AltDev co-hosts colloquium on post-Brexit Britain

The University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS) Program on Alternative Development (AltDev), Focus on the Global South, and Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) hosted the public colloquium “Beyond Brexit: Britain in the Age of Far Right Populism and Global Inequality,” held last 31 May 2018 at the UP CIDS Conference Hall. Kolya Abramsky, a freelance author and editor of volumes on European and international issues, and Dorothy Guerrero, Head of Policy and Advocacy of United Kingdom (UK)-based campaign organization Global Justice Now, served as speakers for the event.

Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016, a decision that surprised many and that has complex consequences which are yet to unfold. Some interpreted it as the revolt of the have-nots against neoliberal globalization, while others see rising xenophobia and perceived threats of immigration as the main concerns that swung the vote. Progressive and left-wing groups in Britain have varying positions about the EU—some campaigned for a Left Exit (Lexit) and some campaigned for the UK to remain within the EU. The British Left’s efforts during the referendum to expose corporate agenda as a roadblock to radical fiscal and environmental reforms in the did not lead to a deeper understanding of the UK’s role as co-architect of the current EU which favors the interests of the few and not of the many.

However, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his transformation from an idealist to a statesman is bringing hope towards a more compassionate Britain. What are the prospects for a “hard-Left Labour” to be the next government in Britain? Will it be able to put the “ferocious beast of free-market capitalism on a leash” before it devours all around it? Can the British Left defeat racism and put an end to the prevailing hostile environment for immigrants? What would a post-Brexit UK trade relations, especially with developing countries, look like, and how can we build a broader global solidarity for just trade and corporate accountability?

Historical context: The EU Referendum. In the early 2000s, there has been a strong critique on the EU, mainly coming from left-wing groups who are partially against some political modes and process within the union. The coming together of the countries under the EU was only made possible due to post-World War II integration, the consolidation of East and West Europe, the existence of peace, and the absence of political and economic crises. In 2015, both Corbyn and the EU referendum have been taking off, and the balance of power in Britain was already tipped to the far right. But due to breakout of the financial crisis, the political landscape had changed and led some parts of the internationalist Left and the ultranationalist Right to come together and support Brexit.

How did the Left respond to the EU integration processes? After the Second World War, there’s a very strong movement of the working class in Western and Eastern Europe. The post-WWII landscape changed as social revolutions began to thrive. Important sections of the Left responded to the global crisis of Stalinism, and the emergence and prominence of the Soviet Union.

The inter-generational gap. In terms of movement memory, the fate of memories and discourses of the Left during the 1970s in the UK is what is exactly happening in the Philippines. It becomes apparent in both the UK and the Philippines that the gap within the intergenerational links in the movement contributed to the weakening of social movements. In the Philippines, there is rich discourse on what the Philippine economy is (i.e., feudal, colonial), but discussion on its character is glaringly missing.

Impacts of industrialization and neoliberalism. In the UK, the neoliberal strategies of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enabled a turn away from social development. As we try to explain Brexit, we see the trend of the British working class seeing migrants as competitors, without exacting accountability from the government for the unavailability of jobs. While other countries in Europe (such as Germany) continued to invest in production, build new technologies, and prioritize the sustainability and development of the labor force, the UK opted for finance instead of putting emphasis on production. Today, UK’s manufacturing declined to being only 8% of the country’s GDP, and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis to its working class was greater compared to other countries where manufacturing flourished.

Weakening of social movements. For the Left, the weakening of social movements was due to decline of spaces for campaigns outside the party system because of national policies. It is now almost impossible to organize huge protests, as compared to the situation in the 1960s or 1970s where left-wing groups, parties, and organizations flourished. There exists a question on how to introduce systemic change in the face of the Labour Party’s policies. Given this scenario, it is easier to engage and influence policies coming from the Labour Party towards initiating reforms. Hence, the outcome, in terms of trade strategy and migration issues for example, is that the British public has become more overtly racist and xenophobic, evident in increasing incidents of reported racist attacks in the country. As another example, trade relations between the UK and the United States (US) could be affected by US President Donald Trump’s desire to privatize the health care system in the UK, and similarly, there are proposed policies to charge migrants for health services.

Far-right populism and ultranationalism as a by-product of globalization. The rise of far-right populism and ultranationalism in the UK is borne out of the perception of both external and internal threats, embodied by trade interests (especially EU interests) and migrant worker competition, respectively. Furthermore, there is also a myth that the people of the UK is being victimized and that they must “take their control back,” which, in turn, is being espoused by conservatives and the new nationalists.

The Brexit lesson and prospects for progressive groups. With the current government and political situation, the shaping of the new UK after Brexit by progressive groups can be difficult. Relations between the United Kingdom and the Philippines remain cordial, as the two countries have signified renewed commitment and shared values.

The combination of Brexit and a Corbin-led government. There are various studies on the impact of Brexit on agriculture, a labor-intensive sector reliant on migrant workers. It is also interesting to look not on the condition of labor in Britain, but on how it responded to the labor conditions under EU, and on how labor unions from the energy and railway sectors fare after supporting Brexit.

(Written report courtesy of Raphael Baladad, Focus on the Global South–Philippine Office; photos courtesy of Fe Manapat, WomanHealth Philippines)