Britain - Nationalist and xenophobic overbidding - the need for a revolutionary workers' party

Jul/Sep 2013

One could be tempted to laugh off the ConDems' rather ridiculous infatuation with little England nationalism. Certainly after hearing Osborne's announcement during his spending review, that he planned to devote some of his precious money to celebrating Wellington's role in defeating the French at Waterloo (in 1815) and the English victory over the French at Agincourt (in 1415!)! Or witnessing Gove's failed attempt to force Winston Churchill onto the primary school curriculum. Or hearing Cameron boasting of having "foiled a French ambush" at a recent EU summit.

But there's far more to this nationalist obsession than meets the eye. And it's not just a question of "ideology", contrary to what is often argued in some liberal and even left circles. Because, as far as nationalism itself goes, the Coalition partners aren't that different from the other parties. They may differ (sometimes) in the language they use, but not in substance: whenever they find it expedient, they all go for the same crass nationalism.

What gives a very different character to these outbursts of nationalism today, is the context in which they are taking place. That is, the capitalist crisis and the on-going attempts by the capitalist class to use it as an opportunity to turn the screw further than ever on the working class.

Since it came to office, the Coalition has been blaming its austerity policies and the on-going fall in living standards, either on the state of affairs left by the previous Labour administration or - increasingly lately - on the turmoil affecting the European Union and, more specifically, on the weakest economies in the euro-zone.

Fairy tales about Britain's "sound fundamentals" have been repeated at nauseam by Coalition ministers - just as they were repeated by the previous Labour administration. As if everyone had forgotten the early days of the crisis, when the implosion of Britain's colossal housing bubble was one of the first cracks heralding the advent of the crisis in Europe, and when Northern Rock was the first bank to collapse, long before US giant, Lehman Brothers brought down, in its trail, the entire world banking system.

The purpose of these fairy tales is, of course, to stress how much better off Britain is, by going it alone - as opposed to being part of the euro-zone and even, possibly, of the European Union. Never mind that this kind of reasoning does not make much sense, since, after all, the largest, richest and most resilient economy in Europe by far - Germany - is part of the euro-zone!

But none of this is meant to be rational, anyway. The whole point - in fact the only point - of the exercise is to cover the backs of the politicians in charge, justify their austerity measures against the working class majority, and justify the bosses' attacks against workers' jobs, wages and conditions, And, last but not least, to conceal the responsibility and parasitism of Britain's very own capitalist class in this gigantic mess.

Who sows the wind...

Scape-goating is, therefore, the name of the politicians' game. And it doesn't take much to go from blaming Europe and the rest of the world for being the source of all of Britain's economic ills, to start pointing at "foreigners", European and otherwise, and especially migrant workers, as being a threat to "Britain", i.e., to the population's living standards. This line has been crossed, not just by the Coalition, but also by Labour, and even by a number of union leaders.

So, we have had the on-going saga of more and more stringent measures being imposed on foreigners coming to Britain, for whatever reason or length of time, especially those coming from the poor countries. Of course, not on all foreigners: the wealthy are always welcome. And even more so, if they plan to make investments in real estate speculation, which a lot do, regardless of the fact that they thus help inflate the new housing bubble, which is turning the lives of millions of households, forced to rent privately, into misery! Meanwhile, the not-so-wealthy, those whose labour and skills could be socially useful in Britain, are treated like dirt and forced to jump through an endless series of hoops in order to gain the "privilege" of a visa. One wonders what the response of these ministers and their wealthy backers would be, if, before their expensive holidays to poor countries like Kenya, South Africa and other safari-lands for rich Europeans, they had first to go through all these "requirements"?

Then we had the horror stories about the "floods" of Romanians and Bulgarians threatening Britain, duly relayed and amplified by the right-wing gutter press, but fully endorsed by Coalition ministers. As it was hard to claim that these European "hordes" would be "invading" Britain because of the attraction of a great job market - since there aren't any decent jobs - Coalition ministers invented "welfare tourism".

According to them, the only reason for these workers to come to Britain is that they can then live on benefits - as if anyone would see this as a "life", given their abysmally low levels! But then of course, this has the advantage of allowing the government to blame some of the benefit cuts on foreigners, even before they have arrived! Osborne made a point of stressing this once again, albeit indirectly, in his spending review speech, by outlining plans to force non-English speaking jobless to take English classes - something they would certainly be willing to do, if only such classes were available. Which is rarely the case, since the free courses offered by local councils have been cut!

Shortly afterwards, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt came up with more of the same, this time announcing the setting up of a system which allows GPs to refuse to treat foreigners who don't have a verifiable National Insurance number. The irony of this is, that apart from the fact that it demands from doctors that they break their Hippocratic oath (to act in the best interests of their patients), it also requires the setting up a national computerised system whose cost is likely to be far higher than any NHS "losses" from treating foreigners. The current cost of which is officially estimated to be around just 0.03% of the NHS budget! In other words, this has nothing to so with "savings", just pure vindictiveness and xenophobic demagogy.

