Brexit – a chaotic return to nothingness

Sculpture José Resende / Vancouver, Canada / photo: Goran Basaric


England is today a fragmented and individualized nation. With Brexit it is also on the edge of the abyss

“Returning to the country of birth is a common experience,” says Mark Beeson, an Englishman who came to Australia 45 years ago. professor of international politics at western university, Beenson claims that never before has his return left him so horrified, amazed at what he found and glad to no longer live in England.

The levels of infection by the coronavirus and the death rate recorded in England – the highest since the beginning of the pandemic – end with the desire to return. We are assured all the time that the crisis caused is the increased transmissibility of the new strain of the virus, not the inability of the political leaders tasked with managing it, says Beeson. In his opinion, it is a “very British crisis”. The irresponsible attitude of the authorities is evident as soon as you enter the country: no forms to fill out, no health checks, no quarantine, “in proud and independent England”.

In the middle of the month, on January 15, England had more than 55 daily cases of Covid-19 (although the number has been falling), more than 37 people hospitalized and about 1.300 deaths per day. The contradictory signals, the prevarication, the government's indecision made it difficult for people to discern what would be appropriate behavior in the face of the pandemic. "Far from making the nation great again," says Beenson, "(Prime Minister Boris) Johnson may lead to the breakup of the UK, a further contraction of its economy and the country into geopolitical irrelevance."

In the 1837th century, Britain led the world. It was the birthplace of capitalism. He had defeated Napoleon. Thus, in the Victorian era (1901-XNUMX) – then the longest reign of the United Kingdom –, its power spread throughout the world, until the current reign of its great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, surpassed in duration that of Queen Victoria, to witness the gradual break-up of the British Commonwealth.

A nation on the edge of the abyss

The English newspaper The Guardian described the situation in the country as "grave" in an editorial at the end of last year, as the two sides rushed to reach some kind of agreement to regulate Britain's exit from the European Union and avoid a so-called "hard Brexit". , a catastrophic rupture without agreements. “The emergence of a new strain of the virus in England has forced a further business shutdown and severe travel restrictions. At the same time that Brexit was taking effect, two issues perfectly aligned in a disastrous coincidence for Great Britain,” said the The Guardian.

As has been evident in the few weeks since the agreement took effect on Jan. 1, the change has left many things unclear. Ten days before Brexit took effect, nearly 12 trucks were waiting to cross the English Channel. Other issues were still pending. The situation of fish exporters, particularly concerned about the future of the sector, was not clear, nor how to resolve the challenge of reorganizing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a particularly sensitive issue, given the conflicted history (and sometimes bloody) of this relationship.

Also two days before the entry into force of Brexit, Michael Roberts, who defines himself as a “Marxist economist”, wrote about the agreement in his blog, The Next Recession:57% of British industrial products are exported to the EU, whose markets they can continue to enter duty-free. But they will be carefully monitored to avoid stimuli, subsidies or deterioration of labor guarantees, in order to make them more competitive in the European market.

Even more important than industrial goods are services, which contribute 70% of the British Gross Domestic Product. Just over 40% of this trade in services is with the EU. The surplus in financial and professional services largely offsets the deficit in trade in goods. “Brexit did nothing for this industry,” says Roberts. Professionals – doctors, engineers, architects – will have to revalidate their titles in each country where they want to work. Even the access of financial services to the European market has not been fully regulated.

In his opinion, British exports in the service sector will end up facing worse conditions than those that existed during the country's 48 years of accession to the EU. Estimates from traditional financial institutions, including the Bank of England, cited by Roberts, indicate that UK GDP will fall by 4% to 10% over the next 15 years as a result of Brexit.

British capitalism was stumbling before Covid-19. With negative growth numbers in 2008 (-0,3%) and 2009 (-4,1%), it had achieved its best results since then in 2014 (2,9%) and 2015 (2,4%), to return growing just 1,3% in 2018 and 2019. Estimates are catastrophic for 2020, despite a recovery of data in the third quarter of the year. “The pandemic has decimated business and in 2020 Britain will suffer the biggest drop in GDP of any major economy except Spain,” Roberts estimated. And it will recover from the crisis more slowly than others, he said.

working conditions

Beyond business, the deal's impact on working conditions in Britain deserves special attention. It is feared that in the poorly regulated English labor market – when compared to other OECD countries – these guarantees are now diminished. Among other things, EU rules include a limit of 48 hours per week (albeit with exceptions), health and safety regulations, regional and social subsidies, research funding, environmental controls and free movement of labour. “All of that will be minimized,” says Roberts. The government plans to create ports and free zones, areas with little or no tax burden, to stimulate economic activity, "transforming the country into a tax-free and unregulated base for foreign multinationals."

