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The Brexit Impasse and “Resistance” trends in the USA

Carol King, UK Correspondent

Many Americans don’t understand the British Parliamentary system. It is very different than their own. America is defined by a written constitution, exemplifying the spirit of individualism and liberty. Freedom in the British tradition by contrast, exists under sovereign rule. As an illustration, consider the movie ‘Braveheart’. When Mel Gibson led the call of Freedom for Scotland, he was protesting being ruled by an English King but advocated being ruled by a Scottish King! Of course, there were specific conditions that propelled the Scottish revolt, such as the English imposing taxes and intervening in legal cases. It nonetheless sharply contrasts with how the American Revolution successfully broke free from the tyranny of sovereign rule altogether.

The British parliament (consisting of the elected House of Commons and the appointed House of Lords), was initially an institution intended to check and balance the power of the monarch. Over time though, a new tradition developed; the Queen would act exclusively on the advice of her Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is elected by the House of Commons and party members rather than directly by the voters. So today, the Queen serves largely as a figurehead and all powers are effectively held by the parliamentary majority party. Ancient traditions are upheld, such as the Queen’s speech opening parliament, but when it comes to giving approval to laws that have passed, the Queen gives her assent “upon the advice of her Prime Minister.”

As the deadline approaches for the UK to arrange its exit from the EU, the current impasse in the UK resembles the executive and legislative deadlock more commonly associated with the American system. In theory, this should not happen in parliamentary style governments. We can trace the current impasse in Brexit to Prime Minister May’s efforts to get parliament to approve the Brexit agreement she had negotiated with the EU. Unfortunately, no-one in parliament seemed able to agree on what kind of deal they wanted or the circumstances under which they would like to leave. They all agreed however, including members of Theresa May’s Conservative party, that they did not like the deal she had negotiated. They were split between those in favor of totally rupturing UK/ EU ties – a hard Brexit – (or at least using the threat of this to negotiate), and those who sought to maintain close ties with the EU, thereby limiting the United Kingdom in their ability to pursue trade agreements with non-EU countries.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party, posited that the real problem was Theresa May. He thought only a fresh election (which he hoped to win) would solve the impasse and allow him to pursue a different approach to Brexit; one that maintained more ties to the EU. Consequently, with both Conservatives and members of the opposition blocking Prime Minister May’s every move, the government faced complete deadlock leading to her resignation and the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

Promising to pull the UK out of the EU “with or without a deal,” Prime Minister Johnson similarly found a faction of rebel Conservative MPs disagreeing with this strategy, who then sided with the opposition to block his plans. Having realized the deadlock, Johnson too has called for new elections. He is hoping that by highlighting the way parliament is frustrating the will of the people and their choice to leave the EU, he will secure a new majority of reliable MP’s that will enable him to carry out his agenda unimpeded. Of course, he could also lose and someone else would get the chance to become Prime Minister and manage Brexit. At present though, both Jeremy Corbyn and the Prime Minister agree a fast election would likely help Johnson. As a result, Jeremy Corbyn will not provide the votes necessary to call an election until the opposition faction of MP’s have passed a law preventing the government to leave the EU under conditions of a hard Brexit.

In 2016 several commentators pointed out that the same forces were incentives for voters; in both the UK decision to leave the EU and the US election of President Trump. For example, both the Trump and leave the EU campaigns had the promise to control immigration as a key theme. In both countries, immigration was viewed with anxiety by a large portion of the population. Much of this anxiety was fueled by the elite’s alleged willingness to allow in cheap labor from overseas and consequently undermine the living standards of the working class. Not all citizens view immigration in this manner, but it was a key component which propelled the success of both campaigns.

