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Fintan O’Toole: Brexiteers are Britain’s biggest Marxists

Tory hardliners are driven by a bizarre and contradictory economic determinism

Marxism is alive and well in British politics. The irony, though, is that its strongest influence is not in Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party. It is on the Tory right. Perhaps the oddest thing about the Brexit zealots – though there is a great deal of competition for this title – is that they cling to a particularly crude form of Marxist economic determinism.

Their whole project is predicated on the belief that a cabal of capitalist bosses can issue orders that the entire European Union would rush to obey. The all-powerful clique in question is made up of the principal shareholders of Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, Opel, Porsche and Mercedes.

It would be hard to overstate just how large these German industrialists have loomed in the consciousness of the Brexiteers and their media cheerleaders. They were to be Britain’s saviours. It was they who would ensure that the EU would be forced to give Britain all the benefits of the single market and the customs union even after it departed from both. It was they who would provide the lubrication for the zipless, frictionless Brexit of the Leavers’ dreams.

Even while Brexit was posing as an exercise in returning control to the populace, Johnson was letting slip his understanding of where control really lay

Boris Johnson encapsulated the proposition in the BBC's big setpiece final debate before the referendum in June 2016. "Everyone knows this country receives about one-fifth of Germany's entire car manufacturing output," he said. "Do you seriously propose that they are going to be so insane as to allow tariffs to be imposed?"


The key word here is “allow”. How telling it is. It reveals an entire view of how the world really works. Even while Brexit was posing as an exercise in returning control to the populace, Johnson was letting slip his understanding of where control really lay.

The chain of reasoning began with a factual proposition: the Germans sell a hell of a lot of cars to the UK. The next link in the chain is rational: therefore, the German car manufacturers would not want any tariff barriers to be created after Brexit. And then, in the way of magical thinking, there is the great leap.

Seeing their interests threatened, Frau Mercedes and Herr Audi would lift the phone to Angela Merkel. "Merkel!" they would bark. "There must be no tariff barriers. We will not allow it!"

The chancellor in turn would call Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk: "The British must have their cake and eat it. Understood?" "Yes, Ma'am!" Hence, BMW stands for Brexit Made Wonderful.

Brexit fantasy

This fantasy really was at the heart of the Brexit strategy. David Davis, now the Brexit secretary, said during the referendum campaign that "the first calling point of the UK's negotiator in the time immediately after Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin to strike the deal. Absolute access for German cars and industrial goods in exchange for a sensible deal on everything else."

If people acted solely on the basis of what is good for their own pockets, Brexit would not be happening

A year after the referendum, when Davis was in fact the UK's chief negotiator, Andrew Marr put it to him: "You basically argued that the German car industry, and German industry generally, would put pressure on the German chancellor who would put pressure on the EU to ensure that we got a good deal. Is that still your view?" "Oh," replied Davis, "that's where it will end up, yeah."

Even as the Brexit project retreats ever further into chaos and absurdity, this fantasy survives. Pro-Brexit papers continue to run headlines like the Daily Express’s “Merkel’s Brexit NIGHTMARE: 18,000 German car firm jobs at risk.” The Sun reports on the “pleas from German car manufacturers, led by BMW, builders of Britain’s electric Mini, for Brussels to stop punishing Britain”.

This in spite of the explicit statements from those same German car bosses that the integrity of the single market matters much more to them than the disruption of their trade with Britain.

There are many ironies in all of this, not least the reliance on Germans to save an English nationalist project and the fact that most Marxists (including Marx) have long since abandoned this very crude idea of how economic interests translate into political actions. But the greatest irony of all is that Brexit itself is a particularly powerful example of how political sentiment can outweigh economic self-interest.

If people acted solely on the basis of what is good for their own pockets, Brexit would not be happening. Many of the parts of the UK that voted most enthusiastically for Leave (the northeast of England, for example) are also those which will be hardest hit by it. Indeed, if there is anything noble about the whole project, it is in this willingness to accept economic pain in pursuit of an ideal, however misplaced that idealism may be.

This is one of the great contradictions that have made Brexit so incoherent as to be impossible. You can't both "take back control" and place your fate in the hands of imaginary omnipotent German moguls. There is no fleet of blacked-out Mercedes filled with Teutonic tycoons coming to rescue Theresa May and bring the EU to heel. There is only a broken-down old banger, driven into a dead end. Wouldn't it be funny if it is the actual Marxists in Labour who get to reverse it onto more solid ground?