by Ralph Keller
Writing as of April 23, 2021, Brexit is done—or is it? While the mood in the EU about the last-minute agreement on December 24, 2020, was somewhat sober, UK Brexiteers have celebrated the deal as a major achievement for the country. In this article, I look at the motivations behind PM Johnson’s Christmas Eve deal. I will then argue that the deal is (i) an achievement for parts of Britain’s ruling class that went beyond the original promises made to voters: leaving the EU customs union in pursuit of trade unencumbered by trade legislation; and (ii) threatens the UK’s political integrity as a nation. The long-term consequences, are, however, as yet unclear and their discussion must be left for another time.
The first section discusses the main point of Johnson’s deal, while the sections that follow examine the spectacle that parts of the British ruling class put on in the run-up to December 24, the motivations behind the deal, and the problem of the Northern Irish Border. The article closes with reflections on the longer-term consequences in so far as they can be judged today.
Johnson’s Last-Minute Deal
Table 1, below, summarises the main points of a deal that was agreed upon after four-and-a-half years of spectacle and drama. The UK since the referendum on June 23, 2016, has seen mass demonstrations throughout the UK, claimed three Prime Ministers, staged a bitter fight and a rebellion within the Tory party, and put an end to Corbynism as a social project within the Labour Party. And prices have risen amid the pound falling against the Euro to an unprecedented low of almost parity, as of March 12, 2020.
Table 1: Main points of the Johnson’s last-minute Brexit deal
|Northern Ireland border||customs border on land exists only on paper, actual customs border was placed in the Irish Channel; intricate arrangements for Northern Ireland from 2024||Northern Ireland de-facto remains part of the EU; posing an ongoing threat to the UK’s national integrity|
|Taking control of immigration / controlling free movement of labour||replaced with points-based system for work visas; requires either indefinite leave to enter/remain (which includes settled status), or settled status if one normally lived in the UK by Dec 31, 2021, without indefinite enter/leave||one of the original reasons for Brexit|
|Health and social security||no significant changes; some changes for people moving to the UK from Jan 1, 2021||defeat for British nationalists|
|Trade of goods||tax- and quota-free; requires paperwork, thus not frictionless||not unencumbered trade, which parts of Britain’s ruling class campaigned for|
|Financial services||UK loses unrestricted access to EU market, international trade rules apply; further negotiations in March 2021||defeat for those Brexiteers that campaigned for trade unencumbered by trade legislation|
|Taking back control of fisheries||5.5-year agreement, during which quotas for EU fishermen will be cut by 25%; quotas to be negotiated annually from 2026||one of the original reasons for Brexit|
|Taking back control of laws and legislation||“level playing field”—UK not to undermine EU standards; applies only to standards as of Jan 1, 2020, not to changing standards in the future||appears to benefit Britain more than the EU|
|Security, energy and climate||no significant changes; UK required to continue recognising European Convention on Human Rights||defeat for British nationalists|
|Research and other projects||UK remains a member of, and continues to pay subscription fees for, various programs; UK exits European student exchange programme||victory for British nationalists in terms of student exchange; defeat for Brexiteers in terms of continued subscription|
|Traffic and transport||no significant changes|
|Monitoring the agreement and conflict resolution||partnership council; in addition, both parties are allowed to “retaliate” across sectors (not just in the sector in which a conflict arises)||unclear at present how this will play out|
Sources: www.tagesschau.de , metro.co.uk
I will not discuss all information in the table. Instead, I mainly focus on the customs border in Northern Ireland, as well as the UK’s desire to take back control of laws and legislation. The information surrounding these two points is plentiful, allows an in-depth look at what went on behind the scenes, and supports the claim that Brexit is an achievement for parts of Britain’s ruling class. Let’s dive in.
The Campaign To Repeal The Corn Laws All Over Again
This section does not compare the repeal of the Corn Laws campaign and Brexit on grounds of substance. Instead, it is a comparison of how Britain’s rulers are fond of staging public spectacles for maximum effect.