Similarly, both campaigns aired concerns from citizens about their economic insecurity. In the UK, most people have not seen any rise in real wages since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, with many regions suffering economic stagnation for even longer and the real wage level of Britain being the lowest of all Western democracies. Likewise, the same seemed true in many areas of the USA. Average real wages had dropped, and the life expectancy of white Americans fell from levels recorded in 2000. Moreover, despair and opioid use increased, and communities once considered the industrial heartland were ravaged by the relocation of factories, business shutdowns and the industrial decline that occurred following the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. Illustrating these frustrations, a Harris Poll in 2015 showed 85% of Americans believed the people running the country did not care about them, and 81% believed the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer. In the UK too, polls found 75% of British citizens believed that the political class did not serve the interests of the country. There was resentment because of the bank bailouts and Westminster was deeply unpopular with the public. Both countries had a chasm between the opinions of the elite, and those of the working/middle class.

The Trump Presidency and leave the EU campaign have subsequently encountered barricades to thwart efforts for the implementation of their policies. For example, President Trump has had to contend with a news media and press corps that would rather see the country fail than see him succeed. We can see many examples in the last 3 years of news stories written with unreliable sources; news stories which are later retracted. There was also evidence of bias. A 2017 Harvard study found that 80% of Trump coverage was unfavorable, with CNN and NBC tied for giving the least favorable coverage. A whopping 93% of their stories were negative. Immediately after his election, left-wingers labelled themselves as the “resistance”, and even before the inauguration the Democrats spoke about impeaching President Trump, or otherwise removing him from the Presidency. Illustrative of the deep opposition and hatred towards President Trump by the left-wing, at least 217 violent protestors were arrested at the Inauguration and it was reported that by February 2017, 12,000 tweets had been written calling for his assassination. This resistance fell lock step with the negative mainstream media coverage. Democrats encouraged it and many entertainers made jokes about harming President Trump and used increasingly crude and vulgar language to criticize him.

Numerous courts also blocked many Trump administration actions. Left-wing activists, Democrat attorney generals, and even organizations filed lawsuits protesting his policies. The policies fell all over the spectrum, and involved illegal immigration, the building of a border wall, and even a protest of the new rules on Title X medical funding for family planning. Even though many lawsuits were ultimately overturned at a higher court, they diverted time and resources away from the administration’s priorities. In addition, Senate Democrats delayed Trump’s cabinet nominees at a level rarely seen before in American history. They filibustered most of the nominees, and even though the filibusters ultimately failed, they had the effect of slowing down the confirmation process remarkably. For example, by July 2017 the Senate had confirmed 23% of Trump’s appointees, whereas 69% of Obama’s and 76% of Bush’s appointees had been confirmed over the same timescale.

Brexit too was subject to a resistance, with anti-Brexiteers devoting a massive amount of moral and financial energy to thwart, block or dilute the implementation. For example, an initial Supreme Court lawsuit brought by activist lawyer Gina Miller in January 2017 succeeded in stipulating that MP’s must vote on whether to approve Brexit. She subsequently formed the organization, UK-EU Open Policy Ltd., with leaders from business, arts and the charity sector. Its aim is to giving the UK wide access to the European single market, minimal restriction on immigration and promotion of a second referendum should public opinion turn against leaving. These aims clearly run counter to the stance of the leave the EU campaign. The anti-Brexit campaign has also been punctuated by activism such as marches, demonstrations and social media campaigns. At such demonstrations, demonstrators can be seen wielding pro-EU banners and placards demanding the Prime Minister’s eviction from number 10 Downing Street and often clashing with the police. As mentioned above, the parliamentary aspect of this resistance led to the current deadlock.

Like the parallel resistance movements, it is instructive to point out the parallel stances in the current programs of Democrat leaders in the US, such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and the policies proposed by UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has served in politics for decades, and his views are seen as authentic, though fringe and swinging to the left of conventional economic wisdom and foreign policy prescriptions. In the wake of the Iraq War and the 2007/8 financial crisis however, his views were now seen by the millions who grew up during this time, not as relics of a bygone era, but as practical even forward thinking. This is especially for young people burdened with massive debt, or facing despair in aiming to achieve a material security of home ownership like their parents, or even those who felt angst over environmental issues. For those people, Jeremy’s policies are attractive.