But such policies have a logic of their own. By definition, they legitimise all kinds of prejudices among a broad section of the population and, by the same token, the gutter demagogy of racist, xenophobic forces - from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) to the English Defence League (EDL) - which rely on whipping up these prejudices in order to build up their own political profiles and influence.

The result of this scape-goating is already there to be seen. The rise of UKIP in opinion polls, in by-elections and in the last local elections, is a direct by-product of the Coalition's demagogy, and not just its eurosceptic demagogy. It is not for nothing that UKIP has added new policies to its traditional demand for withdrawal from the European Union, which for a very long time was its only reason to exist. So it now includes demands like "make welfare a safety net for the needy, not a bed for the lazy" or "benefits are only for those who have lived here for over 5 years". The first one is a direct quote from Osborne and the idea contained in the second one was floated on various occasions by Cameron's other ministers.

A vicious spiral

But the logic goes further. Having offered a platform to UKIP and its like, which they have used successfully, the ConDem Coalition is now engaged in overbidding along the same xenophobic and anti-working class lines.

There's obviously an electoral reason for this, although not so much because UKIP is a direct threat to the Tories. The first-past-the-post system ensures that both Tory and Labour parties will retain their dominant position - or at least that they won't lose it, without a major change in the general political situation which completely discredits one or the other.

The Tories' main problem, including in the next general election in 2015, is UKIP's potential to split the anti-Labour vote - which could allow Labour to slip into many more seats than it would otherwise. Not only is this an uncomfortable prospect for Cameron and the Tory leadership, but it is the cause of much turmoil within the ranks of the Tory party itself. Many backbenchers are from urban or semi-urban constituencies which have a strong minority Labour vote and an anti-Labour majority which could easily be weakened by a UKIP candidate, thus allowing Labour to unseat them. And of course, this threat adds to the traditionally right-wing currents which exist among Tory backbenchers and puts pressure on Cameron to either resign his leadership, in order to give way to an even more right-wing leadership (some of Cameron's own ministers, like Michael Gove and Theresa May, are already considered as potential candidates) or, at least, to "out-UKIP" UKIP, on issues like the EU and immigration.

Cameron, who seems to have no intention of giving up his comfortable position, appears to have chosen the second option. Hence the "in-out" referendum over membership of the EU that he promised - although he was careful enough to promise it for after the next general election, thereby depriving UKIP of one of its election arguments. This also avoided upsetting Britain's big businessmen, who had let it be known that as far as they were concerned, leaving the EU at this point in the crisis would be pure suicide. Hence, too, the series of vocal attacks by the government against both welfare claimants and immigrants, which serve to justify its austerity measures and, at the same time, pull the carpet from under UKIP's feet, at least on these issues.

But, of course, the logic of any overbidding is that the rival bidder can also overbid. And, in the run-up to the 2015 election, this is bound to lead Cameron into going even further in his attacks against the working class, both to pacify his backbenchers and to counter UKIP's electoral threat.

As to Ed Miliband, whose party is much less threatened by the rise UKIP than Cameron's, his response to the Coalition's right-wing has been totally spineless.

Of course, the main thrust of Labour's policy is first and foremost addressed to the capitalist class, to show that it will be at least as "responsible" as the Coalition in defending capitalist profits and as vicious as the Coalition in turning the screw on the working class. Hence Ed Balls' reiterated promise, that if elected, Labour will stick to austerity, that it will not reverse the Coalition's policies and will even retain Osborne's spending review for 2015-16. Labour also promises, in particular, to maintain the welfare cap announced by Osborne.

But, in addition, Miliband seems to be bending over backwards in order to chase the votes of wavering Tories who might be tempted to vote UKIP. Hence, for instance, his hasty support for Cameron's "in-out" referendum over Britain's membership of the EU, or his refusal to get Labour MPs to vote against the Coalition's policy of forcing the jobless to work for free as part of the "Work Programme".

But Miliband has also responded to much of the Coalition's right-wing drift, by drifting even further to the right.

For instance, we heard him apologising profusely for Labour's past "lax" policies on immigration. Never mind that this is absurd, since Labour was anything but "lax" when it came to migrant workers. In fact, it was Blair's Labour party that first accused foreigners of indulging in "welfare tourism". It may not have used this exact phrase, but Labour ministers repeatedly went on record accusing migrant workers of being responsible for the increasing failures of a health and education system which was failing because of Labour's underfunding and,in the case of the NHS, its insistence on adhering to the "market". Today, Miliband has suggested that "there may be too many foreign students in Britain" - something Cameron has refrained from saying explicitly, even if he wanted people to understand this from what he implied.

