Riders of the storm

Issue: 164

Alex Callinicos

According to legend, in the balmy days before the First World War the Times once carried the headline: “Fog on Channel, Continent Isolated.” Now the fog that pervades the Brexit process leaves Britain isolated. This issue of International Socialism appears before 31 October, when Britain is due to leave the European Union with or without a deal. There is no point in speculating about the outcome of the obscure struggle involving Boris Johnson’s government, the opposition forces (including Tory rebels) that now have a majority in the House of Commons and the EU-27. But some things are ­nevertheless clear.

Inter-imperialist conflict

First of all, the dimension of inter-imperialist conflict between Britain and the leading Continental powers over Brexit is now very evident. This has been made explicit by the arch-European federalist and all-purpose bully Guy Verhofstadt, ex-prime minister of Belgium and now the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator. He told the Liberal Democrat conference in mid-September: “The world order of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It’s a world order based on empires… The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we Europeans and you British can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together in a European framework and in the European Union”.1 The implication—get with the European empire or perish—is reminiscent of a remark by a leading figure in the administration of George W Bush (widely thought to be senior White House adviser Karl Rove) in 2002, at the high-point of neocon hubris before the invasion of Iraq: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”.2

As this example shows, imperial power has to confront often highly recalcitrant realities not of its own making. Indeed, there was less swagger in Verhofstadt’s tone a few days later, when he said in the European Parliament: “The European Parliament will never accept that the UK can have all the advantages of free trade, and not align with our ecological, health and social standards… We will never accept ‘Singapore by the North Sea’”.3 In other words, the EU-27 (in particular France, the Netherlands and other north European Member States) fear that Britain will use its break with the EU to adopt lower regulatory standards and undercut its firms.

One of the main thrusts of the Brexit negotiations has been efforts by Brussels to use its bargaining muscle to force Britain to remain what one commentator has described as a “regulatory satellite” of the EU. Johnson has intensified these worries by dropping Theresa May’s pledge to maintain a “level playing field” where Britain keeps the same regulatory standards as the EU. According to the Financial Times, Johnson’s chief Europe adviser, David Frost, “has called on EU negotiators to commit to a ‘best in class free trade agreement’ whereby the UK would be free to set its own regulatory standards after Brexit”.4 As the commentator Wolfgang Münchau puts it:

What one has to understand about the EU is its obsession with regulatory competition. The old European Economic Community may already have had lofty political ambitions in the 1950s. But it was born as a producers’ cartel. The EU would surely feel threatened by a “Singapore-style” Brexit in which Britain diverges from the regulatory standards that govern the single market. Even if the European Commission were ready to agree a trade deal that would leave the UK with regulatory autonomy, it would never be approved by the parliaments of all EU member states. France would surely not ratify.5

These preoccupations aren’t irrational. Contrary to the widespread Remain-inspired portrayals of a ruined nation, Britain remains a leading capitalist state. According to Tony Norfield’s Index of Power (which ranks states according to their GDP, foreign direct investment, transactions in their currency, banking assets and liabilities and military spending), Britain is number three, after the United States and China, and before Japan, France and Germany.6 These ­capabilities won’t just evaporate after Brexit. In particular, a recent report by the Bank for International Settlements suggests that the hopes, notably by the French ruling class, that Brexit could be used to displace the City of London’s place as the pre-eminent global financial centre, are vain.

Since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, the City’s share of foreign exchange trading has risen from 37 to 43 percent (while its main rival, Wall Street, saw its share drop from 20 to 17 percent). Its share of trading in over-the-counter derivatives has gone up from 38 to 50 percent. “London is the capital of capital and this report shows that despite challenging times, the fundamentals of the City remain strong,” Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, told the Financial Times.7

Continental European politicians hypocritically blame “Anglo-American finance” for the 2007-8 crash (hypocritically because Continental banks, frequently operating through London, were highly active in blowing the bubble up8). One of the EU’s main successes has been to use the promise of access to the Single Market to force other states to adopt its regulatory regime. So, the prospect of a rogue Britain, the base of a City that seems to be going from strength to strength, acting as a “Singapore by the North Sea” is hardly attractive.

