By KD Tait
20 May 2015
From an early EU referendum to scrapping the Human Rights Act, from devolving powers to Scotland through to English votes on English laws, the new Tory government has constitutional change firmly in its sights. Their aim will be to see off the hardline Eurosceptics whilst using devolution to decentralise and then dissolve the welfare state.
But the agenda and timescale is not being driven by the Tories alone. They face three big challenges, none fully under their control: the SNP’s clean sweep in Scotland, a clamour for English regional devolution, and British capitalism’s strategic dilemma over the EU and its project for a federal European state.
The No vote in the Scottish independence referendum provoked a huge sigh of relief from the British political and media establishment who feared disaster when faced with polls that had put the two campaigns neck and neck. Gordon Brown’s last minute intervention helped swing the result with the “solemn vow”, extracted from all the Westminster party leaders, to grant extensive new powers to the Scottish Parliament.
Little was said about these promises until the SNP wipeout of Labour in Scotland and 3.8 million votes for UKIP’s anti-European Union platform made it clear that major constitutional issues are unavoidable and will occupy the centre stage for the coming period.
The Tories are determined to compensate themselves for powers ‘lost’ to Scotland by recasting governance in England and Wales in a way that entrenches their power for a generation. They hope to create new centres of regional authority from which they can override democratic councils and start breaking up public services, especially the NHS.
These anti-democratic changes are designed to create a populist veneer for a programme of privatisation and austerity that they know would otherwise be deeply unpopular.
The SNP’s near monopoly of Scottish MPs combined with a Tory majority at Westminster is the dream scenario for Scottish nationalists. In Scotland, even workers not convinced of the separatist project will increasingly see independence as the only defence against Westminster austerity.
Nevertheless, capitalism is capitalism, even in Scotland. The SNP will be obliged to impose cuts and excuse them as the price of partial sovereignty. It is of course a deception that full independence would mean an end to austerity. What it would mean is the SNP exposing its true character as a thoroughly bourgeois party with calls for sacrifices to build the nation while continuing to blame Westminster for their straitened circumstances.
The concessions promised to insurgent Scottish nationalism have produced their mirror image in demands for greater powers for English MPs over health, welfare, education and civic rights. This is embodied in the Tory pledge to introduce ‘English votes for English laws’ (Evel), giving English MPs a veto over issues that affect England.
It is already fanning the flames of a reactionary English nationalism which the Tories aim to use to recover ground from UKIP. But it could backfire.
To this we must add plans for regionalisation embodied by George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plans which will concentrate investment into a few metropolitan cities and enterprise zones, allowing second tier cities to sink into decline. These new entities will be put under the control of Mayors with expansive new powers to override local councils.
The consequences of devolving power to the regions might look attractive on paper – granting greater power to local decision makers. In reality it means huge amounts of public wealth will be handed over to professional managers, with no experience of running such services, people already proven to be in hock to property developers and outsourcing speculators.
The inevitable – and intentional – result will be to accelerate the disintegration of the national welfare state, exacerbate disparity of wealth and services between the metropoles and declining outer regions and pit workers of different regions against each other in competition for diminishing resources.
Hours after victory, Home Secretary Theresa May’s first statement was to reject outright European Union (EU) proposals to alleviate the Mediterranean refugee crisis by imposing quotas for resettlement. The British warships in the Mediterranean are to turn from rescuing refugees to destroying the boats and fuel dumps of the people smugglers on the North African coast. From Search and Rescue to Search and Destroy.
The new Justice secretary Michael Gove – fresh from his attempts to take education back to the 1950s or maybe the 1850s, will no doubt seek to restore Victorian values here too. After all, in 1998 he wrote an article in the Times claiming that “abolishing hanging… has led to a corruption of our criminal justice system, the erosion of all our freedoms” and advocating “… a fair trial, under the shadow of the noose.” He has made his first order of business the repeal of what the Daily Mail calls the ‘madness’ of the Human Rights Act.
The in/out referendum on EU membership will prove a carnival of reaction. It is the issue around which a miasma of false arguments about economic migrants, asylum seekers and national sovereignty revolve. The Tory (and UKIP) tabloids will do all in their power to make workers believe low wages and shit jobs, queues in hospital A&E or inability to get a doctors appointment, are all the fault of East European immigrants.
The EU is an institution that allows the dominant European powers – France and Germany – to exploit the peripheral countries to their own advantage, which explains why Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Italy have been forced to impose savage austerity. The economic and political union, combined with Nato, enables the European ruling classes to combine forces and act as an imperialist bloc on the world stage, asserting their interests against Russia, China, etc.
This is its function which defines its character as an instrument of capitalist class rule and why socialists oppose it. But an “independent Britain” outside the EU or an England, Wales and Northern Ireland on their own, would be no less capitalist and no less imperialist that GB Inc. The same is true for an independent Scotland.
Worse still, ‘Brexit’ would damage British capital’s access to its biggest market and the biggest economy in the world. British capital would only be able to reassert itself by an even deeper and absolute relation with the US and an austerity offensive that would make the last five years look like communism.
Anyone in the labour movement who campaigns for a British exit from the EU is acting directly against the interests of the working class.
The referendum will pit two sections of the bourgeoisie against one another. On the one side there is the leadership of the Tory party which wants to renegotiate Britain’s membership in favour of British capital, on the other, the Eurosceptic Tory minority and UKIP who pander to the most reactionary and chauvinist strata of the petit-bourgeoisie.
Fomented by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express the petit bourgeoisie chafes against EU legislation that imposes costs and regulations that eat into profit margins, while limiting its ability to drive down employees’ wages and working conditions to compensate. For big capital and finance on the other hand, it is a question of defending UK membership of the EU – and the access to cheap migrant labour, markets and services that comes with it.
These are the two choices posed by an EU referendum and both standpoints defend the interests of different sections of our class enemy; it is not in our interests to make a positive choice in favour of either.
Andy Burnham has called for Cameron to call referendum in 2016 a change from Miliband’s previous opposition to a referendum. He did so on the basis that British business needs a quick decision to avoid uncertainty and to tighten rules on EU migrants claiming benefits.
This reveals the lessons of joint campaigning with the Tories in the Scottish referendum have not been learned. The Tories are the only winners from this “popular front”. Labour must not line up again with the Tories and the bosses. But neither must we do what the left did in the 1970s – line up with the reactionary little Englanders and Europhobes.
Against this bosses’ club, revolutionaries advocate a socialist united states of Europe, a free association of nations and peoples, where the working class takes control of production to manage the continent’s material, cultural and environmental resources in the interests of the majority of humanity.