 2018, Theresa May’s lacklustre Withdrawal Agreement had been defeated amid chaotic scenes in parliament, leading the government to postpone Brexit until March 2019. Although TFB’s Lee Jones and Danny Nicol had sided against May’s deal, Chris Bickerton had warned that it might be the only way to get Brexit done, as defeat would embolden the Remainers to push for a second referendum.
And, indeed, the wind did seem to be in the Remainers’ sails through much of 2019. Labour Remainers, having pushed for a Brexit policy that incubated a Remain position, began a major offensive. Through the spring, TFB toured the country to defend the left case for Brexit, attracting denunciation and abuse – but no serious debate – from left-liberals, who instead declared “Lexit” dead. TFB’s Maurice Glasman warned against a Remain drift, correctly observing the “obdurate persistence of the working-class Brexit vote”. The only reason Labour had bucked the trend of declining European social democracy in 2017 was that it had pledged to respect the referendum; its only hope of salvation was to “lead the opposition” to the EU. Danny Nicol saw Labour’s EUphilia as a symptom of the hollowing out of Labour’s left wing, while Shaun Shirley-Smith observed deep class divisions within the party and its supporters. Philip Cunliffe warned that, far from offering the public a “final say”, a second referendum would be the end of a “final say” in any democratic vote.
TFB analysts also debunked the “remain and reform” line being pushed by Labour Remainers, Yanis Varoufakis’s Diem25, and “literal communists” like Novara’s Ash Sarkar. Lee Jones explained why the EU’s rules made it impervious to substantial change. Danny Nicol pointed out that EU law was inconsistent with Labour’s manifesto pledges, and that a “revolt” against EU law would mean a revolt against the UK courts that enforced it, which the left had no appetite for – as clearly shown by its later reverence for the Supreme Court. Richard Tuck observed that, since the left clearly had no real strategy for reforming the EU, “remain and reform” was really just a fig leaf for remain.
Meanwhile, TFB continued its analysis of the crisis of representative politics and sovereignty exposed by the Brexit vote. Peter Ramsay warned that a second referendum would destroy parliament’s already-tattered authority, and subsequently analysed why Northern Ireland had become the main sticking point of Brexit: Britain’s limited sovereignty there. Meanwhile, Philip Cunliffe foresaw that negating Brexit would require the increasing application of authoritarian measures to clamp down on dissent: establishment-led “Soubryism”, not the “fascism” it was supposedly required to contain. Cunliffe also reflected on the “world turned upside down” by Brexit, with the left clinging to a failing status quo, sacrificing the role of leading radical change to the Conservatives. The situation was ripe for revolution, but the necessary leadership was totally absent.
Britain’s political crisis sharpened in the spring when a second postponement of Brexit, occasioned by May’s continued failure to get her Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, led to Britain being forced to participate in the European parliamentary elections, several months after it should have left the EU. Into the vacuum of Leave leadership stepped the newly formed Brexit Party. Some TFB supporters, including co-founder James Heartfield, stood for the party, rejecting abuse that it was a “far right” or “racist” front and insisting that the only issue at stake was democracy. Peter Ramsay and Lee Jones saw the Brexit Party as a symptom of the crisis of representative politics: a “creature of the void” between citizens and elites, a “vital stop-gap” against the destruction of democracy, but unable, as a populist party, to create a new alternative. Ramsay developed this analysis further after the general election, showing that, despite its important contribution to securing Britain’s departure from the EU, the Brexit Party’s thin populism would always fail to “change politics for good”.
In retrospect, the European elections were clearly the turning point for Britain’s Brexit crisis. Labour’s Remainers seized on their losses to the “bollocks to Brexit” Liberal Democrats to push for a full embrace of Remain at the party’s summer conference. Lee Jones immediately predicted that the resolution to back a second referendum was “the end of Corbynism”. As he correctly foresaw, it would prove “electorally disastrous”; Labour had “thrown away any hope of winning” the Leave-voting constituencies required to form a majority. Jones urged Corbynistas not to be blackmailed into campaigning against Brexit, to little avail. With George Hoare, Philip Cunliffe and Danny Nicol, Jones also denounced attempts on the left to portray a second referendum as the price of a radical Labour government, arguing that “working people do not accept that free broadband and dental checks can compensate for their democratic power being hollowed out”.
The 2019 general election entirely bore out this analysis: as Jones explained, Labour had lost because the party, and its leader, failed to grasp the opportunity to lead a revolt against the neoliberal status quo. Accordingly, as Philip Cunliffe noted, working-class voters had revolted against the Labour Party itself.
While the liberal-left were writing Labour’s suicide note, the Conservatives reacted to the dramatic European election results in a completely different manner: they were disciplined by their electoral punishment into redoubling their commitment to enacting the referendum result. Over the summer, the Tories quickly replaced Theresa May with Boris Johnson, who quickly strained every sinew to enact Brexit before the revised 31 October deadline, deal or no deal. To widespread surprise, in late October, Johnson managed to secure a revised Withdrawal Agreement, which again divided TFB opinion. Lee Jones argued that Johnson’s deal removed the worst aspects of May’s version and was the last, best hope of Britain actually leaving the EU. But Costas Lapavitsas warned that the revised Withdrawal Agreement, while positive in scrapping neoliberal constraints on economic policy, also contained neoliberal prescriptions for the future UK-EU relationship. And James Heartfield, echoing wider criticism by the Brexit Party (subsequently dropped during the election), argued that Johnson’s deal was not a “full Brexit”.
Regardless, Remainers on both sides of parliament recoiled in horror, pulling every possible stunt to block no deal, while still refusing to pass Johnson’s deal – leaving as the only natural conclusion that their main goal was to thwart Brexit altogether. Their full-scale retreat from democracy – a stark contrast to the 2017 election, when 85 percent of MPs were elected on manifestoes pledging to respect the referendum result – was capped by calls for an unelected government of “national unity” (or even an “emergency female cabinet”), and of course their repeated blocking of a general election. Their willingness to use every loophole and state institution to their advantage was symbolised in their resort in September to the Supreme Court to reverse Johnson’s prorogation of parliament. TFB’s legal experts, Peter Ramsay, Danny Nicol and Martin Loughlin, all analysed the court’s judgement, finding it sorely lacking even in basic legal reasoning, and arguing that the judges had usurped authority from a delinquent parliament. Richard Tuck debunked the Remainer’s invocations of “parliamentary sovereignty” to block Brexit, reminding MPs that they had no sovereignty higher than a popular mandate.
Remarkably, Remainers joyfully celebrated the Supreme Court ruling as a defeat for Johnson’s “authoritarianism” and “coup”. In reality, all the prorogation fiasco had demonstrated was the Conservatives’ determination to “get Brexit done” and the opposition’s equal determination to block it at any cost. The stage was set for a “Brexit election” that, however lacklustre and depoliticising, decided Britain’s fate. Labour’s “red wall” crumbled. Chris McGlade explained that working-class people had voted Tory because they had “no choice”, because “the party set up to defend us” had abandoned them. As Maurice Glasman noted in his biting post-election analysis, Johnson had seized the democratic mantle of Brexit where Labour had failed, and the party’s relationship with the working class was ruptured, possibly permanently: “They were not faithful to the marriage and it is now over. There is no evidence that there will be a reconciliation.”
2019 was a year in which British democracy was tested to breaking point. It almost broke, but thanks ultimately to the obduracy of working-class voters, it survived. But, as TFB analysis has consistently shown, there is a deep malaise in British politics that Brexit has only exposed, and which leaving the European Union will not, in and of itself, magically repair. The work of building real popular sovereignty has only just begun.