A deepening, unpredictable political and constitutional crisis sparked by Brexit could have far-reaching consequences before the year is out.
Some commentators have suggested that it is the biggest political challenge facing the ruling elites since the General Strike of 1926 when power seemed to pass – temporarily – into the hands of the trade union movement.
That was resolved when the Trades Union Congress ran up the white flag. The last thing they wanted (then and now) was to challenge the establishment and assume power on behalf of the working class.
Behind the confusion and empty rhetoric, there is a comparable class conflict over power at the heart of the present crisis. This is masked by the contradictions of Brexit, the populist, nationalist machinations of the Tory right wing and divisions inside Labour’s ranks.
Of course, anti-immigrant sentiments were whipped up during the referendum. But everyone knows that large numbers of people voted to leave the European Union because their standard of living had deteriorated rapidly and saw no hope that Brussels would reverse that.
The EU since the 1990s has become a champion of unfettered neoliberal capitalism, with its emphasis on deregulation, competitive markets, reduced trade union rights and precarious employment.
So, despite appearances, the deeper social and political content of the Brexit vote could be interpreted as a rejection of existing political and economic arrangements. David Cameron’s arrogance in assuming there would be a “Yes” vote was entirely misplaced.
At the same time, the vote to leave the EU sent shudders through the boardrooms of the major global corporations who have a base in Britain. The car manufacturers, Amazon, Airbus, the investment banks and so on continue to see Brexit as a disaster in terms of a potential loss of access to markets and a consequent loss of profits
In the middle of all this is a Parliament and a minority Tory government in despair. Fearing the consequences of ignoring the referendum result, Theresa May is searching for a solution that plainly does not exist.
There is no majority in Parliament for any of the various proposals put forward, either by the Tories or the Labour Party. Nor is there a majority for a “no deal” Brexit.
A general election is unlikely in the middle of the negotiations. A second referendum needs legislation and you can’t see that happening.
Yet the UK is scheduled to leave the EU in seven months time and the EU seems uninterested in making any concessions.
The EU has its own political problems, with an unstable German government, an anti-EU populist government in Italy and authoritarian regimes in Hungary and Poland.
The EU, meanwhile, is saying that Brexit could only be halted or put back by a “realignment” or a “major shift” of politics in the UK.
What does that mean?
As the Brexit talks deadline approaches, we are certain to hear the crisis described as a “national emergency”. In such a fevered atmosphere, there is the danger that advocates of a national government will come to the fore. That particular kite has already been flown by Tory MP Anna Soubry.
In 2010, in the wake of the financial crisis and an inconclusive general election, state officials insisted that the Tories and Lib Dems get together to form a coalition government before the markets opened the following Monday. Austerity was imposed soon afterwards.
In the midst of an impasse over Brexit, it’s entirely possible to envisage the major corporations and banks demanding that the UK state goes further than 2010 and brings the major political parties together to form a so-called government of national unity to see Brexit through or abandon it altogether.
This would almost certainly lead to the break-up of the Tories as well as the Labour Party and deprive Jeremy Corbyn of his chance of leading a government.
The growing crisis is a sure sign that the present constitution – which sets out where political power lies and how the state rules over its citizens – is broken. Representative democracy no longer does what it says on the tin, having given way to a malfunctioning corporatocracy.
Our response should be to reject any plans – secret or otherwise – for a national government. Without doubt it would be an authoritarian regime, intolerant of debate in the “national interest” and a critical blow to our hollowed-out political democracy.
We should demand a General Election and, if necessary, urge a campaign to bring down the Tories so that voters get to have a say and, hopefully, give Corbyn a chance.
If the plans for a national government – you can be sure that they are being worked on in the bowels of Whitehall in consultation with corporate lobbyists – go ahead, the case for a new democratic constitution will be unanswerable.
A convention of citizens in different parts of the UK could debate and develop a more advanced democracy that puts real power into the hands of people in their communities, towns, regions, countries and, above all, workplaces.
If the political class is frozen, let the people themselves work out alternatives to the EU and a capitalist system that has created vast inequality, a runaway eco-crisis and under-funded public services.
Brexit has created a political vacuum that opens possibilities if we probe behind the rhetoric and posturing. The looming crisis is an opportunity for building support for a democratic revolution that will defeat the reactionary establishment and result in a real transfer of power to the people.