We are posting the following two articles on the Brexit. The first by Steve Freeman, posted on the Republican Socialist Network blog, highlights the nature of the constitutional crisis article brought about by Brexit. The second from Socialist Democracy (Ireland) is about the likely political impact of Brexit on Ireland and the illusion that this will pave the way to Irish reunification under the auspices of the Irish Dail and the Northern Irish Stormont.
1. VOTING AGAINST THE TORY DEAL
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland left the European Union in February 2020 with a stay of execution until 31 December 2020. On the 30 December the country faced a dire emergency. Next day the Great Britain would crash out of the Single Market and Customs Union, leaving Northern Ireland in the single market for goods with a EU customs border with the rest of the UK. The only question in doubt is whether there would be the safety net of a trade deal to prevent a crash.
So with no time to work out what was really going on the Commons, Lords were reconvened to rubber stamp the deal and Her Majesty summed to give the royal assent. The ‘Brexit revolution’ (2016-2020) exposed many of the realities of the UK constitution through a series of crises. On the very last day another crisis confronted MPs. Parliament did not have time to properly scrutinise the Deal. It made a mockery of the idea of sovereignty coming back from the EU to parliament and the people. Democratic scrutiny and accountability was a sick joke and a national humiliation.
This was a reminder of another infamous bloody mess when the Commons was allowed to vote on the Iraq war with British tanks already on the Iraq border with their engines revving up. The issue was no longer about war or economic damage but the patriotic duty of MPs to support the Crown in its hour of need. The three pillars of the British constitution are thus ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘rubber stamp’. Starmer duly delivered his MPs to back a rotten Tory deal and overturn the policy in the 2019 Manifesto, which promised the people a democratic right to ratify
The sovereignty of parliament is a fiction because sovereignty is vested in the Crown-In-Parliament, which shares power between the Crown and parliament. The lion’s share of power is in the hands of Ministers of the Crown, especially in the ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ that faced MPs on 30 December. Labour MP Clive Lewis expressed the frustration of many MPs. He said this situation “has shone a light on the deep democratic deficits in our arcane political system” where “power concentrated in the hands of a few, an over-centralised Government evading scrutiny to act in favour of vested interests and impose decisions from the top down”. (Norwich Post Angus Williams 30 December 2020)
Brexit highlighted the divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which had grown out of thirty years of republican struggle by the IRA and Sinn Fein embodied in the Good Friday Agreement (1998). The Withdrawal Agreement reminded the Democratic Unionists of the new reality and forced them to vote against it and against the Trade Deal on constitutional not economic grounds. At the same time, it exposed Scotland’s constitutional subordination to England because unlike Northern Ireland or Gibraltar there was nothing to recognise Scotland’s vote to remain.
The Brexit debacle has been a constitutional revelation for people who have been kept ignorant of the secrets of power. It has exposed a surprised public to the sham or pretence of democracy masquerading behind the ancient façade of the Palace of Westminster. At the eleventh hour neither parliament nor people had any control or indeed real knowledge of what the Crown was imposing. Taking back control was simply restoring the central power of the Crown and exposing more fully the democratic deficit.
The process of leaving the EU was a stress test for UK ‘democracy’. Now at the end of the road it is useful to review the whole process. Final ratification on 30 December was the last step in a three-stage process. The first stage started in parliament and led to the 2016 referendum. We have noted many times the exclusion of millions of resident citizens because it was inconvenient to the Tories to allow them to vote. The 2016 votes triggered the second stage of negotiation, which comprised of two parts, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade Deal. The whole process is completed by the third stage of ratification by parliament and the agreement of the people in a referendum. What began with a people’s vote, handed negotiating rights to the Crown, and must be completed with a people’s vote.
Anything resembling a democratic process ended in a parliamentary farce. Caroline Lucas MP in her Commons speech said, “I believe it was right to campaign for a confirmatory referendum on the terms of any departure”. But she omitted to say along with the Liberal Democrats, Blair, Watson and Starmer they all conspired to split the working class and facilitate Corbyn’s defeat with the divisive slogan of a second referendum. Johnson won, Starmer replaced Corbyn, a second referendum went up in smoke, and Starmer and his MPs voted for a Tory hard Brexit.
In 2016 the Tories opportunistically handed sovereignty over the decision to leave the EU from the state to the people, albeit on a rigged franchise*. ‘Republicanism’ snuck into the constitution for one moment only. The EU referendum adopted the principle of popular sovereignty, which many liberal Tories and Labour, regretted. But they kept the real power to negotiate in the hands of the Crown, the political arm of the City of London, and the ratification to a subservient and supine Parliament, which would always do as it was told especially in a crisis manufactured by the government.
A ratification referendum was thus an important difference between the Johnson Tories and Corbyn Labour at the 2019 general election. Labour manifesto promised a ratification referendum on any deal they made with the EU. This had to apply to the Withdrawal Agreement and any Trade Deal. It was a manifesto commitment Labour should have stood by, continuing to argue for it with reference to good trade union practice. Labour should have opposed any deal that did not pass this democratic test. In the end only one Labour MP voted against it along with the smaller parties demanding constitutional change. That is surely what is now coming down the track.