In Britain today, many families borrow to cover basic expenses. An estimated 8.3 million people cannot keep up with debts or bills, the housing market is in crisis, and since the 1980’s the wealthiest have benefitted most from economic growth. If elected Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn would scrap University tuition fees, ramp up tax and spending, and put forth a reform program more ambitious than that of Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who set up the welfare state and instituted the National Health Service in 1947. In fact, Jeremy has stated he would go beyond what Attlee achieved.

One proposal Corbyn advocates, is that of inclusive ownership funds and co-ops. This would require companies to issue new shares to a mutual fund in a similar way to how shares are issued for executive compensation – enabling workers to also share in the wealth they create. In addition, when companies decide to move abroad, go public, shut down or just sell themselves, they must give the right of first refusal to their employees to buy, enabling cooperative ownership. The government would lend money to the workers to be able to buy the company. The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn wants to shift money and power from landlords and bosses to the tenants and workers, eradicate homelessness, low pay, tackle the housing crisis and drive democracy in the production of energy to tackle climate change.

The aim is to re-balance the power between capital and labour, though they admit that executives may not see the program so favorably. Indeed, executives would face more pay transparency, higher taxes on salaries, an end to share options, golden handshakes and the threat of a ban on executive bonuses unless the financial services industry takes action to do this itself. Highlighting the popularity of such a program, Labour party membership increased massively after Corbyn was voted leader. The number of full party members increased from 190k in May 2015, to 515k in July 2016. Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in September 2015. Maybe even more importantly, UK voter registration surged by 3 million in the lead up to the 2017 election, with two-thirds of that number falling in the 18-34 age category. This was largely seen as good news for the Labour party who was attracting a lot of support from young voters buoyed by Jeremy’s policies.

Jeremy’s counterparts in the USA include most prominently Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC. Bernie has put new ideas into people’s heads and created a sense of momentum behind his egalitarian politics. Bernie has policy plans for more equality in education, criminal justice, labor, climate change and aims to challenge the power of the capitalist class. Like Jeremy, one of his main aims is to extend the principle of democracy to the economy with ideas like worker ownership funds – where government programs would give workers loans to start cooperatives. He also advocates for Medicare for All, making social goods like health care and good jobs a human right, eliminating every penny of student debt, enshrining a $15 minimum wage and policies that spread vast amounts of wealth back to the people and improve their lives.

The same way that Jeremy uses Clement Attlee as a bellwether for his ideas, Bernie cites Attlee’s contemporary, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (FDR) with his expansion of workers’ rights, investment in education and infrastructure, and is keen to get benefits for workers immediately as did FDR. Elizabeth Warren also shares Bernie’s ideas about taking on the rich, transforming the main players in the fossil fuel industry to lessen their power and influence, and forgiving student debt. Democrat congresswoman AOC has also been influential especially with her Green New Deal focusing on restructuring the economy to tackle climate change. In fact, all the Democrat Presidential candidates have come out in support of the Green New Deal. As an indication of the growth in stature of these left leaning politicians and their programs, AOC has 5.2 million followers on Twitter, Bernie has 9.2 million, and Elizabeth has 3.1 million. By comparison, traditional Democrats such as majority house leader Steny Hoyer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have 118k and 2.8 million followers respectively.

Citizens of the UK and USA will go back to the polls over the next 14 months and it is not known whether the political winds will follow each other in the same direction again. For the pro-Brexit and re-elect Trump movements to continue their success, they will need to study the policies favored by Corbyn and US politicians like Bernie, Elizabeth and AOC so they can highlight where such programs and radical economic restructuring may fail. It is undeniable however, that in both countries the electorate are eager for programs to deal with problems and not for paralyzing deadlocks.