May’s Withdrawal Agreement sought to keep Britain aligned—indeed to a significant degree subordinated—to the EU. In rejecting this, Johnson has little alternative but to follow what is in any case the instinct of the free-market Brexiteers and seek to draw closer to the US, which under Donald Trump has shown itself eager to undermine the EU. Brussels has played hardball in the Brexit negotiations in large part to prevent this happening (with the northern Irish backstop acting as a figleaf), but, in giving May so little, it has strengthened the hand of supporters of a hard Brexit, who now dominate the Johnson cabinet.9 Whatever the eventual form taken by Britain’s departure, these contradictions will continue to play out against the background of growing trade tensions between the EU and US, which have been exacerbated by a World Trade Organisation ruling allowing Washington to impose retaliatory tariffs on European goods because of Brussels’s subsidies to Airbus.

Constitutional crisis

Secondly, the Brexit impasse has now produced a full-scale constitutional crisis. A few years ago I wrote: “it looks as if constitutional issues will continue to act as the lightning conductor of British politics for the immediate future”.10 It’s always nice to be proved right, but I never imagined the prime minister’s use of the royal prerogative power to prorogue Parliament (ie suspend its sitting) being struck down by the Supreme Court. Why has this happened? In part, the very process of leaving the EU of necessity raises major constitutional issues—for example the 2016 Miller case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Parliamentary approval was necessary for the government to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the process of Britain leaving the EU.11

But, more fundamentally, the crisis arises from the combination of three political realities: the tough negotiating position taken by the EU, the Tories losing their parliamentary majority in the 2017 election and hence the power of minorities—the hard Brexiteers and hard Remainers—to block the kind of compromise solution attempted by May in the Withdrawal Agreement. The resulting paralysis—signalled by the successive defeats May suffered in the House of Commons—represented the progressive and remarkably rapid breakdown of the modern British political system, whereby capital can rely on a strong executive controlled by the party that has a majority in the House of Commons.12

This process has accelerated during the few weeks Johnson has occupied 10 Downing St. The parliamentary impasse allowed him to grab power, but the manner in which he has exercised it has made the constitutional crisis worse. He formed a cabinet dominated by hard Brexiteers—a government representing a faction of the Tory Party to an extent unprecedented in British political history; Margaret Thatcher ran a tight ship but she tried to accommodate the different currents in her party with her cabinets; Tony Blair was more factional, but still managed to find a place for the soft left. Johnson has appointed a government that will leave him very little wiggle room on his pledge to leave the EU by 31 October.

The prospect of a no-deal Brexit freed the hard core of Remainers on the Tory back benches (including senior figures in May’s cabinet such as Philip Hammond) from any inhibitions they might have about rebelling and encouraged the opposition parties to start cooperating with them and with each other. Hence the succession of defeats for Johnson in the House of Commons. The row over his decision to prorogue Parliament for five crucial weeks in the run-up to 31 October symbolises the breakdown of ­constitutional norms. It also vindicates those, notably Tony Benn writing in 1982, who argued that the prime minister’s exercise of the Queen’s prerogative powers deriving from common law rather than Act of Parliament, which has been traditionally interpreted as a matter of executive discretion, represent a dangerously ­undemocratic concentration of power.13

We are seeing a collapse in the understandings of constitutional practice traditionally shared within the political elite and the ruling class more broadly—the famous conventions that form Britain’s unwritten constitution. The significance of the Supreme Court judgement of 24 September in the second Miller case, which struck down Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, is that the judges are now openly taking upon themselves the responsibility of interpreting and enforcing these conventions. The key passage in the judgement is all about ­constitutional principles, not the interpretation of precedent or statute:

The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that. This means that it is accountable to the House of Commons—and indeed to the House of Lords—for its actions… The first question, therefore, is whether the Prime Minister’s action had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament in holding the Government to account… The answer is that of course it did.