A trend also mentioned by the Financial Times, noting that the government was planning to reduce employment protection measures. This includes ending the 48-hour workweek limit, changing rest rules from work, and eliminating certain overtime pay. A “disgrace”, according to the opposition Labor Party. In the midst of the worst economic crisis in three centuries, these measures lay bare the government's true intentions, "which are a far cry from the needs of workers and their families," according to longtime Labor leader Ed Miliband. "The government is preparing to set aside its promises to the British people and deal a blow to workers' rights." A forgery, according to the government. “We will not reduce workers' rights,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, Business Secretary.

The chaotic return to nothingness

The desperation, the complex causes of the Brexit triumph and the surprising Conservative success in the old Labor strongholds in the last election of 2019, are reported in an extraordinary article by one of the editors of the The Guardian, Alison Benjamin, published last December 28th. An article that helps us understand our world. “If anyone had told me that our mining town would vote Conservative I would have thought they were crazy,” says Benjamin, quoting old miner George Bell, in Nottinghamshire, a town just over 200km north of London, part of the old bastion labor red. But they voted conservative in last year's election.

With the region devastated by the closure of coal mines, defeated in the great strike of 1984-85, during the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, the old miners died, while the economy of the region changed its course and, the city, its profile. Some old miners voted for Brexit and for Johnson. They didn't trust Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn to get Brexit done.

The old camaraderie in the mines was replaced by jobs in the public sector, or in charities created to care for unemployed families. For Phil Whitehead, 61, a senior electrician from the Shireoaks mines, changing demographics in the region explain much of Labour's defeat. The old miners had been replaced by young families, who bought four-bedroom houses in luxury developments, with no ties to the area's past. There are slightly cheaper houses here and good connections to Nottingham and Sheffield, where they find decent jobs, explains Whitehead.

Instead of the mines, the big employers are now warehouses and distribution centers located outside the city, with low-paid, non-union workers. Electricians and other workers, who provided services for the mines, sawmills, brick factories, are gone. There are now eightfood banks”, food supply centers for unemployed families in Nottinghamshire. Bell voted to leave the EU. He thought that things couldn't get any worse and, if they left the EU, new investment could arrive. Whitehead too. He never liked the EU. “I always thought it represented the interests of employers, big business and banks. Rarely have they done anything for the people.” Now, he adds, "I would probably vote differently." He could not imagine a quick “hard” Brexit without an agreement to regulate this production.

They also recognize that there was a content of xenophobia and racism in the decision. Some said that “if they (foreign workers) stayed in our factories, we would have no control over them. We wanted them out. Brexit was our way of sending them back home.” Others do not regret voting for Brexit. “Why should we do what other countries tell us?” they asked themselves.

The shadow of the great strike of the 80s still hangs over the debate. Dave Potts, 67, was fired in 1984 after being arrested during the strike. The argument that we would be stronger by remaining in the EU is not true. “I participated in a miners' strike that was lost. We didn't stick together," he said. Although he voted for the Labor Party, he is disillusioned with politics in general: "They never made a move for us," he says. Out of work for eight years, he took a job at a local school to coordinate support for poor students. Finally, a stroke forced him to retire.

John Scott, 73, another miner, voted for Labor and refused to leave the EU. He worked for a local charity, providing second-hand furniture to homeless and low-income people. He thinks that once he has won the “leave”, laborismo had to accept it and should fight for a suitable exit agreement. For him, the party's position on this issue cost him the big electoral defeat in 2019. Nobody understood the position of Labor, he says.

Today, some of those who voted conservative would revise their position. Pandemic mismanagement is one of the main reasons they would not vote Conservative again. But there is a feeling that they have been betrayed. "Had there been more Labor MPs during Tony Blair's government (1997-2007), things might have turned out differently." But it wasn't like that. Blair negotiated all workers' interests and joined Bush and Aznar in the coalition that destroyed Iraq. They claimed to have information about Saddam Hussein's government nuclear weapons that, as we know, did not exist. Blair also joined the plan of the then German chancellor, Gerhard Schröeder, to face unemployment by reducing labor rights, a pillar of what was called the “Third Way”, with which social democracy aligned its positions with neoliberalism.

At that time, labor leaders took the miners' loyalty for granted. They realized that they had no alternatives, that they would not vote conservative. They were wrong. “The vote for leave it was a response to feeling that they had been betrayed for 30 years. People say it must have been horrible working in the mines,” says Dave Anderson, member of the organizing committee of the Durham Miner's Gala, an event that remembers, every second Sunday of July, the mining tradition of the country. About 200 people gather there.

“It's true,” says Anderson, “that most people's standard of living and health conditions are much better now than they were in the 70s. But people felt safe then, and for them, the past was much better". “I'm in Durham Square on Sunday morning (at the miners' party), as they parade their flags, and I'm thinking: how the hell did we miss this strike? I can't imagine,” says Potts. Whitehead thinks Thatcher got what she wanted when she defeated the miners nearly four decades ago. Today they think they don't owe allegiance to anyone. But its heritage is, in the end, this fragmented, individualized society, this chaotic return to nothingness.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

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