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Brexit, Boris Johnson and a British state in crisis

Brexit and Boris Johnson have thrown the 'permanent state' into permanent crisis — but it will never side with the left, explains KEVIN OVENDEN

“WE are dealing with a political generation which has no serious experience of bad times and is frankly cavalier about precipitating events they cannot then control, but feel they might exploit.”

Britain’s former ambassador to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers could scarcely be more scathing of the country’s political class in his book, “9 Lessons in Brexit.”

And that was before the forced resignation last week under a Twitter tirade from Donald Trump of Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, following leaks of his unvarnished cables.

He let it be known via “friends” that it was the failure of Boris Johnson, likely the next Tory leader in a week’s time, to back him in a TV debate that tipped his decision to go.

It was Darroch’s description of the White House as “clumsy,” “insecure,” and “inept” that most infuriated Trump. Of greater significance is a further leak last Sunday of the ambassador’s opinion that Trump had ripped up the Iran nuclear deal out of petulance at it being seen as one of the few successes of the previous Obama administration.

So Britain is now intercepting Iranian tankers off Gibraltar, sending another warship to the Persian Gulf and — according to Tory ministers — committed in advance to standing by the US against Iran. This is all thanks to craven subordination to a president who is prepared to risk another Middle East war in order to trash his predecessor.

This British government and the next know that. Usually these things half come out years later if we have something like the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq disaster. This time we know in advance.

The dysfunctionality in the Trump administration is not news. Though it should be noted that like other “leader states,” to borrow the term from German historian Martin Broszat, it has managed to effect unity around some core aims of the 1 per cent out of apparent administrative chaos.

What’s new is that this affair has brought to the surface an increasing dysfunctionality in the British state — one that is set to grow and be a source of great destabilisation as the October 31 deadline for finally leaving the EU looms.

The reaction from high ruling class and state figures to Darroch’s defenestration has been unprecedented. Johnson’s supporters are probably right that it has had little impact on his chances among the Tory Party membership.

Most of them will have voted and are anyway prepared to see the breakup of the United Kingdom and even the destruction of their own party so long as Britain leaves the EU on or before October 31, and not a day later.

But it has most certainly had an impact in intensifying the political crisis in Britain and calling into question its longer-term governability as a post-empire power with pretensions above its station.

In the last few days three former cabinet secretaries — Lords O’Donnell, Butler and Armstrong — warned of a dangerous schism between the senior Civil Service (the permanent state) and an incoming Johnson government.

On and off the record, they were joined by current and former Whitehall mandarins, such as previous ambassador to Washington Sir Nigel Sheinwald. Former director of MI6 Sir John Sawers had already warned Britain is going through “a political nervous breakdown.” Unsurprisingly, he attacked Jeremy Corbyn.

But he said of both Tory candidates that they do “not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership.”

It used to be that British governments did not acknowledge the existence of MI5 and MI6. Now it seems to be part of the job description of current and former chief spooks to intervene in the political process in violation of the constitutional charters that are meant to contain Britain’s spies.

What passes these days for Tory grandees also waded in. Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind; former prime minister Sir John Major, who extraordinarily threatened legal action — trying to muster the judicial arm of the state — should Johnson close Parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit by default.

Lord Sumption, however, an influential Supreme Court justice has recently warned of the grave risk of getting the judiciary brazenly to adjudicate the dilemmas of the political system.

There are many “Sirs” and not a few “Lords” in the news these days. That’s because a veritable roundtable of knights of the realm are warning of catastrophe for the kingdom.

How has it come to this? The short answer: the Establishment is losing control.

Their loss of the Brexit referendum was a decisive moment. Ongoing differences in the labour movement about how to proceed now risk obscuring that fundamental and shattering fact of then.

It is true that promoting unity of working people against austerity, racism and war — and for getting the Tories out — comes above how people voted in the 2016 referendum.

But it is just as true that that vote, with all its contradictions, was a historic anti-Establishment result that continues to winnow away the traditional methods of rule in Britain.

Secondly, big capital lost domination of the Tory Party, its primary political instrument since the death of the Liberals over a century ago.

Of course the Tories remain for capital and their MPs are deeply imbricated with big business. But as a party — especially among its membership — it is unmoored from following the overwhelming consensus of big capital in Britain on the Brexit question.

That is part of a longer term, systemic decline. In the 1950s the Tories had three million members. Most were largely socially attached. But they provided a huge mechanism for the transmission of ruling-class interests through reactionary middle-class elements and millions of workers.

Now that hinge is broken. It is amusing to see John Major bewail this when his own seven years as prime minister saw the Tory Party wither to this shrunken base and the gap between it and modern Britain approximating that between Alec Douglas-Home (Lord, Eton and Christ Church Oxford) and swinging London in 1964.

It is remarkable that all the evidence suggests that the great and the good of the British state and historic Tory Party have had negligible traction upon persuading the party membership to choose a candidate aligned to British capital.

A party once characterised by forelock-tugging deference is not deferring.

Hence the frantic efforts, which are likely to grow over the summer, to intervene in the Labour Party through the conduit of its more systemic and pro-Establishment elements. For the third calamity for the ruling class these last four years has been the loss of its hegemony over the second party of government this last century.

Corbyn’s victory and the growth of the left are not something to which the British Establishment can reconcile (nor can the US’s — thus Secretary of State Mike Pompeo openly saying that Washington will intervene to prevent a Corbyn government).

British generals and former spymasters have already said similar. Ten days ago senior civil servants briefed a Sunday paper that Corbyn was not fit to be prime minister.

It is right for Labour to target Johnson and the Tories for craven capitulation to Trump over the Darroch affair. But no Labour voter should imagine that that will be reciprocated by Whitehall. It will not be.

That’s not a novelty. What is, is that thanks to what the Italian Marxist called “the organic crisis” of the British state-ruling bloc there is open talk of the unelected state using its enormous bureaucratic powers to constrain a Johnson government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Tory hard right are determined to pack the cabinet and force their way. A grouping of 30 Tory MPs is reportedly organising a pro-Establishment “resistance” and mulling even voting to no confidence the next government.

The permanent state — bitterly aggrieved and pro-Remain in its majority — is flexing its muscles. That is more the comparison with Donald Trump’s administration than the idea that Boris Johnson can simply resolve this organic crisis through force of bluster.

This is an unprecedented political crisis just as the indicators are that Britain is at greater risk of recession than at any time for a decade — whatever happens with Brexit.

The crucial thing for the labour movement is not to imagine it can form some systemic alliance at this point with the CBI, state bureaucracy, senior judges or the pantomime dame Speaker John Bercow (or — as preposterously touted — the Queen).

It is to seek to exploit this crisis to bring a transforming left government to office. That’s the message of the demonstration called by the People’s Assembly outside the Tory conference in Manchester on September 29.

As for Boris Johnson — his opportunism means that it is not no deal, Brexit or no Brexit that matters; but Boris Johnson.

He thinks of himself as a Winston Churchill supposedly winning the second world war single-handedly.

He is more likely to become the Churchill who actually was responsible for the Gallipoli disaster.

That plus the Suez debacle that consumed both a Tory government and Whitehall.

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