It was on this basis that the Supreme Court humiliated Johnson by striking down this “action which had such an extreme effect upon the fundamentals of our democracy,” drawing the stinging conclusion that his advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament was unlawful…

It was outside the powers of the Prime Minister to give it. This means that it was null and of no effect… It led to the Order in Council [implementing the prorogation] which, being founded on unlawful advice, was likewise unlawful, null and of no effect and should be quashed. This led to the actual prorogation, which was as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper. It too was unlawful, null and of no effect.14

Leaving aside for the moment the blow this represents to Johnson and his hard-Brexiteer allies, this judgement represents in effect the Supreme Court beginning to assume the role of a constitutional court that assesses the actions of state bodies and citizens in the light of its interpretation of ­constitutional ­principles. The US Supreme Court has been doing this for over two centuries, but on the basis of a written Constitution; the British Supreme Court is taking on this role in the absence of one.15 The breakdown of the constitutional consensus is likely to continue—quite apart from the mess at Westminster, there is growing support for another independence referendum in Scotland.

It seems inevitable that there will be more judicial law-making. But, as the judges become more explicitly political in the judgements, what J A G Griffith calls “the myth of neutrality” that has been central to their ideological positioning and political legitimacy will dissolve.16 Already the decisions taken by the courts in the two Miller cases have been hotly contested by the Leave camp—remember the Daily Mail headline branding judges as “Enemies of the People” after the first case.

Moreover, although the effect of the judicial interventions to defend parliamentary sovereignty against executive discretion in the two Miller cases isn’t problematic from a socialist perspective, that doesn’t mean we should welcome the judges becoming the arbiters of the constitution. Griffith’s description of their role, though dating back to the 1970s, retains its validity today:

Judges are concerned to preserve and to protect the existing order. This does not mean that no judges are capable of moving with the times, of adjusting to changed circumstances. But their function in our society is to do so belatedly. Law and order, the established distribution of power both public and private, the conventional and agreed view amongst those who exercise political and economic power, the fears and prejudices of the middle and upper classes, these are the forces that the judges are expected to uphold and do uphold.17

His defeats in the House of Commons and at the Supreme Court ­meanwhile leave Johnson boxed in. The traditional way out for a prime minister in his ­position would be to dissolve Parliament—but under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, introduced by the David Cameron-Nick Clegg coalition, this now requires a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons, and his opponents have denied him this up to now. Hence his efforts to make a last-minute deal with Brussels.

But will the EU-27 do Johnson this favour? They may think it better to leave him to pick up the political tab for the economic ­disruption a no-deal Brexit may cause. The replacement for the backstop he unveiled in proposals announced on 2 October look unlikely to meet the demands of Brussels and Dublin. And could Johnson get the kind of deal the EU would give him through the Commons? But leaving the EU on 31 October without a deal will mean defying the Benn Act, the law named after its main author, Blairite MP Hilary Benn, which his opponents passed forbidding such an outcome. This would put the constitutional crisis on steroids.

Electoral fragmentation

Sooner or later, however, the contending forces in Parliament will test their support in a general election. Demanding that this happens as soon as possible is one of the few tools Johnson has left. He reacted aggressively to his humiliation by the Supreme Court, trying to frame the conflict as one between Parliament and the people. Behind this ploy lies the peculiar electoral arithmetic revealed in the European parliamentary elections in May (see Table 1). This is succinctly explained by David Runciman:

After the 2017 general election Britain looked like a 40:40:20 nation. The two main parties had more than four-fifths of the vote between them, fairly evenly divided, and the prize would go to whoever could peel off a few more of the rest, which included Lib Dems, Greens, nationalists, Ukippers and others. Just two years on, at least for the moment, Britain has become a 20:20:20:20:20 nation. Support for the two main parties has more or less halved after they each conspicuously failed to do what many of their 2017 supporters wanted—either failed to deliver Brexit or failed to stop it. Two other parties—the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems—currently offer a home for anyone who thinks that either delivering Brexit or stopping it is the only thing that matters. So now the game has changed. The prize will go to whoever can turn their 20 back into anything resembling the vote share of two years ago. It doesn’t have to be 40—35, maybe even 30, will do, so long as they get it more quickly than the other side can manage.18

The prolonged Brexit impasse has fragmented the electorate. In May, both the Tories and Labour found themselves running way behind Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party, the Lib Dems and, in the Tories’ case, the Greens. By ­nailing the banner of hard Brexit to his mast, Johnson hopes to win back the Tory voters May lost to Farage and also failed to pick up some of the pro-Leave Labour voters she tried, largely unsuccessfully, to court in June 2017. Hence his efforts to secure an election date as close as possible to the 31 October departure day so that he can either pose as the hero who got Britain out of the EU or denounce Labour and its allies for blocking this outcome. A fragmented electorate can produce perverse results in the first past the post electoral system. It is on this basis that Johnson’s supporters are predicting he could win a hundred-seat majority with what would probably be a historically low share of the popular vote.

