At one point last weekend it seemed likely that the UK was going to crash out of the EU without a deal – an event that would be celebrated by many Tory backbenchers and most of the party’s voters. However, the Confederation of British Industry, the National Farmers Union and many officers in chambers of commerce would certainly not be rejoicing. Some of the main figureheads of these groups could scarcely contain their anger at what they saw as a lemming-like procession over the cliff edge.
The question is why is Johnson’s government so intent on pursuing a path opposed by influential organisations that would ordinarily be among the strongest supporters of the Conservative Party?
One factor is the success of some politicians, notably Nigel Farage, but also Boris Johnson and many of his MPs, in equating EU membership with “open door” immigration. The Vote Leave campaign’s falsehood that the UK would be “swamped by Turkey” was one of the best examples of this.
Another is the deeply held belief, primarily on the English political right, that Britain is a great power, little short of being the sole victor in the Second World War and a country that deserves respect in a manner that is negated by being part of Europe. Some on the right are convinced that the country will thrive in the world on its own, having at last regained its sovereignty. The fact that moving to World Trade Organisation terms means accepting a loss of sovereignty is simply ignored.
The stormy economic period ahead is great news for the hedge fund and speculator markets, where turbulence provides an opportunity to increase fortunes. One of the most salutary (albeit scarcely noticed) aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way that the world’s super-rich grew their fortunes at the height of the first wave. The world’s billionaires saw their wealth rise by over a quarter in the period from April to July this year. During those months, hundreds of thousands were dying, millions were infected, a global economic slump was developing – but the super-rich got richer. The economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic was a welcome opportunity for gain for them, and, on a small scale, Brexit will be too.
The 40-year neoliberal transition underlies much of what is currently happening. Neoliberals are suspicious of organisations such as the EU because they bring the world too close to sharing political power and have the power to tighten controls on markets and transnationals. Indeed, the EU’s move in recent years to coordinate financial regulation and even start to address tax evasion, avoidance and havens, has been of particular concern to neoliberals as an indicator of things to come.
What does this all have to do with Brexit? By leaving the EU, Britain strengthens the neoliberal world. Indeed it could be the ideology’s biggest success since the good old days of Thatcher, Reagan and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Small wonder that most of the funding for the pro-Brexit campaigns of 2016 came from a handful of extremely wealthy individuals, and much of the funding for the neoliberal think tanks comes from similar sources. It is all part of the process and in the short term there will be rejoicing in neoliberal circles. As and when Brexit goes haywire, though, that may not remain the case.