In the 1840s the free-trade disciples within the bourgeoisie, who in today’s words would kick and scream “laissez-faire, devil may care”, paraded through the streets holding up their “big-loaf”. They spouted the nonsense that the repeal of the corn laws, that is, the abolition of an import ban on corn, would lead to double the size of a loaf of bread and, at the same time, to a rise of workers’ wages. Repealing the corn laws, and instigating trade unencumbered by legislation, allegedly would bring prosperity for all.
A period cartoon. Credit: oll-resources.s3.us-east-2
I was bemused to unearth parallels with the Brexit campaign. Not only did the Brexiteers made promises like saving £350 million a week of payments to Brussels, which would then be used to improve public services. After the referendum was won, Brexiteers increasingly focused their attention on a hard Brexit, that is as little involvement with EU trade legislation as can possibly be achieved.
And then there was Johnson’s campaign bus, which gave an impression much like the posters used in the campaign to repeal the corn laws.
Boris Johnson in front of Leave campaign bus. Credit: newsthump.com
Even campaign tactics were eerily similar. Just as the Anti-Corn Law League had Richard Cobden as chief strategist and John Bright as soapbox orator, the Brexit Campaign had its very own Brexit Party (of which Johnson is not a member) with Richard Tice as chief strategist and Nigel Farage as soapbox orator. Both organisations staged public spectacles to promote trade unencumbered by legislation and “just let us make our own deals”. Farage’s public appearances in the streets of London and in the Brussels parliament have a comical, self-embarrassing quality; if only the content of those spectacles would not be so serious. It’s not hard to imagine that it would have been just like that at the height of the Anti-Corn Law League.
Laissez-Faire Disciples Try To Capture The Brexit Agenda
Brexit started out as a project of Eurosceptics in terms of the EU as an institution, and the nationalist desire to take back control of immigration. The campaign, from the very beginning, had its fair share of lies and misinformation. For example, one of the Brexit disciples and the face of the original Brexit campaign, now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, started out with a scam. Like in the medieval tale of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, a famous scam at the time, Johnson made appealing yet false claims, such as that London would pay £350 million a week of membership fee to Brussels. These should be better invested into improving public services at home, such as improving the NHS. However, we have shown previously that this figure was inflated for greater effect, that his figure made no mention of the discount that Margaret Thatcher had negotiated, and that his figure did not include the moneys that the UK receives back from the EU for infrastructure, agriculture and other development.
But the four-and-a-half-year saga only got started on referendum day, on June 23, 2016. The former Secretary of Justice under Teresa May, David Gauke, acknowledged in a recent documentary by a reputable German broadcasting institution (at 4 mins, 35 secs) that the original Brexit agenda posed two conflicting objectives. On the one hand, there was this desire among the moderate Tories to maintain good access to the EU market—because it would be of great disadvantage to the UK’s economy to restrict or even cut off this access altogether. This meant that the UK would have remained in the customs union. On the other hand, there was the desire to make laws, especially trade laws, independently of EU legislation. The conflict between those objectives is that, if Britain wants to trade with the EU, then EU trade laws would have to be abided by. So Teresa May proposed a compromise during a Chequers (country house of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) meeting in Summer 2018 (at 5 mins, 58 secs): to keep close trading ties abiding by EU trade laws, while at the same time unrestricted immigration would stop. In short, her deal intended to deliver on the promises of the original Brexit campaign.
May’s proposal turned out to be the signal that started a bitter conflict within the Tory party, which culminated in an open rebellion. Hard-line Brexiteers were seething, speaking of traitors to the course and capitulation before the European Commission, while Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, even spoke of Britain becoming a de-facto colony of the EU. The Tory rebels demanded a complete break with EU trade laws—they demanded a hard Brexit that had not been on the radar until that point. This demand marked the turning point as the hardliners tried to capture the Euroscepticism and the unhappiness of many ordinary Brits with unrestricted immigration. So radical figureheads began to creep out of the woodwork, among them Johnson himself, a millionaire who now openly declared his ambition to become Prime Minister; Jacob Rees-Mogg, a wealthy aristocrat and investment Banker; Steve Baker, a radical economic liberal with close ties to the war industry; and others. More specifically, Richard Tice even lied in an interview (at 19 mins 21 secs): “we were betrayed” because May’s Chequers proposal did not demand low taxes and no trade legislation. But those demands never appeared on the original Brexit agenda.