Table 1: Results of European Parliamentary Elections, May 2019

Source: https://election-results.eu/national-results/united-kingdom/2019-2024/


Share of vote (percentage)

Brexit Party


Lib Dems










Change UK




Plaid Cymru


Behind this electoral calculus lies a larger plan to remake the British party system. How much this is Johnson’s plan or that of his chief adviser, the political technologist Dominic Cummings, architect of the 2016 Leave referendum campaign, is secondary. But certainly Cummings expresses a genuinely populist hostility to the ­elitism of the British political system alongside various half-baked ideas about reforming the state. In any case the idea is that the Brexit crisis is polarising the electorate around attitudes towards Britain and the EU. According to this analysis, the choice of Leave or Remain, a secondary matter for most people at the time of the referendum, is becoming the basis of political identities. This is supported by research led by John Curtice, which found that “voters are far more likely to declare a Brexit identity than they are to say that they have a party identity”, and that this identification makes them more likely to vote and strongly affects their attitudes on the various issues thrown up by the struggle to leave the EU.19 So if the Tories capture the loyalty of the Leavers they can see off Farage and remake their political base.

The logic of this strategy is to begin to transform the Tories into something closer to a far-right party like the Lega in Italy or even the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany than mainstream centre-right parties such as the Christian Democrats under Angela Merkel (in fact the Continental centre right is itself moving rightwards in an effort to stave off the challenge from the far right: witness, for example, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s on-off alliance with the fascist Freedom Party, or the rebranding of Les Républicains in France around Islamophobia and defence of traditional “family values”). Certainly some of the main things the Johnson government has done—trying to scrap free movement for EU citizens as soon as Britain leaves, purging pro-EU Tory rebels, including grandees such as Ken Clarke, playing fast and loose with the prerogative, scorning the Supreme Court and the House of Commons—can be seen as more than opportunistic ploys, as steps towards remaking the Tories.

If this strategy succeeded, British politics would start to resemble US politics for the past few decades, in which the fundamental socio-economic contradictions are displaced onto a bitter and personalised struggle within the political elite over issues that leave these contradictions in place. How well it would serve the interests of capital to have a Tory Party defined primarily by the break with the EU is another matter. One of the features of the present period, as noted in previous issues of this journal, is that the long-term effects of the 2007-8 crash have included a political crisis involving a loosening of the links between base and superstructure.20

It’s an open question whether this situation is sustainable for long. But it’s interesting how little the far right, when they get into office, has done to challenge the neoliberal economic regime against some of whose effects they campaigned in opposition: witness how the Lega and allies in the Five Star Movement caved in to Brussels’s demands to maintain budget discipline when in government together. (The main, and very important, exception is Trump’s pursuit of a trade war with China.) The Tories under Johnson are extravagant in their championing of the free market. This must be some comfort for business leaders roiled by Brexit but queasy about the possibility of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn.

Breaking out of the impasse

Focusing on the more immediate political struggle, we should be clear that, despite Johnson’s multiple institutional defeats, it’s the Tories (or perhaps more precisely the ruling Tory faction) who are on the front foot. They are clear about what they want—a general election in which they brand the other parties as saboteurs of the Brexit people voted for in June 2016. So too are the Lib Dems, whose new leader Jo Swinson is trying to make them the Remainer party by pledging to revoke Article 50, ie to stop Brexit without another referendum.

It is the Labour Party who are neither clear nor on the front foot. Corbyn’s instinct to try to finesse the Leave/Remain divide by focusing on essentially class issues—­austerity, economic insecurity and inequality, the decay of the welfare state—was ­basically sound. The problem is that his voice has been muffled by the din made by the campaign—driven by Tom Watson and other leading figures in the Shadow Cabinet—for Labour to become a pro-Remain party. Corbyn has resisted this, both because it contradicts his basic strategy and because it would drive the Labour supporters who voted Leave into the arms of Johnson and Farage. But he hasn’t been helped by the fact that key allies such as John McDonnell have joined the pro-Remain camp.

