Theresa May surely by now symbolises the phrase “bad day at the office”. On Wednesday night, having spent months negotiating the deal by which Britain will leave the European Union next March, May had a gruelling five-hour meeting with her cabinet. That evening, she told the nation that agreement had been reached, though with reservations.
Those reservations burst into the open the next morning when the minister responsible for negotiating the said deal, Dominic Raab, led a wave of resignations, as May sat for three hours in front of parliament listening to MP after MP from her own party telling her they would oppose the deal. Some called for her to resign.
Britain is now in its deepest political crisis since the World War II. May’s deal seems all but dead, as there is no viable way for it to pass through parliament. She herself still refuses to accept this. With just four months to go till “Brexit day”, and a matter of weeks before the government must initiate emergency measures in preparation for “no deal” Brexit shortages, what happens next is anyone’s guess. But a general election, a new referendum or a new Tory leader and fresh negotiations are all very serious possibilities.
How did it come to this? The British establishment has always been deeply divided on the EU. Part of our elite came to terms with the “loss” of empire and saw Britain’s future as being part of Europe. But others, taught from the cradle that they were born to run the world, cannot accept a reduction in British power. To them, Europe is an affront, a protectionist, bureaucratic nightmare, and they are desperate to reclaim their birthright, in alliance with the United States, to use Britain’s financial muscle to rule the world once more.
This issue has torn the Conservative Party apart since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, but it came to a head in David Cameron’s government. He promised a referendum to appease the anti-EU part of his party, and with typical arrogance assumed he’d easily win. He failed.
Today, with no majority in parliament, dependent on a group of far-right ultra-Brexiteers from the north of Ireland, May is unable to ignore any one faction of her party. The daughter of a vicar, she assumes hard work will pay off. But it doesn’t, because the problem is insoluble.
She cannot move forward, but she also cannot be replaced, because her party’s warring factions will not be able to agree on a successor.
That’s why this week’s withdrawal deal, laying out the terms of Brexit, and the “political declaration” setting out objectives for a future relationship with the EU, in fact, leave us in the dark about our post-Brexit relationship with the EU. It attempts both to say that we will have full sovereignty over trade, regulations and money, and also to keep so close to the EU that we will be effectively inside the customs union. It attempts to take full control over borders, without creating any borders (at least for capital – people without significant wealth must keep their distance).
Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t please those who wanted to remain in the EU. But it also doesn’t please the Brexiteers who want to use Brexit to unleash a wave of deregulation and liberalisation, most notably through trade deals.
On Thursday, May was attacked by remainers who want a second referendum, and from so-called “hard Brexiteers” who want to drop out of the EU with no deal at all.
But there is another element to the Brexit debate which has made it peculiarly toxic and difficult to navigate. In order to win the referendum, the Brexiteers needed to do more than mobilise right-wing voters who hate foreigners.
They also had to tap into a deep dissatisfaction in post-industrial parts of England and Wales, areas which have been marginalised and hollowed out by four decades of free-market economic policy. Communities fed up with being ignored, and who feel they were sold out by the previous Labour Party governments, individuals who wanted to stick two fingers up at the centre-right politicians which ran the “remain” campaign.
It’s this aspect of Brexit which makes it more than a peculiarly British problem, and which locates the crisis firmly within the much broader and deeper crisis which has gripped capitalism since the financial crash of 2008.
It should be unsurprising that this political crisis, which has spread to the US, southern and now central Europe, saw its first flashpoint in Britain, which practically invented neoliberalism.
This is a crisis of inequality, poverty, the gradual abolition of democracy, of a corporate economy out of control. When frustration and anger like this have no outlet, no obvious means of remedy, then migrants and foreigners become easy targets.
The British crisis reflects, in this way, a global crisis with an elite torn apart about the best way forward. On the one hand, there are the Tony Blairs and Hillary Clintons who want to reverse Brexit, impeach Donald Trump, and get back to the old policies which served them so well. On the other, there are those who see in the rise of populist authoritarianism a “plan b” for capitalism not unlike those capitalists who supported fascism in Europe in the 1930s.
Needless to say, neither option will lead us to a better world. While leaving the EU could create a serious shock which empowers the far right, simply reversing the referendum will not undo the damage that’s been done over many decades either. A second referendum which offers people the chance to remain could certainly be part of the solution. But that must be accompanied – in Britain as in so many other places – by a radical transformation of the economy in which governments constrain the power of corporations and finance, rewrite the rules of global trade, remove the power of the market altogether over big swaths of our society.
This will not be easy, and it will not come from above. But there is a chance we can use the divisions among political elites to build around this vision for a better, fairer world. Political chaos can certainly be frightening, but really big change rarely comes without it. Perhaps another bad day for Theresa May is one step closer to creating a better Britain in a better world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.