Free Trade and Socialism part 2 – the UK general election

Thersa May’s call for a general election has been hailed by the ‘Financial Times’ as a smart move that will give her and the pragmatic Tories some room to negotiate a trade deal with the EU that would be opposed by the zealot Brexiteers.  Today’s paper has a column by the chair of the Institute of Directors praising May while calling for some time for business to adjust to Brexit.  The rise in value of the pound after the news is seen as the smartest guys in the room welcoming the election announcement on precisely these grounds.  Whether this works or not is quite another matter and a decisive victory based on making sure Brexit happens is just as likely to strengthen the rabid demands of those clamouring for a hard Brexit as strengthen its more pragmatic supporters.

The election is therefore set to be all about Brexit and trust in May’s ‘leadership’, or rather her Tory arrogance that is sold as no-nonsense competence, seriousness and proficiency, which a certain section of workers still buy into on the basis of the everyday nationalism and class deference fed to them by the media.  However, even the newly moderated claims for Brexit are undeliverable: she says that she wants “a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world”.

The relationship after Brexit can’t be “as deep and special” as the current one so it’s a loss on that one, and the UK will not be “free to chart its own way in the world” no matter how hard it fantasises.  In an issue of the same pink paper last week (and also today) its readers learn that the EU are about to freeze-out British companies’ participation in the European space programme and other EU contracts and funding.  It sounds much better to the ears of Brexiteers when they threaten to just pull the plug and leave without a deal but not quite so comforting when it is reported that the EU bureaucracy is drawing up plans to do exactly the same.

It was also reported in the FT that yet another Minister was visiting India trying to sell it something; Sir Michael Fallon being the empty-handed messenger this time.  The paper reported that ‘military experts say it is a sign of how the UK has been left behind. “If you look at the main four or five players in India, the UK is not there at this point in time”, and It reports that British arms exports fell from £966m in 2010 to £34m in 2015.

So instead of selling arms, Britain now wants to sell India its “arms procurement expertise” because the British might “help them decide what they need.”   The same (or perhaps different) British official thinks reminding the Indians that “the Indian army was created from the British army” and “we share . . an overall ethos” is good sales patter.  This ‘expertise’, the Indians have pointed out, includes ordering two aircraft carriers “that are seven years late . . . (and) are running massively over budget”, and this is without also considering that other problem arising in this British procurement exercise – ordering another aircraft carrier without aircraft for it to carry.

So, Britain is not going to find it easy to chart its own way in the world”; in fact it’s going to find it so hard it’s going to be charting not its own but other, bigger player’s ways in the world, especially as everyone knows, the US way.

Even thinking from first principles – how can you make your “own way” with trade?  Surely you need someone to trade with, someone who will want some say on the rules that govern it; someone who is very likely to be bigger and more powerful than Britain, or will have joined a trading arrangement that makes them bigger and more powerful.  A common strategy – except now for the Brits!

In other words, even if the Financial Times and the money men were correct in the short term, which generally is how long they think about, that May will minimise the impact of Brexit, Britain is going to be worse off.  As I have said before, the threats of a deregulated UK after Brexit are an acknowledgement that the Tory way of attempting to pay the price of Brexit will be to deliver the bill to the working class.  This sugar coats the Brexit pill for business but there will be no sugar coating the poison for workers.

In my last post I argued against the view that the question of trade was one that socialists could not take a side on; or that it ‘depended’ on something else and was therefore perhaps of secondary importance.  In my exchange of views on Facebook set out in that post I said that something could be learned from what Karl Marx thought of free trade.  Then at least, we may have some clue as to what ‘depends’ actually depends on.  Marx obviously thought it was an important issue, just as it is now through the issue of Brexit, and he had a clear position on it.  But I will look at this in the next post.

It is important to understand first that Brexit is bad for trade and will therefore indirectly be bad for workers.  Many workers see the link much more directly – car workers hope that the cars they build can be exported easily into the rest of Europe; university staff seek maintenance of EU grants for their research work; airline staff hope the company retains its base in the UK; farmers hope that they continue to get subsidies; finance workers hope their firms don’t up sticks to Paris or Frankfurt or Brussels or wherever; the list is a very long one.

Because any deal can only be worse and the only thing worse than a bad deal is no deal, the more far-sighted Tories either oppose Brexit or seek a ‘soft’ one.  It is these people that the markets and the ‘Financial Times’ editor and commentators hope will come to the rescue.  Having backed the Tories in the last election, even though it was only they who could deliver them the disaster of Brexit, these people still cling to them again, even while the Tories swear to god that they will deliver it no matter what.  But even with the sugar-coated promise of deregulation, the Tories are going to dash their hopes – the Tories have already promised not to give them the single market or a customs union.  The continuing support of business for the Tories is yet more evidence of their wilful ideological blindness.

Their logic is completely without merit – if the balance of power lies with the EU and the pressure of time is all on Britain, this will very quickly become apparent, in fact it already has as May’s changed tone once article 50 was triggered has shown. May now talks not only the nonsense quoted above but also about a transitional deal, “controlling” immigration not lowering it, perhaps through voluntarily allowing cheap exploitable labour into agriculture when it is needed and then chucking it out afterwards.  Or allowing entry to skilled workers for companies that lobby for it.  Payments can still be made to the EU for some sort of trade access and EU courts will still have ultimate say.  To which it might be asked – what’s the point of leaving, although the Tories think that, with an election victory, answering such a question can at least be postponed.  After all, the May strategy in this election appears to be to say as little as possible.  And there’s a logic to this as well – the same logic.

The Tories cannot promise a ‘soft’ Brexit, or the detail of what it might involve, or even a transitional deal, which has become the favoured option of some business opinion who hope it might morph into something permanent that isn’t hard-on Brexit.  The Tories can’t do these things because those are decisions that are not theirs to take.

The EU will decide whether after less than two years the UK can get lost “making its own way”.  The EU will decide whether there is a transitional deal and what it will look like.  Making any sort of promise during an election would simply invite EU leaders to point out what the real situation is – ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’ is therefore the only sensible thing to do.  It might make you look increasingly stupid during an election campaign but May is relying on an existing poll lead and a fully undeserved reputation for competence.  And, of course, a compliant media.  How could anyone believe that only she can be trusted to be a strong negotiator with the EU when she’s even afraid to negotiate her way round a TV studio in a leaders’ debate?

If a ‘soft’ Brexit does not exist for the Tories it cannot exist for Jeremy Corbyn either.  The defence of workers’ interests that is the Labour Party’s platform cannot be implemented while leaving the EU.  For those who believe that socialism arises simply from revolution against capitalism and that the EU is a neoliberal conspiracy this is incomprehensible. It is nevertheless true because socialism will be built upon the foundations of the productive forces of capitalism and from transforming its social relations, not merely overturning them.

The more Corbyn stands up for the living standards and rights of working people the more this will conflict with a Brexit agenda, although again and again he turns away from this truth and damages his own case and the prospects for winning over the Remain voters.  The election will truly have revealed the bankruptcy of the bourgeois electoral process if May can keep her mouth shut about what Brexit actually entails and Corbyn can maintain that he will defend workers’ rights without threatening Brexit.

As for the prospects for the election itself; at the start of the campaign the press is clear that Labour is finished.  It must become clear quickly that this is not the case and even by doing this Labour will have registered a success.  Simply by standing up it can continue to fight and by continuing to stand prove the pundits wrong.  Tory arrogance can then first be halted, then challenged, and then thrown back in their faces.  The worst sort of defeat is when you don’t fight, and if you fight there’s always the possibility to win.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

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