Of course, that’s what parts of the ruling class, the laissez-faire disciples—represented by the Tory rebels who saw their chance for some kind of a buccaneer Britain, a “Singapore on Thames” (at 8 mins, 01 secs)—had wanted all along, a tax haven with totally unrestricted trade. To push that agenda, the Tory rebels formed a front called European Research Group, which is neither European nor does it do any research, but promotes donor-sponsored reports that say a hard Brexit is good. These reports came from think tanks, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, whose most influential piece was composed by Shanker Singham and Radomir Tylecote.
That report claims that, contrary to what the history of capitalism shows, a hard Brexit with fewer taxes and no legislation will lead to strong economic growth, and growth is good for everyone. In reality, however, Marx showed in volume 1 of Capital that, if measures that encumber capitalism’s free reign are removed, wages fall and pressure on extending the working day increases. Let’s remember that the EU legislation imposed a maximum of weekly working hours and a minimum of social standards, with which Britain no longer needs to comply. So who knows what will happen to UK working hours and wages after Brexit? We’ll have to wait for how Brexit plays out in the long-run.
For now, however, the laissez-faire disciples got what they aimed for, at least in part, when Johnson assumed the position of a hard Brexit to win voters back from the Brexit Party. This worked rather well because Johnson also projected the message to the “leave” voters that he alone would get Brexit done, after four-and-a-half-years of negotiation and stagnation. So Johnson throws out May’s Chequers plan and goes for a hard Brexit, thereby achieving what parts of Britain’s ruling class had aimed for. This meant that Johnson not only delivered on the original promise of taking back control of fisheries, taking back control of immigration, and stopping the subscription payments to Brussels. He also delivered leaving the customs union in pursuit of trade unencumbered by EU legislation, which overturned May’s Chequer’s proposal.
But there are two issues with Johnson’s deal. First, there were early reports of lorry traffic through Holyhead being down by 2/3 as of January 7, 2021 . That’s because hauliers from the Republic of Ireland no longer consider the “land bridge” through the GB as a viable option—it has become too cumbersome and uncertain. So ferry services from the Republic of Ireland directly to mainland Europe have increased instead. This is an indication of a fundamental effect that the economic data, in Table 2, reveals: the predicted economic downturn.
Table 2: Change of UK goods trade with the EU
|Jan 2021 vs Dec 2020||Value (£bn)
|Feb 2021 vs Jan 2021||Value (£bn)
Source: Office for National Statistics
The UK has slightly recovered form the record fall in January 2021, but still faces an EU trade deficit (imports exceeding exports) as of February 2021, of –5.6£bn. Non-EU trade also shows a deficit, of –5.1£bn, revealing a total deficit of –10.7£bn. This shows the extent to which Britain’s trade depends on the EU, and shows that trade with countries outside of the EU cannot realistically replace EU trade, as parts of the British ruling class have repeatedly touted. To the contrary, the decline of non-EU export trade worsens the current situation, and all that Johnson’s Brexit government has managed to date amounts to small-scale deals outside of the EU Second, there is the Northern Irish Border. “And herein”, as the bard would tell us, “lies the rub”.
The Problem of the Northern Irish Border
Leaving the customs union means that a line on the map must demarcate the limits of influence of each side—without that line there cannot be a Brexit. The natural place for such a line is the Northern Irish border, but that is protected by the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998. It facilitates that there are to be no personnel checks or customs controls. Johnson’s deal of December 24, 2020, therefore recognises that border, but it turns out that this border only exists on paper. The actual customs border has been placed in the Irish Channel, the stretch of water between Scotland and Northern Ireland, so that the latter will keep to EU regulation of goods, not UK regulation. As John Campbell of BBC News noted, this means that Northern Ireland de-facto remains in the EU, and that “[p]eople born in Northern Ireland have the right to Irish as well as British citizenship. Those who exercise that right will retain their EU citizenship, something not available to people elsewhere in the UK who may have only British citizenship”.
