As Theresa May reaches out to Jeremy Corbyn in her efforts to solve the Brexit crisis in Parliament, it’s clear that the usual form of politics in the UK has ended.
Brexit is viewed by many people as an unnecessary and dangerous right-wing diversion from the big issues facing society as a whole.
But this is a one-sided view. As Laura Kuenssberg noted in her BBC2 documentary, Brexit has now essentially morphed into a crisis of the political system, which is incapable of dealing with the fall-out of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union.
Separating the desperate flailing by MPs and Tory cabinet from the deeper constitutional realities is disarming and leaves the door open to the right and the far right.
The referendum vote and the social divisions that Brexit reflects will not go away, whatever happens in Parliament and/or Downing Street because the political system is part of the state system by which we are ruled.
The Leave vote was an eruption of discontent and alienation due to the inability of the existing state system to deal with social inequality, the eco-crisis, the effects of migration and the powerlessness that millions of people feel. What is not acknowledged by the left in the UK is, however, recognised by the EU itself.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told the European Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs on Monday morning that the crisis in the UK goes beyond Brexit. “I don’t think I need to go on at great length about the nature of what is going on in the UK, the impasse or political crisis they might be experiencing,” he said.
”More deeply, it is not just about the question of Brexit. I don’t think it’s just about the question of Brexit and the agreement that’s on the table and the backstop for Ireland. It is more broad than that. Somewhere along the line, it is a crisis that equally could have sprung up in another country.”
The Tories’ veteran foreign office minister Alistair Burt, who has resigned over Brexit, took things further. He warned that the UK’s democracy itself was in danger of collapse, saying: “We are in peril … we have seen in other countries that if people become so polarised that they don’t listen to the other side that they resort to other methods.”
Burt is not alone. Under the headline Democracy Itself Is on Trial in Brexit, The New York Times spoke to Tommy Turner, a Leave-voting Surrey firefighter. “We’re in the last hour,” he said. “I’m wondering: What does more damage? Leaving without a deal? Or the total annihilation of faith in democracy?” At the Leave demonstration outside parliament last week, a group held a coffin declaring the death of democracy.
Turner is right, the Brexit crisis is indeed a crisis for UK democracy. And not only UK democracy. It is part of a global crisis as fascist and Nazi demagogues gain support in Hungary, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Spain, to name just a few countries. While the left sits on its hands, the right-wing are engaged in an open challenge to representative democracy.
In the UK, the openly fascist Tommy Robinson aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, with 357,000 subscribers on his Youtube account, is advisor to UKIP. Ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage has called for a democratic revolution, following up on his description of Brexit as the beginning of a “global political revolution”. On 29 March, he wrote in The Telegraph: “Before 2016, I promised to cause an earthquake in British politics. This time, I will attempt a revolution. It will be democratic and peaceful. I have no idea if I will succeed. But I will do my damnedest.”
Of course Farage’s notion of democracy and revolution is a cheap and nasty form of demagogy. The man who boasts of his close friendship with The Trump has no intention of facilitating a truly democratic society. But like Yaxley-Lennon, he has a gut instinct for the democratic struggles that are the way many ordinary people, especially workers, feel about the history of their country.
Along with the far right of the Tory party – Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg – Ukip and ex-Ukippers tap into people’s alienation from the society and politics of neoliberal capitalism by making a connection between national identity and historic struggles for democracy.
It’s not the social media that makes Nazi-style thugs like Yaxley-Lennon and charlatans like Farage popular. After all, Twitter, You Tube and Facebook are equally open to those with opposite points of view. And, Mussolini and Hitler didn’t need Facebook to gain power.
Calls for a Peoples’ Vote and efforts to reverse the Leave majority only whip up more feelings of betrayal. Why did we bother to vote in 2016 if our majority is rejected some may well ask. That’s just what right -wing outlets such as the Daily Express did when the UK failed to leave the EU on 29 March.
The old capitalist state structures cannot cope with the entry into politics of ordinary people which is what the EU referendum and its aftermath have laid bare. The different components of the political system – political parties, Parliament, the executive – are unable to work together. The old representative parliamentary form of democracy simply cannot cope.
Inequality, low wages, precarity, climate change and habitat destruction are the big issues of our time and the present system helps to create and exacerbate them. Tackling these requires a more advanced form of democracy where power is devolved to citizens’ assemblies making decisions that overturn the present profit-driven, neoliberal capitalist arrangements.
Brexit has unleashed a crisis that has been long in the making – going back at least to the days of Thatcher and Reagan and the onset of neoliberal-driven globalisation.
Failure to address the question of democracy allows the right and the fascists to make the running and attack the system from a reactionary standpoint. Thus, Labour’s silence over Brexit and the crisis of democracy (due to the need to prevent the party from splitting up) is part of the problem.
They had a commitment in their manifesto, to a citizens convention on the constitution to address the question of where power lies. On page 102 the Manifesto states:
“A Labour government will establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We will consult on its form and terms of reference and invite recommendations on extending democracy. This is about where power and sovereignty lies – in politics, the economy, the justice system, and in our communities. The Convention will look at extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country.”
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell need to revive this policy NOW – not wait until they are in office. It would mobilise people around the idea of a new agreement of the people and strengthen the prospects of a) achieving a Corbyn government and b) sustaining it when it’s in office against the many attacks it will face.
In this way we can begin to pull the rug out from underneath the far right. There is nothing more urgent than that.