* “albeit on a rigged franchise” – these words were added for emphasis to the original published on the Voting against the Tory Deal
2. THE IRISH STATE IN EUROPE – A FAIRYTALE ENDING?
The final deal on Brexit has led to an enormous burst of complacency on the part of Irish political parties. It seems that the state has fallen into a cesspit and arisen smelling of roses.
The claim is that a far-sighted administration, with careful strategic planning, has avoided most negative consequences. New routes have opened to Europe, giving direct access to Irish hauliers and avoiding the congestion in Britain. The Irish economy has been booming and is expected to continue growth despite a Brexit hit.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said; “I believe the agreement reached today is the least bad version of Brexit possible, given current circumstances.” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar added; “we have “the best deal possible”. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said that there would be relief that a trade deal has been agreed, but on the other hand there is no good Brexit for Ireland, north or south.
Many saw the last ditch retreat by the British on plans to tear up the legal agreement and institute a hard border between North and South as assuring progress towards a United Ireland.
These views are a perfect illustration of the tension between ideology and reality in Ireland.
The economic illusions reach into the past. At one stage the Irish economy was supposed to have grown by over 25% in one quarter, leading to the widespread use of the term leprechaun economics. It rebounded sharply in the third quarter of 2020, growing by a near record 11.1 per cent, and claiming the highest growth on the globe. The Irish employers’ organisation, IBEC, claims growth of over 5% for 2021.
But many economists view the figures not with excitement, but with incredulity. How can an economy that went bankrupt, that is unable to provide adequate health and housing services, and that still has high levels of sovereign debt, perform so well? The difference between the traditional measures of GDP and GNP are so sharp that another measure, Adjusted Gross National Income, or GNI*, is used instead.
The answer is readily available. It is openly admitted that there are two Irish economies. The booming economy, based on transnational companies subsidised by the state and aimed at Europe, is roaring ahead. The native economy and the public sector, with a large low paid workforce and starved of funds in order to pay sovereign debt and subsidise the transnationals, is largely dependent on the British market, as is the agricultural sector.
This is not sustainable. The economy depends on corporation tax. The rate is much lower than the European rate and is under increasing threat from other EU countries. In the mass of capital influx that produces revenue. In any case the tax now draws financial rather than industrial capital. This creates few jobs and exert unending pressure on the government and the legal system to ensure that society is run for the benefit of imperialism rather than that of the native population.
Brexit means extra costs that will be borne by Irish workers. The costs of Brexit and of the pandemic are being met by cheap money from the European Central Bank. The debt will have to be repaid and the circumstances that would allow this, a genuine capital fund for European expansion, has been rejected by the central power.
The claims that the current debacle is a step towards Irish unity at first sight seem to have more credibility. The border in the Irish sea is clearly a blow to Unionism, as is the majority vote in the North against Brexit. However, the new arrangement is accompanied by non-tariff changes in movement between North and South, such as the need for a green card driving into the South that throws partition into sharp relief. It should be remembered that the British were more than willing to tear up the legal agreement with Europe regarding the border as part of a no-deal Brexit and had to retreat following the Trump defeat in the US. The fantasy of an Irish sea border rests on the final Brexit deal, which continued to be highly unstable.
The problem for Sinn Fein is that they put forward every circumstance as an advance towards a United Ireland. They have to do this because the reality, administration of partition, can never be admitted to. British membership of Europe was an advance towards a United Ireland, but the opposite condition – Brexit, is also a step forward. Aspirational memes are constantly put forward involving a border poll and other shiny objects.
In reality, every concrete situation, the party holds grimly to partition. The Covid-19 crisis is a good example. The case for an All-island approach to the virus was overwhelming, but Sinn Fein deferred to DUP resistance and avoided leading medical figures such as epidemiologist Gabriel Scally, who was pressing for such an approach. They now have the chutzpah to call for an all-island health service in the sweet by and by, while failing completely to put forward concrete measures today. The same propaganda campaign puts as their number one priority support for the EU. Is this the same body that put the Irish state under the control of the troika and insisted on payment of an ongoing sovereign debt?
The Brexit crisis is not to be resolved by picking sides between the imperialist power Britain or the imperialist powers of Europe. Rather it will involve workers opposing the capitalist structure in its entirety and embracing a socialist alternative.
Sinn Fein have already picked their side. The socialist groups are buried in a fog of opportunism. Irish exit from Europe, a left government led by Sinn Fein? They are smothered in confusion.
However, the capitalist forces are also wrapped in chaos. Let us not forget that it was Leo Varadkar that opened the way for Johnson’s victory when he threw away the European backstop guarantee. Their vision of Ireland as an aircraft carrier for US penetration of Europe has no place for working class prosperity or for Irish unity. The preferred capitalist model is for a shared island, indefinitely partitioned.
A fundamental understanding of Marxism is that history is made by people and in struggle rather than by the fortuitous outcome of events. The shock of divergence of the two states in Ireland can foster a drive for Irish unity, as can the anti-Brexit majority in the North and the increased fragility of the British state. However, change will not come automatically, it has to be fought for and the main instrument of struggle lies in building an independent party of the working class.
12th January 2021
This was first posted at:- The Irish state in Europe: a fairytale ending?
From the British Left’s ‘national exceptionalism’ during the ‘IndyRef1’campaign to acting as Left outriders for the UK state during the Brexit campaign – Allan Armstrong