One year ago, on 12 December, the Tory Party won a shock landslide victory in the 2019 general election. Promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Boris Johnson and the Tories secured 43.6% of the vote, providing them with an 80 seat majority in Parliament.
Commentators on both the right and the left predicted that the new Johnson government would be unchallengeable; that the Prime Minister would go down in history as a leader who transformed the landscape of British politics forever.
Fast forward 12 months, and British capitalism is now hovering over a chasm, facing a perfect storm of Brexit, disease, and sharp economic collapse. But this crisis will not be short lived. It is only the beginning of a protracted and deep crisis of the system.
This, in turn, is tearing the supposedly ‘strong and stable’ Tory government apart. And Boris Johnson is due to be remembered in the history books for very different reasons – as the PM who oversaw a car crash Brexit, a fatally bungled pandemic response, and (very possibly) a breakup of the United Kingdom.
As we predicted a year ago, the crisis of capitalism is exposing all the contradictions implicit within the situation, revealing Johnson’s government to be a “colossus with feet of clay”, and showing that this seemingly formidable Tory majority has “dynamite built into its foundations”.
And with the crisis only set to intensify and deepen, explosive events and sharp class struggles lie ahead.
Given the weakness of British capitalism, the collapse of the economy due to the coronavirus crisis has been greater than any of the G7 countries.
Brexit – a mad idea in regards to the interests of big business – is simply compounding the crisis, cutting off British capitalism from free access to the Single Market and the Customs Union.
The looming possibility of a no-deal Brexit terrifies the dominant wing of the capitalist class. At this stage, even a negotiated deal would be limited, and would still seriously injure the bosses’ profits. Such self-harm is going to do untold damage to British capitalism, disrupting trade and supply chains with Europe, which had been responsible for nearly 50% of British exports.
But the crisis of British capitalism did not begin with Brexit or the pandemic. In reality, British capitalism has been in decline for more than 100 years, undergoing an “inglorious and slow decay”, as Karl Marx once described the demise of Spain.
The Brexit catastrophe will exacerbate and accelerate the decline of British capitalism. Talk of Britain being set free to conquer markets across the world is a nonsensical pipedream, which will become evident very soon.
In the past, Marxist perspectives were predicated on the idea that the ruling class and its political representatives would follow its own class interests. There would be rational thought behind their decisions. But this is not now the case.
The ruling clique governing Britain is acting in the most irrational manner. They have completely degenerated, becoming intoxicated with their own nationalist propaganda. This is completely delusional. They are like lemmings heading over a cliff. It reminds you of the last days of the Roman Empire – but in this case the last days of a political minnow.
The Brexit lunacy – with slogans such as “take back control” and “winning our freedom” – has been ardently championed by Boris Johnson and the Tory Party.
This once distinguished bourgeois party has been taken over by reactionary fools. The British Conservative Party was the most successful in Europe, if not the world. But that was long ago.
To the horror of big business, it has been transformed into a narrow English Eurosceptic party; a Brexit party in all but name, dominated by the most backward and inept types.
This process of degeneration was heralded by Thatcher, but consummated under Boris Johnson and his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.
David Cameron aptly described the ranks of the party as “swivel-eyed loonies”. In more recent decades, this rabble has been allowed to choose the party leader. This has resulted in the most inept and politically bankrupt Tory government in history, led by a clique of ultra-Brexiteers with a political buffoon as their king.
It is also a graphic illustration of how the ruling class has effectively lost control over the party that it has traditionally ruled through. A similar process has developed in the United States, with Trump conquering and refashioning the Republican Party in his own image, to the horror of the American ruling class.
Coups and cliques
The ruling class has been struggling to regain control of events. Within the Tory Party, they clearly orchestrated the ‘coup’ against Cummings and the clique around him who controlled 10 Downing Street.
These mavericks were a law unto themselves. Cummings and his Vote Leave supporters rode roughshod over everything, to the alarm of the capitalist establishment.
This squalid episode exposed the cesspit at the very top of the British state, revealing the regime of terror that has been operating at the centre of government. This was led by a coterie of fanatical Brexiteers with whom Johnson had surrounded himself.
