Brexit & the British Working Class

3 February 2020 — Economics of Imperialism

Much has been written on Brexit, stage 1 of which occurred on 31 January. But a key point has been ignored: the UK’s departure from the European Union is due to a reactionary revolt by the British (mainly English) working class. This went against the established policy of the political elites, bourgeoisie, ruling class – call them what you want – and will lead to many problems. As such, it represents the first time in very many decades that the ‘popular will’ of a vote has contradicted capitalist business interests. However, this is no reason for socialists to be happy.

In the UK parliament, most MPs were in favour of remaining in the EU. Yet they had to watch their backs and worry about the people who had elected them: 52% of the UK electorate had voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and, more importantly, 64% of Parliamentary constituencies had done so. The biggest bloc of ‘Leave’ voters was in England. To show this was not a one-off decision, English voters rallied to the Conservatives and their ‘Get Brexit Done!’ slogan in December’s General Election. A survey showed that more than half of working class votes in Britain were for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. As a result, the Conservatives now have the largest majority in Parliament since 1987.

It was no surprise that the Brexit issue dominated the General Election, since it has featured in all UK political discussion for years. Pro-Brexit sentiment grew in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when British workers complained about the squeeze on their living standards. They did not blame capitalism, or even UK government policies. For many, the culprit was the EU, and especially the migration of workers from the EU that was seen as putting pressure on jobs, housing and social services.[1] In 2016, when Brexiters chanted ‘Take Back Control’, what they meant was control of EU immigration. This could be done only by leaving the EU.

This factor helped build a successful political alliance between a large section of the British working class and other longstanding critics of the EU. The latter were a disparate group. They included Conservative ideologues, those nostalgic for the days of Empire and who wanted to see ‘Great Britain’ operating more freely in the world, some business people who were annoyed at EU market regulations, and even some on the left who saw the EU as an evil capitalist plot and dreamed of a more British-inspired (!) set of international relations. These diverse forces only gained political momentum once the British (English) working class joined them.[2]

The Social Contract

Working class support for Brexit was a protest. But it was a protest against how they thought the British state was not doing enough to protect them – against immigration and the pressure on living standards. So, economic arguments in favour of staying in the EU had little effect, because they thought that getting out of the EU would encourage the state to help them. The British working class has long had a loyal commitment to the British state. As long as that state offered some economic and social protection, it would not cause too much trouble. It was a kind of ‘social contract’. The immigration question became important in this context because it helps to identify the national, British-based working class as the legitimate recipient of state assistance versus the immigrants (or even refugees) from other countries. In this political outlook, the issue of inadequate housing, jobs and services delivered by capitalism becomes a moan about the supply of housing, jobs and services taken by migrants. In earlier decades, the moan was about blacks and Asians. In the past decade it has been more about white (East) Europeans who had rights to move to the UK under EU labour market rules. By contrast, business opinion in Britain was consistently against Brexit. However, companies had to be careful in their public comments because they did not want to annoy half their customers. It was only in the past year that they warned how Brexit would disrupt supply chains, put important trading relationships at risk and damage investment, but this had little effect on popular opinion. The capitalist enthusiasts for Brexit were few, usually small companies wanting to avoid EU regulations. They, and others, overlooked an inconvenient point that world trade is already divided up among major trading blocs, especially in North America, Europe and Asia. There is no big, free world market to join outside the EU, and the UK will be stepping out of the deals that the EU has already negotiated with other countries.

After Brexit Day on 31 January, at first nothing much will seem to change for the UK. It will be excluded from EU decision-making, and a number of EU-related outlets for British citizens will begin to close down, such as employment and education opportunities. Otherwise, Brits will see most EU-related things going on as normal, probably up to the end of 2020. Even trade with the EU will not change abruptly before then.

Nevertheless, the Brits will still feel able to blame their woes on the EU. The Conservative Government’s objective is to do what it likes after leaving EU membership, but to still have trade access to the EU market as it was before. The remaining 27 countries of the EU cannot agree to this, so there will be many disputes and plenty of room for EU bashing in the forthcoming negotiations. There also remains a ‘divorce bill’ to settle, whereby the UK is liable to pay the EU tens of billions after it cancelled its previous membership commitments.

It is doubtful that the British working class will turn against the Conservative Government as the dream of a bright future outside the EU fades away. It may not take long before their promise of more investment in poor areas of the country is exposed as a fraud, but that does not mean there will be any progressive resistance. Instead, the greater likelihood is that the working class will double down on aggressive nationalism.

Tony Norfield, 3 February 2020

Note: * This is the English version of an article published on 2 February in the Spanish language journal Ideas de Izquierda, together with an article by Michael Roberts, here.


[1] See here for a fuller discussion of the data on EU immigration and the working class response to it.

[2] Just ahead of the 2016 EU referendum, I explained the politics of Brexit, the imperialist ‘social contract’ and the working class Brexit vote in more detail here.

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