The Tory right doesn’t care about the damage Brexit will do. The prize is a free hand to exploit this mess and roll back the state for good.
One of the most startling aspects of the Brexit debate is the rapidity with which the Conservatives have set it behind them. Within hours of the result David Cameron was on the steps of 10 Downing Street, describing this slim majority as “a very clear result” and proposing irrevocable steps to set it in motion. Within days his chancellor, who had threatened a punishment budget only weeks earlier, was falling into line.
The referendum was manifestly won on the basis of misinformation, and puts the UK in an extremely dangerous situation, and there are several plausible scenarios for avoiding it. Yet among the candidates to succeed Cameron, even former remainers are now voting leave. “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May stated on joining the race on Thursday. “There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door, and no second referendum.” All the bloodshed in the Tory leadership contest masks an underlying consensus: they are all determined to block every exit from Brexit.
Given the enormous dangers and the mood in the public at large, this is a striking fact that demands explanation. One explanation can be found by extrapolating from a pattern evident in privatisations going back decades.
When the railways were privatised, the argument in favour was not merely that privatisation would save money but that it would transform our network by means of a state-of-the-art signalling system unlike anything the world had ever seen. The experts said it could not be done, but the government pressed ahead anyway. The experts, it turned out, were right. But the over-optimistic argument had served its purpose: the railways were in private hands.
When university finance was privatised after 2010, the same tactic was used. In order for a higher education market to work, consumers need reliable measures of teaching quality. Such measures, experts repeatedly pointed out, are impossible in principle, and proxies could actually damage teaching quality by distorting institutional priorities. Yet the government pressed ahead undeterred because the real objective was not to improve the universities: it was to continue the process of privatising them.
Something similar was attempted even more recently in school policy. In the past year the government proposed to force all schools in England out of local authority control and into the hands of private consortiums. Once again, no evidence was provided, because the ostensible objective – as always, to drive up standards – was merely a foil for the underlying aim: to remove the entire school system from public authority and place it in private hands.
Many thought that the near meltdown of the global financial system would prompt a comprehensive rethink of the principles underlying global capitalism. Instead, it was exploited to de-fund social welfare provision on a grand scale, prompting much of the anger wrongly vented against migrants during the referendum.
What then about Brexit? The advocates of leaving the European Union have always claimed that it would be easy and, after a brief period of turmoil, positively productive. A vast chorus of experts disagreed. The decision to leave therefore delivered an enormous economic and political shock to England, Scotland, the EU and the global economy. Why is the government not doing everything possible to mitigate that shock?
As Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine, disaster capitalism operates by delivering massive shocks to the system and then using the ensuing period of anarchy, fear and confusion to reassemble the pieces of what it has broken into a new configuration. This is what was done in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and it is ultimately what is at stake in Brexit. The right wing of the Tory party has succeeded in throwing the UK’s affairs into complete confusion. The losses may be enormous: the preservation of the United Kingdom in its present form is far from certain. The winnings may, at first sight, seem modest: £350m a week will not be available to save the NHS; the free movement of labour will have to be conceded; and Britain will lose its place at the EU negotiating table. But the potential winnings for ruthless politicians are nevertheless enormous: the prize is the opportunity to rework an almost infinite range of detailed arrangements both inside and outside the UK, to redraw at breakneck speed the legal framework that will govern all aspects of our lives
“If you break it, you own it” is an adage in the United States (propagated by a country-wide pottery retail chain). The right wing of the Tory party has broken Britain’s relationship with the entire world. Its objective now is to own the process of reconstructing that relationship.
As Andy Beckett pointed out in the Guardian on Friday, within minutes of the BBC declaring victory for Brexit, the free-market thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) revealed the plan B that has otherwise remained hidden from view. “The weakness of the Labour party and the resolution of the EU question have created a unique political opportunity to drive through a wide-ranging … revolution on a scale similar to that of the 1980s … This must include removing unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses, such as those related to climate directives and investment fund[s].”
A week later, and this possibility is no longer merely theoretical: George Osborne has now proposed to cut corporation tax from 20% to below 15%, to staunch the haemorrhage of investment. During coming months and years, the unfolding crisis will provide countless pretexts for similar emergency measure that benefit business and roll back the state. So there will be no vote in parliament, no second referendum, no fresh elections: just the most massive legislative programme in history within the current parliament, in which the Tories command an absolute majority based on 37% of the votes cast in the last general election. So much for taking back democratic control.
The paramount need is for an opposition prepared to do its job: to oppose this project of tearing up existing arrangements with a view to rebuilding them in a configuration even more insufferable for ordinary working people. If, as Michael Heseltine maintains, Brexit has provoked the “greatest constitutional crisis in modern times”, then what is really needed is a government of national unity. Failing that, we need an opposition of national unity, composed of all those who do not want to give Tory rightwingers a free hand.
By Howard Hotson