With them gone or somewhat sidelined, the bourgeois hoped to reassert their control. But there is still a way to go in achieving this aim, given the degeneration of the Tory Party.
Over decades, the British bourgeois has presided over a steep decline in the fortunes and power of British capitalism, which has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.
With Brexit, the UK has been further reduced to an unimportant power on the fringes of Europe, lacking a ‘special relationship’ with the United States or anyone else.
All the bleating about ‘Great Britain’, liberated from the shackles of the EU, ready to conquer the markets of the world, is so much delirium. The British establishment and its Tory representatives suffer from chronic delusions of grandeur, which have no basis in reality.
The ‘special relationship’ with the USA – the relationship between a dog and his master – has been undermined with the new Biden presidency. As a result, there will be no quick trade deal with Washington. Biden has already warned Johnson about Brexit, and will be more interested in dealing with Europe directly.
There have been loud squeals from big business over Brexit. But the Johnson government has refused to listen to such complaints by the CBI and others. In many areas, the bosses have been kept in the dark – in particular regarding matters vital to their interests.
There has been no clarity around the UK’s future trading relations with Europe. Business leaders have been pulling their hair out as the government lurches from one disaster to another. They live in dread as Britain sets sail in these stormy waters captained by a government deaf to their needs.
Splits and factions
It is clear that this Tory government is about to come down to earth with a bang as the economy – far from recovering – experiences further decline. British ports are already congested, and this is before the chaos begins on 1 January 2021.
This could not have come at a worse time. Even now, the pressures and tensions at the heart of the government have resulted in a series of abrupt U-turns: from exam grading to free school meals.
The Johnson government has all the features of a government of crisis, despite having a comfortable 80 seat majority. It has even been forced to rely upon Labour votes to get through some of its legislation.
The government is being buffeted by events. The Tory Party, meanwhile, is plagued with splits and factionalism, expressed in a mushrooming of new backbench ‘groups’ – from the infamous and established European Research Group, to the newly-formed China Research Group, Northern Research Group, and anti-lockdown COVID Recovery Group.
This government will therefore go down in history as the most inept and most hated government on record.
The government and ruling class are terrified at the prospect of mass unemployment and the social upheavals that come from it. Hardship and discontent is already rising everywhere. There will not be any ‘levelling up’ for the North or anywhere else. The billionaires and the Tory government’s cronies, meanwhile, are getting richer out of the crisis.
There is fear and even panic amongst Tory MPs in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats, who are beginning to feel the pressure. As expected, these left-behind areas will be the hardest hit of all.
We can add a further twist to this scenario: the possible break of the United Kingdom, with the prospect of Scotland and even the north of Ireland breaking away.
A consistent majority are now in favour of Scottish independence, which the Tories are desperately trying to block. This could lead to a Catalan-style situation.
In May, the SNP will take a big majority of the vote and seats in the Holyrood elections, campaigning on the issue of independence. A vicious Tory government in Westminster – with an English nationalist as PM who believes that devolution has been a “disaster” – will only intensify the desire for independence.
The middle ground has evaporated. The likes of Gordon Brown have begged Scots to remain within the Union. The Scottish Labour Party, which opposes an Indyref2, has been marginalised. The pro-Unionist consensus has fallen apart. The Labour ‘left’ are part of this unholy alliance, which reveals their impotence.
The support for independence will only rise. If the Tories refuse to grant a new referendum, support will increase even further. This could lead to constitutional clashes. The ruling class will be desperate to hold onto the union and will do everything in its power to subvert the will of the Scottish people.
As Marxists, we stand for the right of nations to self-determination. But independence on a capitalist basis is also no solution to the problems facing workers and youth in Scotland. Instead, we must fight for the idea of a Scottish Workers’ Republic, linked to a socialist federation of these islands, and to a Socialist United States of Europe.
Attacks on workers
Throughout Britain, the giant monopolies and banks are now beginning to shed labour at an alarming rate. The removal of the furlough system will have a massive impact on the working class.
Small businesses, meanwhile, are being crushed and driven out of business. Many have lost everything and are struggling to make ends meet.
And following a decade of cuts to real wages, workers are set to face even greater pressures on pay.
