In Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup, left wing Labour prime minster Harry Perkins and Member of Parliament for Sheffield, is overthrown by a conspiracy of spooks, capitalists and media moguls. For many of us in the UK it feels like we are living through a coup ourselves. Except it is not one executed by a secret state against an elected government, rather it is one conducted by a government against its own electorate. And at the heart of the conspiracy is a Labour Party which is apparently left wing from top to bottom. Its role in this, the anti-Brexit coup, has been a canny one. During the referendum campaign its leader, not Harry from Sheffield but Jeremy from Islington, was somewhat ambivalent. When the result came through he called for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 immediately. During the 2017 election campaign he promised to honour the referendum result (see page 24 of the manifesto) and then after securing the biggest increase in seats since Atlee, very quickly reneged. Labour is now the party of Remain.
The party’s coup against an overwhelmingly working class leave electorate is justified to itself on the grounds that the electorate is right wing and most of all racist. The party sees itself as internationalist and the EU as the same, it sees the Leave vote as backward. It isn’t the kind of internationalism of French trade unionists burning coal lorries bound for Dover during the miners’ strike, nor of the International Brigades. It is the new internationalism of global markets and open borders, providing skilled and inexpensive labour straight to a workplace from a labour pool of 500 million and rising. The left idea of internationalism was hijacked by neo-liberal ideas a long time ago and Corbyn and co are on board to the degree that they think British workers are obliged to have their wages lowered and their jobs taken by workers from lower wage economies. If you complain you are defamed as racist. This is the twentieth week of the yellow vest protests in France and I am yet to hear of a statement from anyone in Labour in support of those workers. Despite all the street cred they are more Macron than gilet jaune. It is this ethic that underpins Corbyn’s determination to keep the free movement of labour, regardless of the consequences to the poorest workers. That and his gormless narcissism that compels him to declare his pious anti-racism with every sound-bite. “Many Congratulations done to our diverse England football team.” Just watch the match and give it a rest.
The wider coup began the day after the referendum result when the political class as a whole began to turn on the electorate. They have been supported by the judiciary, the media and a significant section of the middle classes. Despite it being a very British coup it is also chilling how unsubtle it has been. Cash bunged Gina Miller whose lawyers handed the decision back to a Remain parliament; Bercow and his precedent from James I; the Jeremy Vine phone-in cheerily explaining to the recently retired why they should lose the vote. Within a week of the result the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg was pushing the demographics as if who is really why. Leave is old, white, uneducated ergo angry. Nothing to do with the possibility that older voters may value democracy more than students, having had parents who had to fight for its survival, who can remember the tanks rolling into Prague in ‘68. The BBC created a Leave archetype, gave a platform to Terry Christian, among the most vitriolic of elitist Remainers who has publicly called for Leave voters to be thrown out of work. The BBC, the state broadcaster, gave its permission for a bigoted backlash.
Polly Toynbee of The Guardian made a count of the dead until she could announce there were now more Remainers than Leavers alive. The liberal’s Pravda has always been Janus-faced; the bleeding heart social worker and vicious reactionary. During the miner’s strike they backed Thatcher and McGregor then ran a full page article after the miners’ defeat insisting there should be no victimisation – as 200,000 redundancy notices began to be issued. They supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq and were then strident about the need for an enquiry. The want to block Brexit, disenfranchise millions of working class voters, at the same time as running opinion pieces about how parliament must listen to the north.
Out in the Remain constituency revoking Article 50, calling the whole thing off, is a casual click away. Nice people do it. 111 Labour MPs voted to revoke Article 50. This is in effect supporting the end of universal suffrage, for the right to vote is not just the act of putting a cross on a piece of paper but having the vote mean something. What the electorate is currently faced with is soviet democracy – different candidates with the same politics. If 52% of a 72% turnout doesn’t mean anything to some, what does? It’s more than Atlee achieved, Thatcher or Blair. And there has never been a plebiscite where it has been clearer what we were voting for. What do they imagine we thought leave meant…leave the pencil on the string? Atlee didn’t mention in advance he was going to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, Thatcher de-industrialise at a rate just as fast, Blair invade Iraq.
As we have approached the wire the temperament inside the Remain camp has become hysterical and fascistic. Saving the electorate from themselves has become saving the country from a horde and parliament is duplicitously refusing to implement Brexit. Britain has ceased to be a functioning democracy. We are living under a parliamentary dictatorship.
The current MP for Sheffield was born a year before Chris Mullin’s novel was published. He was elected as a Labour MP but now sits as an independent after an unseemly expulsion. There is no sign of a by-election. Sheffield, like the rest of the country, voted to leave the EU, yet their MP wants a second referendum. What does one do when you wake up to find you’re not living in the democracy you once thought you were? What can one do in a two party system both of which have proven themselves opposed to democracy? One can easily give up. The turnout yesterday in the Newport West by-election was 37%. In 2017 it was 67.5%. It’s a Leave constituency by a significant margin. The new Labour MP got just 39% of the 37% turnout but will now join parliament to help block Brexit. Let’s not pretend the political class are disappointed with low turnouts. In elections mathematics are morality and what’s occurring is wicked.
Coups come on the back of plebiscites that don’t go as planned (see Spain, Chile, Turkey) and always authoritarians use the cover of ‘the crisis’ ‘saving the country’ ‘the national interest’ to shut down democracy. In truth though this is a specific moment, it is also acceleration in the longer term direction of travel. Local government long since had any autonomy worth voting for as more and more services were contracted out. National government has followed suit, in part that’s what the EU membership is about, the contracting out of economic and political decision making. And let’s face it, we were an unresolved democracy to begin with an archaic unelected second chamber.
Historically the situation reminds me of the great betrayal of 1832 which led to the Chartist movement of 1838 to 1848. A new charter is needed. Whatever happens to Brexit, British politics is never going to be the same. Parliament, the mainstream media and the judiciary have been exposed as corrupt, contemptuous of the electorate; sections of the middle classes contemptuous of democracy. Millions of working class voters are without a home. Thatcher laid waste to industries and communities, Blair stole their party, Corbyn sold out their vote. Tragically this is where the far right like to come along to pick up the pieces – and it doesn’t help matters if everyone has been calling you a right wing racist for the last three years. For my part I have just joined the SDP. It feels like a new start whilst at the same time being part of a history play, reliving something that happened a century and a half ago.