So there has been a drip-drip-drip of concessions, and an increasing ­tendency to block with the pro-Remain parties (in particular the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists) and the pro-European Tory rebels, for example, in frustrating Johnson’s demands for a general election. This is politically dangerous for two reasons. First of all, the Lib Dems in particular are no real allies. Swinson and her predecessor Vince Cable have been very open in their hostility to the idea of a Corbyn government—even as a stopgap in the event of Johnson being forced to resign. Secondly, and more fundamentally, allying with the neoliberal centre over Brexit makes it easier for the Tories to portray themselves, absurdly, as outsiders whose efforts to fulfil the will of the people are being blocked by the establishment. Labour’s traditional reverence for the institutions of the British state, what Tom Nairn once called “the ideological subservience of Labourism to parliamentary necromancy”, makes it easier for Johnson & Co to portray it as part of this establishment.21

Maybe, when there is an election, Corbyn and his supporters can repeat what they achieved during the election campaign in June 2017 and shift the debate from Brexit to class. McDonnell has been building a programme of solid economic reforms, more of which were unveiled at the Labour Party conference last month—a Green New Deal with 2030 as the deadline for a net zero carbon economy, a 32-hour working week in the next ten years, free personal care. In advance of the conference, the Financial Times ran a series of articles in which it scared itself and its readers about the prospect of a Corbyn government. It quotes a “business lobbyist”:

Whenever we hold events I always ask, “what are you more worried about, a Corbyn government or a no-deal Brexit?”… Now the universal answer is Corbyn… “I would be worried about Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Seumas Milne, they don’t give a fuck about the City of London,” says one senior Labour figure. “I think a lot of money would be shifted out on day one. There are a lot of people who are worried about the future financial security of the City”.22

This, then, is another ingredient in the mix—the possibility that the Brexit crisis might produce a left-wing Labour government committed to breaking with neoliberal austerity. The polls don’t look good for such a prospect, since they have consistently given the Tories a lead since Johnson took over. But then they looked pretty bad for Labour in 2017. The Labour vote rose from a projected national vote of 27 percent in the local elections on 4 May to 40 percent in the general election on 8 June.

Repeating this looks tough but not impossible. The political scientist Matthew Goodwin wrote recently:

Many of [Labour’s] radical policies are more popular than people think. A new poll of a nationally representative sample of British voters for UnHerd Insight confirms a trend of ongoing and strong public support of nationalisation. Overall, 55 percent of all voters said that they supported the nationalisation of water, 52 percent supported the nationalisation of electricity and 51 percent felt the same way about gas. Remarkably, 60 percent supported the re-nationalisation of rail. Among Labour voters the figures were much higher: More than 70 percent supported putting utilities back into the public sector and more than 80 percent wanted the same for rail networks.

Such numbers reflect the large numbers of Brits who perceive the economic system as rigged in favour of the rich, and who are incredibly pessimistic about their economic prospects. In the shadow of the financial crisis and austerity, they feel squeezed by low growth, the rising cost of living and often have no direct memory of earlier decades, when key industries were controlled by the state.

Nor is nationalisation the only part of Labour’s radical agenda that enjoys fairly widespread public support… For example, large majorities support a battery of policies that Corbyn will offer at the looming general election, including: Capping rent prices at the rate of inflation, increasing income taxes for the top 5 percent of earners, requiring businesses to reserve a proportion of seats on their boards for workers, scrapping university tuition fees, ensuring that at least 60 ­percent of Britain’s heat and electricity come from low-carbon or renewable sources by 2030, and re-nationalising utilities like energy and water.23

These figures help to explain why Johnson talked about “levelling up” at the Tory party conference and why his chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid is turning on the spending tap. They understand that Corbyn is a real electoral threat. Turning the polls round again would require a very determined effort by the Corbynistas to mount mass agitation in support of their programme, willing Labour to get past the Brexit impasse and project a real alternative to the Tories. This campaign would have to overcome very intense media attacks and the usual sabotage by the Labour right, who will no doubt be reviving their farcical but damaging accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn. And if Labour did manage to tip enough of a fragmented electorate their way to win office, all this would soon seem in retrospect the easy part, as the new government sought to navigate the storm of opposition that would come from capital, the EU and the state itself, quite possibly amid the new global recession, signs of which are accumulating.24