“When job openings are scarce, as they are now, workers’ leverage dissolves,” stated Heidi Shierholz from the Economic Policy Institute. “Employers simply don’t have to pay as well when they know workers don’t have outside options.”
Others are concerned about the impact on the economy as spending is reduced, further undermining demand.
“A protracted period of high unemployment and underemployment with an army of discouraged workers waiting on the sidelines, threatens the recovery,” said David Page, economist at Axa Investment Managers, “as it would hold back wage growth, household incomes and spending.”
Debts and deficits
The pandemic has claimed over 60,000 lives in Britain. Despite the rollout of a vaccine, COVID is still present and the pandemic crisis is not over by a long way. And we will feel the effects for a long time, as the bourgeois economists talk about the ‘scarring’ of the economy. It is entirely possible there will be repeated waves of the pandemic and further lockdowns of the economy.
The Tory government, which has spent billions of pounds bailing out the capitalist system, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Billions have been paid out to private pharmaceutical companies to come up with a vaccine. And billions more have been paid for PPE to companies to supply ineffective equipment.
The government has also been forced to pay furlough wages and employment support. More and more people are out of work and on state benefits. And at a time when government expenditure is soaring, income from tax revenue is in decline.
The budget deficit is set to balloon to £400 billion this year, a figure never experienced in peacetime. In comparison, in 2008, the deficit was £150 billion. This ushered in a decade of austerity.
The next period will be much harsher than ever before. Public debt has rocketed to over £2 trillion, more than 100% GDP – that is, more than what we produce in a whole year. And this is set to increase further in the coming months.
And who is going to pay for all this? As before, the working class is being asked to pay the bill. Following on from a decade of wage cuts, more wage cuts are on the cards.
Already it has been announced that public sector pay will be frozen, apart from a few exceptions. Services will be drastically cut and taxes will be increased – especially indirect taxes that fall on the poorest sections.
With the deepest crisis for 300 years, the scale of the attacks will be like nothing we have seen before. Rishi Sunak has already stated that it is incumbent on him as Tory chancellor to “balance the books”.
Bourgeois strategists are calling for this to at least be delayed until the economy is back on its feet. But such a recovery is ruled out any time soon, if at all, especially with the consequences of Brexit.
In the past, governments have traditionally got the painful measures in first, so as to prepare the ground for another election. The COVID crisis has already pushed this strategy off course. The first year has already gone. The second year and third years will be needed to repair the finances. The austerity cannot be delayed further if they are to have any hope of reelection in 2024.
They will try to avoid the word ‘austerity’. But a rose by any other name smells as sweet. They can call it what they like, but the pain will be the same.
The social fabric of British society is being steadily ripped apart. Any idea of ‘stability’ has come to an abrupt end. We are facing a return to Dickensian conditions, as millions are forced out of work.
Already 15.2 million are living below the poverty line, and the figure is rising. Families are going without meals to feed their children. Millions are destitute. Six million are presently on Universal Credit.
When the furlough scheme ends in March, huge numbers will join those already thrown onto the scrapheap. Benefits were temporarily increased, but will soon be stopped. Others will be faced with eviction, joining those who are already forced to sleep rough in temporary accommodation or on the streets.
Through decades of cuts and privatisation, there has been a massive rolling back of the welfare state. In 2010, public spending was 42% of GDP. Today, it is 35%.
Local authorities have had their budgets slashed. They are now totally dependent on local business rates and council tax for income. With these sources of revenue falling, especially in the poorest areas, councils are facing bankruptcy. The latest example of this is Croydon.
This will be repeated all around the country, leading to essential services being slashed and workers sacked and wages and conditions cut.
In Tower Hamlets, faced with a financial crisis, the Labour council sacked its workforce and rehired them on worse terms and conditions. This policy of ‘fire and rehire’ has become increasingly widespread. A similar fate now awaits workers at Croydon council. As in Tower Hamlets, this will lead to industrial action by the workforce.
Given this crisis at all levels, we are facing the prospect of unprecedented turmoil and class conflict in the coming months and years. The Johnson government, engulfed by crises and splits, could easily be toppled.
In Britain and internationally, we are entering uncharted waters. A new chapter of revolutionary events is opening up before us. We must urgently build the forces of Marxism and rise to the challenges that lie ahead.