CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
A year ago Britain voted to exit the European Union. And many progressives failed to understand it. They castigated the British – in particular the English and Welsh working classes. Progressives vilified those who had the temerity to reject Brussels. Anyone who wanted to leave the EU was deemed to be a racist, a caveman, an irrational nationalist and even a drunk fool.
However today – exactly one year later – after the performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent British election, progressives everywhere are excited and optimistic about the British voters. Some are even talking about a “soft” Brexit or even no Brexit. But does this mood swing among progressives – one year they see Hitler and the next they see Jesus – make sense? Has Britain changed so much in a year? Or are progressives completely misreading Britain’s electorate? Did all those immigrant-haters suddenly disappear or were they even there in the first place?
Britain didn’t change itself in the last year. The recent election which unexpectedly halted the march of the Tories complemented rather than contradicted the vote to leave the European Union. Corbyn’s success was based upon an anti-austerity argument. He was giving the British an alternative not just to the Tory vision of society but also to the EU vision of Europe. He was explicitly trying to end the neoliberal nonsense which has traumatised the many and enriched the few. And by doing so he was moving Britain further away from the EU – rather than closer to it.
If the British grasped the horror of austerity this year, isn’t it possible that they grasped the horror of austerity last year when they voted for Brexit? Considering the fact that “the EU” is short hand for “fanatical austerity”, it’s reasonable to assume that the British rejection of the EU last year was based on the fear of austerity rather than on the fear of immigrants.
If the hatred of immigration was the driving force of the Brexit vote last year then it would have manifested itself again in this year’s general election. But it didn’t. On the contrary it disappeared from view. The only political party that made immigration a big issue in recent years – UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) – was destroyed in the recent election. This suggests that immigration was and is a superficial issue amongst the British electorate.
In hindsight it’s fair to conclude that the real issue last year was not immigrants but the EU itself – in particular it’s brutal austerity policies – policies which the British Tories have embraced wholeheartedly for years. The British voters responded negatively to these policies not just this year but also last year. That’s the only realistic lesson we can draw from these two dramatic British votes. The common thread is the rational dislike of the austerity practiced both in the EU and UK.
Progressives were therefore wrong to viciously criticise the vote for Brexit last year. They were fooled by a mainstream media that downplayed the austerity policies of the EU – which they (the media) agreed with – while exaggerating the fear of immigrants. Progressives completely missed the positive left wing meaning of the Brexit vote (John Pilger and Tariq Ali are the exceptions) – something which can be clearly discerned today.
And what about the British youth – the ones who love Corbyn and at the same time supposedly love the EU? After the vote for Brexit, it was argued that Britain’s old fashioned elders had betrayed Britain’s young Europhiles. However in the general election the youth voted overwhelmingly for an end to austerity. Again – how can it be claimed that a youth which objects to austerity in the UK wants to belong -at the same time – to a European organisation that celebrates permanent austerity? Either the youth are mad or their political desire has been consistently misrepresented in the mainstream media (like everything else) and is only now clearly asserting itself.
The derailment of the Tory bandwagon doesn’t mean the derailment of Brexit but the derailment of austerity in Britain. This rightly encourages progressives everywhere yet some of these progressives continue paradoxically to support a European Union which has locked itself into a neoliberal-austerity straightjacket. This contradiction within the progressive mind is masked by the belief that the EU is a barrier to racism or what some misleadingly call “nationalism”. And so anyone who opposes the EU is seen as a racist or a narrow minded right wing “nationalist” even though the EU itself is deepening inequality and therefore social and national hatred throughout the continent.
Blinded by this fake fight (fake because the fight isn’t fought) against “nazi race-hatred”, progressives can’t see the all encompassing class-hatred that forms the essential core of the EU and which actually spawns – among other hellish things – racism. The irony is that those who love the EU because of it’s “anti-racist” (“anti-nazi” or “anti-nationalist”) credentials have ended up supporting a fanatically austere regime that promotes the social divisions (as well as the international divisions) that are the foundation stone of racism. And war.
The votes for Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn were both positively anti-systemic. Progressives got the meaning of the second vote but misunderstood the first. In general that misunderstanding was a case of the people or the working classes being way ahead of the political class. No sign of this has been greater than the gap between the people and the mainstream media. After ridiculing Brexit and Corbyn the media – in the light of the results of the last year – now barely have any ground to stand on. That’s because the media represent the “politically correct neoliberal class” and nothing more. The battle lines are clear and solid for the people however. And they’re on the terrain of class rather than race.
Britain’s racists do exist nonetheless.
And at this moment they’re propping up Theresa May’s minority government. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from the north east of Ireland are “Ireland’s Israelis”. And now they’re Britain’s kingmakers. For a long time the British habit has been to export it’s troublemaking racists. It’s gunmen and colonisers have traveled and settled all over the world and many only got as far as Ireland. And now – irony of ironies- they’re settling into 10 Downing Street for what looks like a last stand.
The DUP actually did vote for Brexit for racist reasons (they hate the Irish). This is what Ireland has to live with. The question now is: will Corbyn and Britain’s youth live with it? If they’re both serious about beating austerity Corbyn and his youthful army will beat the racist DUP too. Brexit will make Corbyn’s fight easier because he will not have to feign unity with colonial racists. The ambiguous progressives though are another matter.