The same applies to the Coalition's attacks on welfare claimants. Not only did Miliband give his endorsement to Osborne's "welfare cap", but he deliberately opened himself to the Tories' accusation that he was also targeting the state pension, which Labour has not denied, so far. Furthermore, Miliband made a point of coming up with a new attack on the unemployed that, apparently, had not yet occurred to the sick minds of the Coalition's strategists: he proposed to make the entitlement of the jobless to welfare benefits, dependent on how long and how recently they worked before claiming. Which would be music to the ears of potential UKIP voters.

Clearly, Labour has been playing more than its part in contributing to the general right-wing drift which has caused the rise of UKIP - and is now justified by it!

For a revolutionary workers' party

Let us make no mistake. Looking around us in Europe, there are plenty of examples of far-right forces which have gathered significant strength - or have even become influential enough to participate in governments - since the beginning of the crisis, on the basis of demagogy which is indistinguishable from that used by the likes of UKIP and EDL.

This is true in Europe's weakest economies - e.g. in Greece, with the "Golden Dawn" or Hungary with Jobbik. But it is also the case in its rich, small countries - e.g. Switzerland with the Democratic Centre Union and Holland's Freedom Party, or its largest and richest countries like France, where there is the National Front, or Italy, which has Berlusconi's party.

In all these countries, the fact that such parties have acquired enough legitimacy to be considered worth voting for, was a direct consequence of the policies adopted by mainstream parties. These parties do not only get protest votes. They get votes because growing sections of the electorate are lured into believing that their strident, gutter demagogy could offer them a way out of the crisis -

By blaming the economic impact of the crisis on the working class in general - the "parasitism" of welfare recipients and jobless, the "greed" of striking workers, or the "privileges" of public sector workers - and on migrant workers in particular - every European country has its own version of the ConDems' "welfare tourism" story. These countries' mainstream politicians have given credit to those reactionary elements whose entire policy was based on various forms of working-class and migrant worker-bashing.

But of course, there is another fundamental reason why these reactionary elements have gained influence: the fact that the working class has not intervened as an organised force on the political scene and fought for its own alternative to the crisis - that is, social change.

In a decaying capitalist world, whose on-going collapse is expressed by a crisis which dooms to bankruptcy entire sections of the population - including and especially the petty-bourgeoisie which, so far, had been doing quite well - the working class is the only force capable of offering a future to the whole society. And in particular to these bankrupt elements of the petty-bourgeoisie. Quite simply, because the working class is the only force capable of freeing society of the profit system. But it has to demonstrate this capacity. It has to convince millions of frustrated, and often desperate, members of the petty-bourgeoisie that it is determined enough to take on the capitalist class and its state. It has to show them that, by defending its own material interests against the attacks of the bosses, it can effectively put into question the rule of the capitalist class and pave the way for its overthrow.

Instead, what the petty-bourgeoisie identifies with the working class is the union leaders and their policies. And what do they see here, in Britain, much as in the rest of Europe? Union machineries which are both narrowly sectional and tame. That are so unwilling to rock the boat of their "partnership" with the bosses and government, that they bend over backwards to help them implement job and wage cuts. They see the same unions arguing for more state subsidies to be awarded to companies, under the pretext of "rebuilding the economy" or "re-industrialising Britain", when everyone knows that these subsidies will only end up boosting the already fat profits of these companies. They see loud-mouth union leaders posturing on platforms and proposing nothing to their own members, let alone to the rest of the population, except to wait for the next election and to vote for a Labour party which says already that it will implement exactly the same policies.

No wonder Britain's irate petty-bourgeois may be turning to illusion merchants such as UKIP - and some even to the likes of the EDL! And they will do so more and more, as long as the working class is not represented on the political scene by a party which says clearly that the only way forward is for workers to take to the offensive, by defending their social interests - and which turns this into actual deeds.

Contrary to a long-standing belief in left circles, countering the rise of reactionary ideas and organisations cannot be achieved by gesticulating in the streets with anti-fascist placards. This is a hard-learned lesson of history. It cost the German working class dearly in the 1930s, when it failed to take to the offensive, handicapped as it was by the electoralist policies of the German Communist Party - albeit concealed at the time behind pseudo-radical language. This paved the way for Hitler's seizure of power.

Of course, we may not be at this stage in Britain. Not yet. But who knows how near we may be to such a situation? Who can say what drastic twists and turns the crisis may still take? Who knows what disastrous consequences these might have for the social fabric of this country and to what extent this may push wider layers of the population into reactionary arms?

As the 1930s showed, the working class would be taking an unacceptable risk by failing to anticipate such developments. This is why the task of building a workers' party - one which asserts a clear revolutionary perspective, both in word and in deed, as the only way forward for society as a whole, rather than one promoting a toned down version of capitalism - is a matter of emergency. In this task, all those who are determined to oppose the current reactionary drift in British society should join forces with those who have already made the choice of siding with the working class. Because there is no other way forward.

30 June 2013