Another issue that arises is the question of what happens in four years’ time, at the end of the transition period for Northern Ireland? A BBC news article explains that in four years time the Stormont assembly will be voting whether Northern Ireland should, effectively, remain part of the EU. The possible outcomes are, (i) a yes-vote, which means that the current arrangements will remain in place; and (ii) a no-vote, which would lead to the troublesome situation of risking the Good Friday Agreement and a rekindling of civil war.
Whether a no-vote will materialize depends on how strong the Unionists supporting unity with the UK will become. If they gain more support than they currently have, then we might see a scenario as follows: in an attempt to cling to Assembly seats, the Irish Republicans might adopt Unionist positions. Adopting a competing party’s positions is a trend we have recently seen in Germany and across the EU. The Unionists will then have Assembly members outside of their faction who might vote “no”, which would mean that Northern Ireland leaves the EU customs union. If that happens, then the “no” voters risk reverting the Good Friday Agreement and reintroducing a hard border, which consequently risks a rekindling of the civil war in Northern Ireland. I do not want to imagine this scenario.
In any case, however, it appears that the Johnson deal, a Brexit without remaining in the customs union, did not come without a price to pay. That is, a customs border now runs right through the Irish Channel, cutting Northern Ireland off customs-wise from the rest of the UK. This is an objective reality regardless of whether one defines the Brexit we have since January 1 as hard or not so hard. So we now have a disunited Kingdom in terms of customs that weakens the UK politically, at least for the next four years until the Northern Ireland Assembly votes again. This vote will always be a double-edged sword because the choice will be either to carry on keeping Northern Ireland in the EU, thereby cementing the political and economic disunity that Johnson’s Christmas Eve deal achieved, or else the vote will be in the Unionists favour, taking Northern Ireland out of the EU completely.
Northern Ireland is the price that the UK had to pay. It explains why the UK, before the December 24, 2020 deal, broke certain provisions in the Brexit agreement with the EU. Nice going. May’s Chequers deal, which would have kept the whole of the UK in the customs union, would have avoided the disunity.
This article dealt with the consequences of Brexit four months after it came into force. What is clear thus far is why parts of the British bourgeoisie overturned the original Brexit deal, which would have kept the whole of the UK in the European customs union. This would have avoided the situation which has become a reality on January 1, 2021, that Northern Ireland remains part of the EU customs-wise, and that the citizens of Northern Ireland enjoy the privileges of the EU, whereas the rest of UK is cut off. Importantly, this continues the disintegration of the British Empire since World World II, which Dunayevskaya discussed in her 1960 Draft Resolution on War and Peace.
As of now, however, it is not clear what the disintegration means for ordinary Brits who have no stake in the rich person’s empire. They are the ones that will suffer from economic and political turmoil, which should be a lesson not to align oneself with the interests of their rulers.
When rulers go on a campaign, they do not pursue the interests of the working people, but only their own interests. We will have to wait for quite some time, I suspect, to see the longer term effects of Brexit, and in particular whether ordinary people will face a downward pressure on their wages pared with an upward pressure on working hours. This happened in Marx’s time when the Corn Laws were repealed.
Nevertheless, today we can argue that Johnson’s Brexit deal, which completely cuts the free movement of labour between the UK and the EU, is detrimental to the development of the working class. That’s because free movement strengthens workers in their strive to emancipate themselves from their capitalist rulers, be developing independent thought and action through international exchanges and solidarity and action. Johnson’s Brexit deal can, therefore, be seen as a major setback for the working class. The lesson involved here is that “leave” voters have voted against their own interests of self-development and emancipation, and instead have aligned themselves to the interests of their rulers. It was so in Marx’s time, when the English workers fought the Irish immigrants. And it is so in our time because Brexit pitted the English workers against the migrant workers, egged on by the publication of inaccurate and misleading research, and the public spectacles put on by Brexiteers. Aligning oneself with racism and the unshackled profit motive will only help to keep capitalism going, and will only keep ordinary people from becoming the masters of their own destiny. But this is a story for another time.
 In the context of this article, I use the term “laissez-faire” in the sense of trade unencumbered by legislation. In addition, the term usually refers to production unencumbered by legislation. This might, however, materialise in the long-run because UK workers are no longer protected by EU legislation, such as the working time directive that imposes the 42-hour maximum for a normal working week.