The fate of such a government would depend crucially on its ability to ­mobilise mass support from below. A paradox of Corbyn’s advance has been that, in the very hopes it has raised, it has encouraged people to wait for a Labour government. The resulting passivity has been encouraged by trade union leaders who always use the prospect of Labour in office as a substitute for actually doing their job and organising strikes. The problem has been exacerbated by the bitter divisions on the radical left over Brexit. The impasse in Westminster has also played a part, since it has turned the citizen mass into mere spectators of the frenzied manoeuvres in the House of Commons.

But now we are experiencing a revival of mass movements that originates outside the Brexit drama, or indeed the conventional parameters of the labour movement. This is, of course, the movement against climate change. Over the past year we have seen this swelling in scale—from the initial school strikes, through the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests that paralysed central London in April, to the global climate strikes on 20 and 27 September. 20 September in Britain was notable both for its national scale, perhaps the biggest wave of countrywide protests since the height of the movement against the Iraq War, and for significant trade union involvement (including official endorsement from the TUC).

Buoyant though the protests have been, they unfold beneath the shadow of a process of climate change, evidence of whose acceleration is building up ­alarmingly.25 That shadow became literal in August, when the fires in the Amazon brought darkness at noon to the Sao Paulo megalopolis 2790km to its south. This ecological catastrophe also highlighted the political struggle over the environment, with Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro giving the green light to the destroyers of the Amazon. Elsewhere in this issue Eduardo Albuquerque and Cláudia Feres Faria argue that his presidency represents the drive to break down the political ­barriers to a new, more predatory version of capitalism that seeks to profit from the destruction of nature. Greta Thunberg’s denunciation of world leaders at the United Nations on 23 September has made the political ­polarisation visible at the global level.

So XR is completely right to proclaim a climate emergency, as the blind process of capital accumulation threatens the survival of human civilisation. But the movement of which it is part is at its very early stages. It has taken giant steps forward in the past year, as the fear of catastrophe has ceased simply to paralyse and become a stimulus to action. But halting climate change requires an immense global transformation, the radical reorientation of the world economy with vast implications for how we live. The barriers this faces are even greater than those that would confront a reforming Labour government in Britain. Everyone participating in this movement will undergo an immense and testing learning process.

Every socialist worth their salt should get involved in this movement. We have things to contribute—understanding of capitalist economic mechanisms, experience of past struggles and their lessons, organisation and the skills it requires. But we also have a huge amount to learn—from those who initiated these movements, who don’t come from the conventional left, but also because we will all have to work out together how to take the struggle forward. There will be plenty of arguments over strategy and tactics along the way, but, if handled sensibly, they can be productive.

In all probability, the struggle to halt climate change defines the terrain on which anti-capitalist politics will develop in coming decades. It has the potential to renew a radical left badly damaged by the defeats and disappointments of the recent past. In the more immediate short term, the positive response that Corbyn and McDonnell have made to the climate protests and Labour’s ­adoption of a 2030 zero carbon target could help strengthen their own project.

But we can’t lose sight in all this of the necessity of opposing the far right. Bolsonaro’s fiddling as the Amazon burns, like Trump’s climate denial, dramatises the connection between the different struggles. In Britain, we face the more immediate threat that Johnson’s power grab threatens to drag the whole political scene sharply to the right. Contrary to fond dreams of Remainers who see the EU as a bastion of progressive values, this will make British politics more like those in continental Europe, where the far right is a well-established electoral force in many countries. Witness the extraordinary decision of the incoming president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to appoint a commissioner responsible for “Protecting the European Way of Life” by ­enforcing tighter immigration controls.

This means that campaigning against racism and fascism remains essential. There are, of course, connections with the climate struggle, as floods, drought, and desertification drive people in the Global South from their homes. The advance of the far right continues—witness the successes the AfD has enjoyed in recent state elections. Building Stand Up to Racism and its counterparts elsewhere will be even more important in future. In Britain, defending free movement for EU citizens remains vital.

Shamefully some on the radical left find sophisticated pseudo-Marxist arguments to oppose what Lenin called “freedom of migration”.26 They point, for example, to the fact that freedom of movement is one of the EU’s “four freedoms” (the others are of capital, goods and services) that underpin the Single Market; but this freedom is denied those from outside Europe, as von der Leyen has underlined in seeking to strengthen the EU’s borders.

This is true enough, but this doesn’t alter the fact that, when Britain finally leaves the EU, over 3 million workers here will lose the rights and the security they enjoyed the day before. This will make the working class in Britain weaker, not stronger. From a class perspective, defending free movement is a no-brainer. The Labour Party conference understood this when it voted in support of free movement; how sad it was to hear as principled an anti-racist as Diane Abbott say that Labour in office will use free movement as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the EU.27

There is a thread running through all these different fronts in the struggle. We are confronting a system whose crisis is taking increasingly destructive forms and that is more and more trying to set us against each other. The task of ­socialists is to build a fighting solidarity of workers and the oppressed that unites us all against our common enemy.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism.


1 Verhofstadt, 2019. Thanks to Joseph Choonara and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

2 Suskind, 2004.

3 Barber, 2019.

4 Khan and Brunsden, 2019.

5 Münchau, 2019. See Callinicos, 2019c, pp420-422.

6 Norfield, 2019. Norfield originally put Britain at number two, reflecting Britain’s leading role in international banking (for example, Norfield, 2016, chapter 5). But placing it behind China, as he now does, seems more realistic.

7 Stafford and Szalay, 2019.

8 Tooze, 2018.

9 One great advantage of the backstop for the EU is that Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has said that Congress won’t support a free trade deal with Britain unless the border between the north of Ireland and the Republic is guaranteed to stay open, supporting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement; this gives Brussels added leverage.

10 Callinicos, 2015.

11 The constitutional issues involved in joining the European Economic Community and leaving the EU are thoroughly aired in Bradley, Ewing, and Knight, 2018, chapter 6.

12 See the detailed analysis in Callinicos, 2019a.

13 For example, Benn, 1982, chapter 1.

14 Supreme Court, 2019, pp20, 21, 24.

15 This process of judicial law-making is theorised in Ronald Dworkin in Law’s EmpireDworkin, 1986. As a liberal political and legal philosopher, Dworkin interprets it as fundamentally consensual, but his account of the interaction between higher-order political principles and legal precedent in judicial decision-making is compelling.

16 Griffith, 1977, pp189-192.

17 Griffith, 1977, p214. Moreover, as Michael Wilkinson points out, the judgement, while defending parliamentary sovereignty, says nothing about “parliament’s accountability to the people and the principle of popular sovereignty”—Wilkinson, 2019.

18 Runciman, 2019.

19 Curtice, 2018 (quote from p7).

20 For example, Callinicos, 2019a.

21 Nairn, 1964, p59.

22 Pickard and Shrimsley, 2019.

23 Goodwin, 2019.

24 Choonara, 2019.

25 Callinicos, 2019b.

26 Lenin, 1972, p89.

27 Rodgers, 2019.


Barber, Tony, 2019, “EU Foresees a US-UK Axis after Brexit”, Financial Times (19 September), www.ft.com/content/e9fb41e6-dad1-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17?fbclid=IwAR3xeUeZL4Ifmndr9J_YBSyRZeRfn-ak0hsNKMNrgdVO37RAt61nzxoqR-Q

Benn, Tony, 1982, Arguments for Democracy (Penguin).

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Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “And Now the British Question”, International Socialism 147 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/and-now-the-british-question/

Callinicos, Alex, 2019a, “Shambling towards the Precipice”, International Socialism 162 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/shambling-towards-the-precipice/

Callinicos, Alex, 2019b, “Betting on Infinite Loss”, International Socialism 163 (summer), http://isj.org.uk/betting-on-infinite-loss/

Callinicos, Alex, 2019c, “Brexit and the Imperial Constitution of Europe”, in Nanopoulos, Eva, and Fotis Vergis (eds), The Crisis behind the Eurocrisis: The Eurocrisis as a Multidimensional Systemic Crisis of the EU (Cambridge University Press).

Choonara, Joseph, 2019, “Economic Warnings”, Socialist Review (October), http://socialistreview.org.uk/